Legendary motorcycle rally takes a new turn : Swelling crowds, money and merchandising have tamed the once-wild South Dakota event. Many welcome the change, but others miss the outlaw bikers.


A sign of the times at the giant annual motorcycle rally here was a poster hawking “tattoos, piercing, espresso.”

Sturgis didn’t used to be a latte kind of place. Something strange has happened here.

The Sturgis motorcycle rally drew as many as 200,000 bikers over 10 days this month to a town with a winter population of just 6,000, continuing a tradition that began in 1940 when the late J.C. (Pappy) Hoel and his flat-track racing friends founded the rally as a way to promote riding.

By the mid-1970s, crowds had grown to 15,000 or 20,000. Many were outlaws riding “rat bikes"--oil-leaking Harleys with bad paint and loud pipes. Sturgis began to earn cult status. By the early 1980s, Sturgis was truly wild, especially in City Park, where the grungiest elements camped free and partied nonstop.


By the monster 50th anniversary rally in 1990, crowd estimates had reached 250,000 to 360,000. Bikers filled the entire Black Hills and most of western South Dakota. During a fight among gang members in Gunner’s Lounge on Main Street, knives were pulled and shots were fired. Two men lay on the street bleeding from stab wounds.

This year Sturgis still roared with crowds and bikes. Each day of the rally, a couple thousand motorcycles jammed into the four-block downtown strip, and you could hear Main Street two miles away. But the atmosphere was noticeably different.

Half a block from the tattoo-latte place, a bank offered free Harley-Davidson T-shirts to bikers if they applied for VISA cards decorated with pictures of motorcycles. A place called the Mail Room did land-office business sending bikers’ dirty laundry home. And this year’s fashion craze was T-shirts decorated with Betty Boop, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters.

Beer is the traditional Sturgis antidote for sore muscles, but this year two massage therapists and a chiropractor worked Main Street. Practical, yes, but was the wild bunch “Born to Be Adjusted?” Should easy riders mail their laundry? Are Bugs Bunny shirts any way to terrorize a town?


Terror, it turns out, is way down. Nine Harleys were stolen from downtown one night, but most of the several hundred arrests at the rally this year were for minor offenses.

“I can’t say it has turned into a family event,” said Police Chief Jim Bush. “But there are more couples. We’re getting away from the groups of single guys on rat bikers.”

Bush thinks the main difference is money. “I don’t know if yuppie is the right word,” he said. “This crowd is more economically stable. They have better, more expensive bikes.”

More women are riding too, said Amanda Henry, 24, a graduate student who distributed promotional cigarettes at the rally. “A lot of women don’t want to be seat polishers anymore,” she said. “Some guys aren’t sure what to think about that.”

The change began several years ago when big business noticed the biking crowds. In the 1980s, Harley-Davidson Inc. engineered a resurgence built on attracting affluence to motorcycling. The company began renting the entire Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in nearby Rapid City, S.D., to show its wares, including clothing and accessories. Need a $38 Harley pen? A $1,000 riding suit? Harley has them.

Meanwhile, the rally had become more than motorcycle races and idling at saloons. Concerts, bike shows, organized rides and vendor displays added civilizing touches.

“This is wonderful,” said Herb Gunnison, 76, of Saugerties, N.Y., who rode 2,300 miles to Sturgis alone. Gunnison has ridden motorcycles for 63 years, and Sturgis is Mecca. “The thrill and pleasure of riding a motorcycle here are so intense,” he said.

Jim Carson of Chicago, president of Route 66 Highway Leathers, has been selling his products at Sturgis for 11 years. Carson has a theory about why gang colors and rat bikers began to disappear from Sturgis after 1990. It’s not law enforcement; it’s publicity.


“True bikers aren’t coming here anymore because they don’t want to be in a fishbowl. It’s nowhere near as fun as it used to be,” Carson said. “I don’t mean somebody has to get shot, but why do a hundred thousand people from all over the world come here to mill around in a little town of 6,000?” He said the outlaw biker mystique made Sturgis big. “It was because of those characters, and they’re not here anymore.”

Not quite true. Fewer colors are worn on Main Street, but Bush says 68 Hell’s Angels rode through town one night, and the Angels still own a campground here.

However, even as Carson was explaining his theory, Norma Jean Clifton, 48, of Flagstaff, Ariz., handed him a gold card to pay for a pair of $175 motorcycle boots. She came to Sturgis with her husband, Mike Clifton, 53, who owns a welding supply business. He bought a Harley Sportster last year, he sheepishly admitted, after attending a golf tournament in Laughlin, Nev. A motorcycle rally also was in progress.

“That noise just went straight through me.” Clifton said.

The Cliftons trailered the Sportster to Sturgis behind their Lincoln Continental. That’s biker heresy, but they’re having a ball. She’s even learning how to ride. They vowed to return for next year’s Sturgis rally.

Carson might not.

“I think it’s dead,” he said.