Sturgis, S.D., Aug. 4–13—For those who packed up their toys and rolled out to the scenic Black Hills of South Dakota for the 77th iteration of the historic Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a game of how many new things you can experience in one rally seemed to be the goal for attendees and the challenge started before anyone even left home. There was a veritable smorgasbord of fun stuff since, for the first time in the entire history of the world-renowned rally, partiers were invited to spend a full 10 days rocking out in the motorcycle mecca. Riders were giddy at the prospect of hanging out even longer and the city welcomed the barrage of blissful bikers as promoters pulled out the stops on entertainment options.
Once in Sturgis, seasoned attendees noticed an obvious change in scenery down on the main drag. While the dust has already settled on the relatively new downtown Harley-Davidson Rally Point that unveiled during the 75th rally, the just-completed facelift and redesign of Main Street that spanned the blocks between Middle Street and 4th was all brand-spanking new. The Main Street Reconstruction Project, a joint effort between the City of Sturgis and South Dakota’s Department of Transportation, took just over a year to complete. Coming in on budget at a cost of $3.5 million, work included pavement and sidewalk removal and replacement, drainage improvements, water main replacement, street lighting and landscaping. The makeover resulted in fewer parking spaces on Main Street but, even though the 469,103 rally goers marked an increase in attendance, we really didn’t notice any intensified parking woes along the typically congested cruise. The folks who found themselves hiking to City Hall to figure out where to bail out impounded bikes or how to pay the parking tickets that were on the rise might argue that, however. District wide, officers were busily dealing with a total increase of 1,071 more citations for everything from misdemeanors to felony drugs over the course of the week-plus rally.
The list of stuff that constituted as “new” was a long one and included everything from the recent construction at the Full Throttle’s relocation to the old Broken Spoke where the bar is a work of art to a first-time women’s event at the Buffalo Chip called the Wild Gypsy Tour, plus a full schedule of races, right on up to this year’s surprise Grand Marshal appointment.
Jesse Combs, the South Dakota native who turned the world of fabricating, racing and riding on its ear since her graduation from high school, was chosen as Grand Marshal for the 15th annual Mayor’s Ride. With a degree in custom automobile fabrication, a lot of hard knocks and equally hard work that has earned her celebrity status on TV and in the world of fabricating, Jesse is well known as a gal whose vocabulary doesn’t include the word “can’t.” Duties for the personable go-fast girl (who holds a woman’s land speed record for doing 398 mph on four wheels) were varied but as the first woman ever picked as Grand Marshall, Jesse was up to the challenge. It must be mentioned that Combs is also one of the youngest representatives ever chosen to represent the City of Sturgis so it was interesting when she gave a press interview for the local news and stated that, “Obviously, things are changing, to have a female Grand Marshal. We want to get younger riders in and we want to change the face of what the Sturgis Rally is all about. Sturgis isn’t always about older dudes on baggers.” She described the attributes that make up the rally’s finer points that would appeal to a younger crowd before leading riders off into the Black Hills for a casual tour with Mayor Mark Carstensen. Combs also gave a presentation later in the week to a packed house in Deadwood before the emotional Sturgis Hall of Fame nominees were inducted and Willie G. Davidson accepted his Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement award. The 84-year-old brand ambassador for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company shared details like his favorite H-D models, some of his life’s high points and gave a timeline synopsis of the history of his contributions to the Motor Company as well as his connection to the Sturgis Rally through the years. And while old guys might not sound appealing to the millennial crowd, the fact remains that the history, and longevity, of the 77-year strength of the rally roots cannot be ignored.
One millennial that totally gets that is 28-year-old Brittney Olsen, who is dedicated to preserving racing and motorcycling. As a vintage racer, Brittney spends her time immersed in old bikes and trying to promote participation in the sport of racing on a grassroots level. When she caught wind of the city of Sturgis’s plans to build over the top of 22 acres of the Sturgis Fairgrounds, to include the old racetrack out on Ballpark Road where she won two of her half-mile victories, she kicked into action. For the second year in a row Brittney, with the blessing of the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce, Bruce Eide from Indian Motorcycle Sturgis and other sponsors, has organized the 20th Century Racing’s Spirit of Sturgis Vintage Motorcycle Festival with a variety of events centered on racing at the dirt track where history has been made for centuries. Hanging out at the track for two of the rally days meant chatting with a veritable who’s who of motorcycling. Harley-Davidson-sponsored stunt rider and American Flat Track announcer Bubba Blackwell did the announcing, Doobie Brothers member Pat Simmons sang the “Star Spangled Banner,” and 92-year-old Motor Maid Gloria Tramontin Struck and family were on hand to cheer on the festivities. Her granddaughter Kathy even did some flagging. Motorcycle Cannonball rider Cris Sommer Simmons showed up as did fellow Cannonballers Brent Johnson and Mike Vils who both came out to lean into the corners. Brittney’s husband Matt was offering up his bikes if thrill seekers wanted to try a few laps and an old-fashioned sense of community prevailed. Across the way, the hill climbers were tearing up the red dirt in the spirit of Pappy Hoel and we’re happy to report that talk of building housing on the old fairgrounds racetrack has been curbed. At least for now.
Of course, out at the Buffalo Chip the new age of racing was well represented by the AMA Grand National Flat Track races, TT and Hooligan races in between bike shows—yes, even bagger shows—and concerts. Half-mile flat track racing was killer over at the Black Hills Speedway where the single 450s were great, but the big boy 750s were the real show. Indian outclassed them all with a 1-2-3 win. Racing is what built the Sturgis Rally and it’s great to see a return to its roots. The historic rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycles was alive and well on the streets, too. Stunt riders tore up the tarmac at the Indian booth on Lazelle while just across the parking lot a steady stream of both Indian and Harley test riders traveled the cross streets on brand-new machines, trying to make that new-model purchase decision. Meanwhile, scattered throughout Sturgis and outlying areas, custom builders of all ages were set to talk shop and sell their unique builds.
Michael Lichter embraced the younger generation early in the rally with his “Young Blood, Old Iron” art show that introduced a bevy of millennial bike builders. It was with careful delineation that he explained to the gathered crowd that while the term “millennial” might apply to the invited group of artists by way of age, the connotation of the lifestyle implied by the word in no way fit any of the young adults who were all thrilled to participate in Michael’s show. With 17 being the youngest contributor and 34 being the eldest, the dedication and craftsmanship of the display showed a discipline not usually associated with the millennial generation. In other words, nothing there was an easy undertaking. The show was open to the public all week and we found ourselves visiting again and again since traffic was reasonable and weather was pristine.
Generally speaking, we’ve noticed a much tamer rally as we sneak up on eight decades of riding into the canyons and back roads of Sturgis. Naked chicks are a thing of the past since women are more apt to be decked out in riding gear because, well, they’re actually riding. Fewer passenger pillions were draped with fender fluff as more women are buying their own bikes and sharing a lane with their men. Young riders are creating extensions of themselves as they ride what they can afford built from parts they scrounge, trade, or make, just like most of us did when we were starting out and wanted to be in the wind but didn’t have the bucks for showroom models. Bikers are evolving as a tribe and while the face of the Sturgis Rally might be headed for a change, the heart of the rally is still about history. And old dudes.