An unforgettable event

There were rally points and rally cries, big expectations and big crowds. There were triumphs and tragedies with a man named Danger defying the odds, not only by bounding over 22 cars on an old Harley XR750, but by first beating cancer. If only every Sturgis story had a happy ending. Unfortunately for too many, it did not.

Because a record number of motorcycle fatalities associated with the rally were recorded at the 75th annual event, 13 in all according to a Rapid City Journal report posted Sunday, Aug. 9. It’s easy to rationalize: More riders equates to more accidents. But any time someone rides to a rally expecting to have the time of their life and doesn’t make it home cuts to the bone. It doesn’t have to be that way. While we’re proponents of the freedom motorcycling brings, we observed only a handful of riders wearing helmets at the rally and saw even fewer wearing full gear. Add factors like unfamiliar roads, inebriation, and the sheer amount of riders with different riding abilities and you have the perfect storm for fatal accidents. While we arrived home on a natural high from all the fun we had at the 2015 Sturgis Rally, we’ve also spent a somber moment in honor of those who didn’t make it back to their loved ones.

While the magic million was tossed around freely pre-rally, those numbers were ambitious. Maybe the thought of a million people squeezed into a town with a regular population of 6,627 people scared some away. Plus nailing down an accurate count is almost impossible. Bikers are spread out all over the Black Hills and surrounding towns. Some come in early then get out of dodge, others revel in the midweek crowds, while a handful wait until the last weekend to get their party on. KEVN Black Hills Fox reported that the “South Dakota Department of Transportation counted 510,749 vehicles entering Sturgis during the official dates of the Rally (Monday, Aug. 3, through Sunday, Aug. 9).” KEVN added that 236,283 vehicles tripped counters on the weekend before the official start of the rally, which is when we arrived. By Friday, July 31, we can attest that Main Street was already a madhouse. We saw how they packed them in at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip, with tents popping up in areas where we’ve never seen tents before, and the parking lot outside the East Gate that used to be for concert parking was filled with campers this year. While we don’t believe attendance crested the million mark this year, our seat-of-the-pants estimate would put it somewhere in the 800,000 range.

The beauty of that is it was largely a peaceful gathering. Not to say there weren’t a few spats, but Black Hills and state law agencies reported “no major violent assaults, shootings or stabbings” according to the Rapid City Journal. Considering the black eye bikers received after the incident in Waco, this is a refreshing turn of events. Plenty of patch-wearing clubs attended, people got their party on, but did so without conflict. In light of all the bad publicity recently, we wanted to share this fact with those who are quick to label the masses because of the actions of a few.

We swept into the 2015 Sturgis Rally and, within an hour of being there, had already christened the new Harley-Davidson Rally Point and covered the unveiling of Can-Am’s 2016 Spyder F3-S. This maddening pace continued throughout our time at the 75th, from Supermoto races and a Roland Sands Design bike show in City Park the first Saturday to an Alice Cooper photo shoot that evening, all topped off with a Five Finger Death Punch to the senses that night. No looking back at this juncture. People to meet and craftsmanship to be admired in Michael Lichter’s Naked Truth exhibit and industry party, causes to support in the Buffalo Chip’s Legends Ride, women riders to admire at the Biker Belles gathering, racers to marvel at in the Black Hills Half Mile flat track competition. We witnessed Doug Danger live up to his name in between scurrying around the motorcycles in the Rat’s Hole Custom Bike Show. We got hailed on at the Godsmack show while an even fiercer storm almost blew the door of our trailer off its hinges Saturday. We trudged through another rainstorm to interview Moonshiner Josh Owens of the Discovery Channel’s hit program of the same name. We mobbed around the Buffalo Chip on a Suzuki DR200S every chance we got and, every so often, got a little sleep – emphasis on little. Despite this, there was much more we wanted to see and do but just didn’t have enough hours in the day.

We did spend some of those hours checking out the action at City Park. But we were in the minority. Despite having some killer crews set up there, from Indian Larry Motorcycles to Roland Sands Design to The Speed Merchant, not many riders were stopping at City Park. Which is a shame. The park hosted pro Supermoto races on one end and wicked Harley stunt shows by IllConduct and Unknown Industries at the other. Bike shows went on every day of the week. Yelawolf lit up the stage Wednesday night. Instead of being packed in like sardines downtown, vendors had room to spread about the park. No pounding hot pavement, just plenty of green grass and shade. The shops set up at City Park held hooligan flat track races, the likes of The Speed Merchant, Rusty Butcher, and Suicide Machine Co. putting it all on the line and bangin’ bars for the sheer sake of racing. Getting Sturgis to open up City Park to the rally again took a lot of lobbying, and there’s a good chance it won’t happen again next year, so it’s a shame more people didn’t support what was going on there and take advantage of what it had to offer.

It was at City Park’s Supermoto races we ran into bubbly Brittney Olsen. Despite her youth, Brittney bears a torch for old school motorcycle racing traditions and rides a 1923 Harley-Davidson J Model in 20th Century Racing competitions. Already crowned the 2014 Pappy Hoel Classic Half Mile Board Track Class Champion, Brittney kicked more butt in an exhibition board track race Tuesday night held between AMA Pro Flat Track Black Hills Half Mile races. She’s a fierce competitor, holding a tight, clean line on the inside of turns and fearlessly bombing down the straights wide open on a motorcycle with no brakes. Of course, her love and knowledge of vintage race motorcycles benefits from being married to Knucklehead savant Matt Olsen. And the Olsens aren’t the only ones sparking renewed interest in this historic form of motorcycle racing. The board track resurgence is also being spearheaded by bike builder Billy Lane. Lane was promoting his “Sons of Speed” series in Sturgis with the first vintage board track race scheduled to take place at the 75th annual Daytona Beach Bike Week Rally on the banked half-mile track at New Myrna Speedway. He also exhibited his “Mack Racer” at Lichter’s Naked Truth exhibit, a motorcycle built around a 1914 Perry Mack OHV engine, and did a board track riding demonstration at the Lichter/Sugar Bear ride.

Meeting people like Olsen is one of the best parts of Sturgis. Because while concerts and industry parties are a blast, it’s the new friends you make and the old ones you run into that makes Sturgis special. Those exceptional one-on-one moments are what I cherish most about the rally. I felt immense pride when Bill Davidson looked me in the eye and shook my hand while thanking our small group of journalists for riding out with him and Karen to Sturgis from Milwaukee. I’m the one who should be thanking him for allowing me to be part of a Davidson family tradition. I relished getting an hour’s worth of Michael Lichter’s time as he walked a handful of us around his Naked Truth exhibit and shared with us his memories associated with the photos on the wall. I admire his diligence and creative vision like few others in this industry. Listening to Motor Maid Gloria Struck for an hour was an honor. Talk about an inspiration. While most 90-year-olds are rockin’ away their golden years, Struck is riding her Harley from Jersey to the rally. As guest speaker at the Biker Belles event, Struck shared incredible stories from her 74 years as a motorcyclist. She rode when few women did, and did so proudly. I also enjoyed my time getting to know Moonshiner Josh Owens. His larger-than-life personality is contagious. He’s a rider, a racer, and a true lover of the biker lifestyle. He braved the nightly South Dakota squalls in a tent at the Chip, won the barrel races out at the ranch during the Lichter/Sugar Bear ride, and spread himself thin supporting umpteen events like the Legends Ride. The way the faces of the kids in the Black Hills Special Olympics lit up when they met him was priceless, his interaction with them raw and genuine. And after getting to hang out with him for a couple hours, "genuine" fits Owens well.

Kindling old friendships and kick-starting new ones made the 75th anniversary Sturgis Rally special indeed. Of course, there’s something spiritual about waking up with a beautiful view of Bear Butte every morning, too. (Thanks, Woody!) Once again, I arrived home with a collection of Buffalo Chip mud on boots, pants, and shoes. But it isn’t Sturgis without a good storm or two. Think I’ll add the mud to my collection from prior years and start shaping it into Devils Tower like Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Can’t wait to add more to my collection next year.