On sprawling acreage in the Black Hills of South Dakota, plumes of milky exhaust swirl across the racetrack, forcing a throng of spectators to take a step back and block their nostrils with the tops of 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 rises in the air and drops. The Honda and the Harley take off toward the finish line, their tires shrieking like a chorus of banshees. They accelerate up to 120 miles per hour and cover the 550 feet of track in a matter of seconds. To the chagrin of the onlooker, the Honda wins.
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 campground about four miles from the small town of Sturgis, home to one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world since 1938.
For the past 35 years, it is said the rowdiest of the bunch have found a safe haven at the campground. Like the fiercest of their biker brethren, the people of the Chip live by the belief: ride fast, live hard. It is 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 can sound a bit alarming: Pack some heat, and no matter what, do not touch anyone else’s stuff. Unlike other music festivals or arenas that house thousands of fans, there are no metal detectors, bag checks or armies of security guards patrolling Buffalo Chip’s campground. If you want to smoke a cigarette while sitting next to several cans of gasoline, no one is going to bat an eye.
“It’s about freedom and two wheels,” says Woodruff, who muses like a cowboy philosopher as he relaxes in an easy chair from the comfort of the campgound’s air-conditioned main office.
“Two wheels is the key,” he continues. “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 or an air-conditioned office, where everything is controlled. But on the road, you’re out there experiencing the world.”
Back in 1981, about 20,000 people were coming 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 treated that way.”
The city took a vote and decided that the bikers could still come to Sturgis but were banned from the park. Seeing an opportunity, Woodruff and a few locals started discussions about finding a natural amphitheater outside of town where everyone would be welcome. What Woodruff found was a ranch owned by an elderly couple. After leasing it for a bit, Woodruff bought the property and slowly started making improvements.
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 like Johnny Paycheck, best known for popularizing 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 haven’t stopped coming since.
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 amphitheater, selling everything from burgers and beer to bandanas with flaming skulls and bodices made of lambskin.
Those who wish to permanently commemorate their visit can brand themselves at a tattoo parlor. The headliners are no longer Johnny Paycheck but Kid Rock, Willie Nelson and Miranda Lambert. Beyond the old-timey bonfire sessions, there are now stunt shows, flat track races and whatever screwball ideas the combination of alcohol and exhaust fumes can inspire.
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 has a modern update thanks to former pro racer and custom motorcycle designer Roland Sands, and the organizers at Buffalo Chip jumped at the opportunity to showcase the event.
“Last year, we couldn’t foresee that we’d be doing a flat track race,” says Daymon Woodruff, Rod’s son. Like Rod, Daymon speaks slowly and deliberately, but his cowboy demeanor has an urban update. He is eager to make Buffalo Chip as big as any outdoor festival, without the sterile feeling that plagues so many similar 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 Buffalo Chip, the organizers will try anything once. “One time we had a guy jump through a flaming shithouse,” Daymon says. A flaming shithouse? “Yeah, you just start an outhouse on fire and have a rider jump through it and land. It was a success!”
There were epic failures, too. In 2013, daredevil Clint Ewing tried to set a world record, riding through a 300-foot 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 take an idea from start to finish, even if it’s dangerous or ridiculous … well, that’s what Buffalo Chip is all about.
A couple of hours before the flat track races, it starts to pour. The South Dakota winds are merciless and can blow thunderstorms in and out of the campground in a matter of minutes. Finding cover under 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 who’s 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.
Bikes, Girls, Party
“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.
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.
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 more than 8,000 miles on her Harley 883 Sportster in the past two months.
“People come here for two things,” she says. “To party and ride in one of the most beautiful areas of the country.”
As for the partying, Cline, like everyone here, knows how to partake. At a bash that night for racers and hangers- on, she’s enjoying 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!” she says with a wide smile. She was wrestling with a friend, she explains, then 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. Of course, she was welcomed back the following year.
Cline and her fellow Iron Lilies are the antithesis of the grizzled, burly biker stereotype.
Although many people here fit that description, a quick conversation erases any preconceptions. Buffalo Chip is where people from every section of America—from Boeing engineers and truck drivers to Costco clerks and dental hygienists—come together to drink and talk engines.
This is a place where, if you wish, you can marry your motorcycle at the on-site chapel. Or you can marry your human partner. Or you can have your ashes spread here after you’ve passed away.
“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.”
For stunt performers like the Seattle Cossacks, their reliance on one another is more than just part of an unspoken code; it’s a matter of life or death.
Since the troupe’s inception in 1938, the Cossacks, who currently range in age from 12 to 58, have been forming human pyramids, performing acrobatics and flying through burning walls while riding vintage Harleys from the 1930s and ’40s, 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, with handlebar mustache and twinkly eyes, who’s been coming here since 1990.
Nicholson marvels at the legacy that’s been built. “You know, you thought it would get more commercial,” he says of Buffalo 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 Rod 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.”