Sturgis in the Aughts: The Boom Continued—until it didn’t!

Sturgis in the Aughts: The Boom Continued—until it didn’t!

We not only rang in a new decade at midnight on January 1, 2000, we rang in a new century. All sorts of Y2K conspiracy theories built up around what was going to happen at that moment—including the end of civilization. But I for one, literally put my head in the sand by parking myself, Catherine, Kiera, and Sean in a palapa on a beach in Mexico—with no phones or connection to the outside world. (Could there be a better place for it to all end?) Of course, nothing happened, and life just went on. Funny thing about the first 10 years of this century, even though the decade ended 11 years ago, there still is not consensus on what to call them. Some say, the “Early 2000s”, but probing deeper this seems to end with the economic crash of 2008 rather than 2010. Others simply say, “The 2000s”, but wouldn’t this refer to the entire 21st century? For the purpose of this feature, I’ll go with the “Aughts”, which the dictionary claims to be “the ten-year period from 2000 through 2009”.

The biggest defining moment of the Aughts must be the 9/11 attacks—which did change life as we knew it. Its impact was felt throughout our society and impacted so many aspects of our lives. It was certainly felt in the motorcycle world and in Sturgis, but we’ll save that in-depth discussion for another day. I’ll continue where I left off, with the unprecedented growth Sturgis had seen in the 1990s.

As the Aughts got underway, the same upward trajectory established in the ‘90s continued. For me, this was to be the most incredible decade in Sturgis to date. The excitement never ended. There was more and more to see and do, and it all seemed easier than before. This was also the time when I started my annual themed art and motorcycles exhibition series at the prestigious Journey Museum in Rapid City in 2001(now it’s held at the Buffalo Chip).

Since the history of Sturgis has always been in tandem with the rest of the motorcycle world, what was good for motorcycling was good for Sturgis. You could tell things were good when you were at a hotel during the V-Twin Expo trade show in Cincinnati and competitors were fighting over who was going to pay for the next round of drinks!

Powerhouse manufacturers like Big Dog and American Ironhorse may have started as “Harley clones”, but they grew to build close to 5,000 beautiful “custom” bikes and choppers a year. As they were sold through authorized dealer networks, it was imagined that they could eventually be legitimate challengers to Harley-Davidson.

Great aftermarket engine and transmission companies like S&S, TP Performance and Baker Drivetrain grew to supply all of the bike manufacturers that sprung up, as well as the new demand from the growing number of garage builders. And countless smaller aftermarket parts companies popped up with great ideas and products—some not so great.

As we built up toward the 100th anniversary celebration of Harley-Davidson in 2003, everything connected to the V-Twin world seemed to race off showroom floors, and the aftermarket business roared. There seemed to be enough business for everyone.

And so, the decade opened with a one-off television special, Jesse James’ “Motorcycle Mania”, that stirred the cauldron and set the stage for the entire decade. The concept, developed by television producer Tom Beers and hosted by Hugh King, was a big deal for the Discovery Channel. I don’t think anyone could have ever predicted this special would cause what seemed like an insatiable demand for motorcycle related content on TV. And that it would lead to so many other shows.

Naturally, there was a “Motorcycle Mania II” and “III” on its heels, Tom Beers developed “Monster Garage” around Jesse, followed by the immensely popular “Biker Build-Off” series that pitted custom builders against each other, and the clock, that kicked off in 2002. The first in the series was Billy Lane going up against Roger Bourget, with 43-shows airing before it ended in 2007. Custom bike builders like Arlen and Cory Ness, Brian Klock, Dave Perewitz, Indian Larry, Jerry Covington, Keino, Mondo, Paul Cox, Paul Yaffe, Roland Sands and many more became public figures over-night.

More shows followed, too many to mention, but two huge hit series that premiered in the decade included “American Chopper” and “Sons of Anarchy”.

The first featured the Teutul family and their Orange County Choppers (OCC) custom business. It premiered in 2002 and continued (in its original format) through 2010, at which point it had aired a staggering 163 episodes —that’s a lot of theme bikes! “OCC” became a household name across America and truly around the globe. Can you imagine, we were at a rented house on the coast of Ireland when my Irish nieces and nephews shouted, “Quick Quick, Michael’s on the tele!” It was truly seen everywhere.

The second series, which focused on the lives of Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club) was immensely popular as well. The style of bikes in both shows impacted the look of custom bike building for years, and appearances by any of their actors at bikes shows or events meant a guaranteed boost to attendance, and long lines for autographs.

Motorcycling became part of mainstream America. It was right there in the tabloids beside the grocery checkouts, with custom bike builders garnering attention next to the likes of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pit, and Paris Hilton. Jesse James was collecting handsome appearance fees as he jetted around the globe licensing and building his “West Coast Choppers” brand. And he wasn’t alone.

Back in Sturgis, these builder/celebrities were appearing as guests at various venues, where they would sign autographs at advertised times or possibly lead rides for one cause or another. Many would come to the Black Hills just because, well, it’s Sturgis! And who doesn’t want to be at the center of the motorcycle universe for Bike Week?

It was in the Aughts that Sturgis venues grew into “Super Venues” with the Buffalo Chip leading the pack—quadrupling its attendance in those 10 years. As the Chip’s proprietor Rod “Woody” Woodruff told me, “It was the biggest amount of growth we ever had and could have ever imagined.” The acts they headlined kept getting better and better, with Kid Rock, Toby Keith, and Aerosmith all appearing before the end of the decade—all included with the price of camping.

Other existing operations expanded too. Glencoe Campground threw its hat into the ring when it opened its 10,000ft. “Thunderdome” structure in 2006 to house a Sturgis version of Rick Fairless’ Strokers Dallas, as well as many bike-shows. They also dug out a huge amphitheater from the side of a hill and booked big acts to include with their camping, similar to the way the Buffalo Chip had been operating.

That same year, Jay Allan expanded his Broken Spoke Saloon’s jewel of an operation downtown by opening a second location he called “the world’s largest biker bar” at the “Broken Spoke County Line”, 10-miles outside of town. The downtown location kept its charm, old-school biker bar atmosphere and the warm characterful patina it had developed over so many years, while County Line had more of a resort feel to it. You could even swim in what was claimed to be the biggest biker pool on the planet. And at both locations, Jay focused attention on the custom builders that were so known by then through television. There were nights dedicated to certain builders, and even celebrity bartender evenings where you could be served a beer by Billy Lane, Jesse Rooke, Kendal Johnson, Chica, Paul Yaffe, and others.

New venues also opened, most notably the Full Throttle Saloon (officially opened in 1999). Mike Ballard set out to build a place that would be filled with character from the get-go and did a good job at it. He took elements he had seen at the best biker bars everywhere, to which he added his own creative twist. There were abandoned automobile bridges literally moved in from other states that served as overhead decking, trucks and buses upended like massive sculptures (think Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo on steroids!), bars made from cut up pickup trucks and school-buses, old barbershop chairs to relax in, and basically wild things everywhere you looked. The atmosphere had a certain craziness to it that grew each year, and that bikers found part of the appeal. It was so successful, that by 2009 an entire television show of the same name, “Full Throttle Saloon” was launched and became another hit motorcycle related TV series.

Looking back on the whole decade, Lon Nordbye, the VP of Commercial Development & Strategic Planning at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip for 12-years (and who worked with all of the major Sturgis venues prior to that) said, “It was absolutely electric.” I was there and will agree it was. Everyone felt it, and bet their livelihoods on the notion, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” But eventually they stopped rolling, or they at least slowed down. The Boom was over. With this, I am referring to the effects of the economic crash that started with Lehman Brothers declaring bankruptcy on September 15th of 2008—and oddly enough, the same day as the worst motorcycle related crash of my life! Exactly 2-weeks later, on the 29th, the entire stock market imploded with the Dow having its largest single-day loss in history. The impact on the motorcycling industry was devastating.

As industry veteran Bob Kay explained, the motorcycle industry was running like the housing market—anybody and everybody was getting credit. And with the crash, credit dried up at the consumer level, motorcycles weren’t getting sold, dealers and manufacturers were sitting on huge stockpiles of bikes, loans were getting called in, and the rest is history. Big Dog and American Ironhorse both went out of business, as did so many smaller companies and aftermarket parts suppliers. These were tough times in the industry.

This being said, nothing was going to stop Sturgis! It was just a question as to how much it would impact the rally. The crash happened in September of ’08, which gave nearly a year for things to get figured out for the 2009 event. When the rally did take place, (at least for most of the players) it was a setback, but not outright devastation like so many other parts of the  economy. In addition to fewer people showing up, there were far fewer vendors. and overall less money spent. But the rally happened, and everyone had fun.

Woody summed it up when he told me, “People’s leisure is a priority. They still need to get away and so they came anyway in 2009. It was cheaper to come to Sturgis to party than it would be to go anywhere else.” The Chip actually had higher numbers in 2009 than 2008, but a small fraction of the increases it had been seeing. 2009 was also the year that the Chip built the over 6,000ft. gallery to house my annual exhibition that I started in 2001 at the Journey Museum in Rapid City. They certainly had faith the rally wasn’t going away—and to this day, I am still producing the exhibition for them in the same space.

Deep down, we all knew the pace couldn’t go on forever, but it sure was exciting to be part of those times when, at least on the surface, it seemed it would never end. When all was said and done, it never did really end, the pace of growth just slowed way, way down and that’s how the “Aughts” came to an end.

They brought us to a new place that I for one think is much healthier, and from which we were able to build upon. But then that’s another story that I’ll save for my next feature, Sturgis in the “2010s”—back to a decade with a name!

Michael Lichter
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4 comments

ggrreat pics. I’ve always enjoyed this event, even the long ride down from BC. Canada. keep up the great work..

Great stuff…..Love your work ….I have been ridden for 54 years and remember how different it was back then.

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