The 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally doesn’t officially begin until Aug. 6, but Sturgis business owners and vendors are already seeing rally fans riding into town.
The 81st rally is widely expected to be one of the largest rallies yet, although no one is certain about exactly how many people will be attending. Over 700,000 people attended the 75th rally in 2015. Last year, it was around 460,000.
On Thursday, vendors were busy setting up their booths and preparing to begin selling the next day. Outdoor vendor licenses take effect Friday.
Virginia Rhodes of Cycle Shirts has been selling merchandise at the rally for 48 years now. She started helping sell motorcycle helmets for $30 — everything has gotten a lot more expensive since then, she noted — in 1973. She eventually branched out to T-shirts and secured a federal trademark for the phrase “Sturgis Bike Week,” which she then sold to another local business owner.
Her business, which she runs with her family, was setting up rows of tables with Sturgis T-shirts and a tent with sweatshirts and ladies clothing Thursday afternoon on the corner of Lazelle Street and Junction Avenue. Dozens of empty T-shirt boxes lay empty throughout the parking lot.
Over her many years of attending, each rally brings more people and is more costly than the last. Rhodes said she has noticed more people are already in town for the rally than ever before.
“I’ve never seen this many people so early. Never,” she said.
People have been coming up to her booth to buy rally-themed merchandise, but she has had to turn them away because they aren’t open yet.
She said every year the best part of the rally is getting to meet new people, visiting old friends, and enjoying the nice weather with the Black Hills as a backdrop.
“Visiting with people who have bought from us before, old friends and seeing how their life has been for the last year, how many new children and grandchildren, and also new people that you talk to” is her favorite, she said.
Isabelle Drumm has worked at the Final Touch booth for the last six years, which is currently situated in front of One Eyed Jack’s Saloon with another location outside the Knuckle.
Final Touch has so much merchandise — from traditional Sturgis T-Shirts to leather vests to baby onesies to bandanna-shaped tank tops — they are having trouble fitting it all in the booth.
“Last year we opened up one week before the start of the rally and last year we did two weeks, and [this year] it’s already as busy as it was last year. It seems to happen every year, we open up earlier every year,” she said.
The way things are shaping up, Drumm also expects this year to be one of the biggest ever.
“I think now that COVID is less of a thing than it was, and then the Hells Angels are here this year, and I think that’s going to bring a lot of business to a lot of places. I think it’s probably going to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, years in rally history,” she said.
Drumm said in any year an “overwhelming” number of people show up, and the first weekend of the rally is generally the booth’s busiest day.
“It feels like the entire town of Sturgis and the whole entire state of South Dakota is in this booth. It’s crazy,” she said.
Like Rhodes, Drumm enjoys getting to talk with rally-goers as well as working alongside her co-workers at Final Touch and the staff at One Eyed Jack’s.
“It’s just fun. Even when you’re working, you’re having fun, you’re getting to know people from everywhere. I mean, I’ve met people from all over the world,” Drumm said. “You make friends, you make connections, and every year you come back it’s a lot of the same people — you’re making long-term friends. It’s a huge party, even when you’re working.”
For brick-and-mortar businesses in Sturgis, the rally drives much of their yearly profits.
Sturgis Liquor Store, which is owned by the town, does 20-25% of its business over the course of the 10-day rally. Travis Parker, who has worked at the liquor store since 2017, said in 2020 it generated around $560,000 during the rally.
The store adds eight to 12 employees during the rally and increases its stock by around $100,000. Even then and with all registers open the lines still creep into the aisles and the store runs out of some beverages. Parker said with COVID messing with the supply chain it has been difficult to stock some products in the first place.
Jack Daniels whiskey is the go-to for many patrons during rally week, Parker said, along with “heavy hitters” like Tito’s vodka and “an ungodly amount” of Fireball whiskey.
The liquor store engraves the whiskey bottles with rally logos and can custom-engrave bottles for customers as well. Most often customers want their names, but Parker said he also engraves a lot of military designs. The engravings are done by two employees, including Parker, and a vendor parks outside to help engrave bottles as well.
Engraved bottles are in high demand and Parker said the store does hundreds of engravings each year, which can get stressful as it takes 10-12 minutes per bottle.
“But it’s cool when you hand someone a bottle and they smile,” he said.