STURGIS, S.D., AUG. 8–14—Riders from around the globe have religiously made the annual trek to Sturgis during the rally’s 76-year reign as the most famous biker bash in the world, and while the parties, concerts, races and riding are indeed legendary, it’s the landscape and spirituality of the Black Hills that make this rally the top of the heap when it comes to bucket list destinations. No matter where a rider may bivouac or what kind of activity schedule may be arranged, everyone that scoots into Sturgis comes with a must-do list of places to ride and they set about the task of soaking it all up. From the Devil’s Tower to the faces of Rushmore, the Badlands, Deadwood, Spearfish Canyon, Custer and the Wildlife Loop, there is certainly magic to be found along the roads beyond the City of Sturgis.
While in the city, however, the legendary Main Street serves as the heart of the rally. The street is blocked off, motorcycles nudge up like sardines to park rubber-to-rubber and the party spills out from the storefronts, bars and restaurants. Sidewalks are busy until late in the night. Vendors set up in empty spaces and the resident 6,741 souls move over to make room as the population in their little berg swells into the hundreds of thousands, even during an off year like 2016. With traffic counts collected from eight different locations during rally, a total of 329,789 vehicles were tallied over the seven days, which reflected the lowest attendance ever recorded since they started keeping track back in 1990. According to South Dakota’s official rally traffic count, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has had a steady decline since 2000, with the exception of anniversary years like 2005, 2010, and 2015. Even so, the actual traffic count differs greatly from the official number the city releases after they use their complicated magic formula of garbage collected, rooms rented, cars cruising and any other factor they choose to toss into the equation that seems to result in grossly inflated figures that don’t reflect the reality of what walking the streets and riding the canyons will tell you. Initial numbers indicate a 30- to 40-percent drop in overall attendance, which most businesses were expecting after a banner year like the 75th. Basically, 2016 was the mellowest rally we’ve ever seen, unless you consider the weather, that is.
From raging hail and lightning to buckets of rain, there were daily displays of Mother Nature’s wrath throughout the week as riders continued on with their partying by just adding rain gear. Bikers watched the heavens as promoters rearranged schedules accordingly and held bike show award ceremonies a little earlier or cut events a bit short in effort to dodge the downpours. Places like the Iron Horse and Broken Spoke on Lazelle had a constant flow of foot traffic since folks could get out of the weather easily and the Sidehack, Knuckle and One-Eyed Jack’s Saloons were favorite hangouts downtown. Kid Rock, who has garnered a reputation for bringing the rain with him when he performs at the Buffalo Chip, still held court Sunday night after a storm drenched patiently-waiting ticketholders for over an hour. Even though it was announced that a nasty storm was imminent and shelter should be sought, the crowd stayed put and stood in front of the stage to watch the dazzling display of lightning bolts that lit up the sky. By the time Kid Rock took the stage it was almost midnight. He was overheard backstage to say, “I’m not sure who I’d stand in the rain for an hour and a half to see, but let’s go give these kids a show!” And he certainly did. By the second song the crowd had completely forgotten about the wait, or the wet.
By Monday morning riders were ready to roll out for a week of local fundraising efforts through events like the Legends Ride, Biker Belles and the Freedom Ride, which, collectively, have raised over $600,000 for local charities since 1981. Deadwood Mayor Charles Turbiville welcomed celebrity actors Ronald Lee Ermey, known as Gunny from his role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket; Tom Beringer, who talked about his first riding experiences as a young man and Carmine Cangialosi who wrote and directed American Dresser, a flick about finding yourself along the highway. All three men were on hand to press flesh with fans and meet the media during the Legends Ride that started in Deadwood. The new executive director of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, Myrick Robbins, also addressed the media and shared his enthusiasm for the future of the museum and his intention to focus on the Hall of Fame, reminding us all to attend the festivities the museum planned on Wednesday to induct the newest members to the Hall of Fame over breakfast. This year’s inductees included the famous racer-turned-stunt rider Buddy Stubbs who came out with family, friends and employees from his Arizona Harley-Davidson dealerships. Bert Baker, owner of Baker Drivetrain, was also included in the Class of 2016 as were Jerry Covington, John Penton, Gary Spellman and Freedom Fighter Gary Wetzel.
No rally experience is complete without a visit to the Sturgis Dragway and Monday afternoon rendered a bit of excitement as we found Stephen “Doc” Hopkins from Wisconsin lined up to challenge his daughter Kersten Heling. Doc has been talking about hanging up his racing leathers but wanted to run with his daughter one last time and they took the competition right up to the finals. Just after the last elimination Kersten’s chain broke and it looked like she was done until a disqualified racer offered up a replacement. The daddy ’n’ daughter rivals fired up the burnouts, inched up to the line and the tree lit up. Kersten lurched out a couple of feet then didn’t move another inch. The borrowed chain also broke and left her sitting at the line, watching as her father flew down the track. We’re curious to see if Doc postpones hanging up those leathers for another season to let Kersten try it again.
The Glencoe Campground, an 800-acre facility located next to the drag strip, was just purchased and new owner Jason Sims has an ambitious plan to utilize more of the acreage. By 2017 Sims will invite folks out to see concerts, enjoy the fare at any of the three on-site restaurants or stay at the campground that offers tent camping, over 1,800 RV spaces and cabin rentals on the property that boasts over 4,000 shade trees.
Just down the road was the newly-opened Full Throttle that had a full roster of activities planned out even though it appeared to us that they weren’t exactly ready for business. Mike Ballard and Jesse James Dupree had construction crews burning the midnight oil to get rally-ready at the newly-purchased old Broken Spoke property at the base of Bear Butte and riders rolled in to park on still-soft blacktop and found a half-stocked grocery store. Campers still dropped their kickstand in the gravel out at the cabins and folks filled the swimming pool on hot afternoons so it wasn’t a complete disaster. The bike shows were well attended but it looks like they still have some bugs to work out before next year’s rally.
Out at the Buffalo Chip the newly-opened and highly-contended bypass road, Fort Meade Way, was seeing an average of 3,400 vehicles a day with a peak of just over 4,000, which was a good indication that regardless of the debate about building it in the first place or the less-than-desirable finished surface, travelers were taking advantage of the convenience of avoiding the Lazelle Street traffic jams. The 5.6-mile road makes perfect sense for campers riding to the Chip, Glencoe and Full Throttle as well as anyone else looking to avoid sitting at traffic lights. All three of these campgrounds are only open during the rally and operate strictly for bikers, so any convenience for their customers is welcome. Camper traffic arriving and leaving at the end of the rally found the route an easy alternative despite the fact that the surface is still gravel.
A process called “Mag Water,” an application utilizing magnesium chloride, was applied before the rally and ended up being a problem once the rains hit. The point of Mag Water is to draw moisture from the air in the evening dampness to help keep dust down and pack the surface during day use. Once the heavy rains moved in, the process served to keep the road a muddy mess and though we could find no solid numbers of accidents on the bypass, there were many reports of bikes just sliding off the road. Adding to the frustration level of travelers was the poor signage that had folks confused over which direction to turn out near Pleasant Valley. Whether the road will be paved is still open to speculation since traffic numbers need to register at least 500 vehicles per day consistently in order to be considered for asphalt and it’s doubtful that kind of traffic will be recorded during the off season. For now, construction crews seem to be the most frequent users.
The ongoing squabble with the city of Sturgis over the recently-granted, and now disputed, city of Buffalo Chip has locals generally at odds as they square off over whose camp they support. Sturgis planners are busily buying up properties on the east end of town to prevent any expansions the Buffalo Chip may be planning and the future of the township is in the hands of the court system as they await the judge’s decision on whether the information originally provided was indeed factual. Nearby ranchers feel their properties are being threatened by possible expansions and the “live and let live” attitude has gone right out the window as town folk worry about the impact the new city could have on their economics. Meanwhile, back in downtown Sturgis, Main Street is scheduled for a facelift that will include new curbs, gutters, decorative elements and fewer parking spaces. Construction is slated to be completed by the 2017 rally but, despite all the restructuring and local bickering, we heard from several residents who don’t feel they need a rally at all. There are several other large events scheduled during the year and tourism is strong year-round so locals seem to be rather ambivalent about holding the motorcycle rally. The reality is, riders come to the Black Hills to experience the scenery, the spirituality and the brotherhood and whether the city rolls out the “Welcome Riders” banner or not, we will continue to do so.
The City of Riders is growing by leaps and bounds. We were told that new homes are being occupied the second builders open the doors on the completed neighborhoods, several new childcare facilities have been built, a new seniors care facility is in the works and the local economy is strong. The city is also looking at properties west of the highway beyond the Industrial Park. The motorcycle industry-related businesses that were enticed into relocating their operations from other states by being given incentive packages that included a five-year tax break are looking at whether to stick around and deal with the cost of doing business with the higher overhead once that grace period expires. One of the bigger manufacturers, Samson Exhaust owner Kenny Price, has announced his plans to retire and has his business up for sale, a plan shared by two other manufacturing businesses we chatted with in the area. Samson Corner on Lazelle has been leased by the City of Sturgis and signage on the Samson production building out on Industry Road advertises that they are hiring employees, so it looks like it’s business as usual despite all the naysayers.
All in all, it looks like the future of Sturgis proper is secure. In 2015 Jerry Cole took up the position as the new Rally and Events Director and his focus is on the future. As quoted in the Sturgis 2016 Museum magazine, Cole says he is in “listening mode” but sees that the future of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally includes continued growth and improvement. And we believe him.