Sturgis, S.D., Aug. 8–14—Conventional wisdom dictates that the years just before and after a rally’s milestone anniversary—last year was the 70th for Sturgis—always see a downturn in attendance and that was certainly the case this year. Although statistics indicate a drop of more than 10 percent from last year’s numbers, the approximately 400,000 rallygoers in attendance this year were happy about the freer-flowing downtown traffic (except for those of us who sat on our non-moving, overheated bikes for 90 minutes on the way back to town after the Tuesday night concert at the Buffalo Chip), and touring the Black Hills was much more pleasant without tire-to-tire traffic jamming up the parks and canyons.
This year saw a blend of traditional activities mixed with new. Two Monday rides shared top billing as rally kickoff activities—the 4th annual Legends Ride from Deadwood to the Buffalo Chip, and the 9th annual Sturgis Mayor’s Ride. This year’s Mayor’s Ride saw several changes from past years. Not only does Sturgis have a new mayor, Mark Carstensen, but South Dakota also has a new governor, Dennis Daugaard. Both recently learned to ride motorcycles just so they could participate in the Mayor’s Ride. Scary stuff, but the ride went off with no mishaps. The ride itself was a big change from past years with a new route leading 240 riders from Sturgis past Bear Butte State Park, stopping in Belle Fourche for refreshments and entertainment, and continuing through Spearfish Canyon, Lead and Deadwood before riding through Boulder Canyon to return to Sturgis for a lunch hosted by Mayor Carstensen. Proceeds from the $150-per-rider registration fee benefit the Sturgis Volunteer Fire Department, Sturgis Police Reserves and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. And each participant received a gift pack featuring a limited edition decanter of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel and other collectibles.
Other rides that took place included the Hoel Motor Ride sponsored by the Full Throttle Saloon, the Cycle Source Magazine 5th annual Run Through the Black Hills, and the Ridin’ the Rez Poker Run. New rides—at least, those we knew about—were Rumble for the Heartland led by actor Lorenzo Lamas, and the Biker Belles ride led by Jackpine Gypsies Road Captain Meg McDonough and friends.
The Sturgis rally has a long history of racing, with the Jackpine Gypsies MC presenting a full slate of competitions. The motorcycle club, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, went all out with races scheduled every day of the rally, including motocross, half-mile, short track and TT racing, and the ever-popular hill climbs. Harley-Davidson’s Screamin’ Eagle Performance Parts also sponsored two days of non-points AHDRA racing at Sturgis Dragway.
For those looking for a real spectacle, the Loud American Burnout, traditionally scheduled on Thursday afternoon of Rally Week, featured a new twist. This year brought the first-ever Hamsters U.S.A. Invitational Burnouts. The corner of Kinship Road and Lazelle filled with smoke as one Hamster after another burned rubber vying for a winner-takes-all $1,000 prize. This event was really just for fun, though, as the Hamsters had already raised $282,357 for Children’s Care of Rapid City during their annual meeting and dinner earlier in the week.
The heart of the rally
Many folks spend the entire rally hanging around Main and Lazelle Streets, and with this year’s temperatures averaging in the low 80s, strolling around downtown was a delight. Indian Motorcycles, recently purchased by Polaris Industries, displayed their new models on one side of Lazelle, while down the block and across the street, Harley-Davidson had set up a huge exhibit featuring new 2012 models, H-D1 customization, MotorClothes riding gear and other merchandise, the ZR1200 Racing Experience, a free bike wash, motorcycle raffle, ride-in bike show and a women’s area that included the JUMPSTART rider experience. Harley’s demo rides were being conducted on the western end of Lazelle Street near the I-90 entrance.
Vendors and aftermarket parts manufacturers and distributors filled every conceivable space along Lazelle, with the indoor/outdoor Sturgis Motorcycle Expo adding more merchants to the mix. Establishments such as the Side Hack Saloon provided live music, contests and other on- and off-stage diversions and the Knuckle Saloon with its own entertainment offerings provided welcome respite from the serious shopping going on. Broken Spoke Saloon proprietor Jay Allen spent the entire rally week at the Lazelle Street location, pouring all his energy into pumping up the entertainment there. It’s a challenge to list all the activities that took place, but some of the more popular ones involved loud pipes and double bubbles. You’ll just have to show up next year to find out more.
Black Hills Harley-Davidson has an always-crowded retail location on Junction Avenue in Sturgis, but the main store is located in Rapid City, about 25 miles southeast of Sturgis via I-90. The service department does a yeoman’s job of keeping up with travelers’ needs, with an express line for simple service and an assembly-line process for performing more complicated work. And every year, scores of vendors set up shop outside the dealership, selling quality parts and accessories (no trashy T-shirts and do-rags here). Rob Hassay of RacePro Motorsports commented, “I was offered a free 120-foot front on Lazelle, but I wanted to stay at Black Hills H-D.” In spite of lower attendance numbers for the rally, Black Hills Harley-Davidson was doing a bang-up business. Rob continued, “Last year, this location averaged 14,000 people a day. This year, on Tuesday alone, there were 17,000 people here. This is a destination.”
The winner for overall destination of 2011, however, had to go to the Buffalo Chip campground and rally venue. To borrow one of their marketing phrases, “All roads lead to the Chip,” and that certainly rang true this year. Several major rides ended at the huge property that’s just four miles east of Junction and Lazelle. Buffalo Chip proprietor Rod “Woody” Woodruff and his staff have made constant improvements over the three decades the campground has been in existence, and the big new attraction this year was the Tattoo Café. Parties, contests and bike shows took place every day and night, and the concerts rivaled those of any in the U.S. This year’s entertainment included Edgar Winter, TESLA, Buckcherry, Def Leppard, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Leon Russell, Alice Cooper, Bachman & Turner, STYX and more. We caught a fabulous Toby Keith show on Tuesday night with Bret Michaels and Poison as the opening act. And on Wednesday we saw Willie Nelson’s hugely talented son Lukas Nelson who opened for Gregg Allman. Later in the week, the inaugural American Thunder Music Festival Benefit for the Bob Woodruff Foundation with Jeff Bridges, Stevie Nicks and John Fogerty played to an estimated 50,000 music—and party—lovers.
Controlling the flow
Riders cruising down Lazelle Street in downtown Sturgis this year were met by a new sight—three-foot-tall flexible bollards separating the east- and west-bound lanes. In an effort to ease congestion, a new traffic plan on Lazelle was instituted in July, eliminating the center turn lane and creating an additional east-bound lane (three lanes east, two west). The tall orange traffic cones were installed at that time to avoid confusion, especially with the local residents who are accustomed to using the center turn lane. Since the installation of the cones, some merchants have claimed a drastic drop in sales due to the barrier. A second major concern was possible problems caused by emergency vehicles that commonly use the center turn lane for access to the downtown area. Upon speaking to a representative of the Sturgis Police Department after the rally, we learned that the latter concern turned out to be unfounded since the third lane was very lightly used during the week. Apparently rallygoers were somewhat confused by the new configuration and assumed that the center lane was still allocated for left-turn use only. For now, the city government is studying the effectiveness of the new plan to determine whether the cones will be permanent.
There’s no shortage of rolling art at the rally, and although many attendees prefer just to cruise down Main or Lazelle, with some making repeated laps around the city blocks just to show off their rides, many others choose to showcase their pride and joy at one or more of the numerous bike shows held during the week.
The Horse Backstreet Choppers presented its annual bike show on Monday at the Full Throttle Saloon where imagination and creativity ruled over big-buck chromed-out customs. In addition to the trophies awarded by the judges, Full Throttle owner Michael Ballard and his paramour Angie Engel-Carlson selected their top choices. Later in the week, Cycle Source held a nighttime chopper show at the Limpnickie Lot that was set up just outside the west gate of the Buffalo Chip. There was no charge to check out the bike show and the Limpnickie Lot builders’ compound. Roller derby competitions taking place all week along one edge of the Limpnickie Lot were free to spectators, as well.
On Wednesday, the big white tent in back of the Harley-Davidson exhibit on Lazelle was packed full of industry giants along with the curious and a collection of the most bizarre creations this side of a Rube Goldberg convention. This was the 2011 World Championship of Custom Bike Building with international contestants playing to a standing-room-only crowd. Although the competition supports only four classes of entry—Freestyle, Modified Harley-Davidson, Production Manufacturer and Performance Custom—every spare square foot of space under the massive tent was occupied by innovation, lavish designs and engineering marvels that truly push the envelope. In the final tally, the U.S.A. scored some major placements taking third in Freestyle (Kraus Motor Company) and a second place win in the Modified H-D Class (Iacona Custom Cycles). But it was a clean sweep for the United States in both the Production Manufacturer and Performance Custom divisions. That’s when 1st through 5th in the remaining two classes were won by (in order) Darwin Motorcycles, Kiwi Indian, Zero Engineering, Three Two Choppers and Zero again for fifth place in the Production Manufacturer Class along with follow-up 1st through 5th place wins in Performance Custom by AFT Customs, Fuller Hot Rods, RK Concepts, Interstate Battery and 716 Chop Shop. Despite the enormous undertaking and hefty competitive spirit of all the builders, each time a winner’s name was announced, the crowd erupted in applause and genuine appreciation no matter which country took home the honors.
The next day brought the 23rd annual Rat’s Hole bike show to the Buffalo Chip. Entrance to the Rat’s Hole setup and show was free to spectators, and all week inside the Chip, the Rat’s Hole staff manned the Rat’s Hole Bar, where buzz about the show was building and half-price beers were offered with the purchase of a mug. Many motorcycle builders have used this venerated show as a launching pad for their careers, with top-place winners featured on the covers of various U.S. and international motorcycle magazines. This year over 100 entries competed in numerous classes, with Best of Show honors awarded to Scott Laitinen, owner of Scott’s Insane Customs of Lake Havusa, Arizona, for his long and low-slung black-and-copper creation dubbed “Nitemare.” Laitinen worked with owner Ben Beck to design the motorcycle that took 18 months to complete, due in no small part to a number of challenges they had to work through (hence the bike’s moniker).
The most fascinating—and unconventional—show wasn’t a competition at all; rather, an art exhibit inspired by motorcycle racers who climbed steep inclines competing against the clock as well as each other. Michael Lichter’s Slant Artist—An Eccentric View on Motorcycles and Art showcased artist Jeff Decker’s sculptures and items from his personal collection as well as those of friends and other artists. The exhibit featured the first public showing of some of his vintage motorcycles as well as his collection of vintage motorcycle club vests, jackets and other memorabilia. On Tuesday evening, over 500 people attended an industry reception at the exhibit’s venue located outside the east gate of the Buffalo Chip, with Lichter and Decker leading tours through the collection. Decker continued to give tours all week as visitors poured into the exhibit hall. A workshop was also set up inside the exhibit where he was actually sculpting a new piece between tours. Based on Decker’s historical perspective and unique outlook on these art pieces (he feels the collectible aspect is in the story, rather than the inanimate object itself), as well as the rarity and uniqueness of the articles themselves, we’d have to say that this 11th annual Motorcycles as Art exhibit is Lichter’s best yet.