That ol’ Black Hills magic

Attendance down, but fun factor up

Sturgis, S.D., Aug. 4–10—For the past couple of Sturgis rallies, I’ve spent an excessive amount of time rushing from one overly crowded venue to the next rather than enjoying the magnificent surroundings. The soaring of the spirit, the inspiration that I experienced the first year I attended the rally was almost magical, and I missed that feeling. This year, I wanted to take a little time to carve through South Dakota’s canyons and valleys and cruise the lunar-like landscapes of the Badlands. So on my ride to Sturgis, I decided to take the scenic route and get a good dose of Black Hills magic before heading into the belly of the beast.

Just before the entrance to the Badlands Loop, about 100 miles from Sturgis, is the tiny town of Cactus Flat with its lone gas station that houses a bar and grill in the back. I ordered up some barbecue, grabbed a seat at one of the tree-shaded picnic tables, and met a half-dozen new friends who immediately asked if I’d cook them dinner that night and let them sleep on the floor of wherever I was staying in Sturgis. I sure hope they weren’t too upset when they found out I’d given them the address of the City Municipal Park.

After my eat ’n’ greet, I set out on a ride that promised some scenic, curvy roads through the Badlands before it wound its way to Rapid City. However, I forgot that a preponderance of secondary and tertiary roads in that area aren’t paved, so partway down the trail, I aborted my planned route in favor of a leisurely 40-mile loop through Badlands National Park where I got my fill of the wild and desolate landscape. But that’s part of the adventure, part of the magic—you just never know when that freshly surfaced tarmac will suddenly transform itself into a slippery slope of dirt and gravel, eventually disappearing into a cow pasture.

One more ride
Many things about the rally have remained the same through the years—bike shows, hill climbs, concerts, shopping, hanging out at bars, and, of course, the fantastic riding. And while the sluggish economy and out-of-control gas prices are certainly a deterrent to travel these days, the vendors and riders who did make the trip were surprisingly upbeat. As my friend Richiepan, a New Jersey tattoo artist, commented after the rally, “Sturgis is what you make of it.”

There are a few organized rides that have become an annual tradition. For those not familiar with the area, these rides can be a good way to explore some of the more popular scenic routes while helping raise money for various charities. Rally week started off with the traditional Mayor’s Ride—the sixth annual fundraiser to benefit the Sturgis Volunteer Fire Department. It was chilly and overcast as we left the starting point in downtown Sturgis, but even in the rain, Vanocker and Nemo Canyons were still quite enchanting. The sun made a brief appearance at Mt. Rushmore and reappeared once again just before we reached Custer State Park where a barbecue was held for the riders. The limited edition decanter of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel we all received made us forget how cold and wet we’d been. I packed mine in a saddlebag to tote back to the house, and that little welcome gift made me quite popular with the rest of the Thunder Press crew.

Several new rides were added to the rally this year. Rick Fairless led the first-time Ride with Rick to benefit the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. As part of Legends Top 50 Rally Park’s Women’s Day activities, the park hosted the Every Woman Counts charity ride for breast cancer awareness. Brenda Fox, a longtime stunt rider, model, and moto-journalist, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and proceeds of the ride were earmarked to help with her rising medical bills. Leading the ride with Brenda was Malcolm Smith, the legendary motorcycle racer and co-star of On Any Sunday.

One ride I was really looking forward to was the one put together by Cycle Source. The ride, co-sponsored by Jay Allen of the Broken Spoke Saloon, took us north of Sturgis where we stopped at a ranch for a barbecue and some biker games. There were some mellow horses to ride and a few old-fashioned biker games. Nothing like seeing a bunch of guys trying to steer their Harleys around hay bales, lose control, and then drop ’em in the dirt. I can’t remember the last time I laughed that hard, and it didn’t cost anyone a cent to participate. It was just a fun run, worlds away from the noise and the crowds and teeming with that Black Hills sparkle.

On yet another new run, about 250 bikers, including a number of top bike builders, lined up their bikes along the streets of Deadwood for the first-ever Legends Ride. Participants enjoyed a celebrity reception and party at Deadwood Tobacco Company, co-sponsor of the event, before departing on a scenic 50-mile ride that ended at the Buffalo Chip for a concert featuring Sugarland and ZZ Top. The event, organized and co-sponsored by the Buffalo Chip, raised nearly $38,000 for the Kids & Chrome Foundation.

I love the nightlife
The Buffalo Chip campground has, over the years, grown into a full-function rally venue complete with attractions such as nightly concerts, biker games and motorcycle rodeos, hill climbs, stunt riding and shooting exhibitions, beauty pageants, and even a swimming pond with a bar on the beach. In fact, many folks never leave the Chip for the entire week. A couple of events took place this year that’ll probably be talked about for some time to come, like the BAKER Burnout Drags sponsored by Baker Drivetrain. Eight bike builders participated in the tire-shredding, clutch-frying, transmission-blowing first-to-fifth-gear competition. No Baker products were harmed by humans in this exhibition of chaos and mayhem. Luckily, though, each competitor was awarded a new set of Avon tires. How else would they have been able to ride home?

A triple treat was in store for those of us who chose to visit the Chip earlier in the week. The evening kicked off with a party thrown by Sucker Punch Sallys to introduce its latest venture—a beverage line featuring the Original Octane energy drink and Sucker Punch Shine that packs a punch at 120 proof. This is a quite unusual venture for a successful motorcycle manufacturer, but I guess anything goes in this economy. Official Thunder Press taste-tester, Northern California bureau chief “LoDown” Dan Parker, commented, “The new SPS Shine was mixed with the very tasty creamsicle-orange Original Octane drink. It hit my stomach with all the subtlety of a SCUD missile. Whew! Good thing I had only one shot and it would be several hours before I had to remount my bike.” Folks registered to win a promotional SPS-built Original Octane bobber to celebrate the new energy drink, and a very lucky Arthur James from Arizona was chosen to win the bike in a random drawing.

That same day, presidential candidate Senator John McCain and his wife Cindy were the honored guests for the Buffalo Chip’s annual tribute to American veterans and active duty servicemen. He suggested that his wife Cindy enter the Buffalo Chip’s beauty contest. McCain quipped, “I told her with a little luck, she could be the only woman ever to serve as both the first lady and Miss Buffalo Chip.” His appearance was broadcast to the world via every means imaginable, and started a backlash from factions like right-wing religious groups, several Native American tribal leaders, and, of course, his opponent.

The evening wrapped up with performances by Kellie Pickler and Kid Rock, just two of the outstanding acts that played the Chip that week. Other headliners included Foghat, The Guess Who, Puddle of Mud, Alice Cooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Finger 11, Dierks Bentley and Staind. The other major concert venue, Rock’n the Rally, presented acts by John Fogerty, Kiss, Kenny Chesney and the puzzlingly popular Larry the Cable Guy. And live music could be found in just about any saloon in Sturgis any time of the day or night.

Day tripper
Of course, the abundance of nightlife is only part of the Sturgis story. A number of charity events were held, such as the Builders Breakfast at the Broken Spoke, the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame inductees breakfast, and the Kids & Chrome benefit dinner and auction. This year, there were more bike shows than ever—sometimes two or even three a day; more than any one person could visit. Top-tier builders from all over the world were invited to display their stunning cycles and compete against one another at Champions Park in downtown Sturgis. Legends Top 50 Rally Park held its annual bike show, and ride-in bike shows were presented by Full Throttle Saloon, the original Broken Spoke on Lazelle and at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City where Harley-Davidson hosts a full week of activities.

The Thunderdome at Thunder Road, across from the Full Throttle Saloon, had bike shows scheduled for six days of the rally with a total of about 350 motorcycles competing. Trikes competed one day, The Horse presented its old-school bike show another day, and Rat’s Hole brought its world-famous show on yet a third day. Some stunning examples of rolling art were on display for Dave Perewitz’s first-ever custom bike paint show. As has become tradition, the Metzeler Custom Bike Show was followed by a reception for Michael Lichter’s Stay Gold Custom Motorcycle Art Exhibition. Stay Gold was inspired by, and in honor of, the late Johnny Chop, and the intent was to feature artists who don’t make their living from bike building, yet are living their passion, just as Johnny did. The artists who participated in this exhibition conjured up some captivating imagery; quite unusual for the typical motorcycle rally. Also new this year was the Bikernet Brouhaha produced by Keith “Bandit” Ball and This wasn’t just a bike show; it was a full day of fun with activities like a tattoo contest, the fake orgasm contest, the Honey I’m Home competition, a wet T-shirt (and everything else) contest, and the Ms. Bikernet competition.

The Broken Spoke Saloon marked its 20th anniversary this year, and it would be an understatement to say that it’s being celebrated in style. Jay Allen now has a partner in his business, and new life has been breathed into the Broken Spoke Campground (formerly known as Sturgis County Line) about 11 miles from downtown Sturgis. What started as a biker bar and campground has been expanded to include cabins, permanent bath and shower buildings, a laundry and a general store. The best new feature, though, is what’s billed as the world’s largest biker pool complete with two jacuzzis and a poolside bar. One day Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who was in Sturgis with his Red Wing Motorcycles, stopped at the Campground and rumor has it that he picked up the poolside crowd’s bar tab! Adding to the fun at the Broken Spoke Campground was the Limpnickie lot, a new (for Sturgis) venue featuring next-generation builders, a skate park, the Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show, and a Cycle Source-sponsored bike show. The Wall of Death, vendors, contests, and live music rounded out the scene.

Upside down
Right up until the rally, naysayers claimed that Sturgis would fall drastically short of expectations due to the economy and steeply inflated gas prices, and that people would take “staycations” near their homes instead. It’s true that the numbers were down about 12 percent from last year: the South Dakota Department of Transportation estimated attendance at 445,000 compared with about 507,000 in 2007. Sales and tourism tax revenues from temporary vendors in South Dakota also fell this year, according to the state’s Department of Revenue and Regulation. Reports show that 1,191 vendors displayed and sold products this year as compared to 1,327 in 2007—a 10 percent drop.

Another reason put forth for the drop in attendance was that Sturgis 2008 fell between two big events: the S&S 50th Anniversary bash at the end of July and Harley-Davidson’s 105th anniversary celebration at the end of August. Another possibility is that folks often wait for the “big” anniversaries like the 70th annual Sturgis rally that’ll take place in 2010. Lower attendance at large rallies has been a national trend for the past several years, as well.

Although vendor licenses were down by about 14 percent in Sturgis, there were still nearly 1,200 vendors throughout the city. Rally Department director Pepper Massey commented, “The general feeling is that it was a great year, especially because some people thought the rally would be down by 30 to 50 percent. The vendors who were here did well, the streets weren’t always jam-packed and riders could find parking spaces more easily. People had a better attitude about shopping. In fact, more money was drawn out of ATMs this year than last year. We were happy with the people that came.”

Not every venue experienced a slowdown, as evidenced by the steady stream of traffic in and out of Black Hills H-D in Rapid City. Marketing director Tracy Manning-Egge told me, “We had one of the best rallies we’ve ever had. For some of the days during the rally, we had record-breaking attendance, and sales were up from last year. There were also more vendors this year at our dealership—105, which was 15 more than in 2007.” What makes Black Hills H-D such a big draw? According to Tracy, “We have a premiere location with the best visibility because most people have to ride past us. Plus, we have quality vendors, and this year, we added even more premium vendors like Tag Heuer Eyewear, Michelin Tires, and Eddie Trotta and Thunder Cycle. We also had a 7,500-square-foot lounge and entertainment area, and the food concession was tented and had picnic tables so people hung out longer. And Harley did seminars on parts and accessories and helmets for the first time this year.”

The vibe at Sturgis seemed mellower, more relaxed this year. According to Pepper, the city worked hard to impress upon police officers coming in from other areas that they’re ambassadors for the community, and to try to participate with a more welcome attitude. Sure enough, I didn’t hear complaints about rider profiling like I did last year.

Yes, Richiepan, Sturgis is indeed what you make of it. It was one of the best years yet for me and for many folks I spoke with afterwards. If you were there this year and didn’t feel the magic, well, maybe you’ve forgotten how to look.


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