Milwaukee, Wis., July 7–10—There’s two things to do with bikes in Chicago: drink beer around them or work on them while drinking beer. Chicago is where taxable income, riding skills and scenic beauty go to die. Fortunately, while it may be cursed by its Illinois location, Chicago is as richly blessed by its proximity to Wisconsin—better beer and Milwaukee, in that order.
With escape plans in mind, my friend Chuck and I headed to The Wild Ones Weekend and Knucklehead Company Reunion at the Harley-Davidson Museum on the blessed weekend of July 7-10. Having been a Harley mechanic in Waukegan in the mid-80’s, Chuck at once embodies everything and nothing Harley. Eschewing branded clothing and gear unless it’s free, Chuck lives and breathes The Motor Company though not necessarily when embroidered on $400 jackets. So he’s right at home.
There were two main draws this weekend: drag bikes and Knuckleheads. While one class of motorcycle can make you see Jesus in less than 10 seconds flat, the other defines the majesty of His handiwork over several decades of time. Synergy, eh?
The drag-bike exhibit runs through September 5, but today belonged to the 14th annual Knucklehead Company Reunion and The Wild Ones rally. If the bikes themselves weren’t enough to look at, they livened up Saturday’s festivities further. Scores of Flatheads, Panheads and Ironheads (along with the odd Indian) all returned to their spiritual home to celebrate cheating mechanical death and to give a one-fingered salute to Father Time. Though dozens of vintage bikes are entered in Saturday’s Antique Bike Show, the spirit of competition is best understood when considering the entry fees go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Events like this make one wonder what the annual museum budget is for concrete degreaser. With oil stains the size of silver dollar pancakes under each magnificent specimen, they marked territory with justified pride. With blue skies above and an early run on High Life tallboys, spirits ran high among the several hundred in attendance.
When I first visited the museum years ago, I wondered why they had such a huge lawn out front. The reason became apparent this year as soon as we arrived, as field games organized by the AMCA Badger Heritage Chapter were in full swing with a wiffle ball game of sorts. Riders competed to hit a ball off a tee with a plastic bat. Mind you, they had to pick up the bat, hit the ball as far as possible, then put the bat back in a bucket, all while riding a bike without lowering a foot from the floorboards. Bat boys and girls kept the bats in circulation and the balls in play. Techniques varied, with some batting lefty, leaving the throttle hand free. But most opted to go right-handed, feathering the clutch for continued momentum. Someone probably won this event all official-like, but anyone busting a gut watching this with beer in hand was the real winner.
Elsewhere on the grounds, the State of Wisconsin Motorcycle Police Unit put on a truly impressive skills clinic. Making a 820-lb. bike pirouette through cones mere feet apart with a minimum of scraping is a sight to watch. Given the tragic events of Dallas just days before, their presence came against a backdrop of flags at half-staff. If any hard feelings existed between any “Wild Ones” and our boys in blue, you couldn’t tell on this day. Hell, “Oily” Olson even let one of the officers carve his name in the gas tank of his Knucklehead.
Who’s “Oily” Olson, you ask? That would be Craig “Oily” Olson, owner of a 1939 Knucklehead with near-perfect paint and finish. There are just a few hundred blemishes in the form of names carved by knife into the body, fenders and tank. A man with patina on his jacket to rival that of his bike, Oily’s third sentence to me was that I was going to “sign” his bike, too. Having owned his Knuck for over 33 years, his VIP parking reflected his stature in the Knuck community. After a short conversation, he handed me a knife to get to work. In typical rookie fashion, I chose the rustiest part of his rear fender, ensuring that my John Hancock was a mess of paint flakes and completely illegible. Shit.
Well, I tried.
Around the time I shamefully handed the blade back to Oily, a dirt bike incongruously started up, announcing the start of the Ives Brothers Cycle Globe of Death performance. In the spirit of cheating death, the Ives Brothers would be showing off their riding chops simultaneously inside their steel “globe.” Missing each other by mere inches, they even managed to hold hands while rocketing around their confines. A fellow spectator told me they’d earlier performed with an audience member inside, even managing to snatch the sunglasses off her head before replacing them on the fly. Man, I miss everything.
Thoughtful, balanced curating is something of a tradition at the Museum, and the Drag Racing: America’s Fast Time exhibit is no exception. Building on the well-known origins of the NHRA and drag-racing car culture, this exhibit showcases the heroic exploits of two-wheeled speed practitioners and the sleds they clung to for dear life. Skillfully blending drag cars into the mix, the exhibit chronicles drag bike racing from birth to present. From broken connecting rods to a chrome helmet etched by the great Von Dutch, the exhibit skillfully tells its tale in flammables and alloy alongside cartoon ink and jacket patches. From Clem Johnson’s “Barn Job” 1947 Vincent (with only two original components left) to Chet Herbert’s Harley-Davidson, “The Beast,” drag-racing culture is explored in a wonderfully meandering way. Chuck joked that the museum must have gotten a zoning variance to feature Terry Vance’s and Byron Hines’ twin-engine Honda CB750 drag bike — a clearly invasive species, though the manufacturer’s name and engine designation were curiously absent from the exhibit card.
As afternoon matured and cans of Lite grew low, the crowd thinned a bit, especially after the show winners were announced. One by one, crew by crew, everyone abandoned their oil markings and made tracks for after-parties and friendly garages. One last wave amidst a bluish haze and that was that. Chuck and I allowed a last can of beer, found a peaceful spot on the curb and began tackling the philosophy portion of today’s itinerary.
“That was pretty cool,” Chuck said.
“I had a blast, minus the lack of High Life,” I replied.
“Jesus, those drag bikes…” Chuck offered. “Fuck, I spent two months building a shit AHRMA racer and I got an hour and a half of track time out of it. These guys get less than 10 seconds at a time.”
“Simple math. Same fun you had, but all at once. Sort of a time saver, right?”
The last Knuck finally puttered away, leaving just us finishing our beers and the staff striking the tents. “Wonder if that math applies if you own a Knuck?” I asked.
“Nah,” Chuck answered. “Own a Knuck that runs and you have all the fun you want.”