STURGIS, S.D., AUGUST 4-12 — Successful long-term relationships attribute their longevity to certain understandings established between both parties. The 70-year plus partnership between bikers and the Black Hills involves keeping things fresh and continuously adding new entertainments and diversions. And the Sturgis Rally certainly delivered a batch of novel attractions for 2012—with some of them working while others fell short.
That willingness to change helps explain the romance between Sturgis rally participants and the Buffalo Chip that has been going on for more than 30 years with The Chip attempting to create a one-stop package for the discerning rider (if that’s possible). With its original roots being a simple, if somewhat large, campground, The Chip has continued to expand beyond anyone’s predictions with a Technicolor array of attractions that run from some of the best music to be found during the rally to the chance to chop down targets with a .50 caliber sniper rifle at the Chip Sports Complex. For those who enjoy orchestrated riding events, this year featured three, all starting in Deadwood before ending with a reception at The Chip: the 5th annual Legends Ride left on Monday, the Biker Belles Celebration consisting of women riders taking off from the Lodge at Deadwood on Wednesday and the 3rd annual Victory Owners Ride and Party on Thursday. For you lovers of the arts, once again The Chip featured noted photographer Michael Lichter and his annual Motorcycles as Art exhibition, this year entitled “Come Together; The Spirit of Born-Free” along with other shows centering on flesh in various forms held throughout the week: the Miss Buffalo Chip Beauty Pageant, Lingerie for Life and the Tattoo Café. Adrenaline action included two days of Universal Championship Wrestling, a Pro Hill Climb on Wednesday and Thursday, the previously mentioned Guns of Freedom shooting range, a world record attempt at the longest motorcycle ride through a tunnel of fire, and the seven-story Zip the Chip zip line (the tallest, longest and fastest in South Dakota, although they did have to turn a few of the larger patrons away due to the 250-pound weight restriction). But the latest and most anticipated venue had to be the Crossroads at the Buffalo Chip.
New for 2012, the Crossroads has been highly promoted since the beginning of the year—especially the “free access” feature. Located at the west gate, the Crossroads features the 20,000-square-foot Rider Café comprised of multiple bars, vendors and food, live entertainment, the American Hellriders’ Wall of Death and a massive elevated viewing deck along with a giant metal V-Twin motor sculpture as the focal point. Standing at over 30 feet tall (and proclaimed to be the largest V-Twin structure in the world), the base of this edifice also served as the gathering point for Thursday’s Rat’s Hole Custom Bike Show. Clouds shrouded the Hills on Thursday, keeping the temps in the mid-80s much to the delight of the riding crowd that flooded the Rat’s Hole Show, interested in checking out The Chip’s latest venture. Everyone was further surprised by the 2:30 p.m. arrival of approximately 100 members of yellow-shirted Hamsters who arrived (with a police escort) to view the bikes on display. Owner Rod “Woody” Woodruff later stated that this was the largest year ever for the Buffalo Chip. Score a big plus for this venue and expect more of the same for next year (they’ve already signed ZZ Top as a headliner for 2013).
Hard road on the East side
The Thunder Dome is located just a few miles down the road from The Chip. A giant tented structure, the Dome last saw decent action in 2007 when Rick Fairless brought his Strokers Dallas north and retagged it Strokers Sturgis. Well received at the time, everyone thought this would continue to be a vibrant part of the Black Hills experience. After Fairless pulled up stakes, various entrepreneurs have tried to cash in on this section of real estate with the last venue of any note being the 2010 Monkey Rock Expo that failed terribly. This year, well-known motorcycle-events promoter Jay Allen took up the challenge with his Jay Allen Road Show Thunder Dome. Unfortunately it suffered the same fate as the Monkey. When I showed up on Wednesday, there were less than 150 bikes in the parking lot with more scooters next door at the Conoco gas station. (My initial thought was the first person they let go had to be the parking attendant.) Although the place offered more than a half-dozen bars inside along with the Immersed in Ink Tattoo and Arts Festival, most in attendance seemed to only be trying to escape the heat. (Many of the tattooists licked their wounds early, leaving empty stalls by week’s end with even the celebrity-infused BAKER Drivetrain Smoke Down Show Down burnout contest being relocated to downtown Sturgis Wednesday evening to hopefully capture a larger audience.) By the end of the week, the situation had deteriorated even further with only a handful of patrons sucking up beer that had been dropped to $2 a can with only one bar left open inside to serve the budget-minded.
But Jay Allen, the eternal optimist, had a positive outlook for the Roadshow at the Thunder Dome and, in an interview with THUNDER PRESS stated, “I came to the Thunder Dome because I didn’t have a home at Sturgis anymore. I’ve never missed one since 1986. I’m a very sentimental person and have a hard time breaking tradition. This is a growing year at the Thunder Dome. First-year venues are very tough because it takes the mistakes from the first year to determine how the venue should run properly. People that came here loved the venue; they loved the experience. And that’s the important thing.”
Will the Thunder Dome ever recover from a soured courtship and repeated years of poor attendance? If so it will take a massive undertaking of early media blitz and PR work to see it to completion. But if anyone is up to that monumental task, Jay Allen would be the man.
And just across the street
And then, right across Highway 34, within a stone’s throw of Thunder Dismal, the Full Throttle Saloon was packed, packed, packed—in high gear all week. While much of the continuing success of this establishment is due to owner Michael Ballard’s TV series (and the devotees it garners), this place will remain a secure Bike Week icon due more to its ability to offer customers a unique taste of the Black Hills experience—full-tilt partying combined with a fantastic array of music entertainment, The Horse Ride-In Bike Show on Monday and a profusion of vendors courting a solid fan base. The Full Throttle flirtation remains a must-do for first-time visitors along with the rally-wizened.
Heartbeat of the Hills
Downtown Sturgis remains the heart of the Black Hills Classic, pumping an incredible volume of machines and human congestion through its two main arteries, Main Street and Lazelle. It’s glitzy, it’s showy and, at times, profane. It is the Sturgis Rally at its finest. And this year the city tried to court visitors to stay a little longer by offering the City of Riders Expo and Entertainment Corridor. Located on Lazelle Street between 4th and 5th, this first-time venue included free concerts, the SWOOP Stunt Team, an art show by Scott Jacobs and David Uhl, along with vendors and educational seminars.
Next door, Harley-Davidson owned the entire block from 3rd to 2nd Streets with their well-attended annual Road Tour that featured the company’s full line of 2012 bikes, H-D1 customization services, MotorClothes riding apparel, a ride-in bike show on Friday, the JUMPSTART Rider’s Experience for would-be riders and a free bike wash. From Sunday through Wednesday, the final American AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building was held under Harley’s big white tent. Following six successful years at the Sturgis Rally, the AMD is shifting its focus overseas where the 10th annual series will be held at Big Bike Europe in Essen, Germany. The top three placing U.S.-based contestants in this year’s contest were automatically qualified to participate in next year’s show under the banner of Team USA headed up by industry veteran Bob Kay and the Biker Pros team. But word of the move to Europe apparently resulted in a jilted lover syndrome with both the number of bikes entered and the crowd attendance being anemic when compared to previous years.
A few months before the rally began, the owner of the Easyriders Saloon & Steakhouse decided to drop the Easyriders brand and instead operate under the name Sturgis Saloon Company. Paisano Publications LLC (owner of the Easyriders empire) filed suit and won a preliminary injunction requiring the Saloon to retain the original name throughout the Sturgis Rally. The surprise upshot to losing the litigation was a ton of business from customers seeking to soak up some of that Easyriders atmosphere before it possibly disappeared.
In the hinterlands
The hotel section of the immense Deadwood Mountain Grand in Deadwood was open this year after a soft opening in 2011 and selling out of rooms months before the rally. But the biggest news here had to be their presentation of the Arlen Ness Experience, the largest assemblage of Ness-built bikes ever under one roof. The Experience was held in a massive wood-timbered exhibition warehouse on the Grand’s second level. Covering a 30-year span, this was the perfect opportunity to witness the evolution of this master builder’s craft with 21 of Arlen’s bikes on the floor, along with three built by his son Cory. Other activities included live entertainment throughout the week and the Haulin’ for Heroes charity ride on Thursday that benefited the South Dakota Wounded Warriors Fund and the First Step Day Care Center in Deadwood.
Up the road in Lead, the second year for Desperado Junction proved to be a little more difficult than the inaugural run in 2011. Although more vendors were added this year, light traffic continues to be problematic. Organizer Jeff Nicklus is calculating a complete revamping of the venue for next year, working closer with the city to expand exposure and increase business.
Despite relentless winds developing each afternoon as the temperatures rose, once again the bikers came to ride, filling the roads linking Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument and Keystone with a continuous stream of two-wheel chrome negotiating the twisties of Iron Mountain Road, Needles Highway and Custer State Park. The lure of the ride also aids the outlying communities of Hill City and Custer that continue to see better response each year to their city-sponsored bike fests. The key is to get out as early as possible in the week to ride, taking advantage of every opportunity of decent weather since it’s common for atmospheric conditions to deteriorate at some time during the rally, which is exactly what happened on Friday afternoon when a heavy thunderstorm rolled through dropping icy-cold rain bullets in Sturgis and golf ball-sized hail in Deadwood.
The 72nd Sturgis Motorcycle Rally flirted with several new attractions—some enticing us, others receiving scant attention. Some will return, others are destined for the annals of failed experiments. According to reports, overall tax revenues increased by almost five percent, which is always a good sign for both the event and the bikers. In the end, it was a good ride. Sturgis persisted in remaining true, fueling our passion for travel, and romancing our hearts once again.
CLICK HERE for a full photo gallery from the 72nd annual Sturgis Motorcycle Week