Twin City takeover
Saint Paul, Minn., Mar. 24–25—When Neil Ryan took over as promoter of the one-day Donnie Smith Bike Show and Swap Meet nearly two decades ago, I wonder if he knew it would be such a remarkable success story. When I asked, his response was, “I did have a vision when I bought the show. I knew I wanted to have a bike show and I wanted to have a social event. I never thought I’d expand into everything it is today. But every few years, I’d have another vision of what the show could be.”
“Everything it is today” evolved gradually from the original one-day swap meet, expanding into two full days of vendors on two floors and over a hundred motorcycles entered the judged competitions. In 2015, a car show was added, and last year was the inaugural tattoo show. This year was another exciting event, the Indoor Flat Track races, which has transformed the two-day show into a three-day extravaganza.
Kicking off the weekend was the Indoor Flat Track races Friday night at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds just a few miles northwest of the Saint Paul RiverCentre where the Donnie Smith show would open its doors Saturday morning. These races haven’t been held in Saint Paul in many years, and attendance was impressive, considering it was the first race that Neil Ryan had promoted. Watch for the return engagement next year!
Every year, the opening morning routine has been pretty much the same. Long lines form down the aisle of the street-level Kellogg Lobby as hundreds of people wait for the 9:00 a.m. opening time. Since the show has grown, vendors line the lobby as well, offering a wide variety of motorcycle as well as non-motorcycle related products and services. There is no charge to visit the vendors in the lobby, and they serve well as a tease to the rest of the show which does have an admission fee of only $15 (kids under 12 free, making it a real family-friendly event). That $15 gets you a full day of entertainment—in fact, for me, two days isn’t even enough to see everything I’d like, probably due to the social aspects of the event, just as Neil was hoping for in his original vision for the show. Some folks I see only once a year, and a year’s worth of catching up with multiple friends takes a goodly amount of time.
When folks were finally allowed onto the escalator down to the main exhibit hall, many headed over to the swap meet which was in the adjoining hall in the lower level of the Roy Wilkins Exhibition Hall. This where all sorts of parts can be found to finish those winter projects, and it remains a vital element of the show. In fact, vendors do so well that they return year after year, resulting in sold-out space, the same thing that happens in the main hall.
Above the swap meet space is the Car Show which, for the fourth year, filled the entire Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Lining the perimeter of the expansive hall were vendors related to four-wheel vehicles, as well as apparel and accessories and other items. The car show itself comprised vehicles from most of the 20th century into the 21st and included hot rods and rat rods like “Bugly” consisting of parts from a ’64 VW Beetle, ’37 Chevy, ’65 Buick and other old cars melded together in a unique way that earned the award of Best Rat Rod. Also on display were models ranging from muscle cars and old beat-up trucks to shiny luxury vehicles such as the 2000 Lincoln Town Car that won Best Paint and the 1959 Cadillac that earned Judges’ Choice.
One flight up from the Car Show was the Tattoo Expo, returning for its second year at the show. This time, there were significantly more tattoo artists, and a lot more foot traffic. And the contests for several categories allowed people to show off some fabulous ink.
Outside the Car Show were more booths, such as first-time exhibitors Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Paul Yaffe’s Bagger Nation, as well as The Moto Collective and the Viking Chapter of the AMCA, displaying a nice collection of about 15 vintage bikes of various brands.
The energy level of the show, especially in the main exhibit hall, seemed especially high. It could have been due to the show providing a welcome escape from this especially long winter, but I attribute many of the happy faces to the Friday night flat track races which seemed to set the tone for the entire weekend.
Speaking of vendors, an outstanding array of merchandise was available, as well as information about riding destinations, rallies, and charity raffles. Some motorcycle clubs were represented, as well as local dealerships St. Paul Harley-Davidson, Bison Thunder Indian Motorcycle (Indian Motorcycle was also a show sponsor), and Roadsmith Trikes. Show sponsor Sturgis Buffalo Chip had a prominent exhibit in the hall’s rotunda, where they featured a giveaway bike—an Indian Scout 60 that has been customized as a street hooligan to promote the Chip’s Moto Stampede held during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Well represented were speed shops, custom shops and paint shops such as Lee’s Speed Shop, Ward’s Performance, Hofmann Designs, House of Kolor, Lil’ Evil Inkorporated, Ballistic Cycles, DD Custom Cycle, and, of course, Donnie Smith Custom Cycle where the man himself held court, chatting with friends and customers, signing posters, and graciously posing for photos. Displaying the latest motorcycle products were aftermarket manufacturers and distributors such as Dakota Digital, Metzeler, S&S Cycle, BugSlide, Wedge Fairing, show title sponsor Dennis Kirk. Show sponsors Lucas Oil, Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys and GEICO Motorcycle Insurance had a presence as well. And there were booths devoted to jewelry, pins and patches, leathers and other apparel, bandanas and do-rags plus all sorts of other biker gear.
Also on hand were food and drink purveyors including Route 65 and Route 47 Pub & Grub establishments, Rebel Yell bourbon, JD’s Salsa, and beer sponsor Budweiser that every year has brought in a café-type pop-up bar which comes in handy during the Saturday night Happy Hour, where Corey Stevens and his band performed blues and rock to a huge crowd standing at the Budweiser bar and gathered at tables set out in the middle of the floor. In the past, once the show closes for the day, folks headed over to Whiskey Junction in Minneapolis to celebrate Donnie’s birthday, which falls near the dates of the show. However, that venerable established closed at the beginning of the year, so arrangements were made for everyone to gather at Eagle Street Grille right across the street from the RiverCentre. This was a welcome change, although for those who still wanted to hang out in Minneapolis, free shuttles took riders back and forth to The Joint, another bar half a block from the old Whiskey Junction.
The centerpiece of the show was, of course, the bikes on display, the vast majority of which were entered into one of the judged competitions. In the middle of the floor in a carpeted, nicely lit area surrounded by stanchions were the 20 entries into the Pro Class. Open Class entries, which numbered well over 100, were displayed in double rows along several aisles as well as in many of the vendors’ booths, which lends a lot to the show’s visual appeal.
The bikes ranged from rare antiques to wild customs, encompassing many brands both modern and defunct. And the builders range from shadetree mechanics to the top names in the business, such as the iconic Sugar Bear, who made his first-ever appearance at the Donnie Smith show with his lovely wife Fuji. They plan to build the Sugar Bear Chopper Museum just outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, to celebrate and educate people about the chopper culture. Famed custom bike builder and painter Dave Perewitz and his daughter Jodi, who also builds and paints bikes as well as racing them, participated in the show and awarded the Perewitz Pick to Ron “Flea” Fleenor from House of Kolor for his incredible paintwork on Kelly Mack’s “Loca Rubia,” a Softail bagger which also won overall Best Paint in the judged competition. Other top winners in the Open Class included Tim Droeger’s ’14 Street Glide that took Best Display, Greg Lew’s ’65 Panhead which was awarded Best Antique, DA Performance’s ’13 Road King for Best Bagger, Jay Meyer’s ’82 Ironhead for Best Bobber, Anthony Brunell’s ’97 Custom for Best Pro Street, Joel Gurath’s ’01 Softail for Best Custom, and Kory Souza snagged Judges’ Choice for his ’13 Road King.
The Pro Class was split into two categories—Baddest Bagger and Custom. For the Bagger category, first place was a 2008 Road King from Curly’s, second place was a 2015 Road King by Hofmann Designs, and third was taken by Dave Dupor of DD Custom Cycle for his bagger. In the Custom category, Gilby earned first place for his 2005 Softail, Adam Hogoboom took second for his 2018 Pro Street, and Jayde Franko came away with third for his 2016 Softail.
With the addition of the flat track races, this year’s show was the best out of the entire 15 years I’ve attended. Every change or addition to the show is made after careful consideration, and from my perspective, each one has been wildly successful. When I asked Neil what next year’s show would look like, he responded, “I’ve got a vision of what the show will be in four to five years. We’ll be getting more into entertainment, specifically music. Since I added the Happy Hour, I’ve wanted to get to a higher level.” So my suggestion to those who’ve attended, and even those that haven’t, just watch over the next few years to see what the show will bring.