It was a spectacle the likes of which hasn’t been seen on Milwaukee’s shoreline for more than 100 years. Harleys squirmed like fish on a line and riders bucked wildly in their saddles as they battled for traction and control on the slippery sands of Lake Michigan. That was because Harley-Davidson—in honor of its 115th anniversary—had invited the anachronistic troop behind The Race of Gentlemen (TROG) to bring its tank-shifting sideshow to the shores of Milwaukee and orchestrate an event like the one the group holds in New Jersey each June. And while the original TROG is a straight-line drag race, Harley’s Bradford Beach Brawl would be a quarter-mile flat-track oval, adding another dimension of danger to an already sketchy affair.
The event rang with nostalgia, from the stripped-down bikes to the vintage Harley-Davidson race jerseys worn by many of the competitors. Race classes were based on model year and bike setup. The TROG 45 inches was comprised of motorcycles with 1952 or older American-made 45-inch Flathead engines outfitted with Linkert or other period-correct carbs (sorry, S&S!). Hub brakes provided a semblance of stopping power (as in barely). Riders had to do the hand shift, foot clutch mambo, a delicate dance that’s hard enough to do without adding slipping and sliding on sand into the equation. By far the most popular class at the Bradford Beach Brawl was Hollywood’s 80 inches featuring 1947 or older 61-inch, 74-inch, and 80-inch Knuckleheads and Flatheads. Engines needed to be cradled in an OEM rigid frame and forks had to be period correct, so keeping these beasts in check required proper amounts of finesse and muscle. Vintage Sportster and the ever-popular Hooligan classes were thrown into the mix for good measure.
The atmosphere was electric at race day. It was standing room only on the Bradford Beach pavilion and the infield was packed tightly with enthusiastic fans. Camera crews bustled about trying to capture the action, as the event was live-streamed all over Facebook. TROG creator Mel Stultz, a.k.a. the “Maestro of Motor Mayhem,” split his time between shuffling racers on and off the track and entertaining the crowd with his antics. The nonstop thrills and spills elicited big cheers from the crowd. In Hollywood’s 80 inches main, Brian Cannon shot out to the lead and never looked back on his way to the checkered flag, winning the race aboard his 1947 Flathead by almost eight seconds. Kevin “Teach” Baas muscled his 1939 Knucklehead to a second-place finish, while Eric Bass grabbed the final podium spot. Meanwhile, Danny Holbus figured out the high line early on then rode like a man possessed to win the Hooligan class.
“Still living on the high from Saturday’s #bradfordbeachbrawl,” wrote Danny Holbus @lild142 on Instagram.
With the sun fading in the distance, Daniel Desoucey wrapped up the final race of the day by bringing home the victory in the TROG 45 inches class aboard his 1945 WL Flathead.
TROG’s motto states it “goes to great lengths to bring spectators back in time to those early days of racing. We expect our racers to have the time of their lives and showboat their machines to the fullest.” Almost a week later, people are still buzzing about the Bradford Beach Brawl, so organizers can consider their mission accomplished. And while it took more than 100 years for motorcycle racing to return to the shores of Lake Michigan, we’ve got a sneaking suspicion it won’t take another century for vintage bikes to once again shoot huge sandy rooster tails along the shore of the great lake.