St. Paul, Minn., Mar. 25–26—In the 1970s, the late John Parham, founder of J&P Cycles, held his first swap meet in Monticello, Iowa. It was so successful that he started a number of other swap meets in various locations across the Midwest, eventually expanding to large cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Paul. The St. Paul swap meet was sold to another promoter some years ago, and eventually, Neil Ryan partnered with fellow Minnesotan, renowned bike builder Donnie Smith, to purchase the event, renaming it the Donnie Smith Bike Show.
In the three decades since that first swap meet was held at the St. Paul RiverCentre, it has grown exponentially. In 2004, the first year I attended, the event was already taking up the entire lower lever of the convention center and expanding to two full days to accommodate the larger number of bikes in the judged competition, the growing list of vendors, and the ever-increasing crowds. Three years ago, the Car Show was added to the mix, and this year was the inaugural Tattoo Expo. Yet the swap meet remains an integral part of the affair, drawing folks from all over the Midwest who want to complete their bike projects before the riding season kicks into high gear.
In fact, I’ve seen the same thing occur year after year—the mad rush to get the best deals on the best parts, the carrying of parts to the car or truck, and the return to the swap meet until the buying bug has been fully satiated—or until the money runs out. The 40,000-square-foot swap meet space is a sellout for vendor spaces every year, and everything from hard parts to artwork to apparel to tools is available.
Adjoining the swap meet space is the 70,000-square-foot main exhibit hall, where much of the activity occurs over the weekend. The show is most definitely not an adults-only affair; the event is not only growing larger, it’s expanding its demographics across all ages. Promoter Neil Ryan told me that the number of kids under 12, coming in with one or both parents, increases by 75 or 100 each year. With tickets only $15 for an entire day’s worth of entertainment, and kids under 12 free, it’s a wonderful early spring outing for the entire family.
Returning as title sponsor of this year’s show was aftermarket parts distributor Dennis Kirk which displayed its wares in a prominent spot in the main hall. Nearby in the rotunda was show sponsor Russ Brown, motorcycle attorney, situated next to Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities’ expansive display. Other franchise dealerships included St. Paul Harley-Davidson, SS Trike, and Roadsmith Trikes.
New to this year’s show as both exhibitor and sponsor was Metzeler, who had set up a “custom lounge” complete with comfy chairs and couches. Metzeler’s special guest Pat Patterson of Led Sled Customs displayed some of his builds in the lounge as well. And there were several other premium manufacturers present, such as S&S Cycle, Magna Flow exhaust, Wedge Fairing, House of Kolor, Kuryakyn, and Dakota Digital.
Other vendors of various persuasions could be found in the street-level lobby, inside the car show, and throughout the main hall. Charities and motorcycle clubs displayed information about their events and conducted raffles, promoters publicized their rallies, and campgrounds and other places of lodging wooed visitors to their areas of the country. Various two-, three-, and four-wheeled conveyances were exhibited, along with pull-behind campers and trailers. Wheel chocks, lifts, tie-downs, garage flooring, cleaning products—all sorts of items associated with maintaining or moving a motorcycle were on display. Motor oil manufacturers also had a significant presence, including show sponsor Lucas Motorcycle Oil.
In fact, pretty much anything you might need for you or your bike was probably available at the show: pins, patches, jewelry, eyewear, books, posters, prints and other artwork, and of course all sorts of apparel, from leathers and T-shirts to helmets and bandanas. Phone and GPS mounts, audio and security systems, seats and bike covers, cruise control and other accessories were also on display.
The heart of the show is, of course, the motorcycles themselves, and this event attracts shops and builders from all over the Midwest, as well as other parts of the country. Several businesses showed up this year for the first time, but the majority of the parts, paint and custom shops come back year after year, with most also entering one or more bikes into one of the judged competitions, and several earning big prizes for their creations. Of course, Donnie Smith Custom Cycles occupied a prime location in the center of the exhibit hall, with the man himself graciously chatting with friends and fans, signing posters, and agreeing to as many photos as the crowds desired.
The show has evolved over the years, offering more variety in both exhibits and entertainment. For instance, the Sturgis Buffalo Chip has been a part of the show for some time, and has recently stepped up its participation. This year, two custom bike unveilings took place, with the first a tribute to the Chip’s 35th anniversary. Kuryakyn’s 2017 “Rock, Rumble & Rebellion” signature build, using a 2017 Street Glide as its platform, incorporates more than 35 Kuryakyn parts and accessories. The second unveiling was the debut of a high-performance H-D Low Rider built by S&S in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Buffalo Chip’s Legends Ride. The customized bike will be auctioned to support the beneficiaries of the Legends Ride at the ride itself.
Six years ago, a happy hour with live music was instituted on late Saturday afternoon. This proved to be a popular addition, and every year since, has attracted more people to come to the show and stay longer. Budweiser, arguably the most-visited sponsor, had set up a mobile bar for the weekend, which, of course, was a very popular spot during happy hour. The other attraction was the Corey Stevens band which brought its blues-based rock to perform for the crowd. After the show was over for the day, many folks in the crowd departed for Whiskey Junction where Donnie Smith’s birthday celebration is traditionally held. A new get-together sponsored by the Sturgis Buffalo Chip was the Twin City Takeover, held at the Eagle Street Grill just around the corner from the convention center. We had the downstairs bar all to ourselves, and the party was still in full swing when our crew left around midnight.
Even though we stayed at the show from start to end on Saturday, there were plenty of attractions that we didn’t see until the next day. The National Motorcycle Museum based in Anamosa, Iowa, has set up a mini exhibit for the past few shows, and the Viking AMCA Chapter really ups the ante every year with their display of rare vintage bikes. If you want to see more examples of the Viking Chapter’s antiques, their meet is being held this year on June 16–17 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Speaking of vintage, a dozen years ago, manufacturing and technology instructor Kevin Baas began a “chopper class” at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, bringing to the show some bikes, mostly antiques, that his students built. In the following years, several high school chopper classes joined in the competition, with the bike entries eventually being absorbed into the judged bike show. There are two separately-judged competitions; one is the Pro Class which again maxed out at 20 entries. The other is the Open Class, which had well over 100 bikes entered, including those built by students at three high schools: Kennedy, Eden High School in Eden, New York, and Mitchell Tech in Mitchell, South Dakota.
Bikes entered into both classes covered both modern and vintage eras, ranging from pristine antiques to 60’s and 70’s diggers all the way to today’s big-wheel baggers. There were coffin tanks, kicked-out front ends, psychedelic paint jobs, painstakingly-applied pin stripes, and other exotic designs. Yet there were just a few theme bikes this year, such as Clifton Oderman’s’68 Shovel that won Best Display for its military-themed paint and accompanying exhibit.
Radio station KQRS broadcasted from the show during the weekend, and once again, station host Brian Zepp emceed the awards presentation Sunday afternoon. Famed builder/painter Dave Perewitz and his daughter Jody, who has not only inherited her dad’s talents but is also a record-setting racer, were on site and prior to the ceremony, Dave presented Deadline Custom’s Dana Hallberg with the Perewitz Pick. When I asked Dave what he looks for when choosing a bike, he commented, “I don’t necessarily just look at the paint. It’s the best overall look of the bike.”
The Pro Class itself is split into two categories with three winners chosen in each. First place in Pro Class Custom went to Tim Scates for his intricately-engraved 2006 “Twisted Bobber,” second was awarded to Dan Rognsvoog of Cabana Dan’s Customs for his mind-blowing triple-engine bike, and third was given to Matt Anderson of Gilby’s Street Dept. for his ’82 FXR hot rod. The Pro Class Bagger first place award was given to Nick Popa of Deadline Customs for his “King Ding” custom Road King, second place to Lucky 7 Custom Cycles for a 2012 Road Glide, and Curtis Hofmann took third with a classy black Shovelhead.
Up to four awards were given in each of the 35 Open classes, plus a number of special “Best of” awards, including Best Paint-TJ Design, Best Antique-Bill Lykken, Best Bagger-DD Customs, Best Bobber-Casey Kenny, Best Chopper-Gary Davidson, Best Pro Street-Rick Ward, Best Sport Bike-Wolff Cylinder Head, Best Lighting-Don Schulte, and Judges’ Choice-Dana Hallberg.
I mentioned to Donnie and Neil that the flow of people seemed constant all day Saturday, and to a slightly lesser extent, on Sunday. Neil responded, “It was an incredible show this year. In all the years that we’ve done this, the enthusiasm for this show was a big part of it. Everybody looked like they were having a good time.” Donnie added, “People come and stay longer because we’ve got more going on. The crowd seemed to build real quick and it stayed all day. With the addition of the car show and now the tattoo show which is getting off the ground, it’s one of the biggest ones we’ve had. Everybody I talked to was pleased; the car people, the swap meet people—the show was just rockin’.”
The Donnie Smith Bike & Car Show is a bellwether for the motorcycle industry, where we see trends come and go. For instance, there seemed to be fewer baggers, but a larger cross-section of other styles. Future shows will continue to diversify, and incorporate the input that vendors, bike exhibitors, and attendees provide. The Tattoo Expo will expand, based on the needs of the artists, and will eventually move to a larger, premium location in the convention center. Donnie commented, “I just want to thank all the people that took part in coming to the show and putting it on. This is a team effort; if you guys and gals don’t participate, we don’t have a show.”