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The Humble Beginnings Of A Mega Bike Rally

Charles Michael Ray

The Sturgis Rally is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and if you’re listening to SDPB anywhere in the Black Hills or near a major highway anywhere in the state, it’s likely there is a rumbling motorcycle within earshot.

That’s because there are so many motorcycles in the state right now.  The rally could draw up to one million bikers this year.   The traffic numbers are already higher than average.  But 75 years ago the Sturgis Rally had a more humble beginning.

Today the cliché of the Sturgis Rally is sex, drugs, and rock-'n'-roll all happening over the thunder of really loud motorcycles.  This is at least in part true.  If this is how you like to party, you won’t have to look far to find this sort of fun in Sturgis. But 75 years ago, this wasn’t the case.

“It’s a very different history than I think a lot of people realize,” says Christine Paige Diers. She's the Executive Director the of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and a local expert on the history of Sturgis Rally.  “In 1938, there was an Indian Motorcycle dealer in Sturgis, Pappy Hoyle, and he and some friends got together and formed a motorcycle club the Jackpine Gypsies – it’s still in existence today – and held their first sanctioned event was in 1938; there were nine racers and about 200 spectators that first year."

Seventy-five years ago, Don Vodden was one of the original Sturgis Rally organizers and racers.

“I raced in the first AMA sanction race in Sturgis, also in '39 and '40,” says Votten. The founding member of the Jackpine Gypsies was interviewed by SDPB in 2010 and died in January of 2012. 

"There were nine racers and about 200 spectators that first year."

“We were within a third of a second of the world’s record in that first race. We would probably doing between 85 and 90 miles per hour.  Sturgis was one of the best tracks in the country at that time," Vodden says.

Vodden says Johnny Spiegelhoff of Milwaukee took first place at that first Sturgis Rally.

“We only had nine contestants and we were trying to make a crowd pleasing show, and Johnny came up with an idea. He said, 'I’ve seen this work before. We’ll have matched races. We have our time trials written down. We’ll pair off different ones.' And it was a real crowd pleaser, a real crowd pleaser, and worked out extremely well," Vodden says. 

Seventy-five years later and racing is still pleasing crowds in Sturgis.  Those like Christine Paige Diers with the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum say the races are still close to the heart of the rally.

“And a lot of people today don’t even realize there are races, because so many other things have started to happen around those races," Paige Diers says. "It’s become a huge music festival. It’s become a festival in so many different ways still happening today.”

Over the last 75 years, Sturgis has gone through a number of transitions. Sturgis is no longer a few days of races around a half mile track and a picnic in the park. Today it's a motorcycle Mecca.

A part of the culture that dominates modern Sturgis rallies can be traced back to the popularization of bikers in the late 1960's with movies like Easy Rider.  The film gave a boost to biker culture during and after the Vietnam War. The Sturgis Rally changed with the baby boomer generation too—it gained a reputation as a place to party. 

“When guys came back from Vietnam, they were a big part of the rally then, and that’s what made it a little more rowdy then is some of those guys coming back from Vietnam and they were not in a good place," Paige Diers says. "So, there was a lot of more rowdiness and it wasn’t as friendly a place as it is again today." 

Many of the riders at Sturgis today are the same baby boomers who came into motorcycling during in the Vietnam war era, and many rallygoers come back year after year.  

The rally grew until the watershed year of the 50th anniversary. That’s when the mega-sized Sturgis rallies with crowds totaling a half-million and up began.  As the key Baby Boomer demographic at the Sturgis Rally changes, Paige Diers says so will the rally.

“Because we’re going to be looking at a little bit of different crowd, different riders, different kinds of riders – and I think the people at the rally department and the people who are involved in the rally are already working on that sort of trying to get that younger crowd to come and to realize how good the riding is here,” she says.

It’s hard to predict the future, but, if Christine Page Diers is right and younger crowds who ride sport bikes more often are the future of this rally, then it’s possible the 100th anniversary could be much quieter than the thundering motorcycles that roar into the Black Hills today.

Regardless of the motorcycle sound or brand, it's likely the Sturgis Rally will pass the 75th anniversary like any other mile marker and keep right on going.

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