In order to truly understand the spirit of the Motorcycle Cannonball, you have to first know the man who initially struck the spark of interest in the antique motorcycle wildfire that has burned its way around the world. When Lonnie sent out calls to antique riding friends to join him for a run to traverse the nation on their ancient machinery back in 2010, he’d planned to do so from the springy seat of his personal 1916 Harley-Davidson right along-side the 45 riders who had signed up for the first-ever Motorcycle Cannonball Run. Applicants for the endurance run could ride any marque of their choosing, but machines had to be 1916 or older. The excitement of the coast-to-coast ride captured the imagination of motorcyclists everywhere as the group prepared for their fall departure. Lonnie and his crew laid out the course, booked events, arranged hotels and made ready while he watched his bank account dwindle. The event was never designed to make money; it was just a grand plan to get geriatric bikes back to their glory days of life in the wind. Lonnie loved old motorcycles and felt it was shameful that machines were tucked away in stodgy old museums instead of chugging along the countryside. He felt they long ago earned their right to live as they were intended, being ridden. As the Grand Start grew near, the rookie promoter realized he didn’t have the resources to make the cross-country journey. The overhead of two years of organizing the ride was much more than he’d budgeted for and Lonnie came to a hard realization: he’d have to sell his motorcycle to fund the expedition. He quietly sold his antique and made arrangements to ride the route on a modern bike so he could be available to help riders on the difficult course. He alternately traveled with sweep vehicles to pick up disabled motorcycles along the route and he worked to keep riders on the road, enjoying the ride he’d always dreamed of making. Lonnie liked walking the pits at night, visiting with riders, hearing about the performances of the individual bikes. He loved the camaraderie of the riders and the smell of grease and old iron as test laps were made through parking lots. He’d help with advice, twisting wrenches, lining up tools or parts for trade while keeping an eye on the daily scores and fretting with staff over weather patterns or tricky terrain. The dutiful organizer stood with an umbrella over riders as they worked on cantankerous machines and listened to road stories from struggling jockeys. He was selfless in his commitment to riders and even though he was sleep-deprived and exhausted, he thrived. By run’s end, riders were discussing the next ride. Lonnie had intended the Cannonball to be a one-time event, yet after arriving home broke and worn out, the phone was ringing off the hook. Riders wanted to follow him across America again.
By 2012, there was a second run, and another in 2014, after which it was a foregone conclusion that there would be a 2016. Then the unspeakable happened. Lonnie was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors predicted he wouldn’t live to see the next Cannonball. He arranged to turn the enterprise over to Sturgis resident Jason Sims and focused on treatment. By the time riders began arriving in Atlantic City for the 2016, however, Lonnie was taking shakedown laps through the parking lot on his original 1916 Harley. He had bought the bike back from the guy he’d sold it to where it had been sitting, untouched, since Lonnie sold it in 2010. His father, Lonnie Sr., helped his namesake get the machine road worthy and, six years after the first run, the founder of the most difficult antique motorcycle endurance ride in the world would finally get to ride with his friends on a 100-year old bike during his own Motorcycle Cannonball Run.
In poor health, no one was sure how many miles Lonnie Jr. might make, but it didn’t matter. Following along as support, his parents were by his side and ready to go the distance. If Junior was up to the entire 3,306-mile ride, so were they. He rode 71-miles in triple-degree oppressive heat on the first day, spent some time helping the sweep vehicles with disabled bikes and hung out in the pits for a few days before returning home to watch the run play out through social media and online reports while tending to his declining health. Proving doctors wrong, Lonnie fought hard for 31-months after the initial diagnosis and showed us all what class, determination and endurance really means. The Motorcycle Cannonball Run will continue on in his honor.
Since the first Motorcycle Cannonball run in 2010, antique motorcycle riders from around the world have anxiously signed up to follow Lonnie Isam Jr. across the United States on a unique journey that many have described as “life changing.” Before his passing in August of 2017, Lonnie had already passed the Cannonball torch to Jason Sims and had guided him through the rough patches of the 2016 iteration. Lonnie felt confident that Sims understood the heart of the endurance run that he’d founded, and that Jason would carry on in his stead.
With the New Year upon us and the initial preparations of the 2018 Motorcycle Cannonball Run laid out, Jason Sims stands with that torch lit and ready to spark the fuse on one of the most exciting Cannonball runs yet.
As for Jason’s qualifications, how can that be judged? The fact that Lonnie handpicked the man to fill his shoes should be enough, but that is not the way of things. Does the South Dakota native’s love of motorcycles since the age of five count? Or the passion he felt for his favorite 1947 Knucklehead? How about the time he spent serving our country as law enforcement in the United States Air Force when he traveled through 18 countries on sensitive missions… does that qualify a man to lead riders on antique motorcycles across the country? Or maybe the fact that he is so committed to the Cannonball that he sold his electrical integration company in order to dedicate himself to running the Motorcycle Cannonball full time. Does any of that matter when weighing the pros and cons of planning an epic event like a transcontinental bike run? Of course it does. All of it matters. For the husband and father of four, the dedication of carrying on Lonnie’s dream of sharing the back roads of America with antique buffs from around the world is a responsibility he does not take lightly.
“I met Lonnie back in 2008 but he was always so busy I just started showing up to hang out at his shop,” says the 42-year-old Sturgis resident. “He invited me to ride in the 2012 Cannonball, and I was on the waiting list, but I didn’t have enough time to get a bike ready.” Instead, as co-owner of the Glencoe Campground, Sims hosted riders to a barbecue at the property during the day of rest in Sturgis on the 2012 run. The discussion about partnering turned earnest and by 2014 Jason was excited to ride his 1934 Harley-Davidson VLD. And that was it. The Cannonball bug bit Jason hard.
With Lonnie’s illness, Jason stepped up to fill in the gaps and he rode every mile of the 2016 and 2018 routes alongside Cannonball riders on his modern 2016 Indian Chieftain as director of operations. Now, as the September 2020 plans are being finalized, changes are being considered and rules are being addressed, all with strict consideration to what Lonnie would have wanted for the future of his beloved run.
To Lonnie, the Cannonball was about the love of old bikes, the integrity of the riders, and the challenge to get their antiques across the back roads of our majestic country. As for Jason, he’s quite prepared to carry out his friend’s vision while facing the complexities of a world-famous motorcycling event. “I feel really honored to continue the Motorcycle Cannonball with Lonnie’s inspiration and vision. It’s humbling, actually. But then, Lonnie knew I feel the same kind of passion about this run as he did. He had faith in me and he knew I’m going to give it my all. There’s no way I’m going to let him down.” With a full field of 100 riders for the 2020 ride and a waiting list that stretches into 2022, it looks like the future of the Motorcycle Cannonball is on solid ground.
LeeAnn handles the everyday administration and management of the Motorcycle Cannonball and the Cross Country Chase. With Jason taking over the Cannonball daily operations in 2016, she recognized a serious need for the lodging and travel portion of the event, and launched a travel business extension, appropriately named “Cannonball Travel,” strictly to meet this important need, and to be able to secure vital discounts for the group’s cross country adventure. During a typical Cannonball event, she books approximately 3,000 hotel rooms.
LeeAnn has worked in the Human Services Profession for over 18 years, and holds a Master’s degree in Counseling. She currently works full-time in Human Resources.
LeeAnn has hobbies during the short period known as off-peak race season, such as reading, gardening, and brunching with friends, though her dedication to the Cannonball & Cross Country Chase leaves her little time for those activities these days. As such, she spends a lot of her time tending to the continual and real-time needs that such a large number of participants, and their understandable concerns & questions, present on a daily basis.
In case you’re wondering about saying thanks, or just what it takes to keep her going, she likes her Coffee Black, her Coke Zero, and Pineapple Margaritas Spicy.
Jason and LeeAnn share four beautiful adult children who have grown up and spread their wings, but help with the family businesses as they can.
John Classen returns for the 6th time as Course Master for the 2021 Motorcycle Cannonball. Since the inception of the Motorcycle Cannonball in 2010, John has been instrumental in laying out the challenging rides and incredible sights along the course for the Cannonballers.
2019 brought a new challenge for John, the Cross Country Chase, where his navigation took competitors on some of the best, two-lane back roads of America from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Key West, Florida. He awed riders again in the 2021 event, Mini Chase: Secrets of the Ozarks, that took riders through the most scenic and exciting roads of the Ozarks.
Other than his role of Motorcycle Cannonball and Cross Country Chase Course Master, John Classen has been the Great Race Director of Competition since 1990. He got his start in road rallying in the Sports Car Club of America rally program, in which he won several National Championships in the 1970s and ’80s. For the inaugural Great Race in 1983, founder Tom McRae asked local SCCA regions to provide a route through their territory. The southern California region picked Classen to write the route from the Official Start at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park to the Arizona border.
The next 5 years, Classen was a Great Race competitor, winning the Grand Championship one year and finishing second another. He also navigated for Curtis Graf for several of those years. Graf and Classen are the only two persons who have participated in every Great Race.
In 1989, Tom McRae asked Classen to assist with Race operations, and the next year hired him to be Director of Competition, a position he has held ever since. Classen has written every Great Race from 1990 through 2021, and with his wife Rachel Simon driving, he has run lead car on each of those events.