Hogzilla comes home
Turnout exceeds all expectations; Milwaukee barely blinks
Milwaukee, Aug. 27–31—You can’t help but love a town whose civic gestalt is beer, bikes and bratwurst; where the bars are still smoke-filled like nature intended, and where comedian Lewis Black feels like a “social drinker.” Milwaukee is a magnificent anomaly, populated by innocents who never got the memo that bikers are a scourge, a menace, an unsavory threat to public order, and who instead see nothing at all alarming about a couple hundred thousand of them descending on the city and taking over the streets, hotels, bars, restaurants, parks and museums for the better part of a week. They greet the influx with an openness and overt affection that’s nothing short of bewildering in this day and age, and the moment comes after a couple days of marveling at the hospitality and live-and-let- party atmosphere of Milwaukee when you can’t help but wonder if the phenomenon that is Harley-Davidson could have arisen, survived and thrived for 105 years anyplace else.
Nowhere is that laissez-faire attitude more in evidence than in the behavior of law enforcement over the course of the week, and you also can’t help but wonder if they’re always this laid-back. They’re out in force, naturally, and stationed all over the place, but not to intimidate, bother or bust the visitors; they’re seen mostly standing at intersections conducting traffic or operating traffic lights manually to keep things flowing. They’re turning a blind eye to minor infractions, giving directions to the lost, posing for photos, and generally having a relaxed time of it. I’m stunned when, while riding the streets adjacent to crowded Veterans Park, a cop points at me and motions me to turn down a residential cul-de-sac to where, it turns out, he’s spotted a rare parking space and thinks I might appreciate being directed to it. This is an act of random kindness by a cop. Somebody pinch me. (And it isn’t just in town that this attitude prevails, either. Out at the H.O.G. Haven campground in West Bend, 25,000 people attend a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert on Wednesday night, and not only are there no arrests whatsoever, the police assist in lining up alternative transportation for a few overserved bikers.)
The scope of the festivities in and around Milwaukee is overwhelming and so are the crowds taking part in them, but getting a handle on the true magnitude of this thing is a practical impossibility. This isn’t one big party. This is more like a dozen big parties all colliding in the same locale, and the only hard number available is the 125,000 figure on official 105th Anniversary preregistrations that got the buyer into the Summerfest Grounds for the main celebration on Friday and Saturday. There’s little help there, since unlike the 100th anniversary affair where virtually all activities required the official ticket, this year’s celebration includes a slew of unticketed events, the most notable of which is the Club H.O.G. 25th Anniversary bash on Thursday at Miller Park where an astounding number of Harleys—the most I’ve ever seen assembled at once—pack the numerous parking lots and anyone flashing a H.O.G. membership can get in and bring a guest as well (and where Lewis Black delivers his “social drinker” line to an understandably receptive audience). Even that marginal check on crowd size grows sloppy as attendance swells and threatens to inundate the entrance to the concert site, swarm over the cyclone fencing and turn the whole shebang into a free-for-all. Then there’s the coincident Milwaukee Rally being conducted by a number of area Harley dealers and attracting so many bikers that surrounding blocks have to be cordoned off. That’s just the beginning. The official 105th festivities also include a number of free daily street parties around town, free activities and entertainment on the grounds of the new Harley-Davidson Museum, and most of all, a free venue called Main Street at the Lakefront at Veterans Park, just up the shore from the Summerfest Grounds.
Step inside the jukebox
Sandwiched between downtown Milwaukee and the shore of Lake Michigan are the Summerfest Grounds, party central for the 105th on Friday and Saturday. Once an airstrip, this vast expanse of prime lakefront property now serves as a sort of urban asphalt fairgrounds for party-loving Milwaukee’s frequent festivals, and as such it’s replete with pavilions, food courts, waterfront picnic facilities and, most of all, concert stages. With music being the major theme of Harley-Davidson’s celebration, those stages are getting a workout, with 23 bands performing daily, most of them major acts (compare that to Woodstock’s 11). At practically any given time you have five bands to choose from and that choice is often a tough one, with Friday’s headliners consisting of ZZ Top, Black Crowes, Los Lonely Boys, Foghat and Bad Boy. On Saturday the roster includes Daughtry, Peter Frampton, Buddy Guy, Dierks Bentley and The Crave.
Also on site are the Women’s Experience tent offering a diverse schedule of distaff-oriented activities and seminars, and the elaborate Workforce Exhibit paying tribute to The Motor Company’s long and storied relationship with organized labor. Naturally, the 2009 Harley-Davidson models are on display here as well and surprisingly—or not so—the Tri-Glide is drawing the largest throngs of tire-kickers.
Elsewhere on the grounds is a reminder that Harley got into a big sponsorship deal with the UFC—Ultimate Fighting Championship—earlier this year, as a number of combatants from the series are doing the meet-and-greet with the public and signing autographs. I now have autographed posters of Gray “The Bully” Maynard, Chris “Lights Out” Lytle, and Eric “Red” Shafer. I have no idea who these pugs are, not being a blood sport aficionado, but they’re all real cordial and approachable and a credit to their… uh, profession? They’re also pretty small and don’t look that tough to me, and frankly I think I could take ’em.
At the far south end of the grounds yet another milestone is being observed, the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson police bikes. In 1908, the Detroit Police Department bought a Harley and started what has now become a century of motorcops and their unique traditions—knee boots, funny pants, and lurking in wait behind billboards to name but a few. This celebration is centered around a motor skills competition that has drawn motorcops from 60 departments across the U.S., Canada and even Europe to vie for the top prize of a new Police Special for their department. Pressed out and spit-shined in sharp contrast to the rest of this crowd, the competitors are taking turns scraping floorboards around a cone course, showing off their impossibly well-honed chops on Electra Glides.
Up on Main Street
An invigorating (i.e., lengthy) lakeside stroll from the Summerfest Grounds takes you to Veterans Park and the free festival venue of Main Street at the Lakefront, and how to put this? You get what you pay for. This is the downscale alternative to the ticketed celebration for sure, but it’s not without its own noteworthy attractions not offered at the Summerfest Grounds. The Harley-Davidson Traveling Museum is here, for one, and so are the 2009 Buells including the intimidating new 1125CR—the first opportunity most have had to see the model in the flesh.
One of Main Street’s chief functions appears to be as a showcase for some of The Motor Company’s strategic partners. Their old pal Ford Motor Company’s in the house, as is their new sidekick, Shell Oil. The tie-in with Shell started last October with the announcement that the company would be the “exclusive fuels sponsor” of the 105th, and that the locations of the 14,000 Shell stations would be integrated into Harley’s online trip planning application. Shell’s making the most of the new alliance in Milwaukee. At Main Street they’ve pitched their Shell Racing Experience tent where Nascar is the theme with a pair of racecar replica racing simulators and a Tire Change Challenge pit crew simulator. Elsewhere around town they’ve set up booths as well, and they’re randomly handing out free gasoline vouchers. They’ve also put their sponsorship stamp on the Chopper Chick Crew charity bike build at the House of Harley.
The U.S. Army’s deployed here as well, with a rock-climbing tower, chin-up bar and free dog tags for the interested. Call it a boot camp simulator. Strangest of all, perhaps, is the Echo Chainsaw booth where expert wood butchers wield their saws artfully, revealing the inner eagle or coyote or what-have-you within chunks of timber.
Come Saturday morning, the city is abuzz with anticipation for the grand 105th Anniversary Parade. For the citizens of Milwaukee, this is the main event, their opportunity to join the party that’s been swirling around them for three days. And the funny thing is, it wasn’t scripted in Harley-Davidson’s original celebration plans. Uncertain of turnout, and presuming small interest in a repeat of the grand 100th Anniversary Parade, The Motor Company left it off the program. It was popular demand that brought it back, and sent the planners scrambling to pull together what would ultimately be a procession surpassing the 100th’s in magnitude.
Once again I have the distinct privilege of riding along, and that entails showing up at the staging area of Miller Park at 6:30 a.m. At that unholy hour the paraders are just trickling in and queuing up in their assigned columns. A local news helicopter is flying over, broadcasting live reports of the progress. As time passes the trickle becomes a stream and then a tsunami, and the staging area becomes packed with thousands upon thousands of bikes. The scheduled starting time of 9:00 a.m. passes and the bikes are still flowing in, and they continue to do so even after the parade officially sets off at 9:30, snaking out of the lot and immediately being greeted by spectators.
The crowd of spectators grows exponentially as the procession winds into the city, and it’s apparent that, just like at the 100th, a sizeable bloc of the population has turned out, lining the route en masse, sitting in lawn chairs and on the curb, on porches and balconies, waving flags and holding handmade signs of support and affection, high-fiving passing riders and otherwise putting up a great hullabaloo. Every demographic is represented here; every age group, ethnicity, and economic stratum, all joining in an incredible outpouring of enthusiasm and appreciation for hometown hero Harley-Davidson and the people who patronize them.
The parade creeps along a 4.5 mile route, ending at the Summerfest Grounds. It takes well over two hours for all 7,500 bikes to finish the course.
The grand finale of the 105th Anniversary Celebration—at least for those ponying up the additional $42.50 on top of the basic $60 ticket package for the event—is the Saturday night Bruce Springsteen concert at Veterans Park. No concert in history has been as heavily publicized over a longer period of time than this one, and that’s hardly a surprise. Stung by the bitter criticism of surprise headliner Elton John at the 100th, The Motor Company resolved not to let that happen at the 105th, and thus they lined up the quintessential all-American rock ’n’ roll legend and avowed Harley enthusiast early in the going, and made it a separately ticketed event—presumably so no one could moan that they didn’t know exactly what they were in for—and then they let nature take its course.
Lines form outside the concert grounds in the wee morning hours as Boss fanatics position themselves to score one of a limited number of exclusive checkered wristbands that will grant them stage-front access. As evening approaches, the surrounding parking lots and access streets become a Gordian knot of vehicles, and every patch of lawn and tree limb within earshot of the stage become the cheap seats. There’s also a sort of maritime mezzanine, as a flotilla of pleasure craft drops anchor just offshore—arguably the best seats in the vicinity. Cocktails on the promenade deck anyone?
Springsteen delivers brilliantly, putting on a nonstop three-and-a-half-hour performance, burning through a catalogue of 31 tunes with his signature energy and showmanship. It’s a show for the ages, but it’s no more than an hour after the last strains of “Born to be Wild”—the 11th and final encore of the evening—have drifted off on the balmy Lake Michigan breeze that I’m sitting in the bar of my downtown hotel listening to some jackass protest that, as a Republican, he doesn’t know where Harley gets off bringing in a bona fide liberal like Springsteen to headline the whole shebang. Seriously. And this guy bought a ticket.
Memo to Harley: Give it up. You can’t win.