Building bikes and loyalty
Milwaukee, Wis., Aug. 29–Sep. 2—The Motor Company sent out a world-wide invitation to all riders, from any corner of the globe on any marque, to come to their hometown to help them celebrate over 115 years of motorcycle manufacturing and enthusiasts made ready to heed the call. To kick off the festivities, descendants of the first family in motorcycling led a cross-country excursion from the West Coast with H.O.G. friends and family in tow and joined up with even more adventurists along the route. The Harley Owners Group was celebrating a milestone of their own with 35 years of fellowship, and members from around the nation took to the highways to meet up to travel together. The growing pack got too big to ride safely as a group so smaller packs splintered off and continued the transcontinental journey to Wisconsin. Arriving in Milwaukee to the cheers of well-wishers after more than 2,000 miles, Karen Davidson, her husband, Regional H.O.G. Manager J.T. Halsey, and the rest of the clan dropped their kickstands at the Harley-Davidson Museum as Willie G. and Nancy greeted their daughter and her entourage with smiles and hugs. Not a bad way to get a biker party started, but by the time the road dust had settled some five days later, there wasn’t a biker-themed activity that hadn’t been consumed by the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the heart of motorcycling’s holy land.
It can be stated with absolute sincerity that no other city in the world is as motorcycle friendly as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and as such, visitors to the home of Harley-Davidson are rewarded for their dedication to the manufacturer by such iconic activities as tours of the original headquarters on Juneau, trips to the seven different local dealerships, visits to the Harley-Davidson Museum, and tours to outlying factories that are offered on any given weekend during the year. But for this celebration, fun stuff like hill climb competitions, beach races, run-what-ya-brung races, a huge moto-carnival, an indoor flat track race, live bands and street parties were added to the must-do list. There were rides scheduled all week, including some police-escorted excursions, and for a price, even a city-wide parade was planned out for anyone who wanted to party like a rock star. And most everyone did. The parties in Milwaukee spilled out into outlying communities and enthusiasts from around the globe converged to celebrate the longevity of the most famous motorcycle brand in the world. If you weren’t there to do a burnout with the rest of us Harley addicts, you certainly missed out on a good one.
The official free kickoff party on Wednesday was across town at the waterfront Veterans Park where skydivers gracefully touched down and set off a series of presentations as the Davidson family took the stage to greet guests to their beloved city. A confetti-packed cannon exploded into the crowd and the resulting rain of Harley’s iconic black and orange colors would have made Wall Street proud as the thrilled attendees cheered Harley-Davidson’s 115 years of continuous motorcycling building. The party at the park raged on all week with various bike shows and a steady fare of carnival acts. Rhett Rotten welcomed lines of fans to his Wall of Death, the Urias Family Daredevils circled their Globe of Death to the thrill of onlookers, and the world’s only all-female motorcycle circus gals showed off their incredible ability to pop wheelies and stun crowds on a trapeze wire overhead during the Circus Una Motorcycle Thrill Show. Besides the Ferris wheel and mechanical hog, you could have your bike Dyno tuned or get catapulted into the air on the bungee slingshot. Our group found our thrills by taking a helicopter ride over the shores of Lake Michigan so we could check out the racetrack being built just down the road by the guys from TROG.
Later in the week, the guys from The Race of Gentlemen hosted the Bradford Beach Brawl races and for the first time in over 100 years the sound of rapped-out engines struggling against the sand echoed through the stands to the delight of the gathered race junkies. This hugely popular race is an activity that should be revived, in our opinion, since it was nothing but straight-up good fun. Situated right on the shoreline and infused with a bit of nostalgia, the Davidson family mingled with fans to enjoy an afternoon reminiscent of a bygone era of motorsports. As a juxtaposition, Flat Out Friday flat track races were held indoors at the Panther Arena where handlebar-banging race action was done on a concrete track that was spewed with Dr. Pepper soda syrup. Friday’s street party out front started early in the day and included a whiskey bar, food and vendors all being serenaded by live music.
Rain throughout the week threatened to terminate planned activities like the hill climbs, but thrill seekers stayed undaunted and climbed the slick, rain-soaked mountain despite a slight delay in scheduling out in Little Switzerland. Brave contenders and fervored fans both conquered the massive muddy mountain to watch the hottest action in vertical racing. Competitions were topped off by a vintage class that, in keeping with the nostalgia of the week, included 1940 machines and older. Meanwhile, over in Kenosha County, the run-what-ya-brung races at the famed “biggest little track in the world” in the Town of Paris was a flurry of speed demons doin’ their thing. The Great Lakes Dragway has long been home to quarter-mile drag racing fanatics and the stories of “back in the day” drags circulated while racers took their time in the pits to wrench and make ready to launch their machines off the Christmas tree’s flash.
Our clan enjoyed a stay at the ever-popular Iron Horse Hotel (theironhorsehotel.com) where nicely-appointed rooms provided all the creature comforts a weary road dog could ask for. In addition, the hotel hosted their own brand of fun scheduled throughout the week, including an art show and presentation by the famous biker photog, Michael Lichter. Bands set up outside on the patio for live music and served as a meeting place for food and drinks and we ran into the Accident Scene Management clan led by Vicki Sanfelipo who were gathered to celebrate the new classes being offered at roadguardians.org/schedule. Since the H-D museum is within walking distance of the hotel, it was an easy commute to check out the nonstop activities across the way where Willie G. and the rest of the family were seen chatting with visitors all weekend.
There were several rides scheduled to both start and end at the museum and we were on deck as the very popular Milwaukee Rally Women’s Ride departed with a police escort from the H-D Museum. Registration for the run celebrating women riders was sold out a mere two hours after opening, topping off with 115 ladies accompanied by 15 more volunteers to tend the procession. Karen Davidson enthusiastically delivered an empowering speech to the gathered ladies before they wound their way through Milwaukee and out into Waukesha Country countryside for a buffet lunch at AJ’s in Muskego. Gloria Tramontin Struck was at the museum for a signing of her new book, Gloria—A Lifetime Motorcyclist: 75 Years on Two Wheels and Still Riding, but took time away to greet the group before they took off for the afternoon. Gloria immediately made a new friend. Sue O’Grady had come all the way from England to pursue her goal of riding all the states of America. She and Gloria hit it off and chatted about their shared love of riding before the ladies saddled up for a day of fun as Gloria returned to her booth at the museum’s Chrome arena. Other vendors at the museum included the famous Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run set up next to California’s hip gig Born Free, artist David Uhl, and a long list of other motorcycle-themed sellers but the most surprising was the display of new model Harleys set up like an outdoor showroom of sparkly motorcycles. There was nothing subtle about the sales pitch.
By the time the parade participants were lined up and ready to spill into the streets of Milwaukee on Sunday morning, Veterans Park was closed due to the saturation of rain that flooded the lawns and more rain was predicted. Thousands of motorcyclists from all around the world positioned themselves to proudly join the historical motorcade honoring the longevity of not just the motorcycle brand, but of the beloved family of Davidsons, too. The miles-long, several-bikes-wide procession motored through the city for over an hour as people crowded the streets to slap hands with riders from around the world in congratulations and respect. Every country imaginable was represented as H.O.G. riders from such places as Mexico, the Philippines, Ireland, England and more flew their club flags and wore traditional garb to proudly display their heritage, proving out the far-reaching effects of Harley-Davidson’s ability to bring countries and people together as a group. No other notable family avails themselves so generously to their public, hosts regular events and celebrations and invites the world to their front door as motorcycling’s first family does. It’s the Davidson’s warm hospitality and genuine love of people that keeps riders coming back to celebrate the brand’s milestones. And while the future of motorcycling as a whole continues to be in question, there is no denying the remarkable past of the machines we love so much. For information about the next big party at the museum, go to harley-davidson.com/museum.