STURGIS MOTORCYCLE RALLY, 1951
by Harry Klessen
My first trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota was in the year 1951. I was 16 years old and the proud owner of a 1948 3-T, 350cc Triumph. In preparation I installed a new set of engine rings, fresh oil and tied on my personal items. On Friday at 6:00 a.m., a friend, who was riding a 500cc Triumph, and I headed west out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The route then across the state from east to west was a two-lane highway, which was called Highway 16. This was before Interstate 90 was constructed.
With the new set of rings, I held us back to 35 mph for fifty miles and then gradually increased our speed. Highway 16 went through numerous small towns, which also slowed down the travel time. When we were about halfway across the state, we crossed the Missouri River. From then on it was a treeless plain twisting through hills and valleys with posted 15 mph corners on the highway. It took us about ten hours with gas stops, lunch and riding to reach our destination, which was Rapid City, South Dakota.
If you have ever been to Rapid City, you may know a place called Dinosaur Park on a very high hill that overlooks the city. The name comes from life size concrete dinosaurs in the park. From the top of the hill, you have a vista of the Black Hills (small mountains) to the west and the barren plains to the east. We camped nearby the park that night.
The next morning it was an easy thirty mile ride into Sturgis. Upon arriving we scouted out a campsite on a bluff over the city park. From there, our next stop was the unofficial headquarters. Hoel’s Indian Motorcycle Dealership. They had an area where we applied “Gunk” on the engine, even back then Triumphs leaked oil, and we washed off the rest of the bikes.
We inquired about the schedule of events for that Saturday and Sunday. The local Jack Pines Gypsy Motorcycle Club had a guided tour of the area. I would guess there was a group of about fifty cyclists that took the tour. Our first stop was Mount Rushmore. From there the group traveled to Lead, South Dakota, and had a guided tour of a gold mine. As we were leaving to head back to Sturgis, I saw the most obscene display of our rally weekend. One of the male riders forgot to zip up his pants and his white jockey shorts were showing. What a change from then to the recent shows of bare skin at the rallies.
Saturday evening was a free hot dog and bean feed at the downtown Armory sponsored by the City. After the feed trophies were awarded to the riders for various categories. They included a queen, a rider from the longest distance to the rally, a club group with the most members present, and the most members of a family traveling by motorcycle. A family of five won–three children in a side car and Mom and Dad on the bike. There was also a trophy for the best dressed rider. There was a lot of western clothing. The winner was a rider that wore a tuxedo, bow tie and flat top hat when traveling. After this event was over, which was around 10:00 p.m., the small town of Sturgis, as the saying goes, pretty much “rolled up the sidewalks” for the night.
Sunday was the big event at the fairgrounds at the half mile flat track. As I recall there were no scrambles, motocross, hill climb or drag races. In regard to the types of bikes racing, about half of them were Harleys and Indians of the 45 cubic inch size and the rest were 500cc English singles and twins. The English bikes with the 4″ megaphones would almost drown out the V-twin sound. This was my first time to see an event like this; what a thrill. Some of the other bikes I saw there were Sunbeams with two cylinders in-line, B.S.A.s of all sizes, Matchless, Ariel Square 4’s and obviously full fendered Indians, 500cc vertical twin Indians and the big Harley’s. After the races were over trophies were awarded to the winners in each class and that was the end of the Sturgis rally 48 years ago.
The next year I moved up to a 1000cc two port Ariel square 4 to ride to the rally. After the rally I continued west to San Francisco and then north on the old-coast road to Seattle, Washington, to live for a while.
The last trip I took on bike to Rapid City (360 miles), the bike had 18 forward speeds and pedals. I did this on my 60th birthday. It was a five day trip.