1990s Sturgis: The Big Bang

1990s Sturgis: The Big Bang

KA-BOOM! That’s what happened all around the world in the 1990s—from technology, to the economy, to the arts, the pace accelerated. It was a prosperous time for the USA, and much of the world. It was the decade in which the World Wide Web came into everyday use, and we saw the launch of sites like Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, and Google. It may have been the only time when the internet thrived without traditional print media and brick and mortar stores feeling threatened to their core.

As daily life in America seemed to move faster and became more technological, complex, and commercially influenced, people looked for a “great escape”—and motorcycling fit the bill perfectly. It didn’t matter if you were blue collar, white collar, or no-collar, you needed to don your leathers, hit the road, and feel the wind in your face. Riding a bike could make you feel, at least for a time, as if you had no routine, no schedule to worry about, and that you were a non-conformist at heart. You could head down the highway without a boss or “Big Brother” watching—without a care or worry.

Motorcycle registrations climbed throughout the decade as motorcycling became intertwined with pop-culture. Harley-Davidsons began appearing in films and on television, as well as in commercials and print ads for other products. Actors, actresses and musicians would be photographed with their big-twins, and Harley-Davidson just kept cashing in on the publicity as opportunities arose to grow a vibrant motorcycle industry. Builders like Arlen Ness, that had been operating since the 1970s, expanded quickly. Companies like Dennis Kirk grew their mail-order parts divisions as Custom Chrome and Drag Specialties went out on the event circuit with semi’s loaded with parts that bikers could touch and feel.

The motorcycle craze became so intertwined into our culture that in 1998, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City mounted the exhibition “The Art of the Motorcycle.” It attracted more than 2,000,000 visitors! The largest number the museum has ever received. 

Sturgis was right there with this amazing growth as it started the decade hitting the throttle hard with its 50th Anniversary Big-Bang celebration in 1990. Anyone that had ever come to this epicenter of all things 2-wheeled said they wouldn’t miss it. And everyone else that rode a motorcycle wanted to be there. Music, sports and film celebrities made the scene with the New York Times dubbing it “Woodstock in leather”!

Official attendance numbers for the 50th reached 400,000 visitors. Which is staggering when you consider the 40th Anniversary was estimated to only have 40,000. What astronomic growth! Of course, the rally swells for anniversary years, but after the 50th celebration was said and done, the rally was never the same again. And it set the tone for the entire decade, and beyond.

While Sturgis may not have been prepared for what was to come, they did welcome the new breed of biker that came to their 50th Anniversary party. Campgrounds were full and hotel rooms booked for one-hundred miles. Everyone was on the road, exploring the Black Hills, as well as the surrounding plains. They toured the magic of the Badlands and were drawn to Devil’s Tower seeking their own “Close Encounter”. They rode the windy northern hills and came face-to-face with 2,000-pound bison in the southern hills. And everyone, regardless how far away they were staying from Sturgis, whether they were a scooter tramp or RUB (Rich Urban Biker), paid homage to the town of Sturgis. It has been appropriately called “Motorcycle Mecca”.

On my first trip to the rally in 1979, the people I met were mostly from the contiguous states along with Wisconsin and Idaho. Others came from further away, but it wasn’t until the 50th that the rally became truly international. Bikers came from every state, Canada, Mexico, and countries all around the world. Some rode long distances, while others shipped their bikes or flew in. They arrived earlier and stayed longer. Before long, the weekend before the rally officially started (it used to start on the Monday) became bigger than the final weekend. By this time, I was spending nine full days in Sturgis covering the event for Easyriders Magazine, compared to the earlier years when I’d stay just 3 to 4 days. There was always so much to see and so much to do, and I didn’t want to miss any of it.

No matter what brought someone to the Black Hills Rally, every biker was drawn to Main Street. Riding it became an annual ritual—without which, the trip wouldn’t be complete. Being closed to 4-wheel traffic during Bike Week allows bikers to casually cruise back-and-forth, or set their bikes down in one of its four lines of motorcycle-only parking. They crawl down the street from stop sign to stop sign taking it all in. Bikers not only want to see everything and everyone, they want to be seen as well. For everyone checking it out, it’s like watching a parade—although an outrageous one at that.

Throughout the ‘90s, everything in and around Sturgis grew, in size as well as numbers. Deadwood, which had just implemented legalized gambling in 1989, grew tremendously, as large casinos, hotels, and restaurants were built throughout the decade. It became a favorite place for many to stay, as did Spearfish, since they both had a better selection of lodging and restaurants than Sturgis. Farther out towns, like Keystone, Hill City, and Custer up in the hills, and even towns over the border in Wyoming benefitted. Hulett and Sundance declared Wednesday of Bike Week a special day just for bikers—which has become variously known as “Wyoming Wednesday”, “Weeny Wednesday”, “Burnout Wednesday”, or to some, “No-Panty Wednesday”! Regardless of what anyone may call it, it is a fun and wild day that draws thousands and causes a fender-to-fender traffic jam on the two-lane highways of southeastern Wyoming.

The place that benefited the most, outside of Sturgis, was Rapid City. Harley-Davidson moved their corporate presence there in the ‘80s, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s that it got a real foothold. Harley took over the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to show off their latest product and they had outdoor activities as well. Rapid City’s hotels were completely booked, (at top dollar as you may expect) and the restaurants, bars, music, and other diversions also did well. Additionally, one of the busiest places anywhere in the hills was the local Black Hills Harley-Davidson dealership. Mechanics were brought in from all over the country to service desperate bikers in the middle of their journeys. And new bikes flew out the doors!

Closer to the town of Sturgis, rally specific venues, most of which were only open for a couple of weeks a year, also grew throughout the decade. The Buffalo Chip, Glenco Campground, Sturgis Dragway and Broken Spoke Saloon worked hard to be part of the rally—and deservedly reaped the benefits. Bigger acts were booked to play the increasing number of stages, and all sorts of entertainment appeared.

World Championship Wrestling (WCW) actually held a professional wrestling pay-per-view event in downtown Sturgis from 1996 to 1999. It was free for the live biker audience that came to Lynn’s Dakotamart grocery store parking lot on Lazelle. As you can imagine, the Thursday night event had a lot of hoopla around it with Hulk Hogan and Jay Leno involved.

Another big development that happened in the 1990s was how custom builders started getting treated like celebrities. This may have had something to do with the Hamsters, a loose-knit group of custom builders that would more likely tell you they are just a bunch of drinkers with a custom-bike problem. The group included the likes of Arlen Ness, Donnie Smith, Dave Perewitz, Don Hotop, Arlin Fatland and many more. They turned heads as they would ride through town in a large pack, and it was as good as the best bike show out there. If you couldn’t tell who they were from their amazing customs, you’d catch on with the golden-yellow shirts they all wore. What a buzz there would be when they’d park their bikes in one large group and a big crowd gathered around them.

Other groups that had been coming to the rally also grew in numbers. This was a time of consolidation, when 1% clubs were absorbing many of the smaller clubs. The Hells Angels, Sons of Silence, Bandidos and other clubs made their presence felt as they rode down Main Street in packs on different days. They became part of the fabric of the rally as the Hells Angels promoted a great outdoor concert at the Bent Shoe Ranch up above town in 1994. And the Sons of Silence bought their own property outside town so they could do what they want without getting hassled. There were also veteran clubs, fun clubs, clean & sober clubs, and religious affiliated clubs—for many, Sturgis became a mandatory run.

The “Big Bang” truly sums up Sturgis (and motorcycling in general) in the 1990s. Just as the like-named cosmological model explains the “the existence of the observable universe”, this “Big Bang” set of a chain of events still being felt today.

The images in this blog-post are from Michael’s “Limited Edition” series of prints that he exhibits and which can be seen (and purchased) through his website – www.lichterphoto.com

Michael Lichter
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