Best of the Midwest

A hearty helping of Minnesota nice

St. Paul, Minn., March 27–28—As the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul begin to thaw from the harsh Northern winter, motorcycle enthusiasts from miles around begin their annual migration to the best, and the biggest, motorcycle event in the Midwest—the Donnie Smith Bike Show and Parts Extravaganza. With new and used motorcycle parts, vendors, entertainment and several bike show competitions, the show provides plenty of inspiration to finish up that winter project; or just to charge up the battery, change the oil and get that bike on the road. I really can’t think of a better way to kick off the riding season.

What started as a local swap meet in the late 1980s has evolved into a spectacular, multi-faceted show that now spans two days. Early in the last decade, Neil Ryan of American Thunder Promotions out of Savage, Minnesota, acquired the show from the previous promoter, and convinced his friend and fellow bike-building Minnesotan Donnie Smith to partner with him. Donnie finally agreed, and that’s when the show kicked into high gear.

The show is held in the St. Paul Rivercentre, part of a first-class entertainment complex that hosts sporting events, concerts, conventions and other large gatherings. In 2004, the event had grown so much that it was expanded to two days. Nationally-known manufacturers and big-name builders started filling up the exhibit hall, and the next year, additional vendors were placed in the lobby. The swap meet continued to thrive, taking up an entire exhibit hall attached to the main show floor.

Good vibrations
One of the unique features of this event is that it’s actually several shows within a show. As you enter the street-level Kellogg Lobby, you’re greeted by walls of vendors lining the entire length of the lobby. New motorcycle models, bike paraphernalia, apparel, charity raffles—one could easily spend several hours perusing the exhibits, and it’s my guess that many folks do just that. Access to the lobby doesn’t cost anything, but consider it a teaser for more moto-delights just one floor down.

As I proceeded down to the lower level, I began to hear a buzz that grew louder as I descended into the main exhibit hall. It was as if the queen herself were appearing! Oh, we don’t have a queen. Well, the king, then—maybe an Elvis sighting. At any rate, the crowd was milling about; smiling, shopping, admiring bikes, and just having a great time. I began my once-around the floor just to get the lay of the land, and made it down only one row when I heard a woman chanting, “Early bird sale—just $99. Anything on the racks, only 99 bucks.” Normally I’d just pass her by, but the crowd’s energy and enthusiasm was contagious. I tried on a beautiful brown leather jacket, saw how it looked in the mirror and plunked down five 20s. That was quickly followed by a visit to the Stone Lake Leatherworks booth for a matching leather bandanna, and then I was off to more vendors for zipper pulls, a couple of T-shirts and a do-it-yourself book. Less than an hour at the show, and I’d spent nearly all the cash I’d brought with me.

Conventional wisdom dictates that you’ve gotta get to the swap meet hall early before the good stuff is gone. Well, there were plenty of goodies; in fact, you could probably build a whole bike from the parts that could be found—frames, front ends, tanks and fenders, wheels and tires, and anything else you might need. There were entire bikes on display, if building isn’t your thing. I saw new and used apparel, tools, books, movies and CDs, posters and artwork, jewelry, knick-knacks and sculptures and even some motorcycle-themed windmills. I saw lots of folks carrying bike parts out to the parking lot, and then coming back for more! Vendors who have been to this show before know to bring enough merchandise to last for both days, so great deals can still be found even on Sunday afternoon.

Something different
Back in the main hall, I tried to put my finger on the high energy level of the show. This was the seventh year I’d attended, and every show was better than the one before. How did they do it? Promoter Neil Ryan says, “The show has taken on a life of its own. It has its own personality. The exhibits, the bikes and the people make it happen.” I’d give a lot more credit to the American Thunder staff. It takes a ton of work to create a successful show that outdoes itself year after year.

One major change was that the exhibits in the main hall had been completely reconfigured. As in past years, Michelob, a major show sponsor, manned a bar in the middle of the hall. The bar was flanked by the Donnie Smith Custom Cycles and American Thunder displays (both Donnie and Neil have motorcycle shops not far from St. Paul). There was a sizeable area with tables and chairs between the elevated stage and the bar, giving people a chance to relax, watch whatever was happening onstage, and get great views of pretty much the entire show. The openness of the layout definitely added to the warmth of the show, as did the “Minnesota nice” attitude demonstrated by exhibitors and patrons alike. And American Thunder production manager and logistics wizard Sammie Goebel somehow managed to squeeze in 45 additional spaces. Even with more exhibitors added, there was still a waiting list.

The show management prides itself on the high quality of vendors and exhibitors that participate in the show. National parts distributors such as title sponsor Custom Chrome, Biker’s Choice, J&P Cycles and Dennis Kirk, as well as major aftermarket companies S&S, title sponsor House of Kolor, Kuryakyn, Avon, Terry Components and Wizard Cleaning Products, among others. Even more vendors offered a wide array of products and services—leathers and other apparel, paint and powder coating, lubricants, pull-behind camping trailers, garage flooring, eyewear, pins and patches, jewelry, motorcycle books—pretty much anything a biker would need. The energy level was also kept high by classic rock station 92 KQRS, and giveaways being announced throughout the weekend.

Wild Prairie Harley-Davidson, Indian Motorcycle of the Twin Cities and Victory Motorcycles brought in their latest models. And nationally known builders such as Brian Klock showed up with his Klock Werks krew, as did Scott Webster and the Leroy Thompson team along with their new business partner Bruce Hanusosky of High Tech Performance Trailers.

Another new feature was the Saturday evening party held in the main exhibit hall. In the past, Saturday show hours were from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. This year, the promoters extended the show hours until 8:00, bringing in rockabilly band Jack Knife and the Sharps to start the party at 6. We also noticed a “second shift” of folks coming into the show in the late afternoon, just about the time when things would normally have begun winding down. The band and the beer kept the energy high, and a good-sized crowd stayed until the band finished, the bar closed and the lights flickered, signaling that it was time to hit the road—just in time for Donnie Smith’s annual birthday bash at Whiskey Junction. Every year I swear I’ll stay at the Minneapolis hot spot for only an hour, and every year I just manage to catch the last shuttle back to the hotel for a few hours’ shuteye.

Kids who chop
In 2004, Scottie Ard met Kevin “Teach” Baas, a metal manufacturing instructor at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, and invited the kids in his newly-formed chopper class to exhibit their first bike at the Donnie Smith show that year. The kids garnered several awards and lots of attention, and the chopper class concept caught on like a prairie wildfire. Scottie and Donnie formed the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge, and this year, five high schools vied for top honors.

Newcomers Mitchell Technical Institute from Mitchell, South Dakota, won the 3R—Reuse, Recycle, Rebuild—award as well as the Technical Merit award. Also competing for the first time, New Richmond High School from New Richmond, Wisconsin, won the People’s Choice award. Return contestant Caledonia High School out of Caledonia, Minnesota, took the award for Outstanding Paint, and veteran entrant Eden Jr./Sr. High School from Eden, New York, won the Overall award. Clearfield County Career and Technical Center from Clearfield, Pennsylvania, competed again this year and won the Design and Innovation award, as well as the new Traveling award, which, according to Scottie, “represents the spirit, mission and overall commitment to not only the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge but to the challenge of enabling students to pursue their goals.”

Past competitors St. Francis High School out of St. Francis, Minnesota, chose to compete in the open class this year, and won third place in the Evo Full Custom class. The Kennedy High School crew had several bikes entered in the open class. Kennedy won a plaque in the Knucklehead class, and Teach won prizes in the Chopper Custom and Knucklehead classes for two of his bikes.

In a special presentation, each instructor and chopper class member received a custom-engraved Craftsman wrench to start their own tool boxes. I dunno, I think I’d frame it and hang it in my garage just to remember the fun I had. The Chopper Class Challenge is looking for schools in the Western U.S. for the Arlen Ness show, and in Texas for the Rick Fairless show (both American Thunder productions). None of the expenses, including materials, parts or travel, are covered by the school, so donations of parts or cash are always welcome. To donate or participate, contact Scottie Ard at And make sure to cast your vote on the Pepsi Refresh website, (go to the “education” tab), to help the Donnie Smith Chopper Class Challenge win a grant for making a positive impact on their community.

The main event
The centerpiece of the show was, of course, the bikes—rows and rows of them in the competition area, with just as many displayed inside exhibit booths. The bike show consists of two main classes—the Pro Class and the Open Class. Entries in the Pro Class are limited to 20, and for your $150 entry fee, you get to exhibit your creation in a carpeted, specially lighted show area inside stanchions. First place wins $1,500, second takes $750 and third goes home with $250. Each of the top five Pro Class winners also receives a limited edition Donnie Smith show jacket and a trophy. The Open Class competition starts with an entry fee of $50, with additional cost for electric, end space or oversized space. There were 35 Open classes, with cash and trophies given for 10 special categories.

The variety of motorcycles was mind-boggling. There were high-performance shops that had their crowd-pleasing race bikes on display. Homemade trikes, trike conversions and big Boss Hoss three-wheelers were quite popular. Mini-choppers as well as sleek long-fork customs competed against others in their class. There was a bike with a 30″ front wheel, and another with a tractor-trailer rear wheel and tire. Four beer-themed bikes and a Jack Daniels tribute bike were in competition (but not against each other). And the B&B (baggers and bobbers) contingent grows every year. Donnie Smith commented, “We saw baggers and bobbers in a big way. This year, the ratio of baggers over Softails in the Open Class was almost two to one.” This was a big change over past years when custom and customized Softails prevailed over most other styles.

More people are now buying, building and showing vintage bikes, and this trend was reflected at the show. The Viking Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America had an impressive display of rare vintage bikes and scooters, and Neil mentioned that out of the 120 bikes entered into the Open Class, 23 were 1969-and-older Big Twin antiques. For instance, well-known antique bike restorer Elmer Ehnes of Maple Grove, Minnesota, had several impeccable Shovels and a Knuckle in the Open Class competition.

In the Victory Motorcycles-sponsored Open Class, special competition winners included Robert Lopez’s “Sin City,” a 2009 Road King built by DD Customs that won Best Paint because of the spectacular graphics done by the great Sonny Depalma; Robert DeCorsey who won Best Display for his full custom Softail Evo; Dave Flom’s 1981 Sturgis Custom that took Best Lighting; Bill Lykken’s ’69 Triumph that won Best Antique; Best Bagger by Timm Smolik for his 2009 CVO Road Glide; the 1974 XLCH built by Fast Five Cycles’ Jake Boyd and Cory Nolan that took Best Bobber; Gary Dagsgard’s 2005 Dakota Thunder that won Best Chopper; Best Pro Street by Fritz Plosky and his ’82 custom Shovel; Ron Harley’s 2006 Hayabusa (go figure) that won Best Sport Bike; and the Spectators’ Choice won by Ron and Lea Blumberg with their 1990 Softail Springer.

Winners of the Pro Class, which was sponsored by RV America Insurance, were Johnnie Earl from Plymouth, Minnesota, who took fifth place with his bike Freaky Tiki; Ballistic Cycle from Blue Mound, Wisconsin, who won fourth place with their 2008 Road Glide; Vince Filardi of Chanhassen, Minnesota, who took third with his 2009 rigid custom; Brad Isle of Pipestone, Minnesota, who won second with his 2008 bagger; and Deadline Customs of Forest Lake, Minnesota, that took top prize with their custom build.

Donnie commented, “Sales were up with both the vendors and the swap meet. People are more enthusiastic this year. The weather was good, so that gave people a better attitude.” I think he’s being modest. People travel from all over the country to participate in this show because they know they’ll see quality bikes and merchandise. See you next year!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here