Skip to content
HOME » MOTORCYCLE TRIPS – Canada and the World » Sturgis Rally (South Dakota)

Sturgis Rally (South Dakota)

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

It’s Tuesday in Sturgis, officially day three of the seven-day Sturgis Rally in August. I’ve never been here before. Like George Hanson’s many failed attempts to make Mardi Gras, I’ve set out for Sturgis in the past, but never quite made it till now. So, here I am, standing on Lazelle Street feeling alive, electrified and mesmerized by the sheer mass and volume of “all things motorcycle.” Check that. I should say, “all things Harley-Davidson” because Sturgis belongs to the Tribe Called Harley—of that there can be no doubt.

Technically, there are many other brands and countless rider archetypes to be seen on the streets of Sturgis during the rally, but they’re here strictly to round out the roster. Certainly, I count more Victory bikes than I’ve ever seen in one place before, and Polaris has made a splash with the unveiling of its Indian brand—Indian media manager Robert Pandya tells me the company needed “unprecedented permitting” from the town of Sturgis to close Main Street and stage its Saturday night “reveal” party on the roof of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum. It was a monster evening: the gathered throng enthused, there was live music, lights, speeches, free beer, and cops jamming traffic, a complete PR win for Polaris and the re-born Indian Motorcycle.

How many people come to the Sturgis rally for this one iconic week (this year was the 73rd edition)? It’s hard to know. Some estimates suggest as many as 700,000, while more conservative numbers put visiting bikers in the 500,000 range. Some guy with Kansas state plates on a dirty Road King tells me he doesn’t believe 500,000 people will pass through Sturgis by the end of the week. “Maybe more like 350,000. Or 325. Something like that. I’ve been coming here for years,” he says with the complete self-assurance of one who’s seen it all. “It’s getting smaller all the time. Trust me on that.” 

It’s hard to hear what he has to say. The non-stop V-Twin roar on Lazelle Street simply overwhelms all other sound. It’s even harder to believe what he has to say. The parade of bikes will continue until this year’s edition of the Sturgis Rally is at last, spent. 

To be sure, the city of Sturgis itself is not anticipating a slowdown of the world’s largest motorcycle rally. In December 2010, Sturgis published a 129-page document called The Sturgis Plan: A Comprehensive Development Plan for Sturgis, SD. This document was commissioned in the same year of the community’s last census. Officially, 6,627 people make year-round homes in Sturgis, the census found. How they survive early August is anyone’s guess. For a solid week this town located on the northern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills swells to the breaking point as it hosts the rally, though the entity known as Sturgis manages the event, as much as it can be managed, and has trademarked the Sturgis Rally brand.( )Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

The 2010 OCP lays down the blueprint for growth and expansion of current facilities as it considers Sturgis’s most critical issues, which are, essentially, how to accommodate growth and in what direction that growth should occur. (Sturgis is surrounded by scenic hills and buttes, with the original grid format laid out in 1878.) 

Today, the Sturgis Rally generates incredible economic activity with revenues from sales taxes and permit fees. But according to The Sturgis Plan most proceeds are used for the costs of the event itself: security, visitor accommodations, utilities, print material, and organization. The city’s net revenue is reportedly very small, estimated in the range of $300,000. Despite net, the plan anticipates no slowdown but instead proposes an expansion of city infrastructure as well as the construction of attractions to draw people into the Sturgis area outside of rally dates. Some of the pitched projects include a “Sturgis Experience” attraction, inspired by the Harley museum in Milwaukee.

In the context of official plans to accommodate the growth of the rally, and judging by what I can see with my own eyes, I find it not credible that the rally is on the wane. When I look around all I see are streets gridlocked with bikers, motorcycles, and event tents stuffed full of leathers, helmets, bands, beer, and various crap for sale. It’s not just crap though; there are some genuinely interesting sights to behold and things to buy. 

That’s what is often forgotten about the Sturgis rally —first and foremost, it’s about the experience of motorcycles. And if you want a truly excellent motorcycle experience, as opposed to exclusively a boozy, rollicking week that ends with you hungover, broke, sunburnt, and sporting a new tattoo, then Sturgis has a depth that could hold you for weeks.

Look carefully beyond the impromptu street parties and the ongoing din at drinking joints like Gunners, One-Eyed Jack’s, the Knuckle Saloon and the Full Throttle—where 100 bartenders and scantily clad shooter babes tend the world’s biggest biker bar—and you’ll see pop-up stores carrying the logos of core aftermarket players. J&P Cycles, Küryakyn, Avon, Vance & Hines, K&N, Renegade Wheels, and many countless others are here in Sturgis promoting their wares. There are opportunities to meet superstar customizers like Arlen Ness and Roland Sands at the long-running Rat’s Hole Custom Show, which is called the “King of all custom shows,” though I’m not sure who coined the term. Maybe it was Karl “Big Daddy Rat” Smith himself, who died in 2002, but not before he was established as a bigger than life character in a town full of characters. The Rat’s Hole show continues to thrive after 25 years, and may have been one of the reasons the AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building relocated the crowning final round of its global series from Sturgis to Europe this year. Amid the blur that is Sturgis, even the world’s top custom builders can be lost.Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

If you skip the bar scene for a day, you might find time for demo rides from the big factories. Harley-Davidson’s demo fleet was parked on Lazelle alongside Victory, but it was the chance to ride one of the three new models from Indian that had riders lined up 100 deep at all times.

I visited Michael Lichter’s “Motorcycles as Art” exhibit in the Buffalo Chip Campground Complex, which has a new theme every year. This year, the focus was on the café racer culture with a collection of 32 bikes and 21 custom-painted café-style helmets. Some of the bikes on display were predictable, but I noted some surprises, such as an exquisite monoshock Yamaha Virago SV920 with a Benelli tank and a motor tuned to make 65 hp at 8,000 rpm.

I could hear the roar of Top Fuelers when I rode by the Sturgis Dragway on my Indian Vintage, and traffic out of the venue was brisk even though it’s easy not to think about Sturgis’s racing history past while you’re watching ladies coleslaw wrestling or the World Championship Pickle Lickin’ Contest (“Calling all ladies. Do you have what it takes to win?”). But the fact is, the rally as we now know it has race roots that began one mid-summer day in 1938 when a group of riders called the Jackpine Gypsies raced big American motorcycles into the hills of Sturgis. 

A local Indian dealer named Pappy Hoel, who is often credited for the creation of the Sturgis Rally, founded the Jackpine Gypsies motorcycle club. His name lives on, virtually on every corner of Sturgis. Consequently, so does the Indian legacy (as the new Indian company is quick to point out). If the Sturgis Rally now belongs to Harley, well, let’s just remember who started this thing in the first place. This is the unspoken message from current Indian executive, as they connect the dots between themselves, the Jackpine Gypsies, and the earliest days in the glorious saga that is Indian (“America’s first motorcycle”).

Outside Sturgis, thousands more bikers prowl the highways and side roads of the Black Hills looking like an entire nation. Biker Nation. The 75-mph South Dakota I-90 is the main pipeline lending immediate access to places like Spearfish, Lead, Rapid City and Deadwood, which are all drawn into the Sturgis vortex for at least one week of the year. For seven days in August, they are extensions of Sturgis, and its benefactors, in terms of economy.

To the west of the I-90 lie the famed Black Hills themselves, threaded by sinuous canyon roads, historic tunnels, and ancient trails. Here is the very epicentre of Americana, four presidents carved into rock. The Black Hills exerts a powerful pull that is not easily understood until you’ve arrived. Then it all becomes quite clear. 

The power lies in the sheer mass of Biker Nation that arrives in continual waves, and it lies in the hills that still hide herds of free-ranging bison, and the scars of the 1874-77 Black Hills gold rush that ripped the land away from First Nations who saw it as a sacred and spiritual place. 

The volatility of the gold rush necessitated the US Cavalry’s Fort Meade at present-day Sturgis and it built towns like Deadwood, that live on as frontier legends. Wild Bill Hickock was killed during a poker game in Deadwood while famously holding aces and eights, the “dead man’s hand.” Today, with dozens of period correct structures still standing, Deadwood thrives on the glorification of its past. It seems every second watering hole or diner is called Wild Bill’s and even the town’s tourism department has pitched in with a marketing campaign that invites visitors to “Find your inner outlaw in Historic Deadwood. Try your luck in one of our 80 gaming halls.”

I walk the streets of Deadwood searching for Wild Bill’s grave as I await the start of the sixth annual Legends Ride that will see 400 other riders including me leave Main Street, Deadwood through Vanocker Canyon and arrive in Sturgis for a party and concert with Kid Rock, and local bands such rockabillies The Living Deads featuring the upright bass work of Amy Winehouse lookalike, Symphony Tidwell. She too is a character, though the real “Legends” are celebrities like Paul Teutul and Steve Tyler who make annual appearances at this charity fund raiser.Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

There are many “characters” heading on the Legends ride, such as biker gypsies like Betsy Huelskamp (p. 58, top centre photo) who spend their lives without fixed homes roaming the American west on motorcycles, looking for something they probably can’t name themselves.

They’ve been here often and are well-known figures in Sturgis where bohemians and lifelong drifters and eternal road trippers are an accepted part of the fabric. That’s because there’s Sturgis itself, and then there is the mythic “road trip to Sturgis” which is still a rite of passage for bikers, who gauge their commitment to Old School biker values and traditions against the number of appearances they’ve made at Sturgis. Arlen Ness says he’s been to Sturgis now 42 years in a row. Like the guy on the Road King with the Kansas plates, you’ll often hear expressions of fealty to the Sturgis Rally. “I’ve been coming here every year since (fill in blank).” 

Some riders say they’re either in Sturgis, on the road to Sturgis, or planning their next ride to Sturgis. It’s all a state of mind and matter of lifestyle for them, although not everyone makes it. By the second day of the rally five riders either in the vicinity of Sturgis or in the immediate hills were killed in crashes, including 56-year-old Roberto C. Gaspar of Edmonton who died in a single-vehicle accident while riding on Nemo Road through twisting Vanocker Canyon. 

With temperatures in August usually reaching into the mid-80s, with the odd afternoon thunderstorm, it’s tempting to take advantage of South Dakota’s tolerant no-helmet law. With the wind in your hair and the sun kissing your face, nothing feels finer and freer than a helmet-less ride. But this is precisely how many Sturgis riders will die—without a helmet or a care in the world. Wisely, South Dakota has ruled that riders younger than 18 must wear helmets.

For some, the ride to the Sturgis rally is just the beginning of an entirely different set of problems. By day two, rally arrests were already up from 2012 especially DUIs (83 in 2013/71 in 2012) and drug arrests (67/39) with total warnings having risen from 1,191 to 1,138. 

I’m not sure what level of lunacy or debauchery is required to receive a “warning” but Sturgis does advise visitors “urinating and drinking in public is forbidden.” Technically, so is public nudity but the restriction seems thin and contrived in light of local events such as the Fake Orgasm Contest or the squads of scantily clad young women walking the streets with ad banners and freebies to entice customers to eat, drink, or “GET WILD” somewhere.

Just outside the town limits is the Buffalo Chip Campground that kicked off the rally with “seven amped up bands, sexy dance troupes, knock out bikini models, and FREE tailgate beer until the kegs run dry!” 

If Sturgis seems suddenly prurient with tsk-tsking bylaws against public nudity and urination, there are likely many very good reasons for that. But I had no intention of urinating publicaly or getting naked on Lazelle. That’s better left to the pros, I reckon. For me, simply being here is thrill enough. I felt a self-aware spike as I stood there on Lazelle. Finally, I’ve made it here, I said to myself. I had a sense of well being, that even the cacophony of open pipes could not diminish. A fellow walked up to me while I was in mid-reverie. He seemed dazed by the street scene, and mumbled something vague about how unsettling and foreign to himself he found it all. I tried to explain that any serious rider should experience Sturgis, at least once. But I soon gave it up as a lost cause. If someone doesn’t understand what Sturgis means even while standing at its very nerve centre, then words are meaningless.

By John Campbell


Keep independent motorcycle journalism alive! If you found this article interesting or useful, please consider sharing.