An explosion of sound -- deep thunder, the kind you feel well within your body -- causes bystanders to grab their ears.
A dark blue Harley Davidson Fat Boy with a stout man atop in a do rag is abreast of a blonde woman riding a Harley Springer Soft Tail, her hair flipping back in the turbulence of their one-block, full-throttle drag race. The fierce roar ricochets off the concrete and glass of this urban canyon. These are the sounds of the Harley Davidson Motor Co.'s recent 100th-year celebration.
You'd more likely picture a huge pack of Harleys gathering somewhere along a Southwest prairie or on the jagged coast above Big Sur. But America's longest-standing manufacturer of motorcycles called its family members home to party, to the streets of Milwaukee, where concerts, vendor fairs, block parties and even illegal drags races made for a weekend to remember.
The same masterful marketing that brought this company back from near death 25 years ago was evident in the planning of its anniversary event. Riding home was the core theme, to the headquarters of the company since its start in 1903. From the far reaches of America, thousands of Harley riders flowed together in streams of chrome and shiny metal like flocks of migratory birds whose numbers swell as miles pass.
About 250,000 people attended events that oozed out even beyond the suburbs.
"I've never seen so many bikes in my life," said Holly Deimling, 26, promotions director at WRRM (98 FM). She rode from Cincinnati on the back of a Harley Ultra Electra Glide driven by her father, Bill Deimling, 60, president of Deimling/Jeliho Plastics. Alongside on a 1998 Harley Road King rode her cousin, Ernie Vilardo, 46, owner of Anderson Hills Plumbing.
Though Deimling talks of buying her own Harley, the company's average customer is 49, 10 years older than the industry standard. But people watching at the lakefront Summer Fest area, where the events of the weekend centered, showed plenty of economic, age and even some racial diversity.
"Look at the faces," said Peter Turnley, an award-winning photographer who is shooting for Harley Davidson to document the anniversary.
He said he not only saw a mix of people in his shooting but was also taken with their unique spirit.
"I found a subject matter of bonding and friendship," he said.
Turnley's work was part of the sleeper event of the weekend, and one that had a Cincinnati connection. Ann Ghory-Goodman, a former photography professor at the University of Cincinnati, coordinated a real-time photography exhibit at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, where she now teaches.
In cooperation with Harley Davidson, which organized four rides home to Milwaukee from the corners of America, Ghory-Goodman's students joined Turnley and three other commissioned photographers as they shot faces, bikes and scenes along American roadways and sent the digital images immediately to the school's main computer.
Ghory-Goodman and other students processed and mounted many of them the next day for display in a lobby gallery, along with four plasma-screen slide shows. As riders entered Milwaukee, they could go directly to the downtown school and see if they had become timeless art.
While the bulk of activities were on the expansive Summer Fest grounds -- with concerts by Steppenwolf, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Doobie Brothers, Kid Rock, Peter Frampton and even Elton John -- there was a huge gathering near Oshkosh, Wis., for the Harley Davidson riders group (HOG), to which members rode for several hours to claim a commemorative pin for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
At the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, the hit concession was the Richard Petty Driving Experience. For $99 you could ride shotgun for three laps with a professional driver in a NASCAR vehicle at 135 miles per hour. People lined up all day to ride, watch or just listen to the sounds of seven race cars running in each other's drafts. Wide-eyed, grinning tourists climbed in and out of the passenger windows between sprints.
Not everyone came home on a Harley Davidson product. An occasional Indian, Japanese-made crotch rocket, custom or Victory dotted the long, neat rows of bikes parked along downtown streets. Frank Clark, cable television administrator for the city of Cincinnati, rode his BMW cruiser to Milwaukee but experienced only embrace from the Harley family.
"As a BMW rider, and also as an African American, I felt welcome both in the city of Milwaukee and at the motorcycle events," he said.
If Harley's marketing roots are in wild ones and bad boys, today's rider image might be a bit more fractured. Standing in the back of the Paul Revere and the Raiders concert was a man wearing Sons of Silence colors, one of the more notorious biker gangs. But within 50 yards was a huge line at the Starbucks concession stand, where designer coffee was meeting leather and chains. And it didn't look like it was their first time.
It took the final event of the weekend to break out a little controversy. The last concert's performer was kept secret until he walked on stage Sunday night. Elton John's sequins and flares were too much for many hardcore bikers, and the next day's papers talked of thousands of angry tourists walking out.
For many riders, the travel back to their starting points was made longer by weather conditions in the Midwest. When sheets of rain hit a face at 70 miles per hour, it feels like hundreds of needles. At night, the glare off wet pavement blinds you to any road kill or chunks of blown truck tires that can take a rider down.
But the wet didn't seem to dampen memories for one local rider. Jerry Pavone, vice president and general manager of Riotech International, road his Harley Road King back in day-long driving rain with his friend, Fritz Turton, president of Bunnell Hill Development Company of Lebanon, at his side on his Harley Dyna Wide Glide.
In a chase car behind them, a Porsche Boxter S, were their wives, Sandy and Laura.
"This was the Mecca of the year for motorcycling," Pavone said. "I'm glad I went." ©