It’s difficult to have lived in the Milwaukee area for any significant time over the past century or so and not have at least some fleeting knowledge of the speedway at State Fair Park in West Allis.
Midgets and big cars, USAC stockers, NASCAR, ARCA, ASA and local stock car racers, and even semis have taken a turn racing at the Milwaukee Mile, as it’s known now, the country’s longest-running racetrack.
Less widely known about the facility is its road course.
And for all the types of vehicles that have raced there, almost no one thinks of motorcycles.
And when people think about racing motorcycles, they rarely think of big, ol’ touring bikes with saddle bags and wind screens.
So when a group called the Bagger Racing League World Wide says it’s putting on a weekend of competition for V-twin motorcycles from Harley-Davidson and Indian on the course that uses part of the oval and part of the infield at the Mile, well, it’s one of those what-the-heck-is-that moments.
Which brings us to Sept. 2-4.
“Years ago they said, let’s go race indoors on Coke syrup like they do (now) at Fiserv Forum, which we all said, OK, fine … (and) that’s kind of what this is,” said Joe Houpt, service manager and race team manager at Suburban Motors Harley-Davidson in Thiensville.
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“I know there’s a lot of people that probably thought this is crazy. I know one person in the industry who … (when) they approached him and asked him about it and he said, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. He now is involved … but his first impressions were baggers are meant to haul beer to the racetrack, not to race.
“You can make anything race. You can make station wagons go around.”
BRL is relatively new, having started with an invitation event in 2020. Really the concept of racing touring bikes is new, too.
How is the Bagger Racing League different from MotoAmerica’s King of the Baggers?
MotoAmerica, which promotes road racing throughout the US, launched it’s King of the Baggers last year, including a race at Road America in Elkhart Lake, and doubled the schedule to six races for 2022. That series has become something of a cult favorite in the country or sport bikes. The execution is a twist on the idea first presented by longtime industry promoter/announcer Rob Buydos, who went on to found BRL in the image he intended.
Houpt has supported the series and worked with Buydos on making the Milwaukee event successful.
“It was an idea to get Harley baggers on the racetrack and get the V-twin industry involved in a different type of venue to grow new products and grow innovation,” said Houpt, whose father founded Suburban Motors Harley-Davidson in 1975.
“The bagger world had been off-shooted to being big tires, loud radios and big paint. They weren’t riding the bikes. You go to a bike show, you have a stereo, you turn it on and that was it.
“So the whole idea of racing was let’s go out and ride these things again. If you get on the racetrack and crash ’em, you fix ’em and come up with new products.”
Whereas King of the Baggers is another manufacturer-supported class under the MotoAmerica banner, the Bagger Racing League is driven more by aftermarket product suppliers – innovators whose products translate to street use – as well as dealerships and shops, all of which promote one another. Six classes race a variety of bikes with Bagger GP being the premier bagger class.
“There’s nothing wrong with metric bikes, there’s nothing wrong with going to watch Superbikes, but it’s a different deal,” Houpt said.
Who competes in the Bagger Racing League?
BRL is grassroots racing on a national level, if that makes sense. The previous round was held at the Utah Motorsports Campus and the final in October is scheduled in conjunction with Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Because the original equipment manufacturers aren’t directly involved, the competitors and teams come from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels. The bikes are one step away from the showroom floor, meaning the BRL is more approachable, budget-wise, and ideally would favor rider prowess over mechanical development. Racing smaller tracks is easier on engines, which is cost-effective.
“There are a handful of guys who show up in their van and work on their bike,” Houpt said. “There’s getting to be more of those that are just getting help from whoever they can. You’re not racing for a factory, so the average guy can compete.”
A pro racing license isn’t required to compete in the lower classes but is at the top.
Benny Carlson of West Bend has been racing with Suburban since 2012, competing in MotoAmerica’s Harley series when it existed, winning Supermoto championships and competing with the team in HD hooligan events.
Previous race weekends have included fields of 10-20 in most classes.
As the home of Harley-Davidson and the oldest operating racetrack in the United States, the Milwaukee metro area is a natural fit for a weekend doubleheader of racing tied to the annual Hometown Rally.
“There’s the Harley museum, there’s the ballpark, there’s brewery tours,” Houpt said. “There’s a million things for out-of-towners to do. Hotels are right there. restaurants. That’s rare. Any other road racing facility is not in the middle of town.”
Harley will celebrate its 120th anniversary next July 13-16 with a larger celebration for aficionados.
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“The goal or idea behind this thing was to piggyback the race with the hometown rally or the anniversary dates, and everybody knows next year is going to be in July,” Houpt said. “So we’re already in negotiations with the fairgrounds to get that date for that track. So hopefully this will be an event that will stay around as long as the rally and the homecoming is there.”
How will the Milwaukee Mile work as a road course for motorcycle racing?
Most of the oval is also part of the road course, which gets some use for club events and training but hides in plain sight during spectator events at State Fair.
Carlson tested a couple of bikes on the course and then tweaks were made in the interest of safety and competition. The track should be racy, Houpt said, and fan experience visceral.
“We were there for the test, and just having one bagger out there kind of gave me goosebumps,” said Aaron Haupt, Joe’s son who leads the dealership’s marketing efforts. “Even if you aren’t a motorcycle person, you’re a car person, you go and hear it and it echoes. It’s an odd feeling, but it’s really cool.”
Advance tickets are available through the State Fair Park website. Friday adult admission is $20 in advance or $25 at the gate; Saturday and Sunday are $40 each in advance or $50 at the gate; and a full weekend ticket is $70 through Thursday or $80 starting Friday.
Wisconsin Harley-Davidson Dealers Association members have helped with sponsorship of the event.
“The riders are going to be a little intimidated by how tight it is,” Joe Houpt said. “I think the spectators will love it because you can see everything.
“If everything can go right, it’ll be really, really cool. If half of it goes right it’ll still be cool.”