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Burnouts and Custom Builds: The Hooligan Spirit is Strong in Milwaukee

The Mama Tried Motorcycle Show is giving new life to the renegade spirit

Zaria Martens is the women’s returning champion here at Flat Out Friday, the race that lets hundreds of riders compete inside an arena, safe from the February cold. She started riding when she was three. Now, she’s 14. “I feel like I have to prove something,” she says. “I need to get out there and defend my title.”

And defend it she does. Dressed in all pink, she throttles her bike hard to take an early lead off the starting line. She cuts her corners tight, drags her left foot on the concrete for stability, and after a dozen laps, she seals her second consecutive victory. Then the next group of riders takes the course.

The race carries on for hours as more than 10,000 fans watch from seats surrounding the track. With a continuous chorus of revved-up engines, Flat Out Friday serves as the thundering opening ceremony for the Mama Tried Motorcycle Show, an annual celebration in Milwaukee that manages to both welcome newcomers into the cult of riding and pay homage to the outlaws who use their bikes as symbols of defiance. It’s an extended weekend of custom-built bikes, races, movie screenings, and parties designed to celebrate the unique culture of riding in America.

By all reasonable measures, motorcycles are practical vehicles. They cost less than cars, require relatively little fuel, and offer much-needed reprieve from urban gridlock. But since the mid-20th Century, when motorcycle gangs became popular and movies like Easy Rider bound ideas of freedom and rebellion together on the the wheels of custom choppers, the motorcycle idea has loomed gigantic in the cultural imagination. Mama Tried, an event launched by Harley Davidson, honors that idea by bringing together mechanical hobbyists, race fans and the cabal of willful outsiders who form the grassroots core of the show.

“We used to just show up to the track and ride, and then that kind of spawned into us being called hooligans,” says Mark Atkins, a.k.a. Rusty Butcher, a four-year flat-track veteran who won his heat at Flat out Friday last year. “And then it turned into this crazy train circus that we’re in today.”

Of the 15 or 20 races Atkins competes in each year, none offers a more predictable surface than Flat Out Friday. Before the race, event organizers mist the track’s smooth concrete with two gallons of Dr. Pepper syrup, which gives tires purchase in high-speed turns. “It’s always going to be the perfect track,” says Atkins. “There are no potholes, no rocks – there’s nothing. So this is where I like to shine.”

That reliable grip gives riders like Martens a place to hone their skills alongside long-time hooligans like Atkins. But the event is by no means without risks. On sticky concrete, the bikes move fast and clump together in tight packs. “We’ve had two ambulance rides in four events,” says race organizer Jeremy Prach. “Those are not good odds.” To alleviate the risk, he encourages riders look after each other – to temper their desire to win with respect for the men or women they’re riding next to. “I don’t want to just do a motorcycle race,” he says. “I’m interested in creating community.”

The night’s races spill over to the custom-built bike show and motorcycle film festival the next day, and later, crowds file into nearby bars for after parties. Events aside, most of the attendees are just excited to share drinks with fellow motorheads and wax poetic about the bikes they’re working on and the rides they plan to take. It’s a celebration, after all. And even the racers are motivated by camaraderie. Here, the line between winners and losers is thin. “It’s weird to even call it a sport,” says Atkins. “I feel like I’m just having fun.”

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