The Seattle Cossacks on the buffalo chip camground near Sturgis

Booze, bikes and burning outhouses - This is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Words: Nora O’Donnell  
Photography: Rick Rodney

Every year, half a million bikers descend on the buffalo chip campsite near Sturgis, South Dakota, for the world’s largest motorcycle rally. Burly bikers and a new breed of women riders find common cause at the biggest party in town, where their attitude is summed up by the motto ‘you only live once’

On a sprawling acreage in the Black Hills of South Dakota, plumes of milky exhaust swirl across a racetrack, forcing a throng of spectators to take a step back and block their nostrils with their dirty forearms.

It’s a sticky day in early August and the grit clings to sweaty flesh like socks fresh out of the dryer. But the mood of the crowd is fervent as two motorcycles from different clans – a Honda and a Harley – rev their engines with total bloodlust. 

“They’re hell-bent on self-destruction!” an announcer yells over the PA system. “These guys are crazy!” “That damn Honda ain’t gonna win,” mutters a silver-bearded onlooker as the start flag is raised in the air and then dropped. The Honda and the Harley take off towards the finish line, their tyres shrieking like a chorus of banshees. They accelerate to a speed of more than 190kph and cover the 170m of track in a matter of seconds. To the chagrin of the onlooker, the Honda wins.

© youtube // Buffalo Chip

Overseeing the street drag is Rod ‘Woody’ Woodruff, a 70-year-old retired country lawyer sporting rimless glasses, cowboy boots and smile lines as deep as the valleys of South Dakota. Woodruff is the founder of the Buffalo Chip, a 600-acre campsite about 6km from the small town of Sturgis and, since 1938, home to one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world. 

For the past 35 years, it is said, the rowdiest of the bunch have found a safe haven at the campsite. Like the fiercest of their biker brethren, the people of the Chip live by the motto ‘Ride fast, live hard’. It’s a passionate ideology that celebrates freedom and independence above all else, even at the risk of death.

For newcomers to the rally, the advice from veterans – “Pack some heat and, no matter what, do not touch anyone else’s stuff – can sound a bit alarming. Unlike other music festivals or arenas that house thousands of fans, there are no metal detectors, bag checks or armies of security guards patrolling the campsite. If you want to smoke a cigarette while sitting next to several cans of petrol, no one will bat an eyelid.

“Pack some heat and, no matter what, do not touch anyone else’s stuff“
The advice for newcomers
Drag Race Buffalo Chip

Ride fast, live hard

Crazy John Markwald (far left) watches over one of the drag races, where riders hit speeds of more than 190kph

“It’s about freedom and two wheels,” says Rod, who muses like a cowboy philosopher as he relaxes in an easy chair in the comfort of the campsite’s air-conditioned main office.

“When you get on a motorcycle, you forget about all your little worries“
Rod Woodruff

This is the common thread between the bikers who come to South Dakota every August, he says. “Two wheels is the key. When you get on a motorcycle, you forget about all your little worries. You feel things differently. You smell the air. You notice the changes in the temperature, all these little environments. We live in the city, in an air-conditioned office, where everything is controlled. But when you get on the road, you’re out there experiencing the world.” 

Back in 1981, about 20,000 people came to Sturgis for the rally, tripling the town’s population for several weeks. Many bikers partied and camped in City Park and, as Woodruff admits, “were a little unruly”. 

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“We live in the city, in an air-conditioned office, where everything is controlled. But when you get on the road, you’re out there experiencing the world.“
Rod Woodruff

After the 1981 Sturgis rally, politicians banned bikers from a local park for ‘unruly’ behaviour

Back in 1981, about 20,000 people came to Sturgis for the rally, tripling the town’s population for several weeks. Many bikers partied and camped in City Park and, as Woodruff admits, “were a little unruly”. 

Pressed for specifics, he says, “Well, they had a little annual ceremony of burning the outhouses, and they did little sexual things that upset the lady on the hilltop with her binoculars. She and her friends complained, making it pretty hard for local politicians to support the rally. It got to the point where the police decided that everybody who rode a motorcycle was probably a career criminal, and they were all treated that way.”

The city took a vote and decided that the bikers could still come to Sturgis, but they were banned from the park. Seeing an opportunity, Woodruff and a few locals started discussions about finding a natural amphitheatre outside town where everyone would be welcome. What Woodruff found was a ranch owned by an elderly couple. After leasing it for a bit, he bought the property and slowly started making improvements. 

Biker on Buffalo Chip

In the early years, only a couple of hundred people came to the ranch

In those early years, only a couple of hundred people came to the ranch to camp and listen to music. The headliners back then were Grand Ole Opry members such as Johnny Paycheck, best known for popularising the outlaw country song Take This Job And Shove It.

Before long, Woodruff had a makeshift stage, a small bonfire, and a loyal crowd of people having a good time, drinking beer and telling jokes. 

One visitor was a reporter from the Rapid City Journal, who wrote a big article about the gathering and deemed it the equivalent of an old mountain man rendezvous. The next day, the cars poured in from Rapid City – and they haven’t stopped coming.

The Seattle Cossacks perform daredevil stunts – including blasting through wooden frames that are ablaze 

Today, the Buffalo Chip is an adult theme park for gun-slinging, leather-clad bikers and women who enjoy painting their breasts with the stars and stripes.

A sea of vendors form a perimeter around the main amphitheatre, selling everything from burgers and beer to bandanas with flaming skulls and bodices made of lambskin. Those who want a permanent souvenir of their visit can brand themselves at a tattoo parlour.

The headliners are no longer Johnny Paycheck, but Kid Rock, Willie Nelson and US country star Miranda Lambert

Beyond the old-timey bonfire sessions, there are now stunt shows, flat track races and whatever ideas the combination of alcohol and exhaust fumes can inspire.

Roland Sands, former professional racer

Former professional racer and bike designer Roland Sands introduced flat track races to add more spice

Take, for instance, the Super Hooligan races. A throwback to the days when riders would make modifications to their machines for track races, this ‘run what you brung’ concept was given a modern update by former pro racer and custom motorcycle designer Roland Sands, and the organisers of the rally jumped at the opportunity to showcase the event.

“Last year, we couldn’t foresee we’d be doing a flat track race,” says Daymon Woodruff, Rod’s son. Like his dad, Daymon speaks slowly and deliberately, but his cowboy demeanour has an urban update. He’s keen on making the rally as big as any outdoor festival, without the sterile feeling that plagues so many events today. 

The morning of the flat track race, bulldozers are digging up dirt in front of the main stage where concertgoers were standing the night before and will be standing again just a few hours after the races. Putting a bunch of high-speed riders on a freshly made track might work, or it might not, but at the Chip the organisers will try anything once.

“One time, we had a guy jump through a flaming shithouse,” says Daymon. A flaming shithouse? “Yeah, you just start an outhouse on fire and have a rider jump through it and land. It was a success!”

But there were epic failures, too. In 2013, daredevil Clint Ewing tried to set a world record by riding through a 300ft tunnel of fire. He didn’t make it. About two-thirds of the way through, Ewing couldn’t see, and his gloves started melting into his hands. He needed skin grafts, but he lived.

“Man, I probably wouldn’t have done that,” Daymon says with a laugh. But the freedom to see an idea through from start to finish – even if dangerous or ridiculous  – is what the Buffalo Chip is all about.  

© youtube // Buffalo Chip

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The freedom to see an idea through from start to finish – even if dangerous or ridiculous  – is what the Buffalo Chip is all about

A couple of hours before the flat track races, the rain starts to pour. The South Dakota winds are merciless and can blow thunderstorms in and out of the campsite in a matter of minutes. Finding cover beneath the race tents, the competitors watch as the track is seemingly washed away. “It’s going to be a massacre out there!” the PA lady yells. “These riders are here to battle it out for your entertainment!” 

During one heat, a racer hugging the inside of the track slams into the rider in front of him, spins out of control and splats onto the wet ground. Racers whip past him and there’s a split-second of panic when the chances of him getting trampled are tenfold. 

“EMS to the track!” the announcer shouts. But the rider waves them away, shakes it off and gets back on his bike. Although the first turn on the course is tight, it doesn’t take long for the riders to get the feel of it. And the rain, it turns out, actually improves the conditions by making the track stickier. 

Bikes, Girls, Party

In another heat, Leticia Cline, one of two female racers competing today, goes up against Jason Paul Michaels – her husband. Neither holds back. Cline takes an early lead, but Michaels closes the gap and comes out on top. On the podium, she playfully flips him the finger.

Leticia Cline

Leticia Cline is one of an all-female group of Harley-Davidson riders called the Iron Lilies

Cline is here with three other members of the Iron Lilies, an all-women, all-Harley biker group from Orlando, Florida. Cline, a motorcycle journalist who’s been riding since she was a kid, has logged around 13,000km on her Harley 883 Sportster in the past two months. “People come here for two things,” she says. “To party, and to ride in one of the most beautiful areas of the country.”

As far as the partying is concerned, Cline – like everyone else here – certainly knows how to partake. At a bash that night for racers and hangers-on, she enjoys a round of bar-stool derby, downing her beer while Roland Sands spins her chair as fast as he can.

“Two years ago, I got kicked out of the Chip!” Cline says with a wide smile. She was wrestling with a friend, she explains, when she rolled down a hill and managed to knock out the power. Although you can get away with pretty much anything here – public sex, burning outhouses – cutting the power is the last straw. That said, she was welcomed back the following year.

Cline and her fellow Iron Lilies are the antithesis of the grizzled, burly and brutish biker stereotype. Although many of the people here fit the latter description, a quick conversation erases any preconceptions. The Buffalo Chip is where people from every section of society – from engineers and truck drivers to shop assistants and dental hygienists – come together to drink and talk engines.

Your background, age or upbringing don’t matter at the Chip – it’s all about getting together once a year for some serious racing, music and drinking, with a few weddings, tattoos – and sex – thrown in

“Bikers have had a poor rap over the years because of a few bad apples,” Daymon says. “But really they’re the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. And they look out for each other.” 

These days, the town’s mayor throws an official welcome event for the bikers

For stunt performers like the Seattle Cossacks, the reliance of one biker on another is more than just part of an unspoken code; they require that trust in order to avoid serious injury. Ever since 1938, the Cossacks, who range in age from 12 to 58, have formed human pyramids, done back bends and flown through burning walls while riding vintage Harleys, all for some applause and a few hearty slaps on the back. 

“It’s a lot of practice and a lot of trust,” says longtime member Andrew Nicholson, a man with a handlebar moustache and twinkly eyes, who’s been coming to the rally since 1990. Nicholson marvels at the legacy that’s been built. “You know, you thought it would get more commercial,” he says of the Chip, “but it hasn’t. It’s really cool how people from all over come every year. It has its own community!”  

“It’s not a picnic to stay here,” he adds, “we’ve had thunderstorms every night and we’re in tents. But you know what? We wouldn’t change a thing.” Neither would Woodruff. “This is more than just a business, more than just a camp,” he says. “There’s something in the spirit of the people that you can’t really quantify. It’s a kind of magic.”


To learn more about motorcycle culture, check out The Greasy Hands Preachers on Red Bull TV on October 23

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11 2016 The Red Bulletin

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