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August 5-13, 1995

by Doc Smith
July/August, 1995, pp. 52-53

This was written a few years ago. While the same general information still applies, the specific dates do not. Check out Sturgis Rally & Races, Inc. or sites listed at the end of this article for information about Sturgis this year.

The American Motorcycle Association has declared 1995 as the year to commemorate the Gypsy tours. So it's only appropriate to briefly mention one of the oldest and arguably most famous of the original Gypsy tours, the Black Hills Motor Classic (BHMC), hosted by the Jackpine Gypsy Motorcycle Club of Sturgis, in western South Dakota (on the northern edge of the Black Hills). If you're thinking, "hmmm, sounds familiar," that's because in recent years the rally has become known simply as "Sturgis". I suspect many people have an image of Sturgis as a Harley-only rally, mainly attened by one-percenters, outlaws, knuckle-dragging sociopaths, and lawyers. Well, there probably are some who fit that profile at the Motor Classic, but, like the phenomena of Daytona Bike Week or the Laconia (New Hampshire) Motorcycle Rally and Race Week, Sturgis is really about many aspects of motorcycling, and welcomes all brands of bikes.

The BHMC began, like many Gypsy rallies, in the 1930s. Motorcycling was still in relative infancy, there were many marques competing for buyers, and people were just getting flush after the Great Depression. The Jackpine Gypsies set aside time in August for people to come to Sturgis, camp out, and race motorcycles. This was also a prime opportunity for various vendors to demonstrate their new bikes. Cross country rides, hillclimbs, and other types of races were added over the years. Various ranches around town served as rally sites; participants would camp in a large field and spend the weekend doing a bazillion things related to motorcycling. Riders could compare Harleys, Indians, Hendersons, and more recently, Triumphs, Nortons, and in time, those new "Jap bikes", in the role of race bikes, hill climbers, and road machines.

Over the last twenty years or so, the rally has evolved, picking up its "Harleys Only" image mainly because other American and European bikes winked out of existence. Though the image says one brand, in fact you will see many types of bikes at Sturgis, riding through the Black Hills, or participating in the many AMA-sanctioned races. The off-road rides, like the races at Daytona, compete with local bars for most riders' attention. In fact, there are other parallels between Daytona Bike Week and the BHMC. Both began around the same time as Gypsy rallies. At Daytona, the races were on the beach; at Sturgis, they were in the hills. Both developed their "Harley Rally" image as ohter brands of bikes disappeared. Both have extensive arrays of things to do beyond the races. Both are now "managed" by professional rally organizations, rather than a bike club. And finally, both have grown way beyond their founders' expectations, that's for sure!

Things to do:

There are at least five different things to do or places to go when you attend Sturgis: 1) Races; 2) Road Tours; 3) Shows; 4) Main Street; and 5) Bars/Parties. The races, of course, are the official reason for the BHMC. This year's events include Bessie's Knob Hill Amateur Hillclimb at Glencoe Camp Resort (on 8/8), the Baddest Hill Open Hillclimb at Glencoe (8/10), Open 1/2-mile Races at Sturgis Fairgrounds (8/11) and the AHDRA Sturgis King of the Hill 1/8 mile drag races at the Sturgis Baddest Hill Open Hillclimb (8/8 - 8/10), and AHDRA Sturgis King of the Hill 1/8 mile drag races at the Sturgis Dragway (8/8 - 8/11).

There are a host of "official" road tours, with costs ranging from $8 to $25. ABATE holds its Easter Seals Poker Run on the 6th. From the 7th through the 11th, there are official tours each day: 1) an AMA-sanctioned run to Devil's Tower, WY (8/7); 2) a run to Jewel Cave in the Black Hills(8/8); 3) the Dark of the Moon Tour to Mt. Rushmore (early evening), which gets to the park in time to watch the lighting of the monument (8/9); 4) a tour through the Black Hills to Custer State Park; and 5) the Governor's Tour to Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument. Generally, these tours include guides, entrance fees to the destinations, and a meal.

Of course, with the Black Hills right beside the town, you can't fail to push off on your own to explore. Places to see in the area include Spearfish Canyon Highway (begins around Belle Fourche west of Sturgis - truly excellent canyon riding!), the gambling dens and restored buildings in Deadwood, SD (hey, Wild Bill, wait for me!), the aforementioned Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore mountain carvings, and the Devil's Tower over in Wyoming (remember the end of Close Encounters of the 3d Kind?). While tooling through the Black Hills, I saw a sign saying the next two miles of road were maintained by "USS ThunderChild, NCC 3122, Starfleet". Jeez, they must beam down, collect the trash, then return to their starship!

There are three main shows at the BHMC. A motorcycle expo at the Sturgis Community Center on Lazelle Street; the Rat's Hole (of Daytona Beach fame) Custom Chopper Show (the 11th at City Park); and the Harley-Davidson Show at the Rapid City Civic Center. All, of course, compete with vendors scattered over western South Dakota - all trying to get your money. I bought a black, water-proofed boat canvas "drover" coat for $99 in Sturgis (for anything but a gully washer, it's a great raincoat both on and off my Wing).

Main Street in Sturgis is, like Main Street in Daytona, the place to go to see and be seen. There are about six blocks of bikes, parked in four rows, running the length of the street. Shops here sell almost any kind of motorcycle stuff you can imagin (and probably some you can't). Be sure to make it to the "end" of the street for a meal at the original (or so they claim) Roadkill Cafe. Menu items such as German Shepherd Pie, Flat Cat, and other delicacies can be eaten there or purchased (in cans) to take home and serve to your friends! Yummy! (They also sell a great t-shirt that features their full menu). The Top Gun events, a motorcycle safety rodeo with seven different skill tess, are run at the high school on Highway 34 (just off Main Street) from the 7th through the final competition on the 9th. Finally, at the Sturgis Dragway, Bubba Blackwell performs his "patented" H-D Motorcycle Jump, a smaller-scale carnival act something like Evel Knievel's.

Throughout the area, bars and clubs (and even the bigger campgrounds) host everything from traditional Native American dancers (check out the Rapid City KOA) to Honda bike bashes (Buffalo Chip campground) and ladies wrestling in a variety of viscous substances. Deadwood, by the way, has several casinos, should you wish to gamble away your funds for a new bike in the (truly chintzy) ambience of a "restored" Old West town!

Getting There:

From the Right Coast you've got the choice of several million roads heading west to Sturgis, SD. I'd suggest avoiding the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the southern part of Lake Michigan between Gary, IN, past Aurora and Rockford, IL. You can take the southern bypass route, around the north of St. Louis and run west to the Missouri River Valley, or plan to cross the Mississippi at Rock Island, IL and go west to the Missouri River across Iowa. Another nice ride, with about 15 minutes of terror, is through Michigan and across the Mackinac Straits Bridge, then west. This bridge makes the Chesapeake Bay Bridge seem like a plank across a ditch!

If you enter South Dakota from the southeast corner of the state (i.e., on I-29 or I-80), and you really want to enjoy the end of your ride, I strongly suggest you take some roads (SD 50 and SD 44) which run across the southern part of the state. There is almost no traffic and the towns are few, far between and usually not on the highway. The scenery is far more enjoyable than on I-90, especially as you cross the Missouri and run through the Lakota (Sioux) Reservation and the Badlands National Park. From about White River west, if you have a radio, listen to FM 90.1, KILI, a PBS channel on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Broadcasters shift between English and Lakota, and most of the music is traditional Native American music (well, it made sense at the time, crossing the prairie and entering the Badlands!).

If you've never ridden much out west, especially in the summer, plan to cope with the weather. Expect heavy winds in the afternoons (thermals), blistering heat, and cool nights (especially if you stay in the Hills). The heat is arguably the worst hazard. Sodas and beer, even tea, only make you more thirsty. Drink lots of water; sports drinks are ideal. I carry water bags and Gatorade mix and make a warm drink every time I stop. If you soak a t-shirt, then put on a long sleeve shirt or loose leather jacket, or at least put a wet kerchief around your neck, you'll ride a lot cooler. Remember that the more skin you expose, the more fluids you lose.

Places to stay:

Unlike Daytona or Laconia, there are not a lot of motel choices near Sturgis. You can get a complete list of information about the BHMC, including phone numbers for campgrounds and motels, for a $4 charg (or mail a check for $3) from Sturgis Rally and Races, P.O. Box 189, Sturgis, SD, 57785, phone 605 347-6570/fax 650 347-3245. These are the folks, by the way, who run the tours mentioned above, as well as many of the rally events. Note that as of April 15th, there were no hotel rooms available in Sturgis! The nearest towns, Spearfish and Belle Fourche (about 26 miles away) have only one motel each. The best ambience, for campers, is to be found at the Buffalo Chip (Belle Fourche, 605 892-2200), Glencoe (Sturgis, 800-272-4712), Hog Heaven (Sturgis, 800 551-1283), and Bear Butte Creek (Sturgis, 650-347-3023). If you want to actually sleep, contact the folks at Sturgis Rally and Races for the $4/$4 packet and call one of the campgrounds outside Sturgis.

I think every motorcyclist owes him or herself a trip to each of the big rallies (BHMC, Laconia, Daytona) at least once in a lifetime. I personally think Sturgis is better than the others. Riding in the Black Hills gives me a soul cleansing and calming sense of self that I just can't seem to find east of the Big Muddy. Find time in your life to visit Sturgis and the Black Hills!

SELECTED WEB SITES: (not in original article)

Last Updated on 3 May 2000 by Doc Smith
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