Originally posted in the Rapid City Journel.
70 years of the rally: Two wheels, seven decades, countless stories
In the beginning, there were the road racers, the fans and a few gawkers. And there was J.C. "Pappy" Hoel and his dream of the Black Hills Motor Classic.
Early gatherings included a 210-mile endurance run with the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club to the southern Black Hills. Entry fee was 50 cents.
At the start of a new century, almost 400,000 people attended the rally, as many coming to see the concerts as come to see the bikes. Today, a pass to see Bob Dylan and Kid Rock costs $70.
In the 1950s, it attracted people from across the country. Hall of Fame cyclist Dick Mann blew around the half-mile dirt track in 27.12 seconds. The 1960s found Sturgis offering free parking on Main Street for motorcycles.
But as the popularity of the rally grew, so did the problems. Rowdy crowds and near riots throughout the '70s and '80s left the residents of Sturgis wondering if it was worth it. In 1982 the rally's future was put to a vote. It lived to see another day - by 88 votes.
Violence would still flare during the '90s, but the tide was turning - more concerts, more people and more money.
As the current decade draws to a close, the Sturgis rally has evolved. Now the crowd is made up of people who have been going to the rally since they were children. They are bringing their children and the rally's future.
'40s: Heck of a good time
They came to Sturgis from Florida, California, Michigan, Long Island, N.Y., New Mexico, Canada, even Bangor, Maine.
But in the 1950s, it wasn't big-name concerts, custom motorcycles parked down Main Street and vendor booths in every parking lot and storefront drawing hundreds of cycling enthusiasts nationwide to the Black Hills.
In its second full decade, the Black Hills Motor Classic was still about one thing: motorcycle races.
"The people that came here in those days were here for the races," said Joe DesJarlais, a lifelong Sturgis resident and campground owner. "It wasn't a motorcycle rally. We referred to it as the 'motorcycle races.'"
During the weekend-long classic, which stretched to four days by 1952, two full days of races were held at the Sturgis fairgrounds, heralded in a 1951 newspaper advertisement as the "Fastest Dirt Track in the West - Where Speed Wins."
"Anyone interested in high-class speed racing will not regret attending the races in Sturgis," manager J.C. "Pappy" Hoel told the Sturgis Tribune in 1956.
In the mid-1950s, Sturgis played host to the Five-Mile National Championship race, the only American Motorcycle Association-sanctioned championship at that distance.
Big names in racing, including future AMA Hall of Fame inductees Dick Klamfoth and Bill Tuman, descended into Sturgis for the marquee races, along with dozens of novice and amateur riders looking to win their share of $2,400 in prize money.
Track records were broken in 1950, 1951, 1952 and again in 1959, when Dick Mann, another Hall of Fame cyclist, blew around the half-mile dirt track in 27.12 seconds.
Most years, thousands of spectators filled the grandstands, according to newspaper reports, with an incredible 7,500 people turning out for the first Five-Mile National Championship in 1952.
Before and after the races, sponsored activities offered motorcycle enthusiasts an opportunity to get on their own bikes for Jackpine Gypsy-led tours of the Black Hills, a trail ride "for those who feel that road riding is too tame," and a "nearly perpendicular" hill climb, according to reports in the Sturgis Tribune.
Other featured events reflected the times - a community dance, street carnival, traveling musical extravaganza and the naming of the "neatest dressed" lady and gentlemen riders.
In those early years of the motor classic, the whole town, including the high school band, packed the grandstands or sat on parked cars to catch a glimpse of the races, DesJarlais said.
"It was hot, dirty; the track was dirt. They didn't have any dust control," DesJarlais said. "I remember it as being real noisy. The bikes are like they are today; they didn't have mufflers."
"There was always a very, very large following of people who came to the races," he said. "It was an amazing thing."
- Kevin Woster
'50s: Off to the races: Like kids in a candy store.
That's how Bob Helmer and his buddies felt back in 1947, when they drove over from Belle Fourche to attend the Sturgis rally.
It was a noisy candy store, of course, with streets for aisles, dirt jumps for display cases and a jumble of rumbling, hopped-up treats for young West River guys looking for a gander at the latest in motorcycles and the people who rode them.
"It was a heck of a good time," says Helmer, 80, who now lives in Rapid City. "Everybody was there for a good time."
In that respect, not much has changed since the Sturgis rally began in 1938. Early events featured a gathering of cycles that included a 210-mile endurance run with the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club to the southern Black Hills. Entry fee was 50 cents.
Other featured events were jumping exhibits, motorcycle stunts and a 10-mile grand race before 2,000 spectators.
Helmer wasn't among them. He was in elementary school that first year. And he was still too young to get there in 1941, just a few months before a Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor thrust the nation into World War II.
The war led to the cancellation of the young cycling event, as high-class racers were scarce and difficult to attract. The event was revived in 1946, producing a net financial return to organizers of $2,000. That mark was soon surpassed.
At that point, the rally was still about races, mostly. But it was already beginning to evolve into the social extravaganza that would follow. By 1949, Main Street of Sturgis was being blocked off for events and contests.
But the entertainment value of the event was growing in unofficial ways, as well. Helmer saw that in the 1948 rally, following his graduation from high school.
"They'd ride up and down the street, and the gals would stand up behind them," Helmer said. "They were scantily dressed, or less."
That part of the rally has been maintained, but barely. The flashes of nudity once seen in Sturgis have been limited to more remote locations or an occasional daring moment downtown. And the show goes on, with a treat-like appeal that still brings Helmer back.
"We always make it up there," he said. "We still go up and watch them ride up and down the street."
- Emilie Rusch
'60s: New money for Sturgis
In the early years, racing and friendship lured motorcyclists back to Sturgis every summer for the Black Hills Motor Classic, but as the 1960s approached, the Jackpine Gypsies' annual race gathering was faltering.
"We seriously considered skipping a few years," recalled Neil Hultman, a member of the club since 1947.
Racing gave birth to today's rally, something people tend to forget, Hultman said.
"We had many professional and national riders involved," Hultman said.
And, there were locals like Rice Honda's founder Don Rice, 76, who rode in the first short-track race held at Sturgis. Rice, who competed in various racing events, rode a 1960 Scrambler he fondly refers to as "Clyde."
Racing in the '60s didn't require a big trailer or powerful pickup to haul your bike.
"I'd stick some wire, tape and a crescent wrench in my pockets and ride to Sturgis, race and ride back home," Rice said. "It ain't that way no more."
People spent the day competing, and ended it downtown at Gunners, where people gathered for a "few brewskies."
Everyone knew everyone else, their bikes and their racing numbers, Rice said. "The friends I gathered on in the racing circuit were invaluable."
The classic was more of a family affair 50 years ago, Rice said.
Attendance was moderate. An estimated 700 people attended the races in 1960, but the Jackpine Gypsies were concerned about the event's future.
Sturgis was struggling right along with the classic, Hultman said.
Most classic attendees were committed motorcycle enthusiasts involved in racing and clubs, Hultman said.
"We had a few we called 'one-percenters,'" Hultman said. They were the riders who were not always law-abiding citizens. Locals were reluctant to encourage these questionable visitors.
Then, in the mid-1960s, Bruce Walker, an enterprising local banker, convinced the city to give motorcycles free parking on Main Street.
Walker argued that the classic brought new money to town and the area - money that could make its way into the pockets of local people, Hultman said.
Free parking was introduced in 1964, when one block of Main Street was designated for motorcycles.
The next year, the annual gathering was extended from three days to five days.
About that same time, local churches started serving meals, and vendors started appearing.
Locals started to get to know their visitors and found out the riders were just people like themselves.
"That helped sell the event," Hultman said.
At the close of the decade, Sturgis was greeting more than 2,000 visitors.
- Andrea Cook
'70s: Danger in the park
Batten the hatches and lock up your daughters.
For Sturgis residents, that was the general sentiment during the 1970s, when the annual motorcycle rally rolled around.
"During that time, we had mostly gangs and hard-core bikers," said Russ Hilton, who served as Sturgis police chief from 1974 -1978. "There wasn't much of a family affair, like it is today."
A couple thousand people attended the event back then, but if you weren't in Sturgis, you might not have known the rally was happening. The action hadn't yet spread through the Hills.
Even Sturgis' Main Street was quiet except for a few bikes parked in one block. The first vendor licenses were issued in the 1970s, but in 1979, there were only nine of them. (In 2000, 945 vendors were licensed inside city limits.)
In the 1970s, rally activity was centered in two places: the race track, and Sturgis City Park, where most bikers camped and partied hard.
Police tried to keep gangs out of the park, but there were plenty of scruffy riders on rat bikes pitching their tents on the grass. At the same time, Hilton said, "doctors and lawyers" were also riding their Harley-Davidsons to Sturgis.
One night during the rally (which became a seven-day event in 1975), the community held a feed in the park for bikers.
"That went over real good. But later on, after dark, when they started drinking, then the whole tempo changed," Hilton said. "We had a lot of professionals. But the minute they got some booze, their personality changed, I guess."
It was left to about a dozen Sturgis police officers and 15 reserve officers to keep the peace, with help from the Meade County Sheriff's Office. Those officers were tested in 1976, when a "near riot" broke out in city park.
"They started the highway on fire with gasoline and then started running the bikes through it. We had a pretty tough time for awhile there," Hilton said. "They shot holes in our fire trucks."
The trigger? "Booze," Hilton said. "Just a bunch of drunks having fun, I guess."
Afterward, police made 104 arrests in 36 hours. Not all of the arrests were for disorderly conduct.
"I arrested a couple (of people) for being naked," said Hilton, who recalled the two being farmers from Nebraska. "I put them in jail naked. ... In the morning, I marched them into court naked."
Like many bikers of the time, "they just thought they could come to Sturgis, that it was a wide-open town, and that they could get away with anything they wanted to," Hilton said. "They learned their lesson."
Jim Bush, now Sturgis's police chief, became a reserve officer in 1978. He still remembers being out on patrol and thinking: "The rally is out of control. They're starting to park in the second block of Main Street."
The thought seems quaint now, knowing what was right around the corner for Sturgis at the time.
- Heidi Bell Gease
'80s: Rally on the ropes
It was 1982: "the year the rally almost ended."
After years of dealing with increasingly rowdy bikers, the city capped the number of campers allowed to stay at the city park at 2,500 and increased rates to $4 per night from $2, causing many to take refuge elsewhere and call for a boycott of the park.
Campers were required to register, produce a license number and abide by the city's "no visitors" regulation. The park was divided into two sections to cut down on drag racing and gain some control. But the efforts backfired.
Campers tore down gates, torched outhouses, threw rocks at city employees and used guns to threaten a backhoe operator. Sturgis Mayor Robert Voorhees ordered all employees out of the park.
Campers also tore out the speed bumps, burned a motorcycle and chopped down two trees.
Months later, the city issued several orders designed to control bikers further, including closing the city park to camping. Angry residents circulated a petition to end the rally. That November, by a vote of 846-758, voters elected to keep the rally.
With campers moved out of downtown and new rules in place, things slowly began calming down. In 1983, Sturgis public works director Clancy Walsh said closing the city park made his office's duties much easier.
Officials estimated the 1987 crowd was 60,000; 1988 numbers were reported to be up by about 10 percent from that.
Police reported calmer, safer rallies in the second half of the decade, with fewer biker fatalities.
"Bikers and law enforcement in town seemed to get along pretty well," then-Police Chief Carl Schaefer told the Journal in 1986.
In 1987, Chamber of Commerce president Mark Keffeler said the city had succeeded in making the rally more profitable and family-oriented.
"We were letting them camp in city park," he said. "We turned it over to free enterprise, and it's working out well."
The party shifted to private campgrounds.
The Buffalo Chip was in the planning stages in 1981 when the city first considered ending the rally, owner Rod Woodruff said. It opened in 1982 but wasn't immediately the crowded rock'n'roll party it has become.
"We said, 'We're going to have the party out in the pasture,'" Woodruff recalled. An attorney for one of the original owners, Woodruff took over ownership in 1983 or 1984, he recalled. There might have been 200 people "at the most" camping there in 1982. "It was dinky," he said. "We sat around and told tall tales."
By 1986, a Journal reporter wrote, the party had grown to include thousands of bikers, some of whom smoked marijuana and egged on women to participate in "amateur nude contests."
Over the years, the city required more infrastructure and public health improvements, and the campground grew with vendors, campsites, cabins and stages.
Woodruff said the evolution and growing pains the rally went through in the 1980s were essential to making the event what it is today.
Some might see it as significant that in 1989, the last year of the decade, event founder Pappy Hoel died at age 84. It was the end of one era in rally history and the dawn of another.
"The '80s was a period of growth and change," Woodruff said. "It was a good decade. What it did is it just gradually led up to the explosion that was 1990."
- Barbara Soderlin
'90s: The turning point
The 1990s redefined the Sturgis rally as a whole new animal.
That decade began with the 50th anniversary rally, which drew the largest crowd in the event's history.
"That really elevated everyone's awareness of the Sturgis Rally across the world. It totally did," said Terry Rymer, general manager of Black Hills Harley-Davidson.
Rymer remembers watching a 1990 episode of "Roseanne" that mentioned the Sturgis rally. That's when he realized that the iconic event was in for a whole new level of publicity and exposure.
"You know that it's going to be big when they're saying it on one of the most popular sitcoms of that era," Rymer recalled. "I remember thinking we better get ready."
Crowds that year were estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000, bigger than ever before, and up 34 percent from 1989's traffic. "Everything just got absolutely overrun," Rymer said. "We ran out of everything."
Sales tax receipts from the temporary rally vendors in Sturgis and the Northern Hills prove that the 1990s saw business boom, according to the state Department of Revenue.
Tax receipts from that class of vendors in 1989 totaled $49,240. By 1999, those same tax receipts had ballooned to $783,835. The biggest jump during the decade occurred in 1994, when sales tax receipts from temporary vendors rose 107 percent over 1993. Those figures don't include permanent business receipts.
The 50th rally may have marked the beginning of a changing demographic for Sturgis-bound bikers, but it was also still attracting plenty of hard-core bikers with gang connections. The Outlaws, Sons of Silence, Banditos and Hells Angels all had a presence at the 50th rally. Crime and violence came with them.
The first fatal shooting of a biker by police occurred in 1990, when Trevor John Hansen, a biker from Liverpool, Australia, was shot and killed after charging police officers with a large knife. There were 11 fatalities, including accidents, in 1990, a record that still stands.
Attendance dipped in 1991, but that year saw the first bank robbery at gunpoint that century in Sturgis, when the Meade Plus Federal Credit Union was robbed during the rally.
"We never lost that criminal element, but we added the wealthier one by the mid 90s," Rymer said. "You started seeing big motor coaches, huge trailers."
Crowd size would never return to pre-1990s levels. There have been consistently larger crowds and increasingly sophisticated consumers ever since. "It took such a jump in the 1990s. Now, it's a Black Hills rally. Now, Hill City is full, Custer is full, Spearfish is full."
As the rally-going crowd evolved during the 1990s, so did just about every other business and vendor that serves the rally.
"The major stakeholders of the rally - not only Harley-Davidson, but also the Buffalo Chip, the city of Sturgis, the campgrounds - everyone just stepped up their game," Rymer said. "The rally infrastructure, the customer service, the tourism industry, the campgrounds, even the Department of Transportation with its road construction," were forced to adapt to a different rally.
"The 1990s was a big wake-up call about what the rally could be," said Al Reiman, co-owner at Black Hills Harley-Davidson.
'00s: A new century
It's come full circle.
In the early days, the Sturgis motorcycle rally is what Sturgis Mayor Maury LaRue would call a "campfire rally."
"Folks would just get together and meet and share experiences from their part of the country and enjoy the company of other motorcycle enthusiasts."
Fast forward 70 years and add vendors, celebrities, concerts, competitions, tours, marketing and hundreds of thousands of bikers more than the first couple hundred who took in the Black Hills, and it will bring you to the present day.
The most recent decade included two shootings and one fatal stabbing (one shooting in Custer State Park in 2006, the other at Sturgis' Loud American Roadhouse in 2008; the stabbing was on a shuttle bus in 2006), but as the generations who helped shape what has become a national attraction have aged, the original "campfire rally" mentality has again emerged, LaRue said.
"There was a time period when night life was pretty lively," he said. "But as the Gen-Xer gets older and realizes he's not indestructible, they calm themselves down."
But it isn't without a push to include the younger generations, he said.
"We've been very thoughtful about what can we do to encourage the next generation of bikers," he said.
And they are coming, he said, as seen by some of the concerts held at local venues.
He says most of those rallygoers are young Gen-Xers and millennials.
Nick Davis is one of those. The 26-year-old from Rapid City has been attending the rally since he was a child. Now, he rides his motorcycle - a Street Glide Harley-Davidson - to the rally every year. It's an event that is too big to miss, he said.
"Even before we had motorcycles in the family, I went and walked the streets," he said.
But he doesn't see enough young people at the event riding motorcycles. He brought his wife to the rally for the first time about five years ago.
"She looked around and said, 'This is my Dad's friends riding motorcycles,'" he said.
Davis said the motorcycle rally is a place where "there's a lot of doctors, insurance agents, lawyers that come out and go crazy," and not many bikers his age who do the same - yet.
He plans to continue attending the event into the next decade. It's become "more tame" he said, and the level of security and law-enforcement presence has created a safe environment. He takes his family and friends every year, and some out-of-town family travels to the Black Hills annually for the rally, creating a "kind of family reunion."
Several moments helped shape the rally in this decade: Organizers marked the 67th anniversary in 2007 as the largest ever, with almost 400,000 people, presidential candidate John McCain campaigned at the event in 2008, the City of Sturgis filed a 2004 lawsuit against another rally to protect its name, and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler fell off a stage at the Buffalo Chip in 2009.
But Davis' best memory is one he suspects people of all generations share.
"I don't think anyone forgets the first time you ride a motorcycle down Main Street," he said. "You remember."
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