Seven decades on top

Record crowds party in the Black Hills

Black Hills, S.D., Aug. 6–15—Some say it was the near-perfect weather. Others believe the presence of Harley in the heart of Sturgis was the cause. And then there are those convinced that certain anniversary years automatically garner increased attendance figures. Whatever the stimulus, everyone agrees that the 70th celebration of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was the largest in several years with a 17 percent increase over 2009 as calculated by the South Dakota DOT. The number of temporary vendors in Sturgis for 2010 (1,207) was also up from last year as was the sales and tourism taxes figures. Mount Rushmore even set a daily attendance record when on Tuesday alone, 17,600 visitors plunked down their bucks to see the Heads. So despite the rally’s advanced seniority, the spirit that permeates the magnificence of the Black Hills has never been more vibrant or dynamic. And the numbers seem to prove it.

A homecoming overdue
While many rallies suffer once they reach certain attendance saturation, the Sturgis Rally continues to expand its borders, encompassing more towns featuring additional activities and entertainment. But a major factor in this year’s rally wasn’t about panty parties in Wyoming or Pee-wee Herman leading a chorus line jigging to the Tequila Dance at the Chip. Instead it was Harley-Davidson’s decision to migrate from the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City to the streets of Sturgis proper. Taking a cue from their highly successful relocation program during Daytona Bike Week earlier this year—where they pulled up stakes from their long-standing residency at the Ocean Center convention center and set up shop on Beach Street instead—Harley established themselves in the belly of the Black Hills beast with a series of open-air covered pavilions on the corner of 3rd and Lazelle. And as in Florida, the move substituted the Motor Company’s corporate image with a personal face as H-D employees greeted their customers, shaking hands, slapping backs and making themselves available for questions and demonstrations. The main tent displayed the Company’s 2011 model lineup and their “Fit Shop” that allows a rider to custom tailor their bike for comfort, style and control. The “Welcome Women” canopy offered the ladies a chance to learn how to pick up a downed bike or straddle a Softail Deluxe secured to a stationary roller and bang through the gears. A third tent was packed with MotorClothes and a busy sales staff while a fourth was devoted to Screamin’ Eagle and the “XR-1200 Racing Experience” where visitors “raced” two of the hotrod Sporties head-to-head in a drag strip simulation complete with dyno readouts. A H.O.G. Pin Stop, free bike wash area and a Harley ABS (anti-lock braking system) demonstration rounded out the Motor Company’s new digs and confirmed the move a wise decision.

Monkey on my back
Music offerings were more abundant and diverse than at any time in recent memory. While the weeklong music festival at the Buffalo Chip listed some long-standing biker faves like The Doobie Brothers, Kid Rock, Motley Crue and ZZ Top, the venue surprised everyone when they secured Bob Dylan for a Tuesday night performance. Right up the road, just past Bear Butte, the Broken Spoke Campground offered national entertainment on three stages that included Black Oak Arkansas, the Kentucky Headhunters, Blackfoot, Eddie Money, Great White and Dokken. But probably the biggest surprise was the music on tap at the greatly improved Monkey Rock location. In mid-July, negotiations between Glencoe Campgrounds and the concert promoter for Rock ‘N Rev (DC 3 Global) broke down and the Campground’s five-day concert series was cancelled. After a mad scramble, the promoters approached nearby Monkey Rock USA. Formerly known as Thunder Road, this gigantic circus big top previously housed bike shows, motorcycle art exhibits and musical entertainment. Monkey Rock took over the facility last year and suffered under a lackluster inaugural baptism. But for 2010, the Monkey rocked as Rock ’N Rev erected an elaborate amphitheatre on the 25-acre back lot and brought a youthful selection of talent not normally seen at a biker gathering. Guns ’N’ Roses gave us their first U.S. show in four years (although they started almost 90 minutes late) and were backed up by such notables as Godsmack, Creed, 3 Doors Down, Alice in Chains and Three Days Grace. One of my favorite off-the-hook bands showed up on Wednesday evening when Cage the Elephant took to the stage with Stone Temple Pilots following. So damn refreshing to see some new acts at a bike rally. The new owners also ramped up the Monkey’s interior with what they term a European-styled leisure concept complete with heavy-duty wooden benches, decks and chairs, five stages of dancing gals complete with stripper poles and multiple interior bars. Adjacent to the main facility, a tent housing “Rollin’ Sturgis” pitted several female roller derby teams against each other all week. (I fell in love with Dirty Maple 69 but I’m still not certain if the cause for my affection was due to her leopard skating trunks or the #69 marked on each of her really nice biceps.) Monkey Rock has plans for expansion with a second facility targeted for Daytona Beach in the near future.

And the winner is…
Bike shows are a huge part of the Sturgis experience. And the two major players this year were the venerable Rat’s Hole Bike Show and the Harley-Davidson Ride-In Show. Celebrating its 22nd year at Sturgis, the noted Rat’s Hole Bike Show found a new home this time at the Buffalo Chip (last year they conducted business inside the AMD tent in downtown Sturgis). Thursday’s show and the Rat’s Hole Bar were set up on a paved area inside the main concert and entertainment section. Bonus points were earned if you bought a 34-ounce Rat’s Hole collector’s mug allowing you half-price beer all week. The bike show on Thursday had nearly 100 entries with the awards being presented on stage before the Ozzie Osbourne concert that night. Best of Show was taken by Mario Kyprianides, a dedicated builder from Chopper Culture in Abu Dhabi who traveled to Sturgis solely for this competition. The Rat’s Hole is under contract to stay at the Buffalo Chip through 2015, the 75th anniversary of the rally.

Registration for the coveted Harley-Davidson Ride-In Bike Show started at nine that same morning, producing a dilemma. Overlapping bike shows held on the same dayresult in a decision based on what honors you want to attain. With their newly acquired location on Lazelle, the Harley Ride-In Show was able to secure the adjacent AMD arena for their event, just steps away from their own display. They tallied a total of 66 bikes in 14 classes with famed photographer Michael Lichter shooting studio shots of the bikes and winners after the awards. (That alone is reason enough to enter this contest.)

What’s that smell?
What used to be an impromptu expression of freedom (and testosterone) has now joined the ranks of organized competitions, with burnout pits growing larger and more elaborate each year. The S&S Smokeout took place on Thursday night at the Broken Spoke Campground while the Buffalo Chip conducted its burnout contest on Friday night. The Loud American Burnout, emceed for a second year by Lorenzo Lamas, took place on Wednesday afternoon, with Nick Lee the Burnout King declared winner. Monkey Rock, where Nick performed burnout shows all week, sponsored the Burnout King, who showed his stuff for the huge crowd that gathered on Kinship Road next to the Sturgis Community Center on Lazelle Street. Performing stunts like burning a happy face into the pavement, and spinning the rear rubber until the tire popped, Lee kept going until he was down to the rim, with chunks of rubber sent flying.

The most scientific burnout setup though had to be BAKER Drivetrain’s Smoke-Down Showdown held Monday and Friday nights at the Broken Spoke. Monday night’s competition featured a dozen builders and industry people, including S&S Cycle’s Ken Wolfe who was defending his 2009 championship. For this year’s competition, legendary Land Speed Record competitor and mechanic Wink Eller and the Broken Spoke’s owner Jay Allen built a two-person burnout cage suspended six feet in the air. And rather than BAKER handling the judging, a system was set up where BAKER checked for first gear, the competitor hits an indicator button to signal that fifth gear was reached with BAKER checking again for fifth. The first person to hit fifth gear wins with that honor being achieved by Kevin Alsop of Big Bear Choppers on both Monday and Friday nights while torquing a 145″, 200-horsepower S&S-powered black chopper and reaching fifth gear in a little over two seconds.

The hills are alive
Before it was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, it was the Black Hills Classic. And there’s a good defense that it should have retained that name. This event cannot be defined by a single town no matter how important that town might be. And this rationale was substantiated again this year as thousands of intrepid riders rediscovered their passion for riding and adventure. Although the weather was ideal all week, when the temperatures never crept beyond the mid 70s on Friday the 13th, all superstitions were swept aside as riders took to the hills. At every roadside stop it was common to see groups of riders, independents and couples poring over area road maps, dissecting the Black Hills to maximize their daily riding experience.

And speaking of this lucky day, a Friday the 13th Good Luck Party was held in the Old West mining town of Hill City, about 55 miles south of Sturgis. The Mangy Moose saloon and restaurant hosted the block party along with KickstartTV. com’s Warren and the Trashman who broadcasted live on stage throughout the day and presented live music that night. Several blocks of Main Street were restricted to motorcycles only, with picnic tables, grills, and a ride-in bike show sharing the space. Hill City seems to be a haven for artists, and between the crafts and jewelry shops, street vendors and restaurants, it was a relaxing locale to while away an afternoon. Proceeds from the street party went to Hill City emergency services.

Once you remove yourself from the bustle of I-90 or Highway 385, jumping on the roads leading to Iron Mountain, Needles or Nemo, the road narrows, the temperature drops and the pace slows. At that moment you are entrenched in the heart of the Black Hills and experiencing the essence of the Classic. All week the ebb and flow of the Black Hills backroads were vibrant arteries coursing with two-wheeled lifeblood. I personally rode Spearfish Canyon six times during my seven-day stay.

But one disturbing note that I encountered before leaving my beloved Black Hills was a bizarre creation called Sturgis Asia. Scheduled to take place September 17–21 in Taebaek City, in the Gangwon Province of South Korea, it will feature U.S. motorcycle industry celebrities, hill climbs, a mini moto, concerts, traditional Korean dance and food, a bike show and fashion show and will offer three riding tours across South Korea’s most scenic mountains and rivers. But to call it Sturgis “anything” is just wrong. You can license a name but you can’t export an aura. Sturgis and the Black Hills remain an experience that cannot be duplicated.

So is the uptick in attendance an indicator that our economic woes are ending? Probably not. Bikers are resourceful and plan in advance, usually the last ones affected by a bad economy and the first to rebound. Plus they’ve mastered an important craft—it doesn’t really take a lot of money to really have a lot of fun. So while Ol’ Man Sturgis may be getting a little long in the tooth, this septuagenarian is still quite capable of flexing a little muscle.


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