Meade County, South Dakota


STURGIS MOTORCYCLE RALLY HISTORY

Contributed by Amanda Jowers



In 1936 J. Clarence "Pappy" Hoel bought part of Indian Motorcycles. Pappy is now considered the founder and father of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. This same year a local motorcycle club called the Jackpine Gypsies was formed.

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is a motorcycle rally held annually in Sturgis, South Dakota each first full week of August. It was founded on August 14, 1938 by the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club who still own and operate the tracks, hillclimb, and field areas that the rally is concentrated around. The Sturgis Rally has been held every year, with exceptions during World War II. The first rally, known as the Black Hills Motor Classic, took place in 1938 with only nine racers and a small group of spectators from biker clubs in Mitchell, Sioux Falls, Minnesota, and Colorado. This first year most visitors camped in Pappy's backyard and at Sturgis City Park.

"The races were promised to be the biggest ever held in this part of the country." How prophetic those words turned out to be! The first rally lasted two days and was focused on racing and stunts. Founder Clarence (Pappy) Hoel told fellow cyclists the races would bring in riders from eight states to compete for $750 in prize money. Johnnie Spieglehoff of Milwaukee, Wis., turned in a first-place time of 32.6 seconds over the 1/2-mile track. He was one of nine riders competing that first year.

By 1939, a committee was appointed to figure out how to raise needed funds to carry out a WPA project for a grandstand. This was completed two years later and cost $5,000. Spieglehoff defended his championship in 1939, turning in a track record clocking of 31.5 seconds. An evening awards program honored riders such as those coming the longest distance, the best-dressed male and female riders, the classiest club, and a queen. The second year was termed one of the major Black Hills celebrations; it was a financial and entertainment success. All predictions pointed to continued growth.

A report in the Sturgis Tribune newspaper written as the rally started its third decade noted, "You will get the thrill of seeing hundreds of motorcycles assembling to start the nationally known Gypsy tour and one of the fastest race events in the country." Three hundred eighty-eight cyclists participated in the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club tour during the 1950 rally. Prize money of $2,100 was at stake for winners of the "fastest race events in the country."

Those watching the races could attend the carnival afterwards and enjoy entertainment, with a musical extravaganza featured. Dick Klamforth of Grovesport, Ohio; and Bill Tuman of Rockford, Ill., returned to Sturgis for the 1951 rally. Rally founder Clarence (Pappy) Hoel shared a letter from R.K. (Dick) Wagner of Forsyth, Mont. This letter read in part, "You people down there are to be highly congratulated on the Black Hills Motor Classic and all it entails ... Your hospitality was exceptional even in a country noted for its hospitality." Records show only three riders were reprimanded for speeding. Another three were cited for "too much noise."

The Motor Maids of America, and president Dot Robinson, attended the 1952 rally. The National Five-Mile Championship of 1952 drew riders from all over the country. Everett Brashear represented Lake Charles, La., in the winner's circle.

Motorcyclists put on an exhibition of stunts and fancy riding in 1953. Main Street was cleared of four-wheel vehicles. The Gypsies' camp was open on Wednesday, when rally information and coffee were dispensed. Word of the rally spread to the point where requests were made for housing reservations. Portland's Don Tindall captured the six-mile championship; his time was 5:57.50. Extreme heat, plus a soggy track, greeted racers and spectators alike. Contests at the city park, a free feed, and a Main Street square dance were also featured. Total prize money was raised to $2,400.

The Black Hills Motor Classic was rated as one of the big 10 races in the country by 1957. Numbers for 1959 included 60 of the nation's best riders, and 545 bikers registering at headquarters. The guest list for the free feed was revised to include only cyclists. Race winners included Klamforth (10-lap expert) and Dick Rice (hillclimb). General trackside admission was $1.75, or $2.50 reserved. Children under the age of 12 were admitted free if they were with their parents.

Little information is available regarding the 1960 Black Hills Motor Classic. It was learned, however, that the crowd grew to 700 cyclists. More than 800 were fed at the city park.

The 1961 rally was one to remember for Ron Boyarski of San Jose, Calif. His time of 27.11 seconds was a new Sturgis track record, and he also won the five-mile race. More than 700 people were fed at the 1961 event; rain moved this indoors. Cyclists passed the hat and came up with $150 for a fellow biker injured before the Saturday races.

For 1962, the two-day racing purse was increased to $2,700. Neil Keen won the five-mile expert race. Other champions were Pat Barnhill (five-mile amateur) and Dwight Radcliff (five-mile novice). It wasn't until 1963 that the rally turned into a multi-day event. Around this time the Jackpine Gypsies also began events like the hill climb and motor-cross. In 1965 the rally became a five day event and in 1975 it became seven days long. Sturgis also began blocking off Main Street so that bikers had a place to park their bikes and not have to worry about traffic. The first vendors, only nine of them, were welcomed to sell goods in 1979. And by 1968, there were 117 vendors lining the streets of Sturgis.

The usual events were on tap for the 1963 classic, Jack Hoel won three of four races and placed second in the Sportsman Class. Hoel addressed a meeting of the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce. The four-state representative for Yamaha said, "Everywhere I go, I run across motorcyclists who have been to Sturgis. They are very impressed with the treatment they received while they were here, and this word-of-mouth publicity has spread."

Babe DeMay picked up $270 for winning the 1964 Expert final. Don Rice finished first in the Sportsman final. Free motorcycle parking was available downtown as a goodwill gesture. Hoel received a plaque in 1965 for his dedication to the Black Hills Motor Classic.

Riders from 23 states and four Canadian provinces came into town for the 1966 classic. A Sturgis Tribune writer observed, "Motorcycling has become a big thing in Sturgis; most cyclists attending the rally continue to come back again and again." Bikers were charged $1 to camp at the city park. This fee was increased for riders who arrived earlier in the week. The Old First National Bank on Main Street served as classic headquarters. Local motels were booked a week before the 1966 classic started. Registration was moved to the city auditorium, with 492 signing up.

By 1967, it was estimated the classic put $150,000 into the local economy. One cyclist said he spent $38 per day. Hoel said the hillclimb and scrambles would be held on newly acquired land south of the Jackpine Gypsies' clubhouse. He estimated the crowd at 1,500 cyclists.

Keen rallied to defeat Pat Gosch in winning the 1968 races. None of the hillclimbers scaled the hill because of the wet ground. Mayor Francis Langin said the city would construct a park north of Lazelle Street for the 1969 classic.

Come 1969, the total prize money came to $3,600; racing took place in three locations. The classic supported Rapid City with their races, in hopes the money offered in Sturgis — plus the $1,800 for the Rapid City race — would lure more racers and spectators to each. More than 2,000 converged on city park for the picnic and awards ceremony. The Sturgis Chamber of Commerce ran out of food. Margaret Nichols of Grand Blanc, Mich., was crowned queen. Sioux Falls, racer Jerry Cheney won the Sportsmen short track championship in 1969.

The decade of the 1970s started with a change. This was the first time arrangements for policing the Black Hills Motor Classic were held beforehand. It was explained at a press conference that preparations were needed to handle any "troublemakers." Many community members were deputized to help out if needed. Meade County State's Attorney William Coacher said, "These people come here to have fun, and we want them to have it. "But we want to be prepared to rid the community of any rowdy element that threatens to disrupt the classic."

Short track winners in 1971 were Joe Valentine of Cheyenne, Wyo., and Bill Liebig of Rapid City. The Sturgis Volunteer Fire Department, Sturgis Police Department, and Sturgis Park Board were among the entities receiving cash donations for assistance rendered during the classic. Black Hills Motor Classic board members voted to increase the price of gate tickets to $3. Children aged 6-12 were admitted for 50 cents; those under age 6 got in free. Two riders were killed in an accident four miles west of Sturgis along Highway 14A. Their motorcycle collided with a car at the Rainbow Cliffs curve in Boulder Canyon.

"Fat Bob" (Robert Lamping) and "Spacy Dee" (Claudia Tinsley), both of Denver, Colo., were married during the 1974 classic. This ceremony marked the first time a wedding occurred atop a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

A midweek hailstorm marked the 1976 classic. Golf ball-sized hail fell for almost 30 minutes, and snow shovels were needed to remove the ice. Total prize money had swelled to $8,100. Mike Collins (Albuquerque, N.M.) ruled over the Expert division of the Pacific Coast Regional Championship. Jackpine Gypsies figures showed each cyclist spent at least $50. This added up to $900,000 in new money brought into Sturgis.

The 1976 rally was also memorable. Early Friday night of bike week a rumor began circulating of a near-riot at Sturgis City Park. Meade County Sheriff John Egger's estimate of a half dozen people arrested for "making trouble" was a little conservative. The picture changed dramatically in the next 36 hours when 104 arrests were made. Activity accelerated around 10 p.m. Saturday when bikers lit fires on the highway between the city park and the Lions Club Park. Drag racing through the flames and stunt riding followed. Egger said his mistake was riding through the park between 10:30-11 p.m. that day and announcing via a public address system that "We are going to wet things down." The bikers responded with remarks like, ‘Hey, man, we'll get a bath.' They really started racing up and down the road then. Two firemen received minor injuries, and windshields in a fire truck and a police vehicle were broken. The extra law enforcement personnel from Rapid City were sent home around 12:30 a.m.

Officials decided a change was in order for 1977. A person was heard to comment, "The motorcycle classic, the Jackpine Gypsies, and the promoters of this have got to consider security and public safety in any additional planning. I think it's (the rally) too long."

The 1978 classic was marred by five cycling fatalities. Three of them lost their lives while polishing their bikes at a motel parking lot in Thermopolis, Wyo. They were struck and run over by a drunken driver.

In 1980, it was estimated the total financial impact could be at least $800,000. Three residents of Washington state were arrested in 1983 for possession of more than 50 lbs. of marijuana.

No history of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is complete without a discussion of 1982. This is billed as "the year the rally almost ended." The number of campers allowed to stay at the city park was capped at 2,500. The rates were increased from $2 to $4 per night; this caused many to take refuge elsewhere and call for a boycott of the park. Campers were required to register, produce a license number, and abide by the city's "no visitors" regulation.

In addition, the park was divided into two sections to cut down on drag racing and gain some control of the park. Gates in the divider fence were torn down; rocks were thrown at city employees trying to fix the gates; some of the campers used guns to threaten a backhoe operator. After other city employees were threatened that Wednesday, Sturgis Mayor Robert Voorhees ordered all employees out of the park. Some of the outhouses were torched; this number eventually reached 20. Campers also tore out the speed bumps, burned a motorcycle, and chopped down a pair of trees.

Angry residents circulated a petition. It read, "We, the people of Meade County and the City of Sturgis, do not want the annual Motorcycle Classic in Sturgis next year or in the future." Enough signatures were collected, and the issue was brought to the voters. That November, voters elected to keep the rally by an 846-758 margin.

Martin Lavoie of Canada won the regional Half-Mile Championship in 1985 at the fairgrounds. Spectator numbers increased, as did the rider numbers.

It was speculated in 1988 that at least one-half of rally attendees were here for the first time. Officials speculated the 1987 crowd was 60,000; 1988 numbers were reported to be up by about 10 percent. One of those visitors in 1987 was millionaire Malcolm Forbes. His two goals were to bike down Main Street, and fly over town in his other Harley: a balloon costing $75,000. More than 3,700 rally-goers attended the second annual Rat's Hole Custom Chopper Show at city park in 1988. In 1989, founder Pappy Hoel died at age 85. But the rally lived on.

The 1990s began with the first police shooting and killing of a biker during the 50th rally. Trevor John Hansen of Liverpool, Australia, was shot after charging police officers with a large knife. He had broken into a residence and held the knife under a resident's nose. Police officers shouted for Hansen to drop the weapon. He responded by charging the officers. Both opened fire, and Hansen died at the scene.

The Outlaws, Sons of Silence, Banditos, and Hells Angels were some of the gangs present in 1990 for the first time.

Opening that year was the National Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. Inductees included Clarence (Pappy) Hoel, Pete Hill, and Bill Tuman.

Traffic for the 50th was up 34 percent over 1989 and 42 percent over 1988. Attendance estimates ranged from 275,000 to 300,000. In 1991, Meade Plus Federal Credit Union was robbed at gunpoint: the first robbery that century in Sturgis.

Most of the attendees in 1991 were tourists who came to see the bikers. No injuries or fatalities resulted that year.

Numbers for 1993 were estimated between 170,000 and 230,000. Gov. Walter Dale Miller led the Governor's Ride to Mount Rushmore. This ride was dedicated to the late Gov. George S. Mickelson, who was killed in a plane crash earlier that year.

The first official day of the 1994 rally included three fatalities in three separate incidents. Troopers agreed the accidents were some of the goriest they have been called to investigate. In at least two of the accidents, body parts were severed. Attendees in 1994 were polled. One of the questions on the Meade County Times-Tribune poll asked what rally changes are needed. "Lower prices" was cited by 48 percent of the respondents.

Unofficial counts put attendance in 1998 as 350,000; longtime observers thought that was too high. The state department of revenue said sales and tourism taxes in 1998 amounted to $628,000 — a 14 percent increase from the year before. Jay Leno and Hollywood Hulk Hogan put on a live World Championship Wrestling performance the Saturday of rally week west of Lynn's County Market.

Sturgis resident Ed Netterberg was one of three inductees into the National Motorcycle Hall of Fame during the 1999 rally. He had been involved with motorcycle issues and efforts to promote motorcyclists' rights. Chester Dykgraaf and broadcaster David DeSpain were also honored. World Championship Wrestling made a return to the rally for 1999. Sting and Hollywood Hulk Hogan were two of the featured stars. Film crews from CNN (Cable News Network) were in town to cover the rally's sights and sounds for its affiliates.

Rally attendance was estimated at 300,000. Ten fatalities marred the first rally of the new millennium (2000). This was one off the 1990 rally in which 11 people lost their lives. In 2002 sales tax was collected on $14.3 million. That represented a 28 percent increase from the previous year. Rally traffic counts totaled 773,538 hits for nine days. Counters were set up in and around the city. 2000 also marked the first year Champion Rally Productions helped with rally promotions. Champion representatives said they were pleased with how things went.

The National Motorcycle Hall of Fame honored 13 inductees in 2001. Also that year, world-famous daredevil Evel Knievel came to the Key City to promote his clothing line. This was Knievel's first time at the rally, and he said the people of Sturgis should be proud of the event. Rally numbers disclosed good news from a financial standpoint. Seales tax was collected on $11.6 million. Traffic counters set up in and around Sturgis recorded a total of 530,670 hits for seven days. On the down side, six fatalities were reported.

The 2002 rally featured the return of 1/2-mile races to the Sturgis Fairgrounds. Four riders each won two divisions: Tyler Anderson of Longview, Wash.; James Monegan of Twisp, Wash.; Richard Merlo of Cedar Park, Texas; and Mark Erickson of Nederland, Colo. Membership into the National Motorcycle Hall of Fame grew by nine.

In 2003, the Black Hills Motor Classic officially became the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. 2005 marked the 65th anniversary for this famous bike week.

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