Unlike the hapless subject of Merle Haggard’s wistful honky-tonk classic from which it derives its name, Milwaukee’s Mama Tried Motorcycle Show has proven to be a standout success among vintage and custom motorcycle shows.
Held each February in a century-old urban industrial warehouse in the shadow of main-sponsor Harley-Davidson, the event celebrates the art of the motorcycle in a hip, fresh exhibition of more than 100 invited builders and collectors from around the country.
The show, which has grown to a full weekend with bookend events, has the energy of a rock concert with the aesthetic of a SoHo art gallery opening. Forget about the cliché tattooed and fringed-chaps crowd; that element is here, but heavily balanced by a new demographic of young/urban/stylish millennials– some of whom just may know how to operate a Bridgeport mill.
The weekend begins with Flat-Out Friday, an indoor flat-track race at the BMO Harris Sports Arena in downtown Milwaukee. Traditionally held on dirt in rural fairgrounds, the arena’s polished concrete surface is sprayed down with Dr. Pepper syrup to aid tire adhesion.
Riders from between the ages of 14 to 75 participated in an array of classes, with everything from a $10k Pro-Purse race to a comical “Inappropriate” Class filled with scooters, rat choppers and minibikes. Innocuous but entertaining crashes are plentiful, and Harley livestreams the whole thing on its Facebook page via the Jumbotron.
Saturday’s show was buoyed by record-high February temperatures in the 60s, bringing out plenty of interesting motorcycles to fill the street-side parking adjacent to the venue. Entrance occupancy limits are strictly enforced; partially to appease the Fire Marshall, but also in an effort to meter the crowds for a better experience around the freestanding bikes inside. The third-floor display, pumping with music from the Clash, the Pretenders and Black Flag, is accessed by a large freight elevator. A pop-up tattoo artist’s electric needle buzzes in the corner.
Vendors occupy the main floor, with everything from cool and clever T-shirts and apparel to custom candy-painted tanks, billet foot pegs and upholstered leather saddles. Nearly all the merchants are small-house craftsmen, not the big company trade displays seen at larger commercial shows.
The crowd is a melting pot of young kids and older (what I refer to as “serious”) motorcyclists in full riding gear peacefully cohabitating with hipsters and lifestyle bikers. Wild customs, trikes and choppers share space with concours-restored classics. Craftsmanship and creativity are on full display.
There is a balanced appreciation for period customs and original barn finds above excessive chrome, illustrating an aesthetic the motorcycle world seems far ahead of compared with its car show cousins. Patina, purpose and personalization are the hallmarks of this curated show heavy with vintage competition machines.
Throughout the weekend, bars and restaurants in Milwaukee’s adjoining warehouse district host bands, after-parties and complimentary events. Sadly, for a second time in as many years, thin ice has cancelled Sunday afternoon’s “Slippery Sunday” Ice Races at the nearby lakefront, but it’s a fair exchange for the warm weather that grants an early Spring to two-wheeled fantasies in moto-centric Milwaukee.
Photos by William Hall