The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 2017: Pappy’s Enduring Tradition
Times change. But traditions endure.
Until they don’t.
Usually they come and go, to be honest. People get excited about something—the hula hoop or disco or beehives hairdos—and they think yes, this is amazing, this is here to stay! And then it’s gone and something else comes along. Whatever the wonderful thing was, it ends up being just a fad, a funny memory.
The difference is that traditions are substantial. They tap into something deep and important in the human psyche, and we hold on to them because we feel it, we embrace that expression of our deeper selves, and if we’re lucky, maybe once in a lifetime, we get to be part of a new tradition, one that is so important, so honest in its expression of our humanity, that it catches on and is passed to future generations. That’s the way with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Pappy Hoel’s old Motorcycle Classic—it’s 77 years old and growing.
To see how it all happened, how a sleepy cow town on the edge of the Dakota plains got in the habit of transforming itself for one week a year into the world’s motorcycle mecca and biker heaven, you have to make your way to the east end of Legendary Main Street in Sturgis.
If you come during the fifty weeks of the year when the modest little community isn’t swept up in rally mania, the journey won’t be arduous, parking will be easy, traffic is measured in single pickups, not thousands of motorcycles. The noise on Main will hardly register, maybe a few birds, a soft breeze, nothing to rock your decibel meter. Oh you might hear a lone Harley or two grumbling through town, but not the deep-in-your-bones thrum of a thousand V-twins that you will hear at any hour in early August.
At the corner of Main and Junction, walk over the engraved bricks that pave the sidewalk in front of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame. You’ll see hundreds and hundreds of names, like Greg Eisnaugle and his beloved hog “Old Glory,” or Tramp Moreland and his gal Deb, or a whole row of Kosmoskis—folks related to the Hall of Famer, Joe Kosmoski. At the curb, you will you have to hop over a couple large slabs for J. C. “Pappy” Hoel, the founder of the Rally, and his wife, Pearl.
Stepping lightly and reading the names on those bricks, you can’t help but feel something. Not their ghosts exactly, but the sense of time, the hush you might feel at a national monument or an old cathedral. Once you enter, the Museum itself begins to peel back the years. To walk inside is to feel yourself pulled back through the decades by the exhibits of photographs, the collected stories and memorabilia that line the walls, and the impressive display of vintage motorcycles.
Take a moment to look into the faces in the black and white photographs. The young racers posed on their motorcycles seem a bit like saints. They’re all there in the Hall of Fame, from Pappy to Buddy Stubbs and Evel Knievel, Miss Cookie Queen and Dot Robinson, all the original motorcycle clubs like the Jackpine Gypsies and the Motor Maids. Seeing the lore of the Rally gathered like that, you start to realize that all of those individual stories are part of a larger narrative—the story of the Rally itself—and each of those faces and names is an individual that belongs to something greater.
How historic those original nine racers seem now, beaming in the pre-race photograph with excitement or seriousness, just boys anxious to rev up their sleek Indians and ride. I imagine they’re all gone now, but the faces in the photo seem utterly unaware of their mortality as they sit
for the photographer astride their beloved motorcycles on the dirt track.
For those who love motorcycles, Sturgis is holy ground. The Museum is a shrine of bikes. From the restored 1943 Indian Military Scout that guards the door to the ’04 Harley Davidson “Strap Tank” Single that looks like it was pulled fresh out of a Norman Rockwell painting, from the 1912 “Flying Merkel” to the ’28 H-D Henderson Deluxe, the Model V and the Model F to a ’37 Knucklehead and the rest, I defy any biker to walk that menagerie of priceless machines and not look on their restored glory with a profound feeling of nostalgia for days gone by and rallies long past.
The boys in those early photos couldn’t possibly have envisioned the crowds that gather now, such a spectacle was simply beyond the imaginations of their time. This year will mark the seventy-seventh anniversary of the grandpappy of all motorcycle rallies. Sevety-seven years. That’s about one human lifespan, and a lot changes in a lifetime, culture rewrites itself a few times, decades follow and revise each other, history happens, generations come and go. But the Rally has outlived its founders, growing in scope and popularity as the decades roll on.
Times change. But traditions endure.
For people who love motorcycles, Sturgis is a mecca—a destination sought by pilgrims—and once August rolls around the truth of that becomes clear. They come like some fantastic form of weather, like lightning rolling down the Interstate, bringing a unique chorus of thunder. They rumble in alone, in pairs, or in packs, weary from the miles but excited to arrive, and they ride up Legendary Main Street to park and stretch their legs and take it all in.
If they come by way of Exit 32 and Junction Avenue, they will turn onto Main at the Museum, like starting a trip up memory lane from its beginning. A lifetime ago, back in ’38, the
event boasted nine racers and a crowd of 200 curious picnicking spectators. Even the crowd of 3,000 riders that showed up in ’70 would hardly be called a rally by today’s standards. But come forward along the timeline of Main Street and you realize, the bikes and bikers just kept showing up, and they brought friends, and those friends brought friends.
By the end of the 70’s, attendance was averaging 30,000, then it exploded in the 80’s, outgrowing the City Park, to more than 300,000 by the time of Pappy’s death in 1989. The crowd in 2000 set a new benchmark for attendance at this sort of gathering with 633,000, and was later, of course, surpassed at the 75th rally, when an estimated 737,000 pilgrims came roaring in from all corners of the world to roughly double the population of South Dakota for a week.
All of them at one time or another came idling up Legendary Main Street, an endless stream of road-weary leather-clad riders. Some might catch a glimpse of the establishments locals take for granted—Bob’s Restaurant or Weimer’s Diner & Donuts or the Oasis Bar, places that are normally unassuming and fairly quiet—and most were probably overwhelmed by the sheer volume of motorcycle gear and merchandise and tattoo parlors and people, but they surely found a place to kick up their feet and have a drink, maybe meet up with old friends, or make new ones.
All who come have a chance to relax a moment and bask in the feeling they came for, the sense of being an individual but also part of something immense. At least for a moment, they catch that sense of belonging and freedom and being anonymous even as you’re recognized—the unique feeling of being a rider and being among your tribe.
But the Rally isn’t just about basking in the presence of your long-lost tribe and having a cold drink after a long ride, it’s about expressing your freedom for a week. It’s about cutting
loose and enjoying some of our hard-won liberty. In that sense, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is a truly American tradition, a time and place to gather in gratitude and celebrate many of the freedoms we share.
The modern Rally is also a spectacle of entertainment and beauty. If you don’t believe me, you haven’t been there yet. You haven’t wandered from burnout contest to wet-t-shirt contest, from beer garden to whiskey bar, from a Lynyrd Skynyrd show to an Ozzy Osbourne concert, or Willie Nelson, or Kid Rock, only to rise early the next day for a big pancake feed and a poker run through the beautiful Black Hills with several thousand good friends in a long chain of rolling thunder, only to do it all over again that night.
So the pilgrims don’t sit long at the first bar or barbecue pit, they get out and walk up Main. And while the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame is a shrine to the vintage motorcycles of the past, Legendary Main Street transforms for that one week each year into a living shrine to the astonishing motorcycles of the present. While you will likely appreciate the restored 1943 Indian Military Scout or the ’04 “Strap Tank” Single, you’ll have little choice but to gawk in admiration at the custom baggers and full-dress monsters that line Main Street. If the 1912 “Flying Merkel” was more your style, or the ’37 Knucklehead, you will love the stripped down twins or million-mile rust hogs with tractor-saddle seats that show up every year.
I doubt any biker can walk among the Museum’s ghostly photographs and its menagerie of vintage machines without having a profound sense of nostalgia for days gone by, but I also know that any biker walking Legendary Main Street from one end to the other during the Rally will see a bike or two they covet just a bit and a crowd that is every bit as biker as any that has come before.
But times do change, and who knows what the future will hold. What bikes will line Legendary Main Street seventy-seven years from now? I’m sure the present-day Rally would astonish those boys in the black and white photo at the Museum, and our modern bikes, well, they’d want to take them for a spin, wouldn’t they. But they are all gone now, the people in those early photographs, or their riding days are far behind them, at least.
Times change. But some traditions endure. And this year once again come August there will be a change in the weather, a distant thunder will start up and pilgrims from everywhere will make their arduous treks along lonely state highways and endless interstates to finally gather, one and all, to be part of something immense and enduring where they belong.