Have you ever wondered how the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began?
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is one of the largest annual motorcycle events in the world, with over 600,000 people attending the event each year. However, this rally didn’t start as such a large festivity. In fact, it began as a small, local race with just nine participants.
So when did the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally begin, and how has it changed over the years? At what point did it transform into a massive ten-day festival renowned as one of the must-visit attractions for motorcycle lovers around the world?
Read on to learn everything you need to know about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally history.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Origins
The first Sturgis Motorcycle Rally took place on August 14, 1938. That year, the local Sturgis bike club — the Jackpine Gypsies — organized the event as a small-scale motorcycle race for club members.
Clarence “Pappy” Hoel was the brains behind the first Sturgis Rally. Pappy crafted the idea for the rally after purchasing the Indian Motorcycle Franchise in 1936 to sell motorcycles to the local Sturgis community. While business boomed, he noticed there wasn’t a central location for bikers to gather and get to know each other.
That same year, Pappy formed the Jackpine Gypsies motorcycle club to gather fellow motorcycle enthusiasts into a local motorcycle community. In 1937, the Jackpine Gypsies club became an official charter of the American Motorcycle Association.
The following year, the Jackpine Gypsies began brainstorming for their first big event. They developed the idea to host a small, local race, with club members as the main participants. This idea became the first Sturgis Rally — then called the Black Hills Classic.
This first rally included nine participants in a single race alongside a small audience. Riders competed for a $500 prize — worth about $10,000 today — on a half-mile dirt track. “Smiley Johnny” Spiegelhoff came in first place during this inaugural event.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Early Years
In the twelve months following the first Sturgis Rally, word about this small-town race spread fast. In 1939, the Jackpine Gypsies again hosted a race in Sturgis. However, this year, the event encompassed a larger motorcycle rally rather than a single race.
This second Sturgis Rally included nineteen participants, flat-track races, and impressive stunts. Over 800 motorcycle enthusiasts attended the event.
Then, in 1940, the rally expanded into a two-day event complete with 5,000 attendees and 150 racers. This event focused on racing and snts, attracting hard-core motorcycle fans and their families in the greater South Dakota region.
The Sturgis Rally has taken place every year since its small-scale origins in 1938 — except during World War II. The American Motorcycle Association stopped all of its events, including the Sturgis Rally, in 1942 and 1943. As a result, 2022 is the 82nd annual rally — not the 84th.
Gradual Growth of the Sturgis Rally
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally expanded exponentially from year to year during its first few decades. After each annual rally, word would spread to even more motorcycle enthusiasts about the exciting stunts, exhilarating races, and fun community feeling at these rallies. Then, the Jackpine Gypsies would top the event the following year, attracting more and more attendees.
This rally slowly grew from a single race into a weekend-long rally during its early years. While it hit a bit of a blockade in the years following the War, the rally soon made a grand return, hosting 400 riders in 1947.
Then, in 1949, the rally had grown so large that city officials blocked off Main Street to host the two-hour award ceremony. Today, Main Street is one of the central hubs of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
The Sturgis Rally had expanded into a five-day event by 1962. However, the rally still only consisted of races and stunts at this point. It wasn’t until 1974 that the rally saw its first temporary vendor. In the following years, more and more businesses began setting up shop on Main Street to sell souvenirs and motorcycle gear during the rally.
The 70s, 80s, and 90s: Explosive Years for the Sturgis Rally
If you were around during the 1970s, you may remember how huge motorcycling was back then. Movies like Easy Rider made the joy of the ride accessible to a wide range of people, and many who had never considered owning a bike were visiting shops like the Indian Motorcycle Franchise to purchase their first ride.
This newfound popularity of motorcycling only served to grow the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally faster. By 1975, the rally had expanded into a week-long event, complete with exciting races, stunts, and festivities. At the end of the event, participants would douse the streets in gasoline and light them on fire. The rally was getting wilder and wilder each year.
Soon, the event evolved to include more activities beyond racing and stunts. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the rally added food, music, games, bike shows, and competitions. The more activities the rally featured, the more people wanted to attend. By 1988, over 110 vendors set up booths throughout the week-long motorcycle rally.
The Motorcycle Hall of Fame inducted the Jackpine Gypsies in 1997 and Clarence “Pappy” Hoel in 1998.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally remained a week-long event— beginning on the first Monday in August and ending on the following Sunday — until 2017. By then, there were simply too many activities to fit into seven days, and the event expanded into the ten-day rally it is today. However, there’s no telling whether the event could become a 14-day affair in the coming years.
The rally remained consistent in size for a few years leading up to the turn of the millennium. Then, in 2000, over 600,000 motorcycle enthusiasts attended the rally, breaking previous attendance records. In 2012, the rally saw attendees from all fifty U.S. states along with Germany, England, Canada, Japan, Australia, and several other countries.
To date, the highest rally attendance was 747,032 visitors in 2015. That year marked the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, drawing in more attendees than ever to celebrate the noteworthy anniversary. Additionally, 2015 saw the highest tax revenue from the event, totaling $2.4 million.
The rally has continued in full force throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 460,000 people attended in 2020, and 525,000 attended in 2021. Event organizers expect attendance to be even higher in 2022.
Present-day rallies include a menagerie of events, activities, and festivities — more than any single attendee can reliably participate in. Activities like the 5K Rally, all-woman rally race, Military Day, and huge musical performances keep attendees busy across the festival’s ten full days and four pre-rally party days.
Recent Sturgis rallies have also expanded throughout several locations near Sturgis. While many festivities occur in and around downtown Sturgis, you can also head to Buffalo Chip for major concerts from headliners like Snoop Dogg, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Toby Keith, and Willie Nelson.
Today, Sturgis is the largest motorcycle rally in the U.S. If you’re a motorcycle fanatic or simply love a fun festival, we highly recommend checking out the 2022 rally from August 5th through the 14th, 2022. Here’s what you can expect at Sturgis this year.Back to Top