S&S Cycle will celebrate 50th anniversary in style next year
Another big motorcycle event could attract thousands of bikers to Wisconsin next year.
No, this isn't another Harley anniversary, which brought thousands from around the world to Milwaukee. It is a company that many Hog owners know, however.
S&S Cycle will hold a 50th anniversary celebration June 27-28, 2008, and plans to sell the first 50 cycle engines it produced to 50 of the top custom cycle builders in the world during the celebration.
That sale will be only one event during what organizers believe will be a rally that could attract 2,000 or more cycle enthusiasts. Some estimates are as high as 20,000 people.
S&S, which has facilities in La Crosse and Viola, was "founded on speed," by world record holder George Smith Jr. Its custom engines and other parts are used by Harley owners and other motorcyclists around the world.
Now under the leadership of Smith's grandson, Brett, S&S remains devoted to producing engines and parts that make motorcycles, ranging from Harleys to custom cycles, go faster.
The company employs more than 400 people, from engineers to workers on the assembly line. S&S opened a 170,000 square foot facility in La Crosse in 2005 and has its original plant in Viola.
S&S might be best known in Wisconsin for the development, production, marketing and sales of performance parts for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. But the company has more than 6,000 domestic and international customers, primarily dealers, distributors and most recently, American motorcycle manufacturers like Victory Motor Cycles, Indian, Titan and Big Dog. Tens of thousands of riders annually install S&S parts on their bikes.
The company's line of Super carburetors, with a distinctive chrome teardrop air cleaner cover, has been the industry's most popular carburetor for years.
S&S products also have won numerous awards in competition. Some recent ones include Hot Bike's High Tech Product of the Year for its performance motors, American Rider's Aftermarket Company of the Year, and Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year's Special Award for "Relentless Research & Development."
Family history is company history
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 World War II 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 their basement.
"My grandmother was an equal partner in the business and knew more technically than most males do nowadays," Brett Smith said. "She certainly could hold her own. She was a woman pioneer, building a manufacturing business with her husband in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She pretty much worked at this business until she passed."
Together, the couple built the business. S&S pioneered the stroke 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.
"The family loved the Driftless area," Brett said. "Over the years, we have gotten wonderful employees from the area and have been able to provide jobs."
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.
Racing has always been a big part of S&S. In many ways, it has served as on the track R&D for the company. Motorcycles with S&S engines and parts have been setting records and winning championships for a long time. The company sponsors a race team that has had great success in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). George Jr. and George Rice, one of the legendary motorcycle figures in history, run the venture that has the race team.
Smith told members of his company's customer advisory council he thinks 2,000 motorcyclists might attend the June event. "And my customer advisory council kind of laughed me out of the meeting a little bit ago," he said. "And they seem to think that it's going to be well north of 20,000 people that will come here for this event next year."
Smith added, "We ask everybody in the community to show their support and give us ideas" for the celebration. "We intend for this to be some sort of a mini- or regional rally to celebrate our 50th anniversary."
La Crosse Mayor Mark Johnsrud and Onalaska Mayor Jim Bialecki told the La Crosse Tribune other communities in the region will benefit from next year's event. Some believe many bikers who come to the S&S rally also will want to see the Harley facilities in Milwaukee.
I have never understood why H-D uses Japanese carburetors.
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