Nerissa Cerny, herself, knew it was still a predominantly male world when she studied to be a mechanical engineer at MSOE and eventually landed at Harley-Davidson. But along the way, she found female mentors who supported her in her endeavors as an engineer and motorsport enthusiast.
So when Milwaukee’s BUILD Moto program started over 10 years ago as a nonprofit to teach high school kids how to build and customize bikes, Cerny knew that creating an all-female team, The Iron Angels, was a way for her to give back.
On Wednesday (thanks to a rain delay from last week), audiences can see the culmination of a group that not only teaches young women the ins and outs of snatch and engineering skills, but exposes them also to the finance and marketing of motorcycle construction. and racing. Iron Angels will showcase their custom-built Harley Street bike – now a full-fledged flat track racer – in the main event of the season.
Cerny, who works on Harley’s calibration and broadcast team, says his team of six to eight students and seven mentors — all women — is a group that hails from different schools around town.
“We spent the last six months working with the team to design the bike, teaching them how to make these modifications,” says Cerny. “Everything from tight right, loose left, how to use a wrench – to cutting metal and welding, and making fiberglass seats and painting, too.”
BUILD Moto is not brand specific, although it is sponsored by Royal-Enfield. Since most of Cerny’s fellow mentors have an affiliation with Harley, they approached his board and asked for a donor bike from the company. Their bike is the only Harley in this year’s competition – and the students took it apart and rebuilt it using parts from sponsors, as well as custom-built parts. The finished bike is painted in shades of orange, blue and green and looks a bit like a tropical bird – but it’s definitely race worthy; in fact, the Iron Angels brought in a local flat-track racer to compete there.
Wednesday marks the end of the season, with all 10 teams showing off their work. This is an award ceremony for the team that has scored the most points over the last six months on their bike, as well as a “People’s Choice Award” which is voted on by the spectators.
But Cerny’s favorite event on Wednesday is called the pit stop competition, which takes place at 7 p.m. Just before it begins, the BUILD board announces a task that none of the students or mentors know about in advance. And adults can’t touch the bike.
“Seeing the students when they first arrived, not even knowing the difference between a flat head screwdriver and a Phillips screwdriver, for example, and then when the pit stop competition comes up, it really shows how how much they’ve grown in the last six months. It’s just a very proud moment for me,” Cerny said.
Laura Thompson, an Iron Angels mentor who also works at Harley, says she didn’t have many female mentors in STEM-related hobbies. “Joining the Iron Angels was a way for me to bring that like-minded support to our teammates. I love the BUILD Moto program as a whole, but especially this team, because not only does it give the girls the opportunity to learn to snatch and problem-solve, but it also creates a much less intimidating environment in which to do so.”
She says the band members started out as complete strangers, but ended up as a team. “My favorite and proudest moment of the season was seeing when they all clicked and started working and communicating so well together. From design and technical aspects to business and social media, they are truly come out of their shell to conquer an objective commonality,” says Thompson.
Cerny says Iron Angels made a difference in the career paths of these girls. Some went on to study engineering, while others got their motorcycle license.
Jolie, a student at Tosa West High School, says she joined the team to gain more welding experience – but found she wanted to do more.
“My favorite part of the process was the Dyno day; I really enjoyed seeing the process and understanding it more. Joining the team I was really nervous because I really didn’t know much, but I can say for sure I feel a lot more confident handling the tools and talking to others about the process.I was really excited about the finished piece, and I’m glad I joined the Iron Angels.
Lucy, a freshman from Kewaskum, says she’s been riding for a few years, but she also wanted to see what’s inside a motorcycle. “The most exciting part was watching her run. This team helped me build my confidence. She builds female empowerment by telling other women and girls that women can really do cool things.”
“It’s worth it because we can see the progression of these students,” Cerny says. “Not just in their mechanical skills, but really in their level of confidence, both mechanically and just in themselves. It’s really rewarding that way.
The BUILD Cup takes place at Boone & Crockett (818 S. Water St.) Wednesday nights from 5-7:30 p.m. and is free to the public. More information can be found here.