Yesterday marked the opening of the outrageous phenomenon known as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a week-long, $987 million party for about 500,000 people. Every year in early August my sleepy hometown, Sturgis, population 6,500, hosts a half million biking enthusiasts who swarm here for a combination carnival, racing event, party, music festival, and shopping mall.
Tucked into the scenic Black Hills of western South Dakota, for one memorable week each year Sturgis becomes the epicenter of the oldest, biggest, loudest, most authentic and out-of-control motorcycle rally in the world. We become the largest city in the state by a factor of three. That equates to each household in town hosting 183 “guests.” Nearly 500 festival-goers will land in jail; hundreds will be issued tickets for violations such as indecent exposure, open container, or driving on the sidewalk; 350 or so will require hospital emergency room visits; two or three will die of heart attacks; and a half-dozen or more will be killed in traffic accidents. Keeping its guests safe costs the city of Sturgis over $1 million in insurance, increased law enforcement, attorney costs, fire and ambulance services, and the like.
Our temporary denizens are clad in skull caps, sunglasses, boots, sleeveless shirts, and black leather. Tattoos are required; piercings are optional. Body paint, thongs, and pasties will do for women. For men, cleanliness is not a virtue; grimy grubbiness is fine and chest hair encouraged. Don’t come to Sturgis looking for metrosexuals—you won’t find any.
The streets are teeming with beautiful, scantily dressed women, but the real beauties are the motorcycles, their chrome sparkling in the sun as though they had just left the showroom floor. Few things you will ever see are as impressive as thousands of custom-painted Harley Davidsons parked four rows deep and lined up for blocks, many of them true works of art. Few things you will encounter can compare to the noise made by an undulating river of 700-pound motorcycles. Hunter S. Thompson described it as “a burst of dirty thunder.”
The Sturgis Rally is an economic engine that drives state tourism and represents capitalism at its finest. According to a survey funded by the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally itself, $987 million comes into South Dakota annually from the event. Rally-goers will need to pay an inflated $5.50 for a beer at the world’s largest biker bar, but Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, and some of the most scenic drives in the country are complimentary. A free pancake breakfast is provided daily by the Son of Light Ministry whose sign proclaims, “Flapjacks along with the word of God. And the best part—they’re both free!” In the same vein, the Christian Motorcycle Association will bless your bike while offering you a free bike wash, coffee and pancakes.
Tens of thousands of people will be “inked” at the rally. “A decision that will last a lifetime,” warns the tattoo artist doing business out of a small concrete building that just last week was my beauty parlor. Many local businesses have been “repurposed,” in other words, closed down and rented out to vendors for handsome sums. Grocery stores, gas stations, and the local department store remain open for business; items in high demand include sunscreen, pillows, and energy drinks. The city-owned liquor store, creatively named Sturgis Liquor, is the only liquor store in town, a pretty smart move on the part of our founding fathers, given that rally goers drink an estimated three million gallons of beer. On average, visitors stay 5.5 days and spend $180 per day. Says one local, “It’s like a really loud relative comes to your house, stuffs your pockets full of money, and leaves a week later.”
Demand exceeds the supply of hotel rooms, camping spots, and bathrooms. Hotel rates double and triple, climbing as high as $300 a night for a room and are sold out for a 50-mile radius. It seems as though every square foot in town is rented to someone: Locals rent out their homes for $3,000 to $10,000 a week and rent their yards to campers who pitch tents or park bikes. City law limits homeowners to 19 renters per property.
Consider this for comparison: New York City: 26,402 persons per square mile. South Dakota: 9.9 persons per square mile. Sturgis, South Dakota (August 9-16, 2010, projected) : 160,427 persons per square mile.
There are three types of people who come to the Sturgis Rally. First, the casual observers who may ride occasionally, but more than likely not at all. They're easy to spot — they point a lot and look like kindergarteners on the first day of school. They carry shopping bags filled with t-shirts as proof to the folks back home that they were here to experience the mayhem and rub shoulders with the real thing.
Next are the recreational riders. Mostly in their late 40s and 50s, they own bikes but don’t belong to biker clubs. They ride their Harleys only on sunny and mild weekends. They trailered their $35,000 bikes to the rally behind 2010 Ford F-series pickups with heated leather captain’s seats. This group offers the best opportunity for venders. They look like walking billboards for the Harley-Davidson brand, and buying the fantasy of the biker subculture does not come cheap.
Finally, there are the bikers whose leather jackets have a cracked “been there, done that” patina that matches their sunburned faces. (You don’t get to look like that by hauling your bike on a trailer or riding only on weekends.) Their bikes have never seen a trailer, they do their own tune-ups, they sport socially offensive tattoos, and they don’t own rain gear.
Although it’s impossible to determine the exact number of people at the rally, there are several metrics used by the city to estimate annual attendance, including traffic counts and taxable receipts. Over 700 temporary vendors set up shop in the city, hawking everything from $2 rubber bracelets to $125,000 custom-made motorcycles. A more ingenious method of estimating crowd size is by examining the quantity of artifacts left behind. Six hundred tons of “rally garbage” was hauled away in 2009, and we don’t expect this year’s guests to leave any less.
The rally has been held every year in Sturgis since 1938 with the exception of two years during WWII when gas rationing rules prevented recreational travel. Nine racers participated in the first rally, competing for $750 in prize money in front of a small crowd of racing enthusiasts who had paid 50 cents each for the experience. By 1960 attendance was 800, by 1970 that number had grown to 2,000, and in 2010, for the rally’s 70th anniversary, projections are for over 600,000 attendees.
Campgrounds which are empty fields during the rest of the year pound with rock bands from high noon until early the next morning. The largest campground, the 600 acre Buffalo Chip, has been estimated to host 25,000 rowdy revelers, transforming it overnight into the third largest city in the state. Like several local campgrounds it is also a concert venue. This year’s lineup includes Kid Rock, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, Ozzie Osbourne, and . . . wait for it . . . Pee-wee Herman. The Buffalo Chip also offers “less conventional” entertainment, such as topless beauty contests, redneck games, and a shooting arcade for grownups billed as the ultimate Second Amendment experience. Participants can choose from WWI, WWII, Korean, and Vietnam War era weapons and receive the training required for a 35-state concealed carry permit.
Events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally hearken back to the Roman Empire. The Romans celebrated what anthropologists call rituals of reversal, times in the yearly calendar that allowed patricians, plebeians, and slaves to abandon the constraints of an ordered society. The society enjoyed a “time out” during these festivals. when people could break the rules without fear of recrimination. Reversal rituals included a strong sexual focus, anonymity, costumes, feasting to excess, and some form of intoxicant that reduces inhibitions.
I asked my friend Tony Bender, an avid biker and former news director and publisher of Sturgis’s local newspaper, what the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally really means. “I think it is one of the great expressions of American freedom," he told me. "The open road, the sense of rebellion, the pulse of the V-twin motors... and yet, a real sense of brotherhood. Modern day cowboys… Americans being utterly American.”
Unleash your id. Come to Sturgis for an experience you’ll never forget. My 6,500 neighbors and I are happy to see you come, but to be honest, we’re looking forward to seeing our little town return to normal. Go home, shower and shave, put on your khaki dockers and your loafers, and squeeze back into your cubicle. In other words, get back to work -- you are going need to pay off your August credit card bill.
Photo: The author in Sturgis
Debora Dragseth, Ph.D. is an associate professor of business at Dickinson State University who lives in Sturgis, South Dakota.