Learn the History of the Sturgis Rally

For 11 months out of the year, Sturgis is a mostly quiet and charming mountain town. With cool vintage museums and a love for the Old West, Sturgis attracts visitors with its quaint charms, laid-back vibes, and rustic Black Hills cabin rentals.

All of this goes to an extreme level during the most famous and epic motorcycle event in the country comes around in the late summer- the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

So why, and how, did the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally become such a massive event, attracting tens of thousands of motorcyclist enthusiasts, huge musical acts in country, rock, and rap, and an outpouring of biking merchandise and gear. We take a look at the Sturgis Rally history and how it became such a centerpiece for this peculiar little town in the far west of South Dakota.

sturgis rally historical photo mt rushmore

The First Sturgis Rally (1938)

It began with a single idea- why can’t we have a small race right here in Sturgis? The idea was partly crafted by Clarence “Pappy” Hoel after he purchased an Indian Motorcycle Franchise in Sturgis, SD. He helped form the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club, and the small crew began to contemplate starting a small local race.

The idea turned into the first Sturgis Rally, then called the Black Hills Classic, on August 14th, 1938. It included 9 participants, a small audience on the sidelines, and a quick single race.

Early Rallies (1942 – 1974)

During most of World War II, there were no races in Sturgis. But the idea never died and the first officially-titled Sturgis Motorcycle Rally returned in 1942. After a few less-than-large years, the planners needed to block off Main Street and led a big 2-hour awards ceremony for competitors.

The competitive angle grew larger, attracting even more to the hustle and bustle of Sturgis. This included the addition of the Hill Climb and Motocross races in 1962 and the move to a 5-day event in 1965.

Week-long Rallies (1975 – Present)

Once people started turning out in droves, the money soon followed, and the first temporary vendor set up in the Sturgis Auditorium in 1974. This was followed by 9 vendors licensed in 1979 and 117 vendors licensed by the City of Sturgis in 1988. In 1989, founder Pappy
Hoel passes away at the age of 85.

Growth exploded in the 80’s and 90’s. The event evolved to a week-long rally featuring hundreds of vendors, music concerts, competitions, and other aspects of motorcycle culture, such as art, food, and whiskey. It became a place where individuals could sell a lot of custom merchandise and even corporations started to take note, selling high-end gear and bikes.

Nowadays, the event is massive in scale and attracts motorcycle enthusiasts, business owners, event planners, and everyone in between to see the action unfold- and to make a buck or two on it.

Present Day Rallies and Record Attendance

Regardless of the expansion and the corporatization, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally never lost its heart. The dawn of the millennium, 2000, saw the largest attendance to date, as high as 600,000 people. This record-high prompted the City of Sturgis to form a city department within the city government to manage all prior contract labor hired to promote and organize the rally.

The rally stayed consistent in size and scale. Attendance of 445,700, with participants from all 50 states as well as Canada, Japan, Australia, Germany, England, and more were noted in 2012. It was one of the most diverse rallies on record.

Now, the event encompasses so much. There’s a military appreciation day, large-scale musical performances by leading acts like Keith Urban, Snoop Dogg, Puddle of Mud, and George Thorogood, the Legendary 5K Rally, and recent additions, like the Angels Ride- an all-woman rally race and many other things to do in Sturgis for the 10-day event.

Don’t miss out on any of the fun with our local vacation rentals. Check out our available Black Hills lodging and Sturgis lodging to find rentals in the town or just outside. You can stay in Sturgis for the festivities or check out our Black Hills cabin rentals.

The Black Hills are a much quieter alternative, especially during the rally. You can take a break from the noise and crowds to see the Black Hills National Forest, the Reptile Gardens, and other things to do in the Black Hills.