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75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally: Making Pappy proud

By Felicia Morgan

Sturgis, S.D., August. 3–9—There is little that can be said about the American biker scene that doesn’t include the word Sturgis. From hills and dales to dirt and trails the tiny town nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota has proudly laid claim to its part in helping to shape what true red-white-’n’-blue motorcycle events have come to be about. After 75 years of hosting riders from all corners of the globe, there’s little that hasn’t been seen or done during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the less-than four-square-mile city has, at least once a year, come to be recognized as the hub of the biker lifestyle worldwide.

A tree carving honors rally founders J.C. “Pappy” Hoel and his wife Pearl in front of the family homestead on Junction Street in Sturgis

A tree carving honors rally founders J.C.
“Pappy” Hoel and his wife Pearl in front
of the family homestead on Junction
Street in Sturgis

The rally is known as a riding event and as such, Sturgis-bound bikers hit the road earlier each year in order to enjoy their time in the wind, proving that it really is about the journey. Visitation points like Yellowstone, the Badlands and Devils Tower that suddenly juts up into the Wyoming sky are destination points but riders scatter out across all of Meade County to take in the natural wonders of the surrounding landscape and to ride among the buffalo. There’s a spiritual essence to the area that beckons riders back year after year. Native Lakota know the Black Hills as Paha Sapa—“the heart of everything that is”—and the sentiment seems to resonate with bikers as well. No other rally in the world is as steeped in motorcycling tradition and no biker anywhere is content until they’ve made the journey to the epicenter of this all-American biker experience.

In the early days of this now world-famous rally, founders J.C. “Pappy” Hoel and his lovely bride Pearl hosted a weekend of motorcycling activities. Pappy would ride as Pearl whipped up picnic lunches to feed the gathered riders. The couple’s hospitality was legendary resulting in a family atmosphere that evolved as they came to know the racers of that generation. As the local Indian dealer, Pappy had posters of racing personalities that rode for the brand and it wasn’t unusual for those men to wind up wrenching on their machines in Pappy’s shop, sometimes until daylight. The Hoel’s only child, 80-year-old Jack, remembers those days well.

Riding through the backroads of Meade County usually includes a buffalo sighting, much like it did generations ago

Riding through the backroads of Meade County usually includes a buffalo sighting, much
like it did generations ago

“There were a lot of famous people who came to the races back then. I was awestruck as a kid with all the heroes I recognized from the posters in my dad’s shop, and here they were, right here in front of me!” Jack mentions Bill Tuman of Rockford, Illinois, who won 120 consecutive races in his day and national champion Bobby Hill who also competed at Sturgis, and he got to meet them both in person. He shared other particulars of the growing rally. “I remember the first time we stood out in front of the shop as all the riders gathered to ride to Mount Rushmore. There were quite a few but it grew. We counted 300 motorcycles at one point, and that was huge. You never saw that many motorcycles together at once back then; it was great!” Construction on Mount Rushmore began in 1927, continuing through 1941 and bikers watched the progress from the seats of their American-made motorcycles.

For the 2015 iteration, the Department of Transportation announced traffic figures of 748,221 vehicles on Sturgis streets for the official 10 days of rally, and a total of 831,055 for the 12 days the city closed off Main Street. For the Legends Ride that started in Deadwood and ended at the Buffalo Chip, the route avoided Sturgis streets. The pack ride was arranged in groups of 200 riders set off at three different intervals to allow for traffic congestion since a record 600-plus riders joined in to raise over $90,000 for the local Special Olympics. It’s a sure bet that Pappy Hoel would have been impressed with that kind of turnout as well.

The presidents of Mount Rushmore would most likely be astonished to see where their faces are displayed during rally

The presidents of Mount Rushmore would most likely be astonished to see where their
faces are displayed during rally

As far as a total head count, there’s a complex formula that consists of tallying the amount of garbage that’s hauled, traffic that’s counted, sales tax that’s collected, vendor licenses that are issued as well as accommodation reservations—all tossed into a pot in order to arrive at the number of people who attend the rally each year. As of this writing, those figures have not yet been determined. Suffice it to say, it was a lot. Local campgrounds, over 60 in the area, as well as hotels reported record-setting reservations early on that seemed to set off widespread panic. Price gouging was the theme and there’s speculation that rates will remain high for future rallies as businesses try to determine what riders are willing to pay.

The 75th anniversary of the rally could hardly be celebrated without the warm embrace of The Motor Company. Having made a deal with the city of Sturgis to become the official sponsors of the Sturgis Rally for the next 75 years, Harley-Davidson partnered with the city to create a new venue for riders. At the corner of what used to be 2nd and Main Streets stands Harley-Davidson Rally Point, a permanent gathering place for riders to take photos of their bikes and hang with their friends in between the various presentations scheduled. The street signs have been changed to declare the corner as Main St. and Harley-Davidson Way. Members of the first family of motorcycles, including Willie G. and Nancy Davidson and their children Bill and Karen, were on hand for the official dedication and made appearances throughout the week. Instead of the usual ribbon cutting, the ceremony involved a Bar & Shield chain being cut with a torch.

Photographer Michael Lichter’s annual art show, Motorcycles as Art, included this image of City Park from his first Sturgis experience in 1979

Photographer Michael Lichter’s annual art show, Motorcycles as Art, included this image
of City Park from his first Sturgis experience in 1979

The local Indian dealership reported record sales during the anniversary rally, with a whopping 123 motorcycles sold as well as a dozen Polaris Slingshots. The brand made a strong showing last year when they chose the Sturgis rally as the date of their new model reveal.

“My God; my dad would have been awestruck to think the company came to his little town to introduce their new models. Why, to have something like that happen would have just been unthinkable. He would have loved it,” Jack Hoel opined as he recalled the Indian Motorcycle’s grand model release in 2014. “Dad just worked at the shop; he liked the business and he liked the people.” His father’s original shop is now Gypsie Vintage Cycles on Junction, and sits next to the remodeled Hoel family home. The 200-year-old tree that once grew in the yard of the home suffered storm damage a while back and in its place a tree carving of the Hoels stands as a reminder of the rally’s roots.

As Willie G. and the Davidson family looked on, a chain-cutting ceremony officially welcomed riders to the new Rally Point at Main Street and Harley-Davidson Way

As Willie G. and the Davidson family looked on, a chain-cutting ceremony officially welcomed
riders to the new Rally Point at Main Street and Harley-Davidson Way

“Coe Meyers owns the property now. He carries a lot of great bikes and he’s restored the old house, too. My mother wouldn’t even recognize it now. It’s incredible. My dad would be flabbergasted. Mom used to serve lunch out on her porch to members of the Retreads Motorcycle Club right up until two or three years before she died,” Jack shared. Pearl Hoel passed away in 2005 at the age of 99.

During this year’s rally, bike shows were virtually everywhere, showing off every form of motorcycle conceivable. We had to research a show set up in City Park since we had no clue what a Street Tracker was, but several of the shows seemed to focus on baggers.

Early rally days included a parade and the congested cruise down Lazelle during the modern rally can be considered its own form of parade. There are still track and field events, though the White Plate Flat Trackers Association promotes races that the Jackpine Gypsies used to.

Hank Williams Jr. dazzled the crowds with his inherited musical skills. No one exemplifies family tradition like Bocephus.

Hank Williams Jr. dazzled the crowds with his inherited musical skills. No one exemplifies
family tradition like Bocephus.

A respectable number of temporary vendor licenses were issued for 2015. At 916, visiting vendors smashed the record previously held from 2014, when 679 licenses were allocated so, if you weren’t able to find that nifty trinket you were shopping for it’s no fault of the sales folks because there were plenty of them out there.

If you were looking for music, there was plenty of that, too. Downtown venues shook with incredible bands, including the California-based Fryed Brothers who filled up the Knuckle Saloon with friends, fans and family. Out at the Buffalo Chip tunes ranged from heavy metal to country, but somewhere in the middle was the nostalgia of The Guess Who. The Canadian-based band became famous for their hit, “American Woman,” written after a long American tour during the late 60’s. People mistakenly assumed the song was a war anthem, but original band member and drummer for the band Garry Peterson set the record straight on that slant.

“You know, we were on break and had just taken the stage for the next set and discovered we’d lost our singer. So we just start jamming, hoping he’d hear us and show up. He did, and he started singing whatever came into his head. We expanded on it over time and it morphed into what it is now. It was a commentary on what we had experienced during our tour. I mean, when you sail into the New York harbor, what’s the first thing you see? The Statue of Liberty, an American woman, right? Our country hadn’t yet experienced what your country was going through with the war and really, for us, it was just good to be home.”

Karen Davidson (second from left) hosted a fashion show with young female riders at the newly opened Rally Point pavilion in downtown Sturgis

Karen Davidson (second from left) hosted a fashion show with young female riders at the
newly opened Rally Point pavilion in downtown Sturgis

Over at the Broken Spoke Campground, Hank Williams, Jr. finished off the rally in grand style as he absolutely consumed the stage, mesmerizing those gathered under the threatening Sturgis skies. Whether the magic of celebrating 75 years of motorcycle history while gathered at the base of Bear Butte, listening to Bocephus sing about family traditions as a storm brewed, was lost on anyone else wasn’t clear. It certainly wasn’t lost on us. 

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

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