Sturgis may hit 1 million visitors to mark 75 years of motorcycle rallies

By Barry Amundson Forum News Service STURGIS, S.D. -- Half-mile motorcycle races gave the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally its start in 1938 when local Indian motorcycle dealer J.C. "Pappy" Hoel and the rest of his newly formed club drew about 200 specta...

Sturgis 2006
Hundreds of motorcycles are parked on Main Street for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, in August of 2006. (Jonathan Ernst | REUTERS)

By Barry Amundson
Forum News Service
STURGIS, S.D. - Half-mile motorcycle races gave the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally its start in 1938 when local Indian motorcycle dealer J.C. “Pappy” Hoel and the rest of his newly formed club drew about 200 spectators to nine races.
Hoel, often referred to as the father of the rally, and his Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club probably never dreamed the event would grow into what it is today at 75 years old.
While the half-mile races have been re-established at the rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota, it’s now a major attraction for motorcycle enthusiasts from across the world who come to drive their bikes through the Hills and capture breathtaking views, see the newest motorcycle models and accessories, get a chance to test drive all the major brands, listen to superstars from the music world and party.
And people watch, and party again.
While the event only attracted about 4,000 people in its early days, it really took off in 1990 at the 50th rally - there were two years during the war when there was no rally -when about 300,000 people flooded the area.
“No one was prepared for it, you couldn’t even find food,” said Christine Diers, executive director of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame.
In 2000 at the 60th anniversary, there was an estimated 633,000 visitors - which still holds the largest attendance on record.
So what’s in store this year when the rally officially opens Monday for a seven-day run and marks another milestone?
Well, city public information officer Christina Steele said they could see 850,000 to 1 million attend - which would shatter the mark set in 2000.
“It’s like throwing a party and wondering who’s going to come,” Steele said.
One indication of the huge crowd expected is that most of the area’s 66 campgrounds with tent and RV spots and a growing number of cabins have been booked for months.
“I don’t think there’s been any vacancies for 10 months,” said Jack Hoel, the 79-year-old son of  “Pappy” Hoel.
One of the newest things on the accommodations scene is that the campgrounds keep building and offering more and more  cabins to visitors.
“They are building them all over the place,” said Hoel, who lives just outside of town.
Hoel is one that knows a lot about the rally and what has transpired over the years. Hoel is one of the few who saw the early days first hand and is still around.
He has vivid memories.
Hoel recalls riding around on the drag pulled by a tractor as they prepared the dirt track for the half-mile races in those early years.
Then there was the local high school band in the grandstand entertaining the crowd between races, and the National Guard raising the flag each year.
Another “absolutely fantastic memory,” he said, was in the early days when the motorcycle club started the Gypsy Tour day rides. The first one was during the second year of the rally in 1939 when 55 riders took a day ride through the Hills and to see Mount Rushmore, where construction had started in 1927 and continued through 1941.
While that day ride is also still a part of the rally - including another one that goes to Devils Tower across the border in Wyoming - Hoel said he keeps fighting to keep the racing a big part of the event.
 “The excuse for having this whole thing is the motorcycle races,” he said. “Without the races I think this thing would go downhill.”
With that strong feeling in mind, he was part of a group called the White Plate Flat Trackers who signed a multi-year contract with the city last year for half-mile and vintage races at the fairgrounds track that got a “fair turnout” of fans the first year.
“But when you get only 2,000 to 3,000 people out of 500,000 at the rally, we have a ways to go again,” he said.
Hoel said there are other types of racing with hill climbing, drag strips and motocross events at the campgrounds and other locations in the area.
He also realizes that many of the visitors are “road riders” and simply looking to take in the beautiful riding atmosphere of the Hills.
Others just come to vacation. Over the years, he’s met so many people that take their yearly trip to the rally. He met one man from New Zealand who had it on his bucket list to come to the rally.
“We did a survey one year - about eight years ago - and found people at the rally from 30 different countries. That’s pretty amazing. We also found there were people from every state in the nation and every province in Canada, too,” Hoel said.
Hoel has some regrets that the event has become so commercialized.
“It’s outgrown the locals. There are parasites and con artists that have moved in, too,” he said.
But people keep coming back.
And thanks to his father and mother, Pearl, who is referred to as the “first lady” of the rally and lived to age 99, the event gives motorcycle enthusiasts a chance to gather together and the town and state a chance to see a  major economic boost.
The museum, said Diers, is also becoming a major attraction with 75 different motorcycles on display and numerous exhibits.
The three purposes of the facility, she said, are to preserve the history of motorcycling, keep a history of the rally and honor people who have contributed to the industry through the Hall of Fame.
There are now 125 members in the Hall - including TV late night host Jay Leno and movie actor Peter Fonda and the founders of Harley-Davidson.
And of course, “Pappy” and Pearl Hoel are on that prestigious list.

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