It would’ve been hard to predict what the Sturgis Buffalo Chip® would be like today had you asked the first bikers who rolled through the gates in the early ‘80s. Back then it looked more like a keg party in a pasture, with a handful of bands and a few hundred friends.
The early days may have been small by today’s standards, but those who attended knew they’d stumbled upon something special they could call home.
As word of this magical place spread, more and more people started making the pilgrimage.
Since 1981, the original destination that brought motorcycles and music together for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has become home to many.
Attending the Sturgis Rally has become a tradition for many–one that now spans three, and even four, generations. Stories of grandpa’s exploits and even last year’s hijinks have become legends that are told and retold around a campfire and toasted with sweaty beers in the wee hours of hot August nights. The rally has changed significantly since 1938, but what brings bikers back year after year is the unashamed camaraderie of the motorcycle culture, the pervasive true biker experience and the friendly party atmosphere that brews up a rip-roaring good time.
The following timeline highlights pivotal events and some of the many weird and wonderful happenings that have shaped the heart of the rally, and made the Sturgis Buffalo Chip home to so many.
August 12-14, 1938
The Sturgis Commercial Club organizes the first Black Hills Motor Classic. - The Sturgis Commercial Club names the event the Black Hills Motor Classic. Pearl Hoel starts her annual ritual and hauls a picnic lunch to the State Game Lodge for all Gypsy Tour riders. Nine riders enter the American Motorcyclist Association sanctioned half-mile race. A crowd of spectators attends the parade, street carnival, motorcycle stunts, Model-T races and a community dance. Clarence “Pappy” Hoel performs his first stunt crashing through a burning wall of pine boards.
Misbehavin’ - More than 18,000 visitors attend the 1976 “Classic,” and the modern day rally starts to emerge with bike parking and vendors lining Main Street. Trouble breaks out in City Park. While most visiting campers are quiet, some start bonfires, drink beer and there are instances of nudity.
Locals Unrest With Rally Rises - An estimated 40,000 people attend the Classic, generating rave reviews from local merchants. More than 3,900 register to camp in City Park causing some local concern.
City of Sturgis Residents Vote Whether to Abolish Rally and the Buffalo Chip is Born - Locals proposing to abolish the rally bring the issue to referendum. The rally barely survives by a slim vote margin, but Sturgis kicks bikers out of City Park and the Mayor states he would like to “get the riff-raff out of Town.” A welcoming place was needed if the rally were to survive. The Buffalo Chip is born 4 miles outside of town.
The Buffalo Chip Holds First Event! - The Buffalo Chip welcomes bikers to acres of gathering and camping freedom. That first year was called the Buffalo Chip Picnic, and the grounds consisted of an open field with a few porta potties and a makeshift stage where campers enjoyed three nights of performances by entertainers Johnny Paycheck, Susan Nelson and Foggy Notion. Susan Nelson devoted an entire chapter of her book to her Buffalo Chip experience touting it as the highlight of her career and gushed, “everyone was so nice!”
Chip Expands to Include Six Night of Concerts - The 69 Band, Foggy Notion, and Burnt River Band return each night to a growing and enthusiastic gathering of campers.
The First Shower House is Built - A black, 900-gallon water tank is placed on the hill with a connected 4” pvc pipe. Water runs down the draw to a lean-to where it branches out to two sides designed to separate the men and women bathers. On a hot day campers are treated to warm water from the black tank.
The Buffalo Chip Gets First Vendor - Ray Gold sets out a large collection of patches spread across several tables. This is Gold’s first foray into vending. He now owns and operates One Eyed Jacks in downtown Sturgis.
Guests Get A Real Shower House! - The North Shower House is constructed and supplied by a water tank filled by frequent trips of a tanker truck. Campers welcome the modern convenience by taking warm showers and drinking cold beer.
First Stuntman Only Has Nine Toes - “Nine Toes” pays tribute to Sturgis Rally founder Pappy Hoel and his “Burning Wall Crash” In true Buffalo Chip fashion, Nine Toes ups the ante from the original one-wall crash by speeding through nine flaming walls set up in the Chip amphitheater. The stunt was the first of what was to become a regular celebration of daredevil spirit at the Chip for years to come.
The Buffalo Chip’s Music Festival Grows to Nine Nights of Concerts - Black Oak Arkansas and Canned Heat headline.
Hoyt Axton Shows up with Moonshine and Makes Surprise Performance - One of Woody’s heroes, Hoyt Axton, shows up unannounced and unexpected at the Buffalo Chip loaded with moonshine and his camper in tow. Axton takes the stage with Nick St. Nicolas, original guitarist for Steppenwolf, performing songs like “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog” under the stars in a concert that will be remembered for all time. Axton wrote hits such as “Never Been to Spain,” and “Joy to the World” And according to Woody, “There has never been a Country Anthem done any better than those created by Hoyt Axton. He wrote some hellacious rock hits and had a magnificent voice like no other!”
Chicago’s Peter Cetera is Impressed – Famed “Chicago” front man Peter Cetera relaxed and enjoyed the concerts as a Buffalo Chip guest. He noted that he was most impressed with the garbage collection crew and called the nightly transformation they performed “a miracle.”
“Coon Dog”, The Chip’s head of security, Makes the 120-mile journey from Harding, SD to the Chip on horseback for the first time - Not to be outdone by Axton’s shine, the horseman from the Short Pines pulls a gallon jar wrapped in burlap from his horse’s packs and offers all a taste of his own brew. This is the Chip’s first ever moonshine contest. Coon Dog stuffed cotton in his horses’ ears to protect them from the loud stage music.
Kingsmen Throw a Party - While the Wolf, Nick St. Nicolas is howling on stage, driving the audience to a frenzy, The Kingsmen, of Louie, Louie fame and purported to be the greatest garage band of all time, gather backstage in anticipation of their performance, lined up like lambs to the slaughter dressed in matching, crisp white suits. Cool as cucumbers, the Kingsmen listen quietly to the roar of V-twins and then take the stage. Within three minutes they have the crowd singing at the top of their lungs and eating out of their hands.
Campers hum “In A Gadda Da Vida” for Days - Iron Butterfly rocks the Chip and Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen leave everyone wanting a “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
Big Ed Beckley Jumps Over 10 pickups and Cars on Harley Rotax 600 - The world’s largest motorcycle jumper draws a crowd of over 5,000 people in the middle of the day to watch him jump in the Buffalo Chip amphitheater.
The 50th Anniversary of the Motorcycle Rally is Huge - The Chip celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the rally with Joe Walsh, Joan Jett, Tanya Tucker, Georgia Satellites, Marshal Tucker Band, John Kay and Steppenwolf, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Robbie Kreiger and more. Wolfman Jack is quickly smitten with the Chip and becomes a good friend.
No More Beer!? - No one anticipates the large number of bikers who attend the rally for the 50th, including the beer distributors. The Chip never runs out of beer, having built units and stored extra, but it is close. The distributors run out and had to make midnight runs to Denver to raid warehouses and truck the brew back to Sturgis. The ice warehouses also run dry and the Chip brings in 4 emergency truckloads from Denver. No one goes thirsty at the Chip!
Sam Kinison Says Some Things - Funny man Sam Kinison is a special guest at the Chip and even though he dies shortly after his visit, becomes one of Woody’s good friends. Sam is enamored with the Buffalo Chip and gives a great performance on the Chip’s crooked old wooden stage. Sam tells hours of stories to his LA friends about the Chip. His memory is honored by the Sam Kinison Stage at the west end of the amphitheater.
The Chip Steps it Up – John Kay and Steppenwolf, Charlie Daniels, Firefall and the Doobie Brothers rock the Chip!
Chip and Bikers Build House for Charity – Bikers show their community spirit, pick up hammers and build a Habitat for Humanity house on site at the Chip.
Junk Bike Meltdown Goes Out In a Blaze Of Glory - The Junk Bike Meltdown goes out with a blazing grand finale in ’93 when Big Ed Beckley jumps his bike over the top of the burning pile. The Chip uses Fred Sibley’s 10,000-horsepower 1948 Rolls Royce jet engine to create a blowtorch to melt a stack of junked motorcycles and cars while Beckley jumped 100 feet over the top unharmed.
Jim Dandy, Foghat and Molly Hatchet Rock the Week-Long Music Festival.
“Jesus” Jumps Through a Flaming Shit House - Some may call Robert Foley “The Road Warrior;” others may call him “Jesus,” but when he flies through an outhouse filled with flames and feces nobody calls him “chicken.” Foley enlists volunteers to fill the shithouse and plant one and a half sticks of dynamite underneath the infamous, foul-smelling inferno. He blasts through the target painted on the side of the building and emerges a champion who will live on in Chip history forever.
Big Ed Beckley Blows Himself Up - Big Ed Beckley loads a pile of dynamite under a coffin, gets in and gives the signal to light the fuse. The coffin lifts off and flies all 350 pounds of him into the air before he is ejected. He landed with an audible “thud,” and his large frame rolls across the ground for a ways but he stands up and claims he doesn’t have a sore spot on his body.
Nancy Sinatra’s Boots Stumble Across the Stage - Nancy Sinatra is hot, fresh from posing for Playboy’s May issue, and her boots are walking her right across the Chip’s main stage. While Nancy has a long singing career it is a good thing she can read or she wouldn’t be singing the words to “Born to Be Wild.” There is little question she has been taking advantage of the Chip’s party before taking the stage.
New Stage Gets Named After Wolfman Jack – The new main stage is built and Woody names it for his friend and long-time Chip performer, Wolfman Jack.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special, Def Leppard and Montgomery Gentry Christen New Stage – The party sets the bar for future concerts at the Chip and .38 Special records “Sturgis Live” at the Chip.
Cher Flips off audience! - Cher is the first real mega superstar to enter the Buffalo Chip. Woody worries that the crowd will tear her apart as they try to touch her. She mentions a dinner date with President Clinton and is boo’d off the stage to which she flips them the bird and stalks off stage.
Peter Fonda Wrecks Chopper Back Stage!? - Easy Rider Peter Fonda roars in on a ridiculously long chopper. He navigates the gravel into the campground, but as he pulls up behind the stage the ungainly chopper tips over to astonished gasps. The stage crew comes to his aid and rights the gangly bike although Fonda’s pride may be a bit damaged.
Knievel Jumps Over Main Stage! - Robbie Knievel, son of the infamous Evel Knievel, arrives and instructs Woody to “build me a ramp.” Styx and REO Speedwagon have already staged their shows, dangling lights and speakers from the roof. Robbie tells Woody “I’m not a daredevil, I’m a professional daredevil.” The crowd parts, leaving a 60’ swath as Knievel, dressed in a red, white and blue jumpsuit, mounts his bike and takes two runs up the ramp before hitting the gas, sailing expertly just inches below the speakers, over the stage and pit, landing in a puff of dust and stopping with a slight wobble. John Paul DeJoria welcomes him to the stage with toast of Patron.
Natural 9 Entertainment Films Special for the Travel Channel – Cameras again put the Buffalo Chip in the national spotlight.
Tommy Shaw Will Never Forget – Styx lead singer Tommy Shaw declares he does not need a prompt on the stage floor to remember the name of the venue because the Buffalo Chip is so awesome he will never forget it!
Fallen Soldier Honored in Field of Flags - Thursday, August 5, 2004 was a day that will remain as one of the saddest days in the history of the Buffalo Chip. It was the day of the Chip’s annual Freedom Celebration when two uniformed Army officers arrived early to locate the parents of a son serving in Iraq who was killed in action the night previous. The mood of the entire campground was subdued and respectful as veterans broke out their uniforms and solemnly performed the Missing Man ceremony in the field now known as the Field of Flags. It was the most moving moment in Chip history.
Toby Keith Proves He Has the Biggest Balls of Them All – Performs in Vicious Storm Toby Keith becomes Woody’s all-time favorite entertainer. Keith signs autographs backstage as the first raindrops hit the big cowboy’s hat. He turns to Woody and says, “We gotta get on stage.” It is soon raining cats and dogs, wind blowing 40 mph, lightening crashing all around even taking out an antenna on the roof, but Keith refuses to leave the stage. Every member of his band receives a $2,000 bonus for riding the storm and presenting a concert that will long live in Buffalo Chip history.
The Iconic Chip Buffalo Sculpture is Created and Erected – The iconic, 8-ton sculpture is much heavier than expected and as crew chief Darwin Brink directs it into place atop the steel poles, the crane starts to tip. A second crane is called in to complete the job.
Robbie Knievel thrilled crowds – Knievel has Coke poured on the landing ramp to make it sticky enough to help him stop in time. He easily clears the 205-foot span in the amphitheater, jumping through flaming towers of pyrotechnics and stops in the nick of time.
Presidential Candidate, McCain Offers Wife Up As Miss Buffalo Chip Contestant During Main Stage Presentation – McCain is so taken with the Buffalo Chip that he suggests his wife, Cindy, should compete in the Miss Buffalo Chip contest to be the only woman in history to be both First Lady and Miss Buffalo Chip.
Aerosmith Lead Singer, Steven Tyler, Falls Off Stage! - Megastar Steven Tyler of Aerosmith makes Buffalo Chip history as he tumbles off the stage, breaks bones and achieves a ride in an air ambulance complete with a backstage landing. The story breaks more than bones, it lands on every major news media in America the following morning. Tyler admits in his book that he is slightly over-medicated at the time.
The Travel Channel Films “Sturgis – The Great Ride” – Cameras were on hand to capture the high-octane adventure of the Buffalo Chip’s 30th Anniversary event.
World’s Largest To Scale V-Twin Sculpture is Erected at CrossRoads at the Chip - During one afternoon brainstorming session in Deadwood, Darwin Brink sits with Woody devising ideas for a sculpture. Brink draws up a plan on a bar napkin and by spring the big V-twin engine is gracing the entrance to the CrossRoads. Brink passed away in 2013.
Lightening Puts Spring in Kid Rocks Jump - It’s hard to impress Woody, but Kid Rock does it in 2014 making him a close second favorite entertainer. The storm builds through Rock’s performance culminating when lightning strikes the water tower sending a shower of sparks onto the campground and illuminating the crowd for a spectacular photo by Michael Lichter. The Kid struts and sings his way through the deluge as a true champion.
Clint Ewing Nearly Dies in Tunnel of Fire Stunt - Fans cross their fingers and hold their breath as Country Music Television films motorcycle daredevil Clint Ewing’s attempt to break the Guinness World Record for longest motorcycle ride through a tunnel of fire on Daredevil Wednesday. The scorching 2,900-degree temps inside the tunnel melt the gloves onto his hands and start his suit to smoldering, causing him to crash through the tunnel wall. The whole event is broadcast live on national television.
The World Watches as the Chip Parties – The world turned its eyes on the Buffalo Chip in 2013 as Country Music Television filmed “Seven Nights of Badass.” Cameras rolled throughout the week at the legendary Sturgis Buffalo Chip Campground. CMT also filmed Paul Teutel Sr. as he helped present a bike to a wounded veteran on the main stage for “Orange County Choppers.” History filmed for “Top Gear,” and Velocity cameras caught action for “All Girl Garage.”
The Pretty Reckless Loudly Declare the Chip “The Best F***ing Venue in the World!” - So suitably impressed with the Buffalo Chip and audience appreciation they scream the compliment from the stage.
Jesse James Makes Friends with China’s Biggest Star - Chinese movie powerhouse, Li Chen, flew half way around the globe with a large group of Chinese media so that famed custom bike builder, Jesse James could present his new ride on the main stage and be filmed for television broadcast in his home country.
Machine Gun Knocks the Loafers Off of FOX News’ Jessie Watters – Jessie Watters of “The O’Reilly Factor” tracked down some interesting characters at the Buffalo Chip to ask how everyday people feel about the issues for his segment, “Watters’ World.” He inevitably received some surprising and sidesplitting answers.
The Buffalo Chip Petitions to Become the First Town By Bikers For Bikers – Following a dream to become the first town built by bikers, Woody petitions Meade County to become the town of Buffalo Chip. While the City of Sturgis fights to keep the Chip from success, residents vote for incorporation!
First Ever Moto Stampede - For the first time ever the power and heart-thumping action of no-holds-barred Roland Sands Design Super Hooligan racing presented by Indian Motorcycle was paired with the craziness of street drags and the meaty groove of some of the world’s top bands in a full-blown Moto Stampede held in the center of the Chip’s amphitheater.
Buffalo Chip Added to National AFT Circuit - Racing came back and was bigger than ever in 2017 when American Flat Track added the AMA Pro Sturgis Buffalo Chip TT Grand National Championship Event to its series. Seven-time Grand National winner Chris Carr built an award-winning track in the amphitheater to host this nationally televised event.
American Choppers Brought the Buffalo Chip into Your Living Room - The Buffalo Chip again made its way into living rooms across the nation in 2018 when Discovery’s highly anticipated new season of “American Choppers” featured a bike built for the Legends Ride® in its first two episodes.
Zero Fun had at CAMP ZERO® - A new area of the Buffalo Chip called Camp Zero was developed in 2018 near the Chip’s Powersports Complex. The place set out to be the home to a no-frills, grassroots-style moto gathering, where campers could build their own party. And boy, did they.
New Big Engine Bar Opens - The free-access CrossRoads received a huge upgrade with the opening of the new Big Engine Bar. The reimagined space sports a 60-foot handcrafted bar where patrons can a drink while watching daily live entertainment on stage.