Lonnie Isam Jr.’s legacy is an antique motorcycle endurance run that tests the true craftsmanship of century-old bikes
Mike Wolfe and Lonnie Jr. were friends who shared the belief that antique motorcycles shouldn’t be hidden away in barns and sheds for safekeeping but that they belonged on Two Lanes, burning oil and logging country miles as they were built to do. Both men grew up in the Midwest and spent their weekends at swap meets and chasing leads on bikes. They met and bonded over their love of ancient iron.
“Lonnie was a knowledgeable antique motorcycle rider and restorer who believed these bikes were more than just something to put on display,” explains Mike. “I’d often call him from the road and ask him to help identify motorcycles and parts. He knew the ins and outs of a pre-1915 ride better than anyone I knew. He appreciated that the moment you fire one up and feel the heat from that engine hit your leg, you are experiencing generations of ingenuity and craftsmanship at work. He wanted people to understand that these bikes were built to take a beating and be run hard.”
In 2017, after battling cancer, Lonnie Jr. passed away, leaving a huge hole in the community of riders he belonged to. However, what he left behind shifted the way we view old motorcycles.
As a child, Lonnie Jr. grew up exploring his dad’s bike shop and going to Harley races. Growing up in motorcycle culture, Lonnie’s dad would take him to swap meets with $20 and he’d end up leaving with $100 worth of parts — a family tradition that made his dad proud but that the public education system didn’t much approve of.
“Lonnie always said he wanted to build bikes that could cross the country,” explains his father, Lonnie Sr. “To do that, he needed to be as present in the antique motorcycle crowd as possible. His mother and I let him attend the meets until junior high. When they wouldn’t excuse him anymore, we put him in a private school so he could continue to pursue his passion. He still graduated with honors by the way!”
Lonnie later relocated to Sturgis, South Dakota where he opened his own shop, Jurassic Racing. Spending a large amount of time in a town that was famously known in the motorcycle community for its long-running rally and hall of fame, he was surrounded by antique machinery and motorcycle culture. At an early age, he became familiar with the story of legendary long-distance motorcycle pioneer, Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. A man who fearlessly off-roaded his way across the country in the early 1900s on a two-speed Indian covering 14,000 miles in three months.
Fascinated by that level of endurance, Lonnie wondered if motorcycle legends like Erwin could make those miles without roads, why couldn’t riders today do so on the pavement with the same bikes.
Fascinated by that level of endurance, Lonnie wondered why, if motorcycle legends like Baker could make those miles without even a road, riders today couldn’t do it with the same bikes, on actual pavement. So in 2010, he created the Motorcycle Cannonball. Named after the motopioneer who inspired it and stretching 3,300 miles coast to coast, the endurance run, joined by his friends and other collectors on their pre-1916 rides, was designed to prove that antique motorcycles are still road-ready despite being welded and wired more than 100 years ago. They came, and the word spread. What started as a once-in-a-lifetime gathering is now a biennial event bringing together the antique motorcycle community for the trek across the Two Lane back roads of America.
Since that first year, riders from all over the world have shown up religiously to put their bikes up for the challenge. In the six years between his first Cannonball and his untimely passing, Lonnie led more than 400 riders coast to coast. Routes have covered ground from Kitty Hawk to Santa Monica, New York to California, Florida to Washington, and New Jersey to California. Cannonball’s fifth run was in September. More than 100 riders, this year on pre-1929 bikes, caught the crosswinds on 3750 miles of back roads from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon.
“As a collector myself, I sympathize with people’s fear about taking these motorcycles out of the garage, fretting about chipped paint, bugs on the headlights, or gas caps popping off.” explains Lonnie Sr. “You have to remember though, these motorcycles aren’t baseball cards meant for safekeeping. In reality, they were built to be run hard.”
It’s for this reason, Lonnie made Cannonball not a race, but an endurance run. He established a point system for miles traveled without breaking for maintenance and for making it to the checkpoint on time. Every mile is worth a point with the total points equaling the total number of miles for that year’s race. (Yes, there are perfect scores each year!)
Lonnie organized hosted stops in small towns along the designated route to give the rider’s stiff backs and windburned faces temporary relief. This tradition allows participants to park, talk to the kids, and swap stories with other riders in the community before the kickstands go up and continuing on the run.
“The community stops remind me of the old days when people would come out to see traveling performers,” explains veteran rider and Cannonball’s official photographer, Felicia Morgan. “These meetups offer a glimpse back to a time when life was lived at a much slower pace. The motorcycles are traveling, functioning time capsules. A rolling museum if you will that appeals to people of all ages.”
Having all these riders together brings much-deserved attention to these incredible machines, but it also sparks new friendships in the motorcycle community. Though they may start out as strangers, the Cannonballers look out for each other, determined to see every rider complete the run no matter what comes down the road.
“Lonnie was always worrying about the safety and satisfaction of the riders,” says his father. “He kept a close eye on the daily scores, and would frett over weather conditions or tricky terrain ahead, but he never trembled. He was able to ride 71 miles of the 2016 race on the 1915 Harley he originally sold (and bought back for 2016) in order to be able to fund the first Cannonball in 2010 — a pretty remarkable feat, since doctors had told him he’d not even live to see the year 2016. Even up until his last riding days, Lonnie was on the road with the other riders, Lonnie was in the lines with the other riders in triple-degree heat, holding umbrellas over them on the side of the road repairing their bikes. A true man of passion and endurance.”
The 2018 Cannonball was the first run without its founding father. To keep his memory alive, Lonnie’s parents gave urns to distinguished riders to carry with them as a way to honor the man who started it all. Riders were welcome to do what they chose — some opting to scatter his ashes along the route where riders broke down, knowing that’s where Lonnie would choose to be – wrench in hand, working to get the rider and bike back between the lines.
Lonnie’s driving motivation was to get ancient iron back onto the road and his legacy continues, allowing collectors to show off the ingenuity, appeal, and craftsmanship of these incredible machines that still have many miles left on their tires.
“I consider it an honor to have had Lonnie as a mentor and friend,” says Mike. “It’s people like him and John Parham, who inspire me to continue with my own motorcycle preservation work. But their influence extends much further than bikes. It’s about creating something that lasts beyond yourself because those we touch during our lifetime will continue to carry out our passions. When we have the courage to build something bigger, to move the needle and make a mark…even when we are gone we are never forgotten.”
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Photos provided by Motorcycle Cannonball