Black Hills Knowledge Netowork

The Sturgis motorcycle rally takes over the town and much of the Black Hills during early August.
The Sturgis motorcycle rally takes over the town and much of the Black Hills during early August.
Black Hills Knowledge Network photo/Chelsea Gortmaker

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

The first Sturgis Motorcycle Rally took place on August 14, 1938. The Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club, as well as Clarence "Pappy" Hoel, also of the Jackpine Gypsies and owner of an Indian Motorcycle Shop in Sturgis, were the organizers of the event and would be for several decades.

In order to better publicize the Black Hills Motor Classic, as it was first called, "Pappy" fitted one of his Indian motorcycles with a sidecar that was able to hold Topsy, his Shetland pony. The two rode around the Black Hills promoting the Classic and gathered quite a lot of attention.

On the day of the event, nine men raced their motorcycles in Sturgis before a crowd of about 175. Other unique motorcycle activities included intentional board wall crashes, ramp jumps, and head-on collisions. Prize money was awarded totaling $500. The races were considered a huge success. Most of the people who attended Sturgis slept in the Hoel's backyard, where a rented circus tent was set up to accommodate them.

"Pappy" Hoel is considered the father of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. He was born in 1904 andbefore beginning his Indian Motorcycle franchise, worked for his family's ice business. His wife, Pearl, was also a motorcycle enthusiast that assisted Pappy with the Sturgis Rally. Pappy Hoel was one of the most successful motorcycle dealers in South Dakota. He died in 1989 and was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, Pearl was inducted in 1991.

Due to gas rationings because of the war, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was not held in 1942 or 1943. In 1944, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally started again and has gone on for nearly 74 years, becoming one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world. In 1949, 11 years after the first motorcycle rally, Main Street in Sturgis was closed for the first time in order to hold a two-hour awards ceremony.

The original idea behind the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was to provide entertainment to the visitors by performing motorcycle stunts and racing. In 1961, the Jackpine Gypsies introduced the famous motorcycle hill climb, where brave cyclists would drive up an almost vertical hill on their motorcycles, looking to make it to the top first without crashing.

The Motocross races were also introduced in this year and still go on today. The Gypsy Tour, led by the Jackpine Gypsies, was a two-day motorcycle riding event with an overnight stay in Custer. During the 1960s, the tour saw a large increase in riders and one year had more than 330 riders. That ride was hyped as the "Biggest in History."

In 1965, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally moved from a three-day event to a five-day event, which provided more time for activities and visitation. 1975 brought another change for the Sturgis rally because it moved to a 7-day event, which has continued to modern times.

Vendors Hit the Scene

The first temporary vendor was set up in 1974 at the Sturgis Auditorium and from that year on the vendors kept coming. In 1979, Sturgis began licensing temporary vendors. By 1988, 177 vendors were licensed in Sturgis. At today's rally scene, vendors fill up the entire town of Sturgis.

Camping in Sturgis has always been a big part of the rally owing its popularity to the early days of the rally when the attendees slept in Pappy Hoel's backyard. The Sturgis City Park was a popular place for visitors of the rally to camp and also party. In 1983, the City Park campsite closed down due to a port-o-potty fire that broke out because of rowdy campers. As the rally approaches it's 75th anniversary in 2015, rally attendees fill up campgrounds, hotels and local residences throughout the Black Hills.

Locals have always been a key part of the rally. In 1986, Sturgis T-shirt shop owner Tom Monahan donated his artwork of the Official Rally Logo to the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce. The city of Sturgis still uses his brand to this day, and finding his logo is a telltale sign that you are seeing an authentic Sturgis brand item.

Name Changes As Crowds Grow

In 1991, the Black Hills Motor Classic, as it had been called up to that point, officially changed its name to the Sturgis Rally and Races. Attendees of the rally had always known it as "Sturgis", but the organizers responsible for the name changes wanted to emphasize the rally's historical roots of racing.

In 2002, the City of Sturgis formed the city Rally Department within the city government to take the place of all prior contract labor hired to promote and organize the Sturgis motorcycle rally. All local employees are in charge of setting up the banners, street signs, traffic lights, driving lanes and street blocks as well as managing the massive amount of garbage that the Sturgis rally creates.

Many visitors to the Sturgis rally do not ride their bikes the entire way. Many choose to fly or drive in and have their bikes delivered to them via trailer or airplane. Once they get near South Dakota, many take their bikes out and ride the remaining miles into Sturgis.

Attendance at the Sturgis Rally has skyrocketed since its humble beginnings. In 1938, the first year the rally took place; just 200 people were in attendance. During the 1940s, that number grew to 5,000. In the 1980s, anticipated attendance for the rally was at nearly 30,000 people. By 1993, that number grew to 150,000. In 2009, the average rally attendee spent more than $1,000 in Sturgis.

In 2012, the estimated attendance for the rally quadrupled from the 1990s with almost 500,000 people being in attendance. Sturgis rally numbers are only expected to keep on growing, with 2015's 75th rally expected to attract the most people since the 60th anniversary in 2000, where Sturgis saw its highest attendance ever of an estimated 600,000 people.

The Sturgis rally attracts visitors from all over the world, from Japan to Australia to all 50 of the United States.

75th Anniversary of the Sturgis Rally

In 2015, the Sturgis Rally celebrated it's 75th anniversary. The event attracted over 773,000 people to the rally, breaking the record of 633,000 people during the 60th anniversary in 2000. The rate of bikers entering Sturgis during the opening weekend was 40 percent higher than in 2014.

The Dahl Fine Arts Center put on an exhibit titled RESPECT: A Contemporary Motorcycle Exhibit.The exhibit ran from July 24 to September 7. According to Pepper Massey, executive director of the Rapid City Arts Council, "RESPECT isn't about the outrageous. That has already been done, perhaps over done. RESPECT is a celebration of the everyday person, rider and motorcyclist and their individual experiences that collectively draw them back to a place they feel a part of and deep connection to." The exhibit set out to avoid the more colorful characters that have come to define the Sturgis Rally.

During this Rally, there were a record number of Rally-related injuries. 1,143 people were admitted to emergency rooms and urgent care between July 30 and August 9. Compared to 2014, there was a 29 to 59 percent increase in emergency admittances across all Regional Health locations in Sturgis, Custer, Spearfish, Rapid, and Lead-Deadwood.


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