Greg Pike seems unfazed as his "chopper" putts past thousands of rumbling motors in western South Dakota’s Black Hills, cruising the souped-up riding lawn mower into the world’s largest motorcycle rally with his own gang: Booger the dog, Kitty the cat and Mousey the rat.
Pike is among the eclectic mix of people flooding this normally sleepy town for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The six-day event officially kicks off Monday and is expected to attract as many as 750,000 people, likely making it home to the highest concentration ever of chrome, leather and tattoos.
But these days, you’re more apt to run into a hog-riding orthodontist than a motorcycle outlaw. After seven decades, the rally has morphed from a small race to a rowdy gathering of biker gangs to a weeklong party of biking enthusiasts from across the globe. Some come for the concerts Bob Dylan and Ozzy Osbourne are among the scheduled performers, while others simply want to gawk at expensive toys.
Among the more bizarre twists, actor Pee Wee Herman promises to perform the world’s largest "Tequila Dance."
They’re all tumbled together, along with more than 700 vendors selling everything from tattoos to roasted turkey legs. And somehow it works.
"Anybody who has anything at all to do with motorcycles thinks this is the place," said Christine Paige Diers, executive director of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. "Doctors, lawyers or the guy who built his bike out of spare parts _ Sturgis is for anybody who likes motorcycles."
Then there’s Pike, who claims he made the trek from Texas in three weeks on his Murray lawn mower.
"This is Sturgis _ anything goes," Pike said as he walked through the town’s crowded Main Street, accepting tips from rally-goers taking pictures of Mousey perched atop Kitty perched atop Booger. The 50-year-old, who travels across the county with his animal roadshow, figures he’ll pocket $10,000 in tips at Sturgis.
The rally began in 1938, organized by the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club as a venue for racing and stunts, and continued every year except for two during World War II. Officials estimate this year’s attendance at between 500,000 and 750,000 people, which would eclipse the 633,000 people who showed up for the 60th anniversary rally. The 50th drew 400,000 attendees.
Don Vodden, 92, of Eldon, Mo., said he’s the last surviving member of the Jackpine Gypsies and never imagined the rally would grow so large. He raced against eight other riders in that first flat-track event in 1938, which featured two riders on Harley-Davidsons, while he and the others campaigned Indian Motorcycle bikes.
"I won $65 on a $300 motorcycle," said Vodden, who has attended most of the rallies since then.
"It’s a real nice civic event for the town," he said. "It’s a blowout now and highly commercialized, with a little of everything and wonderful entertainment, and people come in from all corners of the world."
The metamorphosis has disappointed others. Neil Hultman, an 82-year-old Sturgis resident who has attended 63 of the 70 rallies, remembers when they attracted only a couple hundred people.
"It started out as a racing and family event, then it started changing when the bike gangs started coming in the late 1950s," he said. "In some ways now, it’s turned into a concert, music-type moneymaking thing, which doesn’t interest me at all."
But he still comes, because of his love of motorcycles and "I see something new every year."
Along with Dylan, a folk music icon, and Osbourne, a heavy metal pioneer, other scheduled music acts include Kid Rock, Motley Crue and ZZ Top. The lineup "is the biggest and best so far," said Rod Woodruff, who owns the nearby Buffalo Chip campsite that has hosted concerts for 29 years.
The machines also have changed over the years.
A $150,000 custom-built bike was a rarity a decade ago, but now the flashy choppers are common, said Ben Lopez, who moved to Sturgis from California about 20 years ago after a stint in the Air Force. "Every year they get bigger, better and fancier," the 49-year-old said.
Which might explain the more reserved atmosphere.
Today’s hardcore rally-goer is grayer and better behaved than when Sturgis police Chief Jim Bush began patrolling in 1978. The department made about 1,500 arrests back then, but last year "had contact with about 500 people _ and 300 of those were for parking tickets," Bush said.
Drugs, drunkenness and nudity have dwindled, he said.
"There used to be a lot more young, single males, riding not quite the caliber of bike, who where involved in outlandish activity," Bush said. "Now they’ve reached the more middle-age bracket in life, and probably as responsible as they’re ever going to be, and successful as they are every going to be, riding a $25,000-plus toy."
Harley-Davidsons rule the rally but motorcycles of nearly every make are represented. Parked next to Lopez’s Harley was a vintage lime green Honda scooter with a Kansas license plate that was photographed as much as the meanest of bikes along Main Street.
"Ten years ago, somebody would have probably run over that," he said.
Other longtime rally-goers agree that things have become more tame. The Hells Angels motorcycle gang even have a booth.
"We’re not out here selling drugs and killing people," said Mike Hutton, 41, of Riverside, Calif. "We’re selling shirts and calendars."
Proceeds help fund motorcycle runs, Hutton said. "Gas is not cheap these days," he said.
Steve Dille, 53, of Denver first attended the rally in 1988, riding a Harley-Davidson and never would have considered anything else. This year, he and his 17-year-old son, Keaton, rode in on Hondas.
"It’s a little more sanitized now," he said. "A lot more police and a lot less bike gangs. It was a lot rowdier back in the day."