Photos By: Michael Lichter – See More At Lichterphoto.com
So, things are heating up for the SmokeOut Rally, and after announcing its return along with its return to Salisbury, I was amazed the hear a conversation where one young chopper jockey said to another, “So what is this SmokeOut?” It then occurred to me that nowhere online or on social media is there an accurate and complete history of this iconic event. I mean, people of my generation or older surely remember a lot of it, but even some of the younger generation that had attended might not realize why this particular event was so instrumental over the past two decades. So, like a good journalist, I went to task with great anticipation of bringing it all to light.
In the early days of the Horse Backstreet Choppers Magazine, they were a rough and ready bunch. The magazine was so raw, so much more than anything else on the newsstands in those days. That’s code for “They had a lot of followers” for you millennials. But these were still times when we had to meet face-to-face to get to know each other. The Horse had a Message Board called “BackTalk,” kinda like Facebook but with only words. So, the beginning of citizen participation was starting to amp up. People could have their voices heard in a way that would eventually change the world. Not everyone back then could “Go Live” at the drop of a hat, but this was undoubtedly a sign of where social media came into the motorcycle magazine world.
After some of the readers clamored for a meet-up where they could see who was behind this deviant print publication, a plan was made. Ralph “Hammer” Janus told the rest of the staff that they should just pick a place and ride. It turned out that it would be a hotel in Pigeon Forge, TN, and as many of the staff that could make it should show up. They told the readers when and where. Got on the bikes and headed out. Edge remembered it being archaic compared to today since they actually had to stop from time to time to read real maps, on the side of the road, with a flashlight since the invention of Google maps was still a decade away. Once at the hotel, some 50 people showed up, and everyone was on a chopper. A few standouts were Matt Daigle (who eventually became a writer for The Horse) and the New Jersey Boys, that traveled with only a gas card between them, no actual money for food or anything, so if they wanted to eat, it all had to come from the gas stations.
The next day riders enjoyed a day with minimal plans. They simply took a good ride to Subway, and Edge helped with the bike show. Hammer had packed some plaques he made for the winners. Everyone just hung out for the day. The next day, everyone split, but it was epic. Everyone left with plans to modify whatever bike they had like it was a contagious virus. Now, this may sound like a simple weekend ride but what had actually happened was the birth of The SmokeOut. While it was never supposed to be an annual event, Hammer knew this was a special event. A group of riders that weren’t counting down the days to attend the average bike rally that the general public was into had come from hundreds of miles to be among like-minded individuals, and they were gonna want to do it again. But what to call it… Hammer was kicking around the idea of something with the Smokey Mountains in it. He wanted a name that wouldn’t be confused with any other event, and after asking for input from BackTalk, nothing really stuck. He repeated “Smokey Mountain Blank” over and over until it came out; Smokey Mountain SmokeOut. Only after the event moved out of the Smokey Mountains was the first half dropped. The rest is history.
Greg “Edge” Scheuer was a part of the magazine staff back then too, and Hammer was aware of his ability to plan and organize, so he was tasked with operation SmokeOut. Edge awkwardly agreed, not knowing the first thing about putting a full-blown bike party together. Edge asked for input from the readers on BackTalk, and they overwhelmingly wanted it to be on the Cherokee Reservation. This made immediate sense since the riding through the Cherokee National Forest alone is some of the most epic riding you will ever experience. The Rez was more than happy to have them. Edge told me that that first year they had a budget of around $700 and were so nervous about getting their money back. Once they got enough ticket sales to cover the expenses, they stopped charging. They had bands, mostly guys that wanted to play and brought their own sound. The headliner turned out to be Billy Velvet from the famed Crank County Daredevils. There was a bike show with some handmade awards, of course, a Horse Maiden contest, you know, the best party $700 could put on! I remember the boys and me from Pittsburgh riding all day to get there and finally pulling up to a 4×8 sheet of plywood with the word “SmokeOut” spray-painted on in fluorescent orange paint. It was very highbrow indeed.
The one item that seemed to be overlooked was the fact that the county where the reservation is was a dry county…. NO BEER! So, when hundreds of chopper-loving fools who were road-worn and thirsty hit town, they had to travel back another 45 minutes to beer up. At first, this was irritating but soon became our own little rebellion. There was one incident where two guys got pulled over by the Chief of police and were asked why their saddle bags were leaking water. Of course, they said with a smirk, “That’s from the ice that’s keeping the beer cold,” which launched a little lecture about alcohol and the reservation. The Chief mentioned that alcohol is the number one killer of Native Americans. One of the guys told him he thought that was John Wayne. It would seem that fate would not see the SmokeOut back to the reservation for year two, so it was back on the hunt for a new home.
This time, Edge launched a full recon operation and came up with what he felt was perfect. The spot was a little dilapidated, a little seedy, and had everything they needed but nothing too fancy. At the time, the Rowan County Fairgrounds was a little beat down. It was the same average small town fairground facility you could find all over America, but this was in the right spot for a national meet. It was close to the highway but still secluded enough to raise hell and not bother the straights. It was official, the SmokeOut was moving to Salisbury, NC. It was a huge undertaking for the still fresh faces behind America’s Number One Selling Chopper Magazine, but they were up for the challenge and started to have a national event in their new home.
As it slowly inched forward from year to year, SmokeOut would come into the international motorcycle scene through a series of events that, to this day, are as amazing as they are true. The Discovery Channel had just done a new type of program with a man named Jesse James, with more viewers than all ten of their top shows combined. They still didn’t know much about this motorcycle thing, but they knew they had to have more of it and approached another young builder from the East Coast named Billy Lane. Their idea was to pit Lane against another builder, Roger Bourgette, in a one-off show they would call Biker Build-off. Billy agreed to the terms of the show with one stipulation, it would have to be at an event called The SmokeOut Rally in Salisbury, NC. Now, I probably don’t have to tell you about the success of this program and the next ten years of what became a runaway hit series for Discovery went, but I will remind you that it all started with the SmokeOut and that this was a credit to Mr. Lane. Of course, Billy had home field advantage and took that first win hands down. It was almost unfair to Roger since Billy was already at superhero status with this crowd. From then on, The Horse Magazine staff and the SmokeOut hugely influenced the Biker Build-Off series. The Horse was consulted for early seasons of the Biker Build Offs. This may have been due to the fact that they had so many ties to the builders of that day. It may also have had a little to do with the crew from BBO being a wild-ass bunch of partying fools… It was just a good fit either way. The Smoke Out become known as a king-maker, and builders who make an impression at the event make an impression EVERYWHERE.
Salisbury was a lucky break for the SmokeOut, not just for the Discovery success but for the acceptance from the local constabulary as well. The town put up with a lot of shit in those early days, and a bunch of credit goes to the police force there. It turned out that many of the officers were riders themselves, and how they ran their operation when it came to policing the SmokeOut was like a well-oiled machine. Unless something was a public safety hazard, they let it go. This meant that you really had to screw up to get hassled. This was the time that the event really started to flourish. Names like Indian Larry, Ice Cream Man from Hell, Sucker Punch Sallys, Led Sled Customs, Fabricator Kevin, and Steve Broyles became household names around the motorcycle community and were celebrated through the SmokeOut. Events like the Anvil Toss, the Burnout Pit, and dirt track racing all went down at Salisbury and caught fire across the two-wheeled landscape for the next ten years. But this became hallowed ground for so much more than the famous part of it. It was a refuge for the blue-collar builder. SmokeOut was the place where you could show up with what you built in your home garage and be with other cats who loved to build bikes and hot rods. You didn’t need to have a lot of money or a big name. It was a place for everyone to celebrate the garage culture. Rat Rods and homemade chops ruled at SmokeOut. Ideas hatched from late-night conversations around the fire carried over from year to year and turned into the latest creations. It was a hot bed of inspiration and creativity.
Let’s not forget to talk about the Holiday Inn. Of course, when you get that many creative people together, there is bound to be a certain level of depravity to go along with it. Suppose you tell someone you were at a SmokeOut in Salisbury and don’t know anything about the Holiday Inn. In that case, you’re a lying bastard, and you were never there. Sure, the daytime had the events at the Rowan County Fairgrounds, but at night, the entire focus shifted to the parking lot of the Holiday Inn just down the street. How these people put up with us is amazing, to say the least. An average night there would see flaming burnouts that ran so long they would dig a hole into the blacktop and usually end when the bike’s tire blew off and the wheel ground to a halt. Office chair races saw lines of ten or more hotel office chairs being towed by a chopper and a ratchet strap. Bikes rode through doors of the hotel, there was fire, there was chaos, it was out of control, and yet I can’t remember anyone getting seriously injured or arrested. I mean, I’m sure that these things happened but the fact that the National Guard was never brought in is a credit to the people of Salisbury. But on the flip side, instead of calls where hotel managers complained, Edge would get calls thanking them for bringing this event to their town. A few had mentioned that they were on the brink of closure until SmokeOut came to town and helped the economy the way it did.
Around this time, Hammer started a little off-the-record competition called “The Stampede.” This would be a cross-country race to the SmokeOut that was totally illegal, completely unsafe, and totally badass. Stampede racers had auxiliary fuel tanks and crazy contraptions for everything from taking a pee to eating that could help them stay on the road and get to the SmokeOut faster.
It wasn’t really about business back in those days, you see. That’s what the “Launching A Movement” statement was about. Hell, Edge remembers Hank McQueeny from the Horse staff regularly taking all the money from the T-Shirt booth and hosting an open bar for an hour at a time. Not the best move for the business, but this was a celebration of the culture. If anything, these cats were all having the time of their lives, and as it happened, the magazine and the rally both became wildly successful through it. So many of the garage builders who showed up at SmokeOut would open shops and change careers because of it. One example is the young men from southwestern Ohio; Jeff Cochran and Donny Loos. They won one of the shows at the SmokeOut, and the name Sucker Punch Sally became synonymous with their four-speed Shovelhead style bobbers. Harley engineers were on hand in those days, and somewhere during this time, they came out with a flat black, cut-down motorcycle called the Nightster, one of them admitted it was through exposure at the SmokeOut that this bike was designed. He even wore his SmokeOut shirt during the company’s official release event for that bike.
XS Speed had brought some mini bikes to play with, which turned into a full-on event. Edge knew some roller derby teams and had them come out to SmokeOut, The Shade Tree Boyz and Their Guinness Book Record “World’s Longest Chopper” set at SmokeOut. One year they made Smoke Out Poker Chips, and now you see branded poker chips in every Harley dealer you visit. The legendary flaming burnouts, the flaming mini bike jumps, the far our flame and flake paint jobs, chopper drags in the dirt, so much of what became ingrained in our culture today started with this simple gathering of the chopper faithful. It is amazing.
But alas, not everyone in Salisbury was a fan. More specifically, the Salisbury Board of Commissioners. Two of the five determined that SmokeOut was casting an evil shadow on their town and had set upon the mission to chase it out. The local papers were filled with opinions one way or the other, it was a real smear campaign, but the police and the business owners were on the side of the event. Unfortunately, It came down to those two commissioners who put enough political pressure on one other, and the SmokeOut rally lost its home in a vote. Although these two commissioners would lose their seats during the next election, it was time for the SmokeOut to hunt for new grounds.
With the racing activities playing a more significant role in the event, Edge picked the Farmington Dragway for the new location. While this was a great spot for the amenities, none of the organizers realized the trouble brewing underneath the surface. This was happening right after 9/11, and the country was wound up about terrorism. Now, as you can imagine, Farmington, NC, was pretty far away from any city centers that might be a terrorist hot spot, but they still were given grant money for anti-terrorism activities. Well, when the SmokeOut came to town, the man in charge of that grant money finally had a place to spend it and a way to justify his position, so he did. There was a war waged on SmokeOut to keep it from ever happening in Farmington. The police were convinced it would be an all-out invasion of their peaceful lives by this evil hoard of one percenters. During one public meeting on the event, the anti-terrorism Chief stood up and proclaimed that the last time “You People” got together in our town, one man shot another. Edge rebutted, “Yes, this did happen, but it was back in 1962 before I was even born, and I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then.” The whole thing was a farce, but by the time people were pulling into the event at Farmington, they saw prison busses lining the gates so police could arrest and detain masses of people if needed. Needless to say, by the end of the event, the busses weren’t used, and the Police Chief gave Edge and the SmokeOut a huge apology. They decided that the SmokeOut was good for their town and wanted them to return, but after all the trouble, Edge already had a new deal with the owner of Rockingham Raceway.
Rockingham had made Edge a sweetheart offer to get the SmokeOut Rally to his property, and no matter what Farmington did, the deal was set. That first year saw a huge expansion in property, and the campground in Rockingham now took the place of the Holiday Inn from the glory days. They had a full-on NHRA drag strip to race on instead of dirt, more room for vendors and mini bike racing than ever. The next 11 years were full of great memories and good times for SmokeOut attendees. Around the beginning of Rockingham, they got the idea to hold a second event out west, and SmokeOut West was born. Cottonwood, AZ, is a scenic mountain town with a flourishing bike culture. Cottonwood is also a bucket-list ride destination. The magazine wanted a west event to coax out a few of the California cousins who didn’t want to make the journey east for the original Smoke Out. The large west coast attendance never materialized. The Cottonwood event drew a ton of Texans but fewer bikers from Cali. The hardcore California builders and riders went to the east coast event anyway.
Additionally, invasive dust covered everything by the end of every event, and it took longer to clean up the bikes than it did to ride there from the Carolinas. The decision was made to try another location a little closer to Texas, and the event landed in an awesome town on Route 66 that was forgotten when they built the super highway. Edge still speaks very highly of Santa Rosa, NM, a biker town with warm people and interesting things to see like the Blue Hole. The mini bike races on Route 66 will always be a SmokeOut highlight, but the decision was made that it was better to have just one full-flavored, wild, and original SmokeOut.
Edge started a second ride to the SmokeOut (east) during the SmokeOut West years to link the two events with a gypsy style ride going cross country from campsite to campsite. The “Long Road” isn’t a crazed Mad Max-style race but a 1000-mile + caravan of camaraderie with interesting rides and nightly activity. The Long Road is still an annual event run by Mike Allen and Brian Sauer, and it hasn’t missed a year since it started.
The impact of the SmokeOut Rally on the Chopper world and motorcycle world, in general, became too incontestable and drew the attention of filmmaker Zack Kaufmann. Zach Kaufmann from Choppertown did a documentary called “The Road to the SmokeOut,” which you can still get on Amazon. I recommend anyone reading this take the time to watch it. It gives you an insight into what this phenomenon was all about. They got into the swing, and the event was successful for the next several years without too many incidents. That was until one of the darkest chapters in SmokeOut history was written in 2015 when Horse staff artist Richie “Pan” Panerra and Mike Napolitano were walking across and were hit and killed by a car. One minute they were standing by the bikes in front of the Best Western BS’ing and telling jokes, and then nothing was funny for a long time. It was a tragic loss for the chopper and art community alike. There isn’t much to be said here other than part of this world will have less color in it without Richie’s influence. A couple of years later, Edge decided he was ready to retire. The Horse Magazine had suffered losses from the bullshit system of the American Newsstand and decided to close, and he felt that it was time to pass the SmokeOut Rally on to another. A deal was made with the Owner of Rockingham since the event had been so good there, and they wanted to keep it going. Edge announced that the 2020 SmokeOut would be the last he would run and thanked everyone for 20 years of support. Unfortunately, before the ink dried on their deal, the owner of the Rockingham Raceway decided the deal was not for him and instead has started another event without the SmokeOut name called Thunder At The Rock. We wish him all the luck with this endeavor, but in case you were unaware, this is NOT SmokeOut!
This is where Chris and Heather Callen, along with their Cycle Source Magazine, come into play. Chris had been going to SmokeOut since the second year on the reservation and had supported the event and bikes that were part of it over all those years. Callen feels like if there hadn’t been a SmokeOut, we would be well short of so many things in the custom motorcycle world today. While Edge had conceded himself to retirement, losing this event would be unconscionable. Callen had been publishing a custom bike magazine for 25 years at this time, and his wife Heather was long-time operations manager of all the Broken Spoke Saloons across the country, including the Sturgis facility that was a 600-acre campground, so between them, they felt like they had what it would take to organize an event like this. After running their own Big Mountain Run for nearly ten years, a much smaller event in the same spirit as the SmokeOut, Callen decided to challenge Edge to let them try and resurrect SmokeOut. So that they not miss a year, a simple toast was planned during Willie’s ChopperTime during Bike Week in 2021. It was a tip of the hat to how SmokeOut started; a small group of the chopper faithful gave the nod to the history and tradition of the event, some shirts were printed, and the plan was announced. They would take it all a few steps back. Back to the basics, back to the beginning, back to Salisbury! The Rowan County Fairgrounds had come so far over the years with way more camping and a much nicer venue than ever before, and they were immediately in love with the idea of having SmokeOut back. So were the local hotels and businesses, along with the local government. They have been so helpful in getting SmokeOut back on its feet. It almost seems like they are truly partners in it.
So, at this point, the stage is set, the events are planned, the bands are booked, and the next chapter in SmokeOut history is waiting to be written. What will the story be? Who will the names in the next pages be? Only time will tell, but you can be there when it happens. A third generation of chopper loving fools are about to take this thing back to Salisbury, back home, back where it all began!