By John Lamm
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — You’ve heard of the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hour of Le Mans and the Daytona 500. How about the Millers at Milwaukee?
Right. But automotive aficionados should know about this rare Wisconsin story — a race run most recently July 7-8 — that doesn’t involve brats, beer or cheese.
Harry Miller (no relation to the Miller beer family) hailed from Menomonie, Wis. — 60 miles due east of St. Paul, Minn. He earned his reputation on race tracks not as a driver, but an engineer. His race designs included such gems as the famed 122 and 91 (cubic-inch) straight-8s, most of them supercharged. Miller produced rear-, front- and 4-wheel-drive race-car configurations, as well as a remarkable 12 Indy 500 winners — engine and/or car–between 1922 and 1938. A 1924 Miller 122/91 board track race car is among the treasures in the Collier Collection at The Revs Institute in Naples.
Yet it wasn’t just those successes that crowned Miller’s accomplishments. It was the intricate, beautifully hewn nature of his creations — mechanical sculptures that inspired Ettore Bugatti.
Milwaukee’s one-mile track, where the Millers are run, traces its auto racing history to 1903. Famed names from its dirt days include Barney Oldfield and Wilbur Shaw. Harry Miller’s Golden Submarine race car ran here and so did the Green Bay Packers — playing games for 20 years (1934-1953) on the infield, of course, not on the track itself.
Paved in 1954, what’s now called the Milwaukee Mile Speedway hosted the likes of USAC, NASCAR and the IndyCars. Not anymore. Unused since 2015 for big-time racing, the track’s future is uncertain.
Since 1995, this distinctive event has honored the best from Miller and Indy 500 starting fields. Attendance this year was typically small. There were no fans in the grandstands; instead they milled around the covered “pits.” But that gave the event a close-up, intimate feel that’s utterly lacking in big-time races.
This year, 43 cars ranging from a 1909 EMF to a 1964 A.J. Watson Indy Roadster were pitted under awnings. Nine were the ultra-rare Millers. Such famed Indy cars as the 1947 Blue Crown Special and 1960 Bowes Seal Fast Special were running.
Full disclosure: a few of the Indy roadsters were recreations. That’s understandable given the wreckage rate among race cars and the fact that many of the most famous roadsters are locked away in museums (no surprise, since prices for historic Indy originals start at $200,000 or $300,000). Fans at the Millers know the cars’ honest history and accept the recreations. Besides, the excellent copy of Parnelli Jones’ Old Calhoun looked and sounded for real.
There was a fair showing of gray or no hair under the Wisconsin summer sun. But those old heads at the track housed lots of knowledge and technical ability — and displayed plenty of smiles and good nature.
So what enticed the entrants? Phil Reilly started decades ago. “In 1956,” he recounted, “Jud Larson put me in his car after winning the Sacramento 100 miler and that was the start.” Now Reilly rebuilds vintage race engines and is the owner of the Bowes Seal Fast Special.
Joe Freeman, who publishes books about race cars, brought a trio of Indy cars. He commented, “I got into collecting American racing cars because I’m kind of a patriot and really love them.”
Looking over all this was Dana Mecum, dean of the Mecum Auctions and entrant of eight race cars. His work exposes him to thousands of different automobiles, so why vintage race cars? “Race cars have always been the cutting edge for production cars, the most advanced thing of the era,’ he explained, adding, “Early Indy cars have always had a romance for me.”
That romance seemed to be a general affliction for those at the Millers. There were both fast and slow sessions. In the latter it was common to see the driver of a two-seater pull in and swap “riding mechanics,” giving another spectator a vintage ride around the Milwaukee Mile.
If the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and Goodwood’s Festival and Revival are the high holy days of vintage motorsport, the Miller Meet at Milwaukee is the Sunday church social. And many attendees brought a hot dish to pass.
Make sure you scroll down to see John Lamm’s photos and video from this year’s Millers at Milwaukee.