The 14th Annual Little Sturgis Rally and Races for Charity was held in Sturgis, Kentucky, at the Union County Fairgrounds, from July 13 through 16. This was my first time to attend the Little Sturgis Rally. Since this was a mid-month event, I managed to convince Cycle Connections Editor-in-Chief Mike Schweder to ride along. We were joined by our good friend and frequent riding buddy John 'J.O.' Osowski.
We decided to take a scenic back roads route to Sturgis, and Mike was elected to lead the way, since he had the benefit of previous rides in that general direction. According to MapQuest, the trip would be about 425 miles. It ended up being a bit longer. We encountered heavy rain near Potosi, Missouri, and decided to take a lunch break while the storm passed. After an hour and a half, we were back on the road. We missed a turn in the vicinity of Farmington, Missouri, and found ourselves about 20 miles south of our intended route. The error actually proved to be beneficial in the long run. The area we rode through on our unintentional detour was very scenic with lots of twists and turns that motorcyclists love. Also, with the delay, we avoided another thunderstorm that moved across our path later in the day as we crossed Illinois.
We arrived at Sturgis (population 2,000) a little after 9 p.m. just as a very light rain began. At the convenience store where we stopped, we purchased gas and snacks but were surprised to learn that Sturgis is a dry city, so no alcoholic beverages were available. We got directions to the Union County Fairgrounds and heard horror stories from other bikers about waiting in line for as much as four hours to get in. The idea of waiting in line until 1:30 or 2 a.m. with no beer and then having to set up camp in the dark at an unfamiliar campground was less than pleasant. Actually it sucked, but we didn’t have an alternative, so we mounted up and headed for the rally site. When we got there we could see motorcycles (ridden and on trailers), cars, RVs, and even 18-wheelers in a line that stretched across the fairgrounds and spilled out onto the two-lane highway we were on. We continued on about four miles to the end of the line and made a U-turn to take our place. Fortunately, the rain had stopped by that time. We were thinking that we would end up pushing the bikes all the way to avoid clutch damage, but the line wasn’t one that proceeded continually at a crawl. Instead, there was only occasional movement, but about 1/8-mile was gained each time we moved. When we got to the admissions area an hour and a half later we learned that vehicles were handled in groups, with numerous volunteers assigned to deal with all of the vehicles ($40 entry fee, wristband, waiver, etc.). Then the area was cleared, and the next group of vehicles moved in.
Getting past admissions was the first hurdle. Next came the problem of finding a campsite and setting up in the dark. When we checked in, we each received a very nice map of the grounds, but we elected to ride through hoping to spot a good campsite. That didn’t work out well, since the road we selected was packed solid on both sides with awnings and people holding beads. We finally parked the bikes beside the road to explore on foot. Someone directed us to an area where he thought there might be a few tent spaces left. Sure enough, we discovered one spot between a large trailer and an RV with enough room for three tents. By the time we finished setting up camp it was midnight. This meant that it was time for a midnight snack, so we set off on foot in search of food. We discovered, to our astonishment, that we were actually in a pretty good location within short walking distance of the vendor area and the building where many of the events were held. There were still a couple of food vendors open, so we were able to chow down before calling it a night. The main downside of the spot we chose for camping was the close proximity to several RVs' generators that ran all night. It would really have been nice to find an area where there were tent campers only, but I don’t believe such an area exists at this rally site.
My first objective on Friday was to contact Lisa, the Chamber of Commerce employee in charge of media/public relations. I learned that Lisa is the busiest person at the rally, and she proved to be quite elusive. However, I had the good fortune to meet Felix and Janice Thomas who volunteered to be my tour guides. Both have been board members since the inception of the rally. We cruised around the fair grounds as we talked. There were brief interruptions in the interview when my guides stopped to provide someone with a map or directions or to answer questions. Felix enjoyed stopping by the larger RVs to tease their owners about “roughing it.”
CC: How did the Little Sturgis Rally begin? Is there a particular individual who is known as the father or mother of the rally as Pappy and Pearl Hoel are to the other Sturgis rally?
Janice: Yes. His name is Phil Smith, and he has a cycle shop in Evansville, Indiana. He had a number of friends and customers who came into his shop and complained that they didn’t have the time and money to go all the way to Sturgis, South Dakota, for a rally. He decided to contact the mayor of Sturgis, Kentucky, to see if he would approve of a rally here. That’s how it started. The word was put out that bikers who wanted to go to a Sturgis rally closer to home were welcome, and about 2000 showed up that first year. Last year for the Thirteenth Annual Little Sturgis Rally, bracelet sales were 24,300.
CC: How many volunteers are required for such a large rally?
Janice: There are around 1,700. They represent civic organizations, schools, lodges, and churches. Any charitable organization that provides volunteers receives $10 per hour per worker. We have a lady on staff who keeps track of all of the hours and checks are written directly to the organizations. This part of the country depended on coal mining to support the economy. When the mining shut down, it was really great to get the shot in the arm that the income from the rally provides.
CC: What are some of the main organizations involved?
Janice: Kosair’s Children’s Hospital, Union County Hospice, St. Anthony Hospice, and the three sponsoring organizations, Sturgis Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club, and Union County Fair.
CC: How much money is raised for the charities and civic organizations?
Janice: The total since 1993 is about $1.5 million.
CC: How large is the planning committee for the rally?
Janice: We have about 30 members and meet monthly. Different people specialize in different aspects of the rally. Everyone knows their jobs well and many are independent as their job doesn’t overlap with someone else’s. There is a man who just deals with the music, and it’s a headache all year. You’ll think you have someone booked, and then they will cancel on you.
CC: Did the event grow gradually or in spurts?
Janice: It grew gradually, and attendance depends a lot on the weather. Last year, with all of the storms in Florida and the South, it really cut our attendance from those areas. They had to stay home and protect their property.
CC: People come from all over the country, I’m sure.
Janice: Even other countries. We have many from Canada. Last year we had a gentleman from Australia. It’s hard to say how many states are represented unless you drive around and look at the license plates. You can’t tell where they are from or what walk of life by looking at them. As the rally keeps growing, we keep acquiring more and more land and renting more and more porta-potties.
CC: We noticed coming in that it takes some time to admit such a large crowd to the grounds.
Janice: They do it as fast as they can. It’s well organized with lots of volunteers working admission, but it takes some time.
Felix: We have people here from 18 to 90. We had one gentleman last year who brought seven motorcycles, and he was 86 years old. He was a veteran of World War II and fought at Iwo Jima.
CC: How many vendors are here?
Janice: It’s over a 100. We are limited by the space and the amount of electricity available.
CC: With so many people, is security a problem?
Janice: We have hired professional security people. You see them everywhere wearing identifying black shirts.
CC: How about waste removal?
Janice: The people here do a great job of cleaning up after themselves. When they leave, their trash is left in bags or neat piles where it is easy to pick up.
CC: I’m amazed that Sturgis is a dry town. I don’t remember attending a big bike rally where no alcohol was sold. Has Sturgis always been a dry town?
Felix: Yes. Most of the bikers bring it in, but there is a place a few miles up the road where alcohol is sold.
CC: What about first aid? I noticed more than one first aid tent.
Janice: There are three tents staffed by EMTs with siren-equipped carts to respond to emergencies. There are also three Christian Motorcyclist Association tents where they provide free water, tea, and coffee to the bikers. And lots of blessings.
CC: I noticed the C.M.A. They are present at almost every rally I attend. They are helping me out by letting me charge my camera batteries at their tent. I have already had a couple of cups of their coffee this morning.
Janice: We’re now driving by the water slide. They set it up here every year. (NOTE: The water slide is a long sheet of plastic laid out on the dike opposite the lake. There is a hose available to wet it down making it a slippery slide.)
Felix: This is Little Sturgis’ answer to the waterslides at Disney World.
CC: I suppose it gets a little bit crazy here at times.
Janice: After dark, it gets a bit wild.
CC: I see you have trailers circulating with ice for sale. Have you ever had a shuttle service?
Janice: We used to have a hay wagon that we used for a shuttle, but the insurance got so high that we couldn’t have it any more. Our insurance costs are tremendous anyway.
After completing the tour of the fairgrounds, I said goodbye and thanks to my guides and headed for the building where the field events were to be held. Considering the extreme heat outdoors, the air-conditioned venue was especially welcome. In past years, field events were held only on Saturday, and sign-up was slow for this day’s events. I told Doc, the man in charge, that I would enter if he could recruit a partner for me from the audience. Carmen, a Kentucky lady from a town near Cincinnati, was attending her first rally and thought it would be fun to participate. The time for entries was extended by about 15 minutes, and announcements were made over the external public address system, and the field of competitors filled out with more than 20 bikes. I was a bit concerned about dividing my attention between photographing the events and participating in them. I have often done this, but it is somewhat challenging. As it turned out, Mike arrived just as the games began and took on the photographic responsibilities leaving me free to concentrate on the games.
The events for this day included a ring toss, wiener bite, wet noodle (passenger spearing rings with a floppy swimming pool noodle), and panty race (passenger pinning panties to a clothes line while riding by). Carmen turned out to be a great partner and took home two first place trophies and some cash as a result. She said she had an advantage in the panty race, since she lives in the country and frequently hangs out laundry to dry. Doc, Kermit, and their crew did a fine job of running the events.
At the close of the field events, Mike, J.O. and I set out to explore the grounds and meet people. Mike had the opportunity to visit with a gentleman by the name of Gary Perry, who had brought his prototype inline three-wheeled motorcycle to the rally. Gary’s bike is powered by a 6-cylinder 280Z engine and looks like something right out of a Mad Max movie.
Afternoon thundershowers put activities on hold for a while, but we had plenty of time afterward to sit around and relax in lawn chairs beside a road near the lake for a long session of bike/people-watching. The rally flyer lists a few things that are prohibited, and one of them is nudity. We discovered that this prohibition is not strictly enforced. Exhibitionists will be exhibitionists, and voyeurs will be voyeurs. Where bikers gather, beads are sure to circulate. For music lovers, live bands played in the indoor arena from 9 p.m. until midnight.
We selected Tony’s Greek Food as our favorite food vendor. Tony’s nephew Carlo and his staff were a fun crew to visit with, and the food was delicious! The family has been in the food vending business for over 18 years, and Carlo has been involved for five. Before the season is over, they will have served people at all kinds of events in 27 states.
The Saturday morning event schedule included a poker run, but we had stayed up late and decided to pass. There was a bike show with some really nice bikes entered in 14 classes. Due to Friday’s rain, the dirt drags had to be scratched from the program. Saturday’s field events drew an even larger field of participants, around 40 bikes, and I elected to concentrate on photography. The games included slow ride, cone weave, beer bottle race, wiener bite, balloon toss, and Bobbit race (involving a plastic knife, a cardboard man, and a sausage and inspired by Lorena. Use your imagination.)
Next on the agenda was a Little Sturgis crowd favorite event, pudding wrestling. Ladies wrestled in a wading pool filled with about a 100 gallons of chocolate pudding. These were seriously strong and agile gals, and I was not about to challenge the winner (or any of the non-winners, for that matter). Saturday evening was pretty much a carbon copy of Friday evening.
On Sunday morning as we prepared to head for home, we discovered another fortunate aspect of our campsite selection. We were very near a little-known exit, so we were able to get on the road without riding through the grounds and waiting in line. This time our route of choice included as much interstate highway as possible. It was our desire to spend as little time in the blazing heat as we could.
In retrospect, our overall rally experience was a good one. We met a lot of good people and enjoyed the events. My advice to those who plan to attend future Little Sturgis Rallies is to take beer if you intend to drink, and take earplugs if you intend to sleep. If you are one of the many taking an RV you can probably get along without the earplugs. If you go to Little Sturgis, be prepared for a BIG rally.
Story by Stripe
Photos by Stripe and Mike Schweder