STURGIS, S.D., AUG. 5-11—The traffic entering Sturgis proper was backed up from the intersection of Lazelle Street and Junction Avenue all the way to the “Welcome to Sturgis” sign near the I-90 exit ramp. It was late morning, the day before the official start of the 73rd Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and that was the bad news. The congestion was, conversely, the good news as well: More vehicles wheel-to-wheel meant an increase in rally attendees—at least according to our unscientific estimates.
Generally an upsurge in numbers occurs during the rally’s milestone anniversary years, and although early signs, such as increases in campground and hotel reservations, indicated that would be a good year, there are no guarantees that an “off” year like the 73rd would bring a bump in attendance. But the crowds were there—everywhere; at every rally venue, on the streets and highways and in the canyons.
Pundits were scratching their heads, looking for the whys and wherefores. Was it the new Indian Motorcycle models to be unveiled the Saturday evening before the rally? Polaris Industries has done a masterful job of teasing the public, drawing out the introduction of the 2014 models over the course of a year. How about Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebration? Counterintuitive as it sounds, a major Motor Company anniversary also brings bigger-than-usual crowds to Sturgis. What about the steady rebounding of the economy? Maybe it was simply the marvelous weather… surprisingly temperate for August, with daytime temperatures hovering in the low 80s and those infamous South Dakota thunder- and hailstorms pretty much confined to the evening hours. Regardless of the reason, it was a picture-perfect week, with all signs pointing to one of the most successful Sturgis rallies in recent memory.
The rally began back in 1938 as a simple affair—a one-day race held by the Jackpine Gypsies with just a few spectators. The event grew over the years, with the club adding races and the city accepting vendors and allowing motorcycle-only parking on Main Street. The rally was expanded to five days in 1965 and, 10 years later, to its present seven-day duration. Although some activities have remained true to their roots such as the racing, riding and general hanging out on Main and Lazelle Streets, much has changed over the years. Primitive campgrounds have been transformed into self-contained biker cities complete with food, drink and entertainment venues. And these locations have grown well beyond what early ralliers might have imagined, merging television crews and celebrities into the mix.
It seems that rally event organizers are looking for ways to increase their demographics beyond that of middle-aged motorcyclists–both interest- and age-wise. This year, concert mega-promoters Live Nation partnered with the Broken Spoke Campground to present a series of four concerts held on a specially-built stage outside the Broken Spoke. Sunday night was the band Black Crowes, Monday night was hard-rock band Queens of the Stone Age, Korn brought their aggro metal music on Tuesday night and country singer Gary Allan wrapped up the series on Wednesday evening. When the headliners weren’t performing, the American Motordrome Wall of Death, the Squidwheelies Stunt Team and the Motorcycle Cowboys and their motorcycle rodeo satisfied everyone’s inner daredevil. There were vendors, pool parties, the Chop-In Block bike builders and bike shows, and inside the bar was more live music, the Hellzapoppin’ circus sideshow act and various other forms of entertainment.
The Full Throttle Saloon’s concert series featured acts such as Gretchen Wilson, Big and Rich, Jackyl, Vince Neil and Bret Michaels. On Monday, I spent the better part of the day there checking out The Horse Backstreet Choppers bike show, and the TruTV film crew was on hand recording the craziness for the new season of Full Throttle Saloon that will be aired later this year. It’s gotten to the point that rallygoers pay no attention to the ubiquitous film crews during the rally, but there was one incident that was hard to ignore. It was lunchtime and I was standing in line at one of the Full Throttle’s food stands, the Hibachi Japanese Steakhouse, with a half-dozen other people. One of the guys behind the counter was yelling nonstop at another worker about how slow he was on the grill when the film crew made its way over. Profanities were exchanged, the screaming escalated and the situation spiraled out of control, exacerbated by the inflammatory questions being asked by the film crew. Grill Guy got red in the face, slammed his spatula down and quit on the spot, grabbing his belongings and stomping out. Was it real? Made for TV? Regardless, it made for good drama and now I am going to have to watch the entire season of Full Throttle Saloon so I can see that episode.
Just down the road, the Legendary Buffalo Chip experienced record attendance this year, probably due in part to the presence of Country Music Television (CMT) at the campground. Top-name acts such as Kid Rock, ZZ Top, Toby Keith, the Doobie Brothers, Rob Zombie, Queensryche, The Cult, Buckcherry, Halestorm, Tesla and Lynyrd Skynyrd rocked the crowds all week, and later in August, CMT premiered 10 hours of bike-themed programming centered on the concerts and other happenings at the Chip. CMT Bike Week programming also included Biker Battles, a special featuring the wild competitions that take place there—burnout contests, bikini competitions and hill climbs, just to name a few. And CMT filmed the Chip’s first-ever Daredevil Wednesday where the highlight was to be freestyle sportbike rider Clint Ewing’s ride through a 230-foot tunnel of fire. Unfortunately, the stunt went awry and Ewing and his bike tore through the side of the tunnel engulfed in flames. He was taken to the hospital with third-degree burns and is now recovering.
Speaking of stunts gone wrong, our favorite daredevil, “Kaptain” Robbie Knievel, was arrested on DUI charges after he drunkenly drove his motorhome into two other motorhomes parked at the Chip. He was taken to jail where he was booked and later released after paying about $600 in fines and having his driver’s license suspended for 30 days. Robbie, this wasn’t the kind of stunt we would have wanted to see.
The art of the ride
One of the rally’s highlights for the past 13 years has been Michael Lichter’s Motorcycles as Art exhibit. In recent years it has been presented at the Russ Brown Events Center near the east entrance of the Buffalo Chip. This year’s theme was “Ton Up! Speed, Style and Café Racer Culture”, and for the first time Michael selected a co-curator for the exhibit, photographer and vintage bike aficionado Paul d’Orleans, who publishes The Vintagent, the top vintage motorcycle website in the world. Paul also rode a 1928 Velocette KTT in the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball Run. The duo assembled more than 30 motorcycles spanning six decades, as well as photography from the café-racing scene in 1960s England, where it all began, to the present. Also featured in the exhibit were paintings by Triumph artist Conrad Leach, images from the Ace Times collection of London’s Ace Café, a display of 21 custom-painted helmets, paintings by Guenevere Schwien and more. The curators contributed artwork as well; Michael’s Ace Café photography was displayed, as well as Paul’s “wet plate” tintype photos that were created using 1850s photographic technology.
Michael and Paul opened the doors to the press early Sunday evening, describing their concept for the show as well as introducing the artists and builders in attendance. Each was asked to describe their work and talk about what inspired them. In fact, part of the reason for this media opening was for builders to meet each other, to see Sturgis (several were Sturgis virgins) and to let Sturgis see them.
Michael commented, “It’s not all about the mods and rockers anymore; it’s all kinds of café racers. It’s what the kids are interested in now. Most of the builders in the show are under 40. We called it Ton Up after the phrase “doing the ton,” which means doing 100 mph. That’s not a big deal now, but it used to be for smaller, low-displacement bikes, plus the roads were windy and wet.”
The curators called up Ray Drea, styling chief for Harley-Davidson, to talk about his 1984 XR1000 on display. Ray said, “The inspiration for this XR was Willie G. It’s intended to pay homage to him.” Next up was Willie G himself, who spoke about his 1977 XLCR on display, as were the blueprints. Michael asked, “What made you do the XLCR in 1977?” Willie explained, “I’ve been a racing fan since I was this high,” as he held his hand a few feet above the floor. “We’re students of the culture. It’s in our DNA. We absorb it all. Motorcycles are everything.” He laughed, “Michael and I have been friends since the ’80s. I wouldn’t have done this for anyone else!”
If you’ve never seen any of the Motorcycles as Art exhibits, make sure not to miss the next one. Admission is free, and if you’re fortunate enough to find Michael there, you will enjoy his insight into the current motorcycle culture.
Tearing it up
There is no shortage of racing opportunities during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The Western Motorcycle Drag Racing Association took over the Sturgis Dragway during the first half of the rally week. And on Monday morning, S&S Cycle “borrowed” the dragway to present a media-only Track Day where we were given the opportunity to run a 124”-powered race bike down the track and speak with the product development staff to find out what’s in the pipeline. This was the first S&S track day since 2007, I believe, when I rode both 124” and X-Wedge drag bikes. Welcome back to the drags, S&S, and I sure hope this event is held annually!
If you’d rather watch than compete, the Jackpine Gypsies presented a full racing slate during the rally—motocross, short track and hill climbs. The club also organized a guided tour to Devil’s Tower on Tuesday, which for $50 included tour patches, T-shirt, headband, pin, lunch and admission to the tower.
There is also no shortage of burnout opportunities, many of which are impromptu. You can hang around the burnout pits at various venues, but one of the highlights of our week was the annual BAKER Drivetrain Smoke-down Showdown, held this year at Easyriders Saloon at Junction and Lazelle. BAKER tried a different tack to attract contestants—not that there was ever any shortage—and invited eight major motorcycle magazines to compete, either with their own staff or a designee.
The competition was head-to-head drag-style and the rules were simple—whoever banged through all the gears first was the winner. The crowd started gathering well before the 9:00 p.m. start time on Wednesday, and emcee Jay Allen got everyone pumped with some burnout demonstrations prior to the main event. Event sponsor J&P Cycles sent Erik, one of their techs during the rally, to wow the crowd with his artistry featuring a one-handed spinning burnout. Then, to the delight of the crowd, John Shope of Dirty Bird Concepts did a series of flaming burnouts. By then, the energy in the open-air arena was electric.
Finally, it was time for the first of four qualifying heats. But where was the Thunder Press contestant? He wasn’t here yet! We were slated for a slot in the fourth qualifier, and when the third was about to go off, I rushed over to BAKER’s Trish Horstman, organizer of the event, in a panic. Trish thought quickly and approached Klock Werks’ Joe Mielke who had been eliminated in the first round while representing Easyriders magazine. Joe jumped at the chance to re-enter the competition under the Thunder Press banner, and easily trounced Bill Dodge who was representing IronWorks. Noah Ogeen representing The Horse and Chris from Misfit Industries representing American Bagger were first-round eliminations as well. On to the second round! The Wrench beat Chris Maida of American Iron, and then Joe was matched up with Chris Callen of Cycle Source. Uh-oh… something wasn’t right. Joe’s FL wouldn’t shift. So Chris took the second round. The final matchup was between The Wrench and Cycle Source, with The Wrench coming out on top. Congratulations to Jeremy of The Wrench for taking first place, Chris of Cycle Source for second, and a round of applause, please, for Joe who took third place for Thunder Press. Thanks, Joe, for jumping in and carrying the Thunder Press name to the winner’s circle!
With the smoke, noise, heat and beer-fueled testosterone, it was the most fun I’ve had since… well, since I can remember. It took several showers to get rid of all the caked-on tire grunge as, once again, I got way too close to the burning rubber.
A record-breaking year
No matter which merchants we spoke with, we got comments like, “This might have been the best year I’ve ever had.” Not only did huge crowds turn out for this year’s rally, but they broke out the Benjamins as well. There were at least 15 organized rides during Motorcycle Week, most of which benefited one charity or another. The star-studded Legends Ride broke records for both attendance and donations, as did several other prominent fundraisers.
A constant stream of visitors flowed through the Harley-Davidson, Victory and Indian motorcycle exhibits on Lazelle Street, and vendors and manufacturers that had set up downtown saw an uptick in numbers as well. The Buffalo Chip’s second-year Crossroads venue had plenty of entertainment options (not to mention additional paved areas for parking and various activities). The Budweiser Clydesdale stallions were stabled there throughout the rally week, roller derbies were held nightly, and bike builds, body painting and bikini bike washes took place along with special events such as the first-year Daredevil Wednesday and the Rat’s Hole Bike Show on Thursday.
Black Hills Harley-Davidson in Rapid City saw a record-breaking year as well, with the biggest first-day crowd in its history. The dealership actually sets up for vendors and visitors the last weekend of July—more than a full week before the official start of the rally—with its own “Rally at Exit 55.” Black Hills H-D paved an additional five acres for parking and to accommodate the corporate Harley-Davidson demo truck, which, this year, moved from its longtime location in downtown Sturgis.
In fact, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally seems to start—unofficially—sooner every year. Riders are arriving a week or more early; they want to tour the Black Hills before the rally fully ramps up. Press events, rides and bike shows are scheduled the weekend before. Rallygoers seem to leave earlier each year, as well. It’s not unusual to see a caravan of trailers heading out of town as early as Thursday of rally week, leaving Sturgis a ghost town by the last day. However, this year Saturday on Main Street was still packed. Folks seemed loath to leave. In fact, I know a rider or two still hanging around, waiting to head to Milwaukee or beyond for their next adventure.