A wave of anxiety wafts inside my helmet as over a dozen uncorked Harley-Davidson Sportsters rumble in the guts of the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Then again, I’m sure the carbon monoxide isn’t helping me feel any better. I’m here under the premise of, “Just having fun” as a Hooligan Racing contender. A still relatively new race series, Hooligan Racing is intended to revive flat track’s initial premise of, “Run what you brung, go fast, and turn left,” and has as a result already attracted a new legion of riders. Naturally, I’m curious to see what it’s like from the inside looking out.
That is how I found myself wobbling on top of a punched-up, pissed-off, blue-as-all-hell Harley-Davidson Sportster, waiting in line behind half of the moto-Instagram world. I find myself perched here after being invited to ride the bike by S&S, who mentioned that they were going to have a go at hooligan racing after our ride on their nine-second Road Glide Ultra. After having done a preparatory spin at Johnny Lewis’ dirt-track race school, they thought I’d be the perfect candidate—why, I’m not exactly sure.
Our premier coincided with the Hooligan Racing series’ first foray into the Midwest, as the pre-event program for the Mama Tried motorcycle show. The show, Flatout Friday, was coming to Wisconsin with a lot of buzz, thousands of spectators, and a social media parade of sponsors, racers, and influencers. The race was to be held on an indoor, Dr. Pepper-treated concrete flat-track style oval.
“Coke” syrup is an old-school way to give slick indoor arenas the slightest amount of traction so that you can bring the party indoors. To showcase just how grippy this surface was, two pros were sent out to break in the surface, both on 450s for “sighting” laps. One went out hard, skimming the surface and making it look like Dr. Pepper is the magical traction juice of the gods. The second professional rider came out and immediately lowsided into the first corner, sending the riders watching back to the pits with maybe just a little less confidence.
A 100-hp, S&S Cycles-prepped Harley Davidson Sportster, a Dr. Pepper-coated concrete track, and almost no room between the race line and trackside barriers—this is Hooligan racing. What could go wrong?
There, the hooligans, amateurs, and professional flat trackers all sat side by side. Race-prepped 450s sat next to the gleaming Roland Sands Design-prepped Indians, which sat next to zip-tied Sportsters. The rider’s meeting catalyzed the differences in a greater sense when the professional flat trackers were addressed first.
“We know you’re fast, but everyone is here for the Hooligans,” said the race director, which is about the same as telling a room full of NY Yankees that everyone is here to see your office softball squad. But in this case, the race director was highlighting what has become something of an uncomfortable point in the flat track community.
Hooligan races are drawing larger crowds and more attention than the pro races since the “M” in the middle of AMA does not stand for marketing. Fans of Hooligan Racing are not crossing over and buying tickets to local events or tentpole ones like the Springfield Mile or Daytona, either. This popularity is slowly diverting sponsorship dollars and leading to a weird, evolutionary moment. The jolly grin of Hooligan Racing is becoming serious, and the pros are taking notice. Most of the class is made up of roughed-up daily riders but some more serious teams are beginning to field bikes, and the caliber of the equipment is rising as well.
Öhlins, Performance Machine, and S&S bits pepper the landscape, with each bike sporting proper 19-inch wheel setups and riders with no shortage of experience.
Not that I was complaining considering the bikes we were bringing.
Bringing Grenades to a Gunfight
When you’re with S&S, stock doesn’t fly. Fresh off the garage floor, the company’s Sportsters sat squat, dense, and menacingly, their potency evident upon startup. The black Sportster S&S is outfitted with an S&S SB100 crate motor, and the blue one with a Frankenstein-like mish mash of updates that includes an S&S 1250 bore kit, cams, and pistons. Both punch out over 100 hp at the rear wheel, both have been consistent test beds for S&S products over the years, and both are probably the world’s most expensive $2500 Sportsters.
To give that power a chance for traction, the bikes came with the requisite flat-track bits: Speed Merchant triple clamps for extra front-end stiffness, Biltwell bars for better leverage, Performance Machine 19-inch wheels front and rear, Progressive Suspension bits on the black bike, and Öhlins suspension on the blue bike. They were properly prepped, shiny Goliath-caliber machines helmed by a couple of David-sized talents.
A man in a banana suit starting his bike beckoned that first practice was about to begin.
Into the Thunderdome
First practice would be our awakening with the situation at hand. The concrete is particularly tricky in that communication is not its forte. You’re up, and then you’re down. There’s less of an ability to roll on the power and make adjustments like in the dirt. And as Lewis had foreshadowed, my first time out was going to be weird and I would have to fight to stay upright and flesh out grip.
Power was never a problem. Twist the throttle back and the bike spools up with the same tempo as a stock Sportster, but with the remote glued to fast forward. All of that uncorked violence strafes you to the end of the straight with glee. And that’s where the fear sets in.
Sportsters have awful brakes and we’re missing half of them, since flat-track bikes only have a rear brake. So you ease on the solitary rear brake as all 500 pounds of mass heave and list. It’s a frustrated thing this Sportster—it wants to get the throttle tipped back and lunge towards the horizon, just walls and corners are an inconvenience, especially in the truncated court that we find ourselves in. As the corner looms, the bike is not responding to my polite request to slow down.
Looming ahead is not only a corner but also a herd of camera lenses thirsty for Instagram glory. They stare as you go in and come out, shutters vibrating in the moment when doing it right turns to doing it wrong. “Likes” are the modern equivalent of thumbs up or down in the Coliseum, and they were here to rain judgment as the night went on.
As I dove into the first corner I would abate their bloodthirst by overriding the bike with maximum authority and pushing down the front while bringing the brakes on even more. Feel still wasn’t there, but the bike obliged by turning. My first lap pace would allow for sloppiness, for now.
It’s not the weight or the brakes that make these bikes difficult to turn, though, it’s the leverage. You don’t sit on the top like you do a dirtbike—for obvious reasons. And even though the Sportster is a small bike, it feels much larger when put in a concrete pen. To compensate, you need to be even more violent with the front end to get it to turn while praying that it grips—and keeps that grip.
Going faster allows you to be more on top of what is going on, and the bike becomes easier to turn. However, it also exacerbates your mistakes since the track is so small. This whirling process of hard acceleration, modest braking, and steering with a stubborn front end creates a sequence that feels like being on a merry-go-round operated by a GWAR stage technician—it’s all very loud, fast, crude, and explosive. The California fast guys were getting it; smoother on the gas and outside the exit. Meanwhile, I was still squaring up corners and segmenting the turn. Still, I’d survive the first practice and starve the camera’s thirst for failure this round, much to the dismay of a photographer that didn’t catch hashtag fodder. #Blessed
For the second practice I aimed to pick up my speed and narrow the turns, as this would be the only way to keep pace. I was stuck somewhere in a no man’s land between the more experienced teams and the pure hooligans, so I vacillated between rolling roadblock and passing on the inside.
With more speed came more chatter, the bike beginning to rotate more, and me being tougher on the front end. A rhythm would begin to develop, but the chatter would eventually lead to me having a highside worthy of a highlight reel. It was my first taste of concrete of the evening, but as each rider upped the pace, more would lick that sweet, refreshing, Dr. Pepper-laced surface. By the end of the second practice, war wounds would begin to show in the form of bent levers and scrapped sides. And that’s all they wrote for practice. Six laps on the concrete on a new machine and it was time for the heat races.
Dicing with a Guardado brother of Suicide Machine Co., whom pulled his carbon-fiber-clad Harley-Davidson Street 750 from the Mama Tried show after splintering a wheel on his Sportster and went racing on it. Hooligan racing is too much fun to miss out on, after all.
During practice, I layed down a time that qualified me second, behind Aaron Guardado of Suicide Machine Co., whom after splintering a wheel on his Sportster, had pulled his carbon-fiber clad Harley-Davidson Street 750 out of the Mama Tried show and turned it into his race bike in an awesome feat of racing fever. Behind me stood a smattering of more hooligans. I had a shot. And then the green flag dropped.
It was a humiliating start. All 100 hp at the reigns and I blooped it. And in hunting down the racers that had got ahead of me, I started immediately forgetting what Johnny Lewis had taught me about slowing down and breathing. I was now a wayward, tweaking blue missile, and the crowd was at a fever pitch. I had been so calm and collected during practice, but not now. Hooligan racing is fun, but the stress is real.
Then, I fed the shutters’ thirst for failure.
On lap three, I went too wide in turn one, got off line, got squirrely, recovered, and turned a hay bale into a shower of cow feed. All 500 lb. of bike that I’d struggled to get to work as one unit finally did straighten up, only to fire me into the wall, each pound lurching into the air as the crowd roared. Bike and I were now a 700-lb. team hellbent on destroying the track’s outer wall and creating noise. Instagram would be fed that day. The cameras would be satiated. Thumbs down was the verdict.
I was just one of the victims of the night though. Bike after bike would meet pavement as the concrete had rubber laid into the racing line and was polished toward the outside. The crowd expected carnage and we delivered. Indians would pirouette on the pavement, as lowsides greeted all those who strayed too far from the safe path that was the racing line. Dr. Pepper is no physician, but a psycho.
It was a show to be seen and racing at its purest. And it was fun. And loud. And awesome.
And in the fairest of outcomes, the best bike with the best rider—not the largest social media following—won. Benjamin Carlson, former competitor in the AMA Vance and Hines XR1200 race series, took the checkers on his race bike. Which is ironic since the XR1200 was the flat-track inspired bike in Harley’s lineup, that was actually raced, and then killed off in 2012 since the youths hadn’t yet gotten around to the whole flat track thing and were still too busy cutting seats off of old Honda CBs.
The victor would bookend Hooligan Racing as it sits today. There’s a tale of two grids, the one made up of guys having fun, and the one with actual racers, with a wide chasm in the middle. You’d expect that divide to cause a rift in the grid, but the class is too good to let these differences get in the way. Even with the higher stakes and the faster riders, the absolute fun and energy of the event was incredible.
My take? The Hooligan class will eventually split. One segment will probably exist for the ne’er-do-well racers out there, and Hooligan Pro for the top 10 percent of lap times in each event. Fast guys aside, if you have a bike that qualifies, you should do it. All it requires is a bike newer than 1986 with twin cylinders and a stock frame. Have a bike that doesn’t fit? Join the goofball class. Whatever you do, so long as you can, get out on the track and have a go.
And lastly, how does a modified, 100-hp Sportster fit into all of this? Is it the best hooligan bike to have, or is it too serious to fit the ethos of hooliganism?
Yes to both.
The bike’s rowdiness, anger, and noise is gleeful overkill in a class founded on budget fun. However, true hooligans know you can never have enough power. It’s a vicious brute that is fun because it’s much too much. And with it, S&S has built a showcase that I only wish came in every Sportster from the factory.
But Wait, There’s more
We were supposed to go ice racing on these bikes too, but Mother Nature does not care about your social media plans and breathed a 55 degree day on Milwaukee. But we weren’t just going to sit around with 200 hp worth of Sportsters at our disposal. That would be like finding Dad’s “private-time” stash with a pair of broken hands.
So we did what any hooligan worth their salt would do. We found a lot near the old PBR family mansion and let it rip around some dirt. The cops approved, as did the ripping grin across my face. These 100 hp Sportsters are what Saturday mornings are made for. Here, their pavement prepared suspensions crashed in bumps, walloped tail sections into my manhood, and the power pulverized any concept of rear end-grip. They are terrible dirtbikes, and awesome machines.
And we’re not done with Hooligan Racing just yet. We’re going to Arizona in April for revenge.