STURGIS, S.D. – The rumbling of thousands of V-twin engines says one thing: The annual pilgrimage known as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is officially underway.
The 78th rally – it was started in 1938, but suspended during World War II due to gas shortages – is the world’s largest motorcycle event, drawing visitors from around the globe for 10 days. An estimated 500,000 people will participate in the rally that runs through Aug. 12.
Participants are here to ride their motorcycles along the winding roads of the Black Hills, to shop for all manner of biker-related gear, and to bask in a gas-fueled two-wheeled celebration of all that is loud, fast and shiny.
“Oh my gosh. It’s cool. Crazy. Wild,” said first-time visitor Diana Voakes, who lives in an RV with her husband. “I’m hear to see everything that Sturgis stands for.”
Voakes started her Friday by posing for photos with a motorcycle rider before heading off down the sidewalk among families, Hells Angels and retired military veterans drawn to the rally.
Many attendees are staying in sprawling encampments outside of the city, which has few hotels. Those campgrounds, which accommodate thousands, have their own concerts, bars and riding demonstrations.
For many Americans, Sturgis conjures up images of an anything-goes motorcycle festival, where drugs flow, fists fly and nudity runs rampant. But the reality is that most attendees today are professionals with too much to lose if they get arrested. The top three professions at Sturgis are doctors, lawyers and accountants, city officials say.
Doing the math makes that statistic easier to understand: New Harley-Davidson or Indian motorcycles start around $20,000, although high-end models can hit $50,000, and that’s before any real customization. Then there’s the logo-wear clothing, the gas, the insurance and even the ability to take a week’s vacation.
Some longtime attendees complain the rally has lost its edge, that the rowdy, drunken and naked shenanigans that once filled the streets have given way to corporate sponsorships, licensed T-shirt vendors and insurance companies and lawyers flogging coverage.
Indeed, first-time visitors might be excused for thinking the rally isn’t much more than an excuse to create one of the world’s largest open-air shopping malls.
From booths lining the streets, licensed vendors are hawking leather ponytail holders, riding jackets, custom patches, and helmets for riders from states where they’re mandatory.
Shoppers can buy shirts memorializing their attendance, have custom leather seats fitted and install Bluetooth communication systems to chat with fellow riders. And while Harley-Davidson riders make up the bulk of attendees, there are also plenty of Honda, Kawasaki and Indian bikes.
All along the streets, open-fronted bars let drinkers watch the masses of leather-clad bikers stroll past, interspersed with the occasional woman wearing a bikini, thong and chaps.
This year’s rally is drawing several celebrities, from reality TV star Richard Rawlings of “Fast N’ Loud” to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Among the musical acts this year are Foreigner, Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“It’s all commercial now. It’s a human zoo,” said Keith Eccles, a pinstriping and airbrush painter who’s been coming since 1978. “It’s so totally different.”
But for first-time attendee Jacob Elliot, the spectacle borders on overwhelming – in a good way.
Motorcycles rumble past continually as huge groups of riders arrive and depart town.
Elliot, 20, rode down with his father from North Dakota on a father-son trip, and was instantly hooked: “I love it."