S&S Cycle: Rumble at the Ranch
After 60 years of showing how to make motorcycles make more power, what better way to celebrate than to put on a show loaded with powerful motorcycles?
On Sunday, September 23, that’s exactly what S&S Cycle did with the Rumble at the Ranch flat track racing event on a brand-new track at the ancestral home of S&S Cycle, Viola, WI.
Starting in the early 1950s, George Smith, Sr., developed and built components and engines that worked better than most comparable products. Smith’s 1939 EL Harley-Davidson was the show case for his skill as a designer and tuner and its performance got noticed.
The Harley’s displacement was boosted from 61 cubic inches to 80 and the machine became known as “Tramp.” With it, Smith became a dominant competitor in motorcycle drag racing in the Chicago area.
Stanley Stankos, a competitor and friend of Smith’s was also making headlines at the strip and together they created S&S Cycle in 1958.
In 1959, Smith bought out Stankos’ share of the enterprise and Smith’s wife, Marge joined as a partner. Initially, high performance internal engine components were the heart of the product line. By 1966, S&S introduced its first carburetor. Operations were moved to Viola in 1969.
In 1969, S&S Cycle made its debut at Bonneville with a run of 202.379 MPH with a Sportster-based partial streamliner. In 1970, George Smith, Sr., joined engine specialist Warner Riley, and Harley-Davidson factory racing team members Dick O’brien, Harvey Pohland, Clyde Denzer, and designer/fabricator Denis Manning to build a Sportster engine-powered streamliner for Cal Rayborn.
The effort paid off with a new motorcycle world land speed record of 265.492 MPH. The achievement was a watershed event for both companies and assured a long-term relationship between S&S Cycle and Harley-Davidson.
Prototype engine work for Harley-Davidson ensued for S&S in the 1970s, while the company continued to market its own product line that included camshafts by 1977. Success on the salt continued, as well, with S&S setting records in the partial streamliner class with Tramp III.
In 1997, S&S began to market complete engines, while continuing to expand its line of high-performance parts. In 2007, S&S introduced the X-wedge engine, which is today featured as the powerplant for the Morgan 3-wheeler built in the UK.
Today, S&S Cycle has become one of Wisconsin’s signature industrial success stories and an iconic brand wherever high-performance motorcycles are the subject.
Racing on the quarter mile oval dirt track was something of an achievement in itself considering the Kickapoo river that flows nearby in the same valley has been up out of its banks more than once this summer, including the most recent flooding only a couple of weeks before the event.
S&S VP of Marketing David Zemla spoke with us on Saturday and Sunday, despite having a packed schedule as he coordinated last-minute preparations ranging from the S&S products showcase tent, port-a-potties and portable grandstands to racer registration, sound systems and overall event operations. In addition, he took the time to do an e-mail interview for us. Here’s what he had to say:
UMC: Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to cover the Custom Bike Build-off that was part of S & S Cycle’s 50th Anniversary celebration held up in La Crosse, WI. The S & S website has a great timeline on key product developments since 2008, but perhaps you could provide some background on the company itself in terms of its overall growth, structure and perhaps any insight you could provide on what may be next for the company.
David Zemla: S&S Cycle continues its focus on V-Twin performance parts, which has driven much of our current growth, we’ve also added a complete exhaust line (manufactured in our La Crosse facility) and expanded our intake product collection. Several years ago, we also partnered with Indian, helped develop their championship winning flat track program and have several other projects in play. Going forward you can expect to see us building high performance parts for UTV’s and other powersports categories.
UMC: The close relationship between S & S and Harley-Davidson is of long standing but the reach of S & S products and technology is evidently expanding. What has been the role of S & S in putting Royal Enfield in the Bonneville land speed record books and in the success of Indian Flat Track racing efforts?
David Zemla: With substantial experience in the space, S&S Cycle was recruited to support the Royal Enfield Bonneville efforts and focused on engine development and tuning, as well as on-site support during the event. From the onset, RE came to us with a record in mind and we achieved exactly that. Working with Indian was a similar scenario in that they came to us with winning as a priority. S&S helped develop the FTR750 and continues to support Indian’s race efforts, with two championships already under their belt. Sensing a theme here?
UMC: At the Wisconsin Moto Guzzi Rider’s Rally I covered for Ultimate Motorcycling back in August, I saw a beautiful X-Wedge-powered Morgan. With tariffs being imposed here and in return, abroad, the current environment in international trade seems fraught with uncertainty. Could that impact S&S in its operations with customers like Morgan in the UK, and other potential buyers in the EU, Asia and outside the US in the western hemisphere?
David Zemla: We are watching the potential for tariff based challenges and anticipate pricing impact at some point.
UMC: You no doubt get hit with this question a lot and are probably tiring of it, but what kind of Wisconsin motorcyclist would I be if I didn’t ask? Has S&S considered building its own line of complete motorcycles or other complete end-user vehicles?
David Zemla: At this point we do not have a complete motorcycle in our future product plan. Our focus leans more towards supporting existing OEMs performance needs than it does competing against them.
UMC: The past 60 years has seen S&S emerge as one of Wisconsin’s great—if relatively unheralded—success stories. From the company’s perspective, what have been the most important advancements/developments in both product and the company itself of the past 10 years?
David Zemla: Couple of product lines stand out as key to the growth of S&S Cycle across the last decade, the first being cams. As cams are fairly involved to both design and manufacture this is a difficult product line to master. We have invested substantial dollars in modeling software, dyno testing and unique grinding equipment to help create the best of the best in performance cams. In fact, we put a new grinder online last year to keep up with demand and now manufacture for OEMS and other brands as well. Our in-house emissions lab is also key to our current and future success. One of only a few in the US and likely the only in the motorcycle aftermarket, our emissions lab has allowed S&S to leapfrog years ahead of the market in creating high performance and emissions compliant product. For example, our recently launched Sidewinder 2 into 1 exhaust for touring models makes more power in compliant form than it would as a traditional pipe.
Zemla was joined at the track by an army of S&S staff in making the Rumble and the Ranch a success. The event also had some star power in racing talent with 2017 and 2018 AMA American Flat Track Champion, Jared Mees on hand. In addition to his titles in the AFT series, Mees won the AMA Grand National Championship #1 title in 2012, 2014, and 2015, the AMA Grand National Twins Championship in 2009, and the Grand National Singles Championship in 2012. While Mees didn’t leather up and compete, he did take a new Indian FTR750 racer out on an exhibition lap.
Also on hand was Michelle DiSalvo who is a professional motorcycle builder and tuner as well as an exceptional racer. She made her debut in amateur racing events in 1985, turned pro in 1991, and achieved Expert ranking by 1995. In 1998, she earned AMA National Number 97 and competed in the Harley-Davidson Sportster Performance Series, becoming the top rider overall in 2000. She was the first woman to earn an AMA dirt track National Number 1.
DiSalvo took to the track and, despite some excellent riders in the fray, put on an absolute clinic of riding skill, easily winning the Women’s division.
The guest of honor, of course, was the Man himself, the eldest son of founding father of S&S, George J. Smith, George B. Smith, (who assumed leadership of the company after his father’s passing) who took in the races, greeted fans, long-time friends and associates, and personally presented the Founder’s Award to Michelle DiSalvo.
The event earned high praise from fans and competitors alike, with one theme being repeated by many: “Can we do this again next year?”
Here are the overall results, presented courtesy S&S:
Hooligan Shootout (modern high-performance flat-trackers):
Tank Shifter (very vintage flat-heads, etc.):
Women’s (modern high-performance flat-trackers):
Pit Bike Pillage (100s):
Boonie Bike Brawl (pull start—mini-bikes):