Keeping the art alive at the 32nd annual Donnie Smith Bike & Car Show

PJ’s Garage out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, won the top prize of the show with this intricately-engraved rolling piece of art.

Old School Rules

Words and photos by Shadow

Four decades ago, the late John Parham of J&P Cycles launched his first swap meet in Monticello, Iowa, which proved successful enough that he expanded the meets to several large Midwest cities, including Saint Paul. Parham eventually sold the show to another promoter, and some years later Neil Ryan partnered with custom bike builder – and fellow Minnesotan – Donnie Smith to purchase the swap meet, renaming it the Donnie Smith Bike Show.

A rare sighting of all four Smith brothers (l.-r.): Mike, Greg, Donnie, and Happy.

In the years since, the partners have enlarged the show tremendously, adding a judged bike show, expanding the event from one day to two, initiating a custom car show, and as of last year, extending the event to a three-day weekend by resurrecting flat track racing at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The result is what many believe to be the biggest and best bike show in the Midwest.

Pretty hard to argue, too.

This year’s show, which took place in late March at the St. Paul RiverCentre facility, got started on Friday with an afternoon and evening of War of the Twins flat-track racing. Classes included Mad Dog, Sportsmen, Vintage, Hooligan, Pro Singles and Pro Twins, plus a women-only exhibition, all ripping around a wooden track coated with Dr. Pepper syrup for traction. Crowds increased through the day and by the time the Mains began, the stands were nearly full. It was a great evening of exciting entertainment, setting an enthusiastic tone for the rest of the weekend.

The main exhibit hall offered more than 70,000 square feet of show bikes, vendors, refreshments and entertainment.

Saturday and Sunday featured the Show’s primary attractions, including a giant and well-attended swap meet, a custom car show on the facility’s upper level, hundreds of vendors, live music during Saturday evening’s Happy Hour from the band Porkchop, and much more. Motorcycle clubs and charitable organizations looked to attract new members and raise money for good causes, while the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, National Motorcycle Museum and the Viking Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America brought bikes and spent time educating attendees about the world of vintage motorcycles. Manufacturers and distributors offered parts galore for your American V-twin, while numerous custom and paint shops displayed eye candy for everyone’s viewing pleasure. And in the middle of the show floor was the always-crowded Donnie Smith Custom Cycles display, with Donnie himself autographing posters and T-shirts and posing for photos with customers and fans.

Jody and Dave Perewitz awarded the Perewitz Paint Pick to Chad Witte for his 2008 H-D Street Glide.

Speaking of eye candy, the show’s raison d’etre these days is the bike show competition, which included both Pro and Open classes. The Pro Class, which accommodates no more than 20 bikes total, includes two divisions – Custom and Bagger. The Open Class consists of a wide variety of models, years and styles.

Eden Chopper Class won 2nd place with their 1953 Panhead.

Part of the competition involves ‘chopper classes’ from various high schools around the country.

This year, Lakeville, Minnesota’s Lakeville North High School, led by Kevin “Teach” Baas, displayed its Knucklehead chopper dubbed “Zeus,” along with a 1999 Softail. Eden Chopper Class from Eden, New York, brought its 1953 H-D Panhead, while Mitchell Technical Institute Powersports out of Mitchell, South Dakota, showed their 2006 Softail Standard. These bikes were highly unique, and it was gratifying to see the kids put their own twists on these retro-style builds.

War of the Twins flat track races brought a full day of excitement to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

In fact, the youth movement at this year’s show prompted more than a few comments by organizers. “The younger generation needs to see [the old-school stuff] instead of the fiberglass bolt-on stuff,” said Mark ‘Stacks’ Calhoun, chief judge and longtime builder/fabricator. “The younger builders are starting to come around, but they’re taking it to the next level as far as fabrication and other aspects go. They’re coming up with a new style, in a way; taking something that’s old and bringing it into the new. It’s cool, neat, something different. It’s art. And they’re building stuff that they can afford, just like our generation did at their age.”

Donnie Smith agrees. “The younger guys and gals are really into the older bikes built in the ’70s, like what you see at Born Free. Those bikes are out there, and the young guys are always looking for parts from those bikes. We try to work with the kids and the schools, the deal that Kevin Baas started. That’s a real plus for the industry. We need more younger people involved.”

“While Dave Perewitz was here at the show,” Smith added, “we talked about how we used to go outside on our bicycles, making engine noises; we built go-karts, and then rode motorcycles. A lot of these kids just don’t know what they’re missing. The mechanical side just isn’t there anymore. Get off your butts, you young kids [laughs], and get out there. Get off those computers. Throw those phones away!”

Again, pretty hard to argue with that.

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