Pride of St. Paul

Two floors of top-notch talent

St. Paul March 28–29—The St. Paul River Centre is considered the Upper Midwest’s premier convention center, so it’s only fitting that it host the Midwest’s premier motorcycle event. The Donnie Smith Bike Show began as a local swap meet in the late 1980s, and under the partnership of Neil Ryan of American Thunder Promotions and master bike builder Donnie Smith, the show continued to grow until 2004 when the partners realized they’d outgrown the single-day venue and expanded the show to two days. This move pushed show attendance into the five figures, where it’s stayed ever since.

The show hasn’t just stayed the same, though. Every year, there are some changes, usually based on current trends. Donnie and Neil each own their custom motorcycle shops, and they know what their customers want. And in today’s economy, they know that customers want more for their money. The Donnie Smith Bike Show gives show goers two days of great entertainment, in spades. It’s what keeps people coming back year after year, and telling all their friends to come with them next time. It’s what gives the show such staying power.

Give ’em what they want
Donnie Smith knows a bit about staying power, as well. As one of the world’s most famous bike builders for well over 30 years, he’s got a knack for giving his customers exactly what they want. Donnie’s moto-fascination began with racing and building racecars in the ’60s in partnership with his brother Happy and his friend Bob Fetrow, which led to the trio opening a racing and automotive shop called Smith Bros. & Fetrow. They sold motorcycle parts as a sideline until they eventually dropped the automotive end of the business and concentrated strictly on bikes. Things went well until the ’80s, when the bottom dropped out of the custom bike market. Donnie and his partners sold most of his inventory and equipment. However, he still worked on motorcycles out of a small shop out of his home. By the mid-’80s, the bike business had bounced back, so he brought on some staff and eventually moved to a shop in Blaine, Minnesota, where Donnie Smith Custom Cycles operates today.

Donnie and his creations were featured in countless motorcycle magazines, and everyone wanted a custom bike created in the distinctive Donnie Smith style. Lately, though, as a result of our country’s latest fiscal fiascos, Donnie hasn’t been building nearly as many high-end bikes. As Donnie puts it, “I have a product that people want, but they don’t need.” So his shop has been focusing on upkeep and repairs, as well as upgrades to customers’ current rides.

The trend toward upgrading and customizing riders’ existing bikes rather than buying or building expensive new ones was evident at the bike show. We didn’t see much in the way of high-end customs that looked cool but weren’t rideable. There were no Mad Max-type motorcycles, and we didn’t see a single bike with gold-and-platinum wheels or gem-encrusted accessories as in years past.

Something for everyone
Besides expanding to two days, the show has spread out in other ways, as well. Several years ago, the vendor space outgrew the main exhibit hall on the ground floor and spread out to include the first-floor Kellogg Lobby. The lobby is free to anyone passing through, and served as a teaser to the main show floor. Maybe the word “teaser” isn’t quite fair, because dozens of vendors lined the hallway, making the lobby display alone larger than some of the bike shows I’ve attended elsewhere.

It was easy to spend hours in the lobby, but the genius of placing vendors there is that it makes everyone hungry for more. If people wanted to avoid the long lines for tickets—and these lengthy queues continued through most of the weekend—they could be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster.

If you were smart, you’d have headed to the swap meet as soon as you got into the show, before the best bargains were gone. The swap meet was in a huge area adjoining the main exhibit hall, and it was packed with new and old parts and accessories. When I got to the show less than an hour after it opened on Saturday morning, people were already carrying their purchases to cars or trucks in the convention center’s parking arcade across the street. I saw two guys leaving with a couple of wheels and a front end, and later on that day, I saw the same guys walking around the show with tires perched on their shoulders. These are some serious shoppers!

Between the lobby and the main exhibit floor, you could probably find just about anything—well, anything motorcycle-related—you were looking for. Catalog companies like J&P Cycles and Dennis Kirk displayed a variety of goodies for your ride. Major companies like S&S Cycle, Avon Tyres, Terry Components and builders like Klock Werks and Neil Ryan’s American Thunder Custom Motorcycles displayed their bikes and parts. Trailers, pop-up campers, lifts and wheel chocks were being demonstrated. Bike cleaning, powder coating, paint and polishing products lent splashes of color to the room. Trike and trike conversion companies encouraged potential riders to sit on their three-wheeled (and even four-wheeled) contraptions. Leathers, luggage and apparel drew in customers looking for riding comfort and motorcycle audio systems promised entertainment while on the road. If you were looking to customize your ride, there were plenty of wheels, grips and pegs, exhaust systems, and other parts. Photographers, poets, T-shirt designers, jewelry vendors and booksellers appealed to your artistic side. As always, you could find motorcycle club support gear, charity raffles, and motorcyclists’ rights organizations.

If you’re looking for scantily clad models and wet T-shirt contests, this isn’t the show for you. It’s a family event and folks are encouraged to bring their kids. In fact, children under 12 are allowed in for free. Kids love giveaways, and radio station 92 KQRS, which was broadcasting live from the show, made sure there were plenty of prizes tossed out to the crowd.

Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities in St. Paul had two spacious displays—one with apparel and one with several variations of each of the four 2009 Indian Chief models. We saw Indian’s women’s apparel for the first time, including two gorgeous, high-quality leather jackets. They were quite pricey, but the discount market isn’t what Indian is going after.

The Viking Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America had more than a dozen antique bikes on display. It’s always a treat to talk to the AMCA members, as each of these bikes has a fascinating story. Performance shops and race teams had their teams’ bikes on display, and there were novelty items and collectibles aplenty. Motorized bar stools seemed to have evolved from a single bar stool perched atop a teeny two-stroke motor to the 350-c.i. limited-edition two-seater offered for $13,500. According to the vendor, another of these motorized monsters on display had been sold for $39,000. I could buy three and a half Sportsters for that amount!

The main attractions
If the swap meet was the anchor of the show, then the bike show competition was the masthead. It was the centerpiece of the main exhibit hall, and there wasn’t a time when people weren’t lined up two or three deep along the stanchions, admiring the expertly crafted motorcycles.

This is no thrown-together, let’s-see-who-shows-up affair. Each bike entered must be pre-registered in one of two separate competitions. The open class requires a $50 basic entry fee, with additional cost for electricity or oversized display space. The premier class has an entry fee of $125, giving entrants the chance to compete for $1,750 in total prize money and trophies, not to mention bragging rights for winning this prestigious show. And for the first time this year, several special show jackets would be awarded to the top winners.

This year, the promoter limited the premier class to 20 entries, figuring that more folks would be interested in the open class because of the economy. There were 134 bikes competing for the open class, plus 12 that canceled because of severe flooding in the Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, areas about 240 miles northwest of St. Paul. Both classes filled up early, though, and entries had to be turned away because there was no more space. In fact, every space in the convention center was filled—swap meet and main show vendors were also turned away because they didn’t sign up in time to reserve a spot.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other main attraction of the weekend—Donnie’s birthday. This year, the big day fell on Saturday, and as always, we marked the occasion with a big party at Whiskey Junction in Minneapolis to celebrate. To make it easy for everyone, the bar ran free shuttle buses between the convention center and Whiskey Junction. This was a godsend because it’s virtually impossible to find a parking spot in that part of town. Whiskey Junction shares the street with two entertainment hot spots—The Joint and the Cabooze. In fact, Cedar St. is quite the biker block with The Shop—a motorcycle parts and service store—and a scooter store where Easyriders used to be.

I’d only planned on staying an hour or so at Donnie’s party, but rockabilly band Johnny Trash was smokin’ and the fun was infectious. I caught the last shuttle back to St. Paul for a few hours of shuteye before getting up Sunday and doing it all over again. You had to feel sorry for the judges, though, who were up late both Friday and Saturday nights ranking the bike show entries rather than enjoying the nightlife.

The envelope, please
The open competition, sponsored by Victory Motorcycles, earned winners cash, trophies and other prizes, and awards were given in 50 show classes—too many to list here. There were also some special recognition awards, with the top winners including Joe Lieske for best paint, X-Treme Paint & Auto Body for best mural paint, Cliff Enns for best upholstery, Mike Beck for best special effects, and Alan Zacharias for the oldest motorcycle in the show. One Off, Inc. took best chrome for his Obama Tribute Bike, and according to owner Dell Battle, it’s the first (and possibly only) bike built in tribute to the current President. The Crown Point, Indiana, builder customized a 2003 100th anniversary edition Fat Boy to commemorate the election of our 44th President. The bike is painted in blue and white—the Obama campaign colors—and has the campaign logo airbrushed on the gas tank. The engraving done by Don and Dan Molk of Etchings by PIG (Portraits in Glass) illustrate drawings of Michelle on the ignition cover and Barack on the primary cover, the presidential seal on the headlight, the Obama name on the inspection plate and 44 on the axle covers. The bike was a head-turner, and drew quite a bit of attention from the crowd.

The best display award went to Joseph Patnaude, earning him a special show jacket. Special judges’ choice awards went to Lars Bengtsson for best antique motorcycle, Metric Custom Cycles for best Asian metric motorcycle, Brian Comiskey for best nostalgic custom, Joe Lieske for best rigid-frame custom, Chris Platzer for best sport street custom, Joseph Patnaude for best theme bike, Steve Bruggeman for best vintage classic, and Herbert Ambrose for best Victory Motorcycle. The Chief Show Judge Ray Kittel’s personal choice award went to Gary Dagsgard, and Jon Kosmoski of House of Kolor, the title sponsor, awarded his VIP personal choice award to Dana Hallberg of Deadline Kustoms, who also won the Judges’ Choice Best in Show award, earning him a special show jacket.

Winners of the premier class competition, sponsored by American Modern Insurance Company, each received a $250 cash prize, a specially crafted eagle trophy, and a special show jacket. The promoter’s choice award went to Noelski of Defiant Studio, the spectators’ choice best in show went to Cabana Dave Rognsvoog, the sponsor’s choice award was given to Chris Van Dyke of DD Custom Cycle, Ray’s M/C Show World’s choice award was given to Jon Seibert, and Donnie Smith’s personal choice award went to C&P Aviation SVC. Exhibitors’ choice best in show, where each competitor’s peers vote, was given to Leroy Thompson. The judges’ choice best in show was awarded to Dana Hallberg. Dana’s entry, Candy Wrapper, won the best flames award in Dave Perewitz’s custom paint bike show and second place in the Legends Top 50 bike show in Sturgis in 2008, so it’s not surprising that his creation caught the eye of Ray’s M/C Show World show judges, too.

I asked chief show judge Ray Kittel of Ray’s M/C Show World ( what bike building trends he saw this year, and he responded, “The general state of the economy has had an effect on bike building trends. You don’t see, at least as much as you did before, the real high-end builds where money was not much of an issue. Bike building has gone the way of kitchen table budgets. However, there is a good side to that. Tight budgets are offset by creativeness. Just as many of us need to think of ways to cut expenses in our personal budgets without sacrificing lifestyle, the same philosophy holds true to bike building during this economic recession. That pretty much explains the exploding trend of baggers and bobbers—practical bikes or custom rides without all the extravagance that still maintain the biker lifestyle and enjoyment of riding a personalized custom bike. It’s my 15th straight year heading up the judging crew for this event. I’ve seen the evolution of not only the bikes, but of this show. And the future looks exciting.”

A beacon in the night
This is my sixth year attending the show, and it looked more crowded than it ever has. Promoter Neil Ryan said, “The show was unbelievable. People were making lots of money in the swap meet area. Vendors, exhibitors and attendees thought it was the biggest and best show ever. People were staying at the show longer, meaning that they were getting more value for their dollar. In this supposedly down economy, here’s a beacon in the night.”

Donnie Smith added, “As my dad used to say, ‘People aren’t broke, but they’re badly bent.’ It makes you feel good when, even in this economy, the crowd is good and everyone’s having a good time.”

Neil and Donnie both agree that, “It’s not American Thunder and the crew; it’s not Donnie Smith. It’s everybody that comes to the show. It takes all of us.” (


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