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Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Story of Sturgis: Part 1, the 1930s


South Dakota -
This article is compiled from excerpts of "Rally Rewind, 75 Years of Sturgis," produced by the Rapid City Journal and available at several locations around the area. You can purchase the book at the Journal's Rapid City office at 507 Main St., at the Meade County Times office at 1022 Main St. in Sturgis, or at the Journal boot at Black Hills Harley Davidson's Rally at Exit 55.

Editor's note: In honor of the 75th holding of the Sturgis motorcycle rally, the Rapid City Journal today kicks off a seven-part serialized story on how the Sturgis rally came to be, how it evolved, and how it got to a point where potentially 1 million people may attend the 2015 event. The articles will run from today until Saturday, and are based on excerpts from the new book "Rally Rewind, 75 Years of Sturgis," now on sale locally.
Part 1: The 1930s
It all started with one man who had a love of motorcycles and racing.
Well, that and an interest in making some money.
In 1936, John Clarence "Pappy" Hoel hatched the plan for what would come to be known many years later as the Sturgis motorcycle rally. But his dream didn't start with such grandiosity.
Hoel had purchased an Indian Motorcycle dealership that year after his local ice business began to falter when most homes in Sturgis began to get electricity, and then freezers. A smart, intrepid man, Hoel wanted to host races that would satisfy his love of cycles and racing, and spur the growth of his dealership.
It's an interesting, and mostly undisputed historic fact that the first races weren't held in 1938; the 2015 rally is the 75th because the event took a hiatus during World War II. Some amateur historians like to say the first organized races were in August, 1937, but newspapers from the time seem to indicate the premiere event was in August, 1936.
It was in 1936 that Hoel and others founded the Jackpine Gypsies, a motorcycle club that would join with other area cycle clubs to launch the Black Hills Motor Classic, mainly a racing event. The two-day event in 1936 was a success, but not by modern Sturgis standards. Some estimated that about 150 to 200 people attended the first event that attracted only nine riders. Generally, though, there is very little documentation of those first races.
But just a year or two later, the momentum had begun to build. A 1938 issue of "The Sturgis Tribune" labeled the races a major success, with a banner headline that boldly stated, "First Annual Cycle Race Meet A Hummer." That Aug. 17, 1938 article noted that 3,000-plus people attended the Sunday races. It said a 3-mile race was won in a time of 3 minutes, 22 seconds by a man from Milwaukee, Wis., in which the challenger was left to "eat dust."
In those final years of the 1930s, the Sturgis races, not yet a cycle rally, were gaining in popularity. By the end of the decade, the number of riders, almost all of them there only to race, was growing quickly. The competitors had come from at least eight states to compete. Crowds who watched began to expand as well, and there was talk of trying to find new ways, including more daredevil stunts and perhaps community activities, to help give the races a popularity boost both on and off the track.
The community was beginning to embrace the races as well. A 1939 newspaper article in the "Black Hills Press" shouted, "Sturgis has welcome flags out; set for races." The big news for the 1939 Black Hills Motor Classic was about how a new $5,000 grandstand had been built to accommodate growing crowds, and the creation of a Kiddie Parade.
As a new decade dawned, it was clear that Pappy Hoel's idea had become a reality that was on the precipice of great growth. And yet, no one, not Pappy or anyone else, could have imagined how steady that growth would be.
Coming Monday: Part 2, the 1940s.