Milwaukee, Wis., Feb. 22–24—The Mama Tried motorcycle show is, according to their website, “an indoor invitational that connects motorcycles and builders to fans and riders.” What the website doesn’t tell you is how much fun is crammed into an extended weekend of all things motorcycle set right at the tail end of the dreary winter doldrums, which is only part of why this event is so wildly popular.
The residents of Milwaukee are nothing if not supportive of anything that gets them out of the house and on two wheels and though February is not known as a particularly good month for riding in the motorcycle metropolis, the opportunity to get out to socialize while checking out killer customs is a pretty good substitute, especially when those customs are from different countries, built from every marque made, in every configuration imaginable. The show features race bikes, antiques, choppers, bobbers and just about anything a creative motorcycle maniac could come up with. And while other show promoters are busily trying to figure out the magic formula to attract younger builders and attendees, Mama Tried founders Warren Heir Jr. and Scott Johnson seem to be bothered by neither of these factors since builders, riders, fans and fanatics of all ages pack the buildings wherever its promoters have hung a shingle over the last five years.
The venue has certainly skipped around town, which just adds to the uniqueness of the show. For the 2018 iteration, the guys chose the Eagles Ballroom of the Rave/Eagles Club, a Milwaukee landmark consisting of a four-story granite block building built in 1926 that is reportedly haunted. The assemblage of custom creations sprawled across the wooden floor of the elegant old ballroom was incredible. The room is decorated with purple-painted pillars accented with intricate gold-painted trim that speaks to the colorful history of the dignified old building and was nothing less than magnificent. Something about seeing the juxtaposition of motorcycles graced by such a quirky yet sophisticated backdrop just made it all the more cool.
Crowds packed the 25,000-square-foot room to the point that actually viewing the bikes was almost impossible if you attended on Saturday morning but the energy and excitement vibe was impossible to ignore. The show features around 100 builders of all genres of motorcycle and has traditionally been set up in the warehouse district where attendees lapped the building for blocks trying to get through the ticket line. The last venue was an abandoned warehouse that included exposed brick walls and a creaky old equipment elevator that groaned its way to the top floor where bikes were displayed in the dank old space and lighting was exceptionally crappy. It was the perfect environment for the popular bike show but none of that mattered to the city of Milwaukee’s permits department, which has given promoters no end of grief.
“We were denied permits for temporary occupancy by the city of Milwaukee. No going around them. ‘No more warehouse parties,’ says the city. Not for us or for anyone else,” explained promoter Heir. But the Rave/Eagles Club seems to be a good fit and comes with none of the paperwork headaches attached to the warehouses. “The venue was great!” Heir continued. “We have to work out some kinks, of course, and yes, we would like to return for sure! The best part for me was seeing everyone having such a good time. Seems like the show has become a small part of a larger week gathering, and I love that. It’s more of a social thing.”
With bike night at the Harley-Davidson Museum featuring mini-bike races and an official pre-party that included a Q&A session with builders to kick off the festivities on Thursday night, the weekend rolled easily into Flat Out Friday flat track races on Friday night before the bike show. The parties, however, were spread out all over town every night with the Atomic Punks playing Turner Hall. The Fuel Café was packed to the rafters with rowdy riders who launched their mini bikes off the bar top and into the crowd. Nick’s Anvil Inn, a self-described dive bar that’s only open one night a week, had standing room only and partiers spilled out onto the sidewalks out front. Across town the Iron Horse Hotel had a burlesque show that featured a gal clad in steel lingerie that shot sparks across the bar from the grinder applied to her panties.
Now if all that stuff isn’t fun enough, there are flat track races to scream over on Friday night. Created by Jeremy Prach, a school teacher in between his promoting career, racers of all ages are turned loose on a track sprayed with Dr. Pepper syrup for a rowdy night of race track thrills. Top it all off with the antics from the very animated AMA pro flat track racing flagger legend, Kevin Clark, and the whole affair turns into a must-do night of racing mayhem, and some 11,000 attendees turned out for the fun. When we asked Jeremy if he intended to organize the wacky pre-race fun like the “Boonie” exhibition races held at the Harley-Davidson Museum again next year, he played coy. “Maybe. We’ll just keep people guessing,” was the reply. And that is exactly what is expected from the Mama Tried/Flat Out Friday crew: Surprises!
Mama Tried is simply an opportunity to see some remarkable bikes as well as some of the more recognizable faces in the industry, including Willie G. Davidson and his family. With Harley-Davidson as the official presenting sponsor, it’s no surprise to see members of motorcycling’s royal family, Willie G. and Nancy, out and about, posing for photos with beaming fans. Attendance continues to grow, with 8,000 fans coming out the see the invite-only bike show that awards no trophies because there is no competition. Mama Tried really is all about the bikes and the builders who create them. And there were some great builders. For example, Enrico de Haas of Huttenberg, Germany, presented his chopper, an all-electric bike with the motor hidden in what one assumes is the oil bag. It’s a work of art named AISi9Mg due to the aluminum it’s built from. Notorious badass, chopper-building Dalton Walker from California’s central valley, brought his “Fresno” Panhead, and Dan Rognsvoog commemorated his 20 years of custom bike building by showing off his 1972 turbo Shovelhead. Antique legend Michael Lange entered a bike and The Hogslayer; a notable Norton race bike, was tended by its legendary rider T.C. Christensen. But this is by no means a concise list of outstanding builds. Each one was unique and interesting.
When Thunder Press reached out to the promoters for information on what to expect for 2019, Warren Heir, Jr. replied with an expected and predictably cryptic quote: “We always have new ideas, thoughts and crazy plans. Gotta keep them on the down low for now, though. Guess you will just have to wait and see!” And since this is arguably one of the best bike shows of the year, that’s just exactly what we’ll do.