Hoffmann Column: S&S Cycle 50th Helps Western Wisconsin Forget Its Troubles

By Gregg Hoffmann

The roar of motorcycles was welcome music to business people’s ears over the weekend in a region battered by flooding and a slowing economy.

S&S Cycle, a builder of custom motorcycle parts, held its 50th anniversary celebration in La Crosse and Viola, where the company has facilities.

Despite the latest round of rain, thousands of bikers showed up. Some estimates were as high as 100,000.

Several motorcycle-related and general interest events were held. S&S facility tours began on Thursday and ran through Saturday. The 50 builder/50 bike build-off for $50,000 was the big event and attracted custom bike builders from all over the world.

Dyno shoot-outs and street drags were held at the La Crosse Speedway. Historical rides, a La Crosse Area Harley-Davidson-sponsored ride to and from the J&P Open House, La Crosse City Brewery tours, riverboat tours and cruises, concerts, baseball games, fireworks and other events created a truly festive environment.

President Brett Smith and the rest of the S&S Cycle officials and staff deserve thanks for holding the event in western Wisconsin, and for pulling it off despite the weather-related challenges of recent weeks.

“The really exciting thing about our 50th is that it rapidly turned into an industry and community-wide effort and event,” said Smith. “Mayors Johnsrud and Bialecki, along with Dave Clements from the La Crosse Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, have been critically important in bringing the resources of the Seven Rivers Region together to support this event.”

S&S’s 50-year history makes a great story. George Smith Sr. was passionate about his Harley-Davidsons and devoted to making them faster. Riding a bike he called Tramp, Smith raced on dirt tracks outside of Chicago after his return from WWII and eventually set records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Smith set the land speed record in 1954 using homemade pistons, cylinders and Knuckle heads that he modified to take two Riley carburetors. He also developed lightweight push rods that were considered innovative.

In 1958, Smith and a friend, George Stankos, started S&S in Blue Island, Ill., just south of Chicago. The S&S stood for their last names.

A year later, Smith bought out Stankos. His wife, Marge, whose maiden name also was Smith, became the second S in S&S and played a big role in the development of the company. The couple first ran the business out of the basement of their home.

Together, the couple built the business. S&S pioneered the stroker motor with flywheels and connecting rods. The company introduced performance carburetors followed by big bore cylinders called Sidewinders with pistons to match.

As Harley grew and changed the images of motorcycles, S&S kept pace as a supplier of performance parts. In fact, at times, the company seemed to be setting the pace.

Smith Sr. always wanted to run a ranch and knew of the Kickapoo Valley because of vacations. In 1969, he and Marge bought a 700-acre farm and moved S&S to that site. In fact, the entrance today reads S&S Ranch.

After Smith Sr. died, George Jr., Brett’s father, took over as president, with Marge remaining very active in decision-making. The company continued growing. Brett joined the company in 2002 and was named president in 2003. S&S built a large facility in La Crosse in 2005.

And over the weekend, the company gave a little bit back to its home region, helping residents forget for a while the recent weather problems.