canyon

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.

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Lonnie Jr. doing some repairs on a motorcycle

“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.

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Lonnie Jr. with his first Indian and nine-years-old

“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.

Cannonball-Baker-Motorcycle-Cannonball-1916-Indian-Powerplus-Antique-Motorcycle
Erwin “Cannonball” Baker

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.

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Cannonballers riding their antique bikes

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.”

Harley man making his way down the road/ Mike's friend Vinny ready to ride
Harley man making his way down the road/ Mike’s friend Vinny ready to ride

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.

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Cannonballers arrive for a traditional community meetup

“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.

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Antique motorcycle riders repairing their bikes

“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.”

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Sidecar leads a pack of Cannonballers safely across the bridge

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.

Mike's friend Frank who won Cannonball that year/ Hand-painted Harley
Mike’s friend Frank who won Cannonball that year/ Hand-painted Harley

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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John Parham/ Lonnie Jr. National Motorcycle Museum

Learn more about how to participate in the Cannonball Run

Follow Cannonball Run on Instagram and Facebook

Follow Two Lanes on Instagram for more back road travel inspiration

Photos provided by Motorcycle Cannonball

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19 Comments

19 thoughts on “The Man Behind The Toughest Motorcycle Ride In America”

  1. David DiBona, Plymouth Ma.

    What a great Guy. The story was great.
    Sad though. Are Lonnie’s Parents still alive? The story sounds like he is.
    Makes you wonder why God allows some BAD people to live long lives…(Maybe to punish them for their wrong doings),
    while others like Lonnie, who left us way too soon, nurtured the relationships of people around him, and started a
    movement that encompasses hundreds of men and women with a passion for Motorcycles that so many enjoy.
    I have two Muscle cars 442’s…65 convert, and a 1970 , 442 coupe, Raced both, took trips to Daytona in one, and
    up to the rest area at Mount Washington in NH on Opening day at New England Dragway (The strip was closed .
    .light rain and cold as a Harley riders belt buckle on a January Day in Sturgis.
    God Bless you Lonnie.

    The friends you made will remember you forever,…… as we will, for reading this great story.

    D

    1. Felicia Morgan

      Yes, David, Lonnie Sr and Marianne Isam are both still alive and trying to cope with life without their beloved son. ..and asking the same questions you posed.. to which there is no answer. For the rest of us, we just feel blessed to have known their wonderful only child and grateful for the experiences he shared. His memory lives on in the incredible antiques that he loved so much since there’s no way to see a Silent Greyfellow, Flying Merkel, or any other remarkable old machine without thinking of Lonnie, Jr. His legacy lives on.

  2. David Howington

    That’s a really great story. I just pray there are more young people like Mike and Lonnie growing up today. America needs young people with that kind of heart for old Americana.

  3. David DiBona, Plymouth Ma.

    Hey David H: There are young people out there……. They keep haunting me to buy my Oldsmobiles!

    I cant get enough of that show.
    Driving from Plymouth Ma. to Naples Fla tomorrow, and I have 5 days to do it
    Going to do some picking of my own on the way down.
    Take Care

  4. Tom Babb

    RIP Lonnie. The 2016 Cannonball came through my area in Ohio. What a great experience it was for my wife and myself to see the bikes and talk to the riders, all of which were more than willing to talk about there bikes and their experiences on the road. My advice to anyone is if the Cannonball gets anywhere near you go and check it out.

  5. John Bellmore

    I had the pleasure of meeting Lonnie Jr and Lonnie Sr while working at Sturgis Harley-Davidson. They rebuilt the engine in my 1959 Servicar. At the time they had Competition Distributing on Lasalle St, where the Indian dealer is now. Lonnie jokingly told me he didn’t work on flatheads anymore and that my bike was too new as he only worked on 1939 and under. Taking a quick look around the shop and only seeing flat head engines including 2 Ford V8s. I asked if you don’t work on Flat heads anymore what are you going to do? He laughed and said bring it in. This was in late May early June. I asked if there was any chance my engine would be done in time for the August Rally. I got a resounding NO! A little disappointed but knowing what work load they had I took it in stride. Over the summer they called to keep me informed of what the engine needed and if I could find NOS parts thru the Harley network. The Rally came and went. Lonnie Jr called the Monday after the Rally to tell me my engine was done and had been for about 2 weeks wanting to know why I hadn’t picked it up. I told Jr that I would come pick it up Tuesday. When I picked up the engine I joked that Sr didn’t tell me the engine was ready because he didn’t want me to overheat it during the Rally with all the stop and go traffic. Besides with all the work we were doing at the dealership I would not have had time to do the install as carefully as it should have been. It took 2 weeks to slowly break in the new engine a little at a time. It got better and better every day. By the time it was ready for normal running the old girl would climb thru Vannocker Canyon in second gear. Quite a feat since before rebuild I had to be in first gear and creep alone in the breakdown lane and shoulder. Anyone that has been out there knows that both Vannocker & Boulder Canyon have up to 10 percent grades to climb. For a 28 horsepower 6.5 to 1 compression engine pulling a full bodied Servicar with a 200 pound rider that says a lot. My thanks go to them for a wonderful job on my bike and the work they do with the Cannonball. Oh by the way during the 2016, I think, Cannonball layover in Sturgis they opened their shop to the riders and crews to repair/rebuild the bikes as needed. They also put out quite a spread of food for everyone. No charge except for the new parts needed, NO labor charges. Thank You.

    1. John Bellmore

      Looking back it was either 2011 or 2013 that Lonnie Sr &Jr redid my bike. It was a non Cannonball year. The year after it was rebuilt I got some great pictures of Scott Jacobs, his wife Sharron, and their two beautiful daughters as the race came thru Sturgis. Alexa and Olivia posed with my bike on Main Street. Great fun and great family.

  6. Malcolm Boyes

    You are lucky to have shared such a great friendship and passion..thank you for sharing it here for us the enjoy.Lets hope future generations will be inspired bu folks like Lonnie and Mike to carry on these traditions. I feel the same way about vintage cars (BTW Mike..I also have a 66 VW split screen single cab like yours!)

  7. Russ

    Been Riding most of my life, now 70, converted my huffy radio bike to my first motorcycle and taste of freedom at 7 yr old. A lot of experimenting, bought my first one at 13 working before school, (had to hide it from my Dad) a chopper with Apes and knobby tires if you can believe that.
    Getting out of the service in ’69 one of Fonda’s movies of him pushing a chopper out onto a Venice Beach sidewalk re kindled the fire.
    Todays stable is a Bagger loaded and a very lean chopper my favorite for the past 30 years.
    I live in southeast Wisconsin and those backroads still carry the spirit of those early 1900 riders.
    Great article
    Thanks
    Russ

  8. Ron

    Your story reminds me of the stories my dad would tell me of him and a friend riding From Elgin Illinois to San Antonio, Texas in 1925/26 (he was born 1900) with a friend. He was proudly driving an Indian and traveling on Rt #66 when the “concrete” ran out, I think it was around Joliet, Illinois and travel was via “dirt/sand” roads. This story was told to me when he was teaching me how to ride a bike in the “sands” of central Wisconsin. He also had lost a “finger” to that bike doing maintenance when he caught it in the chain. Thanks for bringing up those past thoughts of my father and his bike. Somewhere I still have a photo of him and that “Indian” in his life.

  9. Dave hess

    Great article. I can feel Mike’s passion for old bikes everytime I hear him speak of them.Thanks for the story.PS I never ,ever miss Pickers!Watch them over and over .Gotta be one of their biggest fans.

  10. Jeff Coffman

    A great story about a wonderful man….His dreams turned into a reality enabling hundreds of enthusiasts a chance to not only build a historic machine but to actually ride them across this marvelous country…His legacy shall live forever…A man I am proud to call my friend….I miss him every day….God Bless you Lonnie…..

  11. Andy Penhall

    Loved the story back here in Australia we have the old bikers too they travel the highways at weekends swap meets as well meet up for bbqs my sister and her husband out and about on their old bikes once a year they do a toy run where thousands of toys are donated for the disadvantaged very successful run its great to see communities get involved

  12. John Jordan

    great to see old motor bike like this and the story was great and his passion for old motor bike JOHN FROM PERTH AUSTRALIA

  13. Greg Allen

    As a sponsor of the 2016 and 2018 Cannonballs
    I rode all the miles as a sponsor I am thankful for Lonnies vision. I am certain Lonnie is proud of Jason Sims for his incredible success in following Lonnies vision.It’s a pleasure to be a part of this Cannonball family yes family. Every two years the Cannonball becomes a family reunion. This reunion is like a batch of fudge mostly sweet with a few nuts and some crazy cousins. Some have been to every Cannonball. I am looking forward to 2020. Greg Allen, Greg Allen Insurance. Marshall Michigan.

  14. Alice F. black

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY MIKE WOLFE. WATCHYOUR PROGRAM ONTV ALL THE TIME. PLAN TO COME TO NASHVILLE AND CHECK OUT THE STORE. I AM 76 YEARS OLD AND SOME OF THE THINGS YOU BUY ON THERE I HAVE NEVER SEEN. HOPE THAT I CAN MEET YOU AND DANILLE AND FRANK SOMETIME.

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