Thunder in the Hills

Author: Bill Harlan

Pick a day the first week in August. Stand at the corner of Junction Avenue and Main Street, just in front of Gunner’s Lounge in Sturgis, South Dakota. Now close your eyes.


You won’t just hear the roar, you’ll feel it — in your feet, in your legs, in your gut. Hundreds of motorcycles — most of them Harley-Davidsons — are rumbling along a four-block strip of Main Street. The parade is nonstop, from early in the morning until late at night. So is the crush of dismounted bikers and civilian gawkers, who shoulder their way up and down the crowded sidewalks. Thousands of other motorcycles are jammed into every conceivable parking place in the 20 square blocks that constitute the center of town.


Sturgis — normal population, 6,000 — is nestled against the northeast edge of the Black Hills. It’s a sleepy ranch town most of the year, but not this week. The town’s annual motorcycle rally draws more than 200,000 bikers to western South Dakota. Hordes of motorcyclists invade small towns throughout the 125-mile length of the Black Hills, from Edgemont in the south to Spearfish in the north. Interstate 90 is a steady stream of motorcycles for hundreds of miles east and west. U.S. Highway 85, the CanAm Highway, funnels motorcyclists into the Black Hills from the north and south. Sturgis is the rally’s epicenter. And the corner of Junction and Main is ground zero.


The scene here is straight out of Road Warrior. A group of Hell’s Angels motors by. A bride in a white veil and matching white thong bikini waves her bouquet from the back seat of a Harley. A biker stands on a huge three-wheeler behind twin machine guns — presumably replicas — shouting Bible quotations at the crowd. Behind him, six tattooed twenty-somethings gun their Ninja rocket bikes. This year, even basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman cruised by, looking right at home.


Magoo (That’s all. Just “Magoo.”) has been watching it all this year. At 6 feet 5 inches, 290 pounds, he looks like the stereotypical outlaw biker. Magoo is pierced, tattooed and dressed in leather. His fingers sport 18 rings, but his hands are not elegant. They wear the grime associated with keeping his 1989 Electra Glide on the road. Sometimes Magoo brings his tattooing and body piercing business to Sturgis, from his home in Grand Forks, North Dakota. This year he came to watch.


Magoo has been to 24 Sturgis rallies in a row, and he has witnessed dramatic changes at the event. “it used to be a small party, and now it’s a big tourist attraction,” he says.


Sturgis did start small. J.C. “Pappy” Hoel and a few friends, most of them flat-track racers, founded the rally in 1940 as a way to promote their sport. In the 1940s, all the participants could squeeze into a single photo. In the 1950s, Hoel, now deceased, considered a few hundred bikers a good turnout, and the races were always the main focus of the early rallies. Sturgis continues to offer track racing, hill climbs and drag racing, but the rally began to change in the 1960s. It got rowdier. And the outlaws began to arrive: Hell’s Angels, Bandidos, Sons of Silence.


The crowds continued to grow in the 1970s — to 15,000, then 20,000 and more. Many of the newcomers came to watch the outlaws, who rode big, loud “rat bikes” — oil-leaking Harley choppers with high handlebars and bad paint. By the early 1980s, the outlaw bikers had helped elevate the Sturgis rally to cult status. The rattiest bikers camped free in City Park and partied hard. One year they took over the park for an entire night, virtually kicking out the police.


Sturgis officials reacted. The next year the city closed the park to bikers, and the park has remained closed for every rally since. The FBI, the DEA and the ATF joined local authorities in beefing up law enforcement. But it was too late to stop the Sturgis juggernaut. Crowds grew to 50,000, then 80,000, then 100,000. By the monster 50th rally in 1990, crowd estimates were as high as 400,000, though local officials admitted they had lost their ability to make an accurate count. Outlaw gangs continued to attend. Members of the Hell’s Angels even bought a campground near Sturgis, where they held concerts and leased the beer concession to the local Jaycees.


In 1990, members of rival gangs fought in Gunner’s Lounge. Shots were fired. Two men were stabbed.


Despite that incident, the rally already had begun to outgrow its outlaw era, in part because of a boom in motorcycling. In 1980, motorcycle registrations nationwide hit an all-time high of 5.7 million, up from just 1.4 million in 1965. Although motorcycle registration has declined since then, to 3.9 million in 1995, the affluence of motorcyclists has continued to increase. In 1980, fewer than 3 percent of motorcycle riders earned more than $50,000 per year; in 1990, nearly 20 percent did.


“I think Harley-Davidson had a lot to do with it,” Mickey Nasseff says, as he watches the Main Street parade. “The Evolution motor — that saved them, no doubt.” Nasseff, 53, of Saint Paul, Minnesota, illustrates the change in Sturgis. When he attended his first rally in 1964, both he and his Harley were a lot scruffier. “There were more nude women back then, too,” he says, laughing. Today Nasseff is a successful plumbing contractor. He has come to Sturgis with his wife, Ruth, and their 2-year-old daughter, Emily, who rides in a sidecar.


Harley-Davidson’s new Evolution engine was more reliable than the old Shovelheads and Panheads, and the company began to win back customers it had lost to the Japanese. Harley-Davidson now targets bikers like Nasseff, who have more money to spend. During the Sturgis rally Harley-Davidson rents the entire Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in nearby Rapid City, South Dakota. Customers there drool over products ranging from custom bikes to $1,000 riding suits and $38 Harley fountain pens.


Even some hardcore bikers have changed their habits. Darwin Holmstrom of Dickinson, North Dakota, rode a motorcycle to his first rally back in 1983. “It was a drunken, hallucinogenic orgy back then,” the 33-year-old says. “Now it’s more like one big 12-step meeting. Which is fine. That’s not a complaint. Nobody lives like they did in 1983.”


Junkyard Bob (That’s all. Just “Junkyard Bob.”) of Plano, Texas, agrees. Junkyard Bob is 51. At 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, he could be Magoo’s slightly smaller brother. He rides a chopped 1983 Harley-Davidson Sportster that recalls a rougher Sturgis rally. But Junkyard Bob wears slogans that tell of an epiphany. The tattoo on his arm says “Born to Raise Hell.” The rocker on his motorcycle jacket says “Children of the Light,” the Christian motorcycle club he founded. Bob is a former member of a gang called the Devil’s Own Grim Reapers. “I worked for Satan for 30 years,” he says. Now he’s recovering from open-heart surgery, recovering from alcoholism, and preaching The Word.


At least a dozen Christian motorcycle clubs had delegations in Sturgis this year. Members of 12-step motorcycle clubs — Alky’s Angel’s and the like — also seem more evident than ever. Just as significantly, the older bikers who are cleaning up and mellowing out are being joined by new bikers who don’t fit the old demographics at all.


Stacy Campo, 26, and Shannon Kennedy, 28, both of Phoenix, Arizona, represent a new kind of woman at the rally. They aren’t “seat polishers” — women who ride behind their men. Campo and Kenney ride their own bikes.


They rode them all the way to Sturgis from Phoenix. Campo works at a Harley-Davidson dealership there; Kennedy is a bill collector. As Campo talks about her trip — she dumped her bike once, but never considered turning back — a young man guns his engine and screams past her down Main Street, drowning out the conversation. “Oh, that makes me feel like I really want him,” Campo says, sarcasm dripping from her voice. At 5 feet 4 inches tall and 120 pounds, Campo insists she has no trouble handling her own big Harley. “I’m all muscle,” she says. And Kennedy says she is not at all intimidated by a rally that has been dominated by men for 57 years. “If men can do it, we can do it.”


The new breed of bikers are creating a new kind of rally, and Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush has watched the change. This summer’s crowd was extremely well behaved. “It was kind of boring,” Bush admitted, a couple weeks after the bikers left. His officers made about 700 arrests this year, compared to an average of 1,500 arrests at the smaller but wilder rallies of the early 1980s.


The change in attitude doesn’t seem to be diminishing attendance. This year’s crowd estimate of 220,000 made it the second-largest rally ever. Those big numbers have made the rally big business. According to a 1995 study by the local Black Hills State University, bikers spend an average of $781 each during a typical stay in Sturgis. Multiply that by 220,000 and you get a biker economy worth $171.8 million.


This year more than 760 vendors paid fees ranging from $125 to $400 for the privilege of doing business in Sturgis. There were 95 tattoo artists alone. There were 72 food vendors, including The Road Kill Café, which specializes in “anything dead in bread.” Black T-shirts, the traditional symbol of Sturgis, were sold by the tens of thousands, but the rally also has a trendier side. Fancy coffee made its appearance two years ago, when one vendor advertised, “Tattoos, piercing, espresso.” This year, there were even 10 cigar vendors, including several “Sturgis” brands.


The economic biker boom has driven up rental prices on Main Street. Karen and Art Lustig, who own Art’s Parts, have been bringing their motorcycle parts and repair business to Sturgis for 10 years. In that time the Lustigs have seen rental space jump from $300 for the week to $5,000. They pay just $1,500 for space at the motorcycle rally in Daytona, Florida, a bigger event.


Karen Lustig thinks Sturgis landlords are charging way too much. “They’re going to push us out of business,” she says. “I believe in another 10 years all you’re going to be able to do is sell T-shirts.”


And beer. Lots of bikers are in recovery, but Millinger’s Saloon on Main Street still sold 250 cases of beer per day. Big corporations have also noticed the opportunities. You’d expect Camel cigarettes and Budweiser to have a presence at the rally, and they do, but Gateway 2000, the South Dakota-based computer giant, also did a land-office business.


Even the Sturgis tradition of scantily clad women has taken a professional, corporate turn. Playboy magazine, in partnership with the Titan Motorcycle Company, brought five models to the rally — including Miss August and Miss September. Each of the models appears in the August issue of Playboy in a photo layout titled “Biker Babes.” The little-read text explains: “We realized that bikes are powerful babe magnets.”


Maybe. The “Biker Babes” themselves certainly were magnets. Bikers lined up a hundred deep for autographs. Tracy Bancroft, 26, of Oaklyn, New Jersey, was one of the “Biker Babe” models. (Her boyfriend, Louis Charles Blaum III, M.D., is a 1993 Notre Dame graduate.) A photographer had persuaded Bancroft to submit a portfolio to Playboy, and she wrote on her bio sketch, “I love Harley-Davidsons.” The photographer thought that was a bad idea. “He told me they don’t like the biker image,” Bancroft says. “But look at me. Do I look like a biker chick?”


As a matter of fact, she was exactly the kind of “biker chick” Playboy wanted. She got a whole page in the magazine.


Titan Motorcycle also was happy to have Bancroft at their Sturgis exhibit. The company makes big, expensive bikes, including a $40,000 Playboy edition, which Playboy will give away as part of a promotion. Titan Motorcycles quadrupled sales this year, to $20 million, and it expects to reach $50 million in sales next year. And its customers will not be “rat bikers.”


Still, Sturgis veterans like Darwin Holmstrom are not entirely comfortable with the new, affluent bikers. “It seems like a lot of them are in it because it’s a fad. There are a lot of foot paddlers out there” — inexperienced bikers who have to put their feet on the ground to negotiate slow-speed maneuvers. “I don’t want to tell them they can’t ride,” Holmstrom says, “But I see a lot of people who don’t really understand the motorcycling community.”


Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell does. The only Native American in the U.S. Senate, the Republican from Colorado was attending his fourth Strugis rally this summer. A long-time motorcyclist, he suggests that the modern biker culture shares similarities with traditional Plains Indian cultures and with 19th century mountain men. “Look at the symbols,” Campbell says. “Bears, eagles, buffalo.” Indeed, buffalo skulls are among the most popular tattoos at Sturgis. Bikers, Campbell says, are “nomadic, clannish, and we refer to each other as brother.” And once a year, Campbell points out, bikers, like mountain men of old, get together for “a chance to spend all their money.”


Charlotte Rios ’75M.A., ‘81Ph.D. of Palm Desert, California, rode 3,100 miles to Sturgis, in a roundabout route, by herself. She does not fit the typical biker profile of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. But she does identify with the community of motorcycling. “I thought I was just buying a motorcycle,” Rios says. “I didn’t know I was buying into a whole culture.”


Part of that culture is the ethic of generosity. “Bikers are constantly digging into their pockets.” She insists that some of the grungiest bikers are the most generous, especially when her bike breaks down. “The bad bikers are the first ones to stop.”


Joe Dowd ’71 compares motorcycling to the camaraderie surrounding Notre Dame sports. “You always have a sense of family,” he says. But motorcycling has its own appeal. “It’s the sound,” Dowd says. “It’s the feel of the motorcycle out on the open road. There’s not much between you and the pavement. And it’s the wind in your hair — or what’s left of it.”


Dowd trailered his Harley-Davidson from his home in North Carolina to Indiana, then rode the rest of the way to Sturgis. (He was surprised that he was not allowed to rise his motorcycle onto the Notre Dame campus.) Dowd, 48, who took early retirement from a Swiss chemical company, is by no means an outlaw biker, but he took a big step in Sturgis this year. He got a tattoo.


Dowd wanted something special, so he chose a talented custom tattoo artist named Foot. (That’s all. Just “Foot.”) Foot’s motto is “You think it, we’ll ink it.” Dowd’s design: The Notre Dame Leprechaun, riding a motorcycle over the caption “Bikin’ Irish.” The rendering on Dowd’s left bicep was no problem for Foot. Dowd endured the 90-minute tattooing stoically. “It’s like a bee sting,” he says, halfway through the process. “Actually, it’s like a lot of bee stings.” Or, as the sign of another tattoo artist read: “Don’t ask. Hell yes it hurts.”


Dowd has difficulty explaining why he got the tattoo, but he seems pleased with the result. “It’s good to have it,” he says. “At least ‘til my wife sees it.”


Dowd and Rios and the rest of the mild-mannered bikers at Sturgis have not driven the rowdier elements away from the rally. But some of them have moved outside town, to campgrounds like the Buffalo Chip. The Chip has its own concerts in the evening and special events like women’s cole slaw wrestling and a pickle-licking tournament.


And if you want to get beat up in Sturgis, no problem. Take a picture of a Hell’s Angel in front of Gunner’s Lounge. One unfortunate biker this year did just that and ended up in the hospital.


However, the nasty-looking biker you photograph these days is just as likely to hand you a Bible tract and an invitation to a 12-step meeting. Magoo himself, the 290-pound tattoo artist, is evidence of a gentler Sturgis. Two Chihuahuas peek out from inside the pockets of Magoo’s leather vest. Gypsy always rides in the right pocket, Crystal in the left. Magoo also has matching cell phones in his vest. “They’re consecutive numbers,” he explains. It makes it easier to communicate with a brother on the road.


In one sense, the change in rally is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimistic chamber of commerce officials, eager to put a good face on the rally, for years touted the idea that most of the bikers — even the nasty-looking ones — were “doctors and lawyers.” Rick Grable does in fact look like a rat biker. Standing in line for an autograph from a Playboy model, Grable wore a T-shirt, jeans, a beard, a bandana and a tattoo. The tattoo read “Resipsa,” shorthand for the Latin “Res ipsa loquitur,” a legal term for “the thing speaks for itself.” Yes, Grable, the biker, is a lawyer from Edmonton.


In Sturgis, the tattoo speaks for itself.


When this story was originally published, Bill Harlan was a newspaper columnist and freelance writer based in Rapid City, South Dakota.