While attending this year’s Donnie Smith Bike Show, I noticed some of the theme bikes on the display floor: a Spiderman bike, a purple Barney bike, and the Harley Tracks bike, among others. The Spiderman and Barney bikes seemed to represent a simple idea that goes along the lines of “I really like this character,” while the Harley Tracks bike represented something deeper—a tribute to fallen veterans of the Vietnam War conceptualized after the owner’s seven motorcycle rides across Vietnam. And that same weekend, I learned of another type of tribute bike that touched me to the core.
On the Sunday of the show, while admiring my friend Greg Lew’s display of two gorgeous Panheads, Greg told me about his good friend Brent Salt who he’d known for probably 40 years. They’d lived on different sides of Tulsa, their hometown. Greg told me, “We had the same macho type of attitudes; we crossed paths in bars and we bumped shoulders and paid respect to each other because we both had reputations.”
And this is where the story gets a little, well, uncanny. Five years ago, Dub Cross, another good friend and riding buddy of Greg’s, passed away. Not long ago, an opportunity came up for Greg to acquire Dub’s ’65 Panhead, so he made plans to go down to Tulsa to pick it up. Greg has always been a Panhead guy, but he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with Dub’s bike once he got it home. He knew that the bike had a set of later-model Shovel tanks. The 1965 Pans had one-year-only gas tanks that are now pretty rare, and if any are to be found, they’re pretty beat up. Although it had been nearly three decades since Greg had seen Brent, Greg remembered that Brent had a set of original tanks for a ’65, so he called him up and asked if he still had them. Brent answered in the affirmative so they made plans to meet during the trip when Greg picked up Dub’s Panhead. When Greg showed up, Brent said, “I’ve had these hanging on the wall for 30 years. I always knew you were gonna wind up with ’em.” When asked what he wanted for them, Brent’s response was, “The same thing I wanted back then—a thousand bucks!” Greg said to him, “Well, I’m not gonna argue with you now; life’s too short.”
Life’s too short indeed. Two weeks later, Brent was dead. He’d been killed in a high-speed motorcycle crash. And Greg had just learned about it the morning he and I were talking at the show. Greg told me, “You could say he went out doing what he wanted to do. He went out fast, doing the same thing he’d been doing since the 1970s.” Greg mused, “This answered my question about what to do with the Dub bike. I was really at a loss. Restore it? Leave it alone? What do I really do to feel good about it? Then this happened, and it really spoke to me: ‘Well, this is what you do, man. The answer is right there in front of you.’ I just let forces guide me on that one.”
Greg went on to say, “I’ve been contemplating people like me and guys my age. I really think when you’ve been doing this, for, well, this will be my fifth decade riding Harley-Davidsons, you become aware that there’s no earthly reason why you should be here and somebody else is somewhere else. It’s always in our face, always a constant reminder that what we do counts by the minute and so as time goes on, it’s important for me to take fond memories and make something useful out of them, so the tribute bike is gonna be just that.”
The bike will be a tribute not just to Dub and Brent, but to all Greg’s friends that have passed. Brent’s gas tanks are the start, and Greg knows where some motorcycle pieces are that belonged to three of Greg’s other friends lost their lives in the past 30 years. For instance, Greg told me about a friend, David Marshall, that was killed in a deadly knife assault in Tulsa, and his motorcycle recently turned up so he’s trying to get a piece off that.
When Greg got those tanks, he was very happy because that meant he was on his way to a good restoration. “I’m gonna build it with some loving hands,” he said. “Dub’s sister is very happy because she knows what I’m gonna do. It’s not gonna to change a lot from the way it looked when he rode it. It’ll be the same color but done really nice.”
The tribute-to-lost-brothers theme will be carried on, so the bike will never really be done, and it’ll never be for sale. Greg says, “When I go, I wanna make sure that bike gets transferred to somebody else that will carry it on. I hope that bike lives way past me and that the theme stays. And that somebody that once knew me can say, ‘Yep, that belonged to Greg, and he did this and that to it and now I’ve got it.’ And just kind of pass it on like that. I’ll know who the right person is to give it to when the time comes.”
Greg declares, “I’m gonna start working on it pretty soon. I’m gonna tear this bike down and look at the engine real close and the wheel bearings, kinda get right into the heart of the bike and make sure that everything is really mechanically sound so whoever gets on it, it’s got all new guts. The outside might look a little rough but the inside will be really tight. It’s not gonna be a show bike. I’m not gonna do it all up fancy like that; it’ll be nice, but not shiny. I’m gonna ride the piss out of it.”