STURGIS, S.D. — As the Black Hills fade from the rear view mirrors of thousands of motorcycles heading away from the Sturgis rally this weekend, a monster may be closer than it appears.
By all accounts, next year’s 75th anniversary of the largest motorcycle rally in the world will be the biggest biker bash ever staged, an event so well-attended that organizers and law enforcement cringe and lodging providers wonder where they will all stay. Some officials estimate overall rally attendance could reach 1 million next year, more than double the typical number.
“It’s amazing,” said Susan Johnson, executive director of Black Hills Central Reservations, which books rooms for 90 percent of the lodging properties in the Black Hills. “We have 23 percent more advanced reservations this year over last and that really shows the demand for the 75th. I’ve heard of three campgrounds already full for next year.”
Johnson said a flurry of telephone calls greeted her associates during this year’s rally from visitors wanting to set up appointments to view potential accommodations for next year’s diamond jubilee.
“They’re planning on expanding their groups and bringing more friends, all of which indicates that the 75th is going to be a game-changer, just as the 50th was in 1989,” Johnson said.
At Deadwood’s historic Franklin Hotel, managers are already bracing for 2015 and what could be their biggest rally season ever.
“Everyone is increasing their number of rooms, their length of stay,” said Franklin Manager John Rystrom. “People are even booking the week before and the week after rally. Our waiting list is already extensive.”
Finishing his 33rd consecutive rally at the sprawling Sturgis Buffalo Chip complex, where big-name performers fill the week with concerts and thousands of rallygoers make camp, President Rod Woodruff predicts a 75th observance that will top the charts.
“I’m very confident the 75th will be remarkably more heavily attended than anything we have experienced before,” Woodruff said last week. “It will be the biggest rally we have ever had.”
As evidence, Woodruff noted that the Buffalo Chip began accepting reservations for 2015 in May, four months ahead of any previous schedule. When they sent out an email to previous customers, allowing those loyalists a chance to book their camping spots ahead of anyone else, staff members were astounded by the response, he said.
“We sent out one email to our existing base and gave them three days before releasing spots to the general public,” Woodruff said. “We had record sales for three days. It knocked us right off our heels and that was just one email.”
Woodruff said a banner year for the Black Hills event would buck the trend of other major rallies conducted throughout the U.S., all of which have experienced declining attendance over the past decade.
“It’s not the economy that impacts the rally, it’s people’s experiences,” Woodruff said. “There’s a fad cycle. There was a time when motorcycling was cool and everybody was doing it. But it’s like Levis; once everybody had 20 pairs, the luster wore off.”
Woodruff said attendance has been off in Sturgis and at other rallies across the country. “Rallies failed,” he said. “A decade ago, Daytona rivaled Sturgis in attendance but it’s virtually gone, a mere shadow of its former self. If that’s the case, we thought we wanted Sturgis to be the last rally standing.”
Sturgis Rally Director Brenda Vasknetz said the 75th could double last year’s official estimate of 467,338 attendees. Social media and visitor inquiries indicate unprecedented interest, she noted.
“A lot of the comments we do see on our social media side are, ‘Can’t wait for the 75th.’ That’s the chat,” she said. “The chief (Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush) thinks there will be close to a million people here next year. I know we can handle it because you can only fit so many people into our town.”
But Woodruff isn’t so sure, contemplating a 2015 meltdown complete with downtown Sturgis gridlock and traffic moving at a snail’s pace on Lazelle Street, all of which will have a negative residual impact on future rallies. The “City of Riders,” he fears, may well become the “City of Idlers.”
Woodruff worries that not enough planning has been done to handle the extreme traffic. “Because of that, we’ll see the same thing happen in 2015 as we saw happen after 2003 — people will remember the traffic jam more than they’ll remember the good times.”
He imagines a scenario where it could take three hours to move across town if a million bikers show up. “We’ve got an hour-glass configuration and we’re going to have a lot more sand. In fact, we’re going to bring an extra pound of sand and most of it won’t get through the hour-glass,” he said.
Rick Hultman was just a youngster when he went on the tour rides during the Sturgis motorcycle rally with his dad, Neil Hultman.
He had his own leathers and helmet. And he never dreamed that the rally would endure to celebrate its 75th anniversary.
“I was here for the 50th, and the 75th is going to be just spectacular,” he said. “The 50th was unbelievable and I think next year will top that.”
Rick’s dad, Neil, was one of the original Jackpine Gypsies cycle club members who started the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally. He also is surprised that the rally continues to grow.
“I didn’t think I’d be alive that long to be honest with you,” Neil said, adding that he thinks the event will draw people as long as the city and others continue to support it.
Everyone involved needs to focus on the good times through the years instead of the problems that have arisen as the result of the rally’s success, Hultman said.
“The good things outweigh the bad,” he said. “The people that come really enjoy it. That’s what makes them come back every year.”
And next year, they likely will be coming in droves.