STURGIS -- Over the past 24 years, the Buffalo Chip Campground has grown from a bawdy outlaw hideout into one of the largest family-run businesses in the Black Hills area.
"It's a big deal," Buffalo Chip owner and founder Rod "Woody" Woodruff said this week, during an interview sandwiched between a barrage of incoming cell-phone calls. ("I'll turn it off, I promise," he apologized.)
The television crew from The Travel Channel, however, did not turn off the cameras or the microphones, one of which was taped to Woodruff's back. He will be one of the main characters in "Chip Happens," a 12-part reality series coming soon to basic cable. producer Jeff Androsky said, "The motorcycles are the thread, but it's really about the people."
Androsky and his crew of 24 will train their 14 cameras on people throughout the Black Hills during the Sturgis motorcycle rally, but the Chip will be center stage.
Other real-life characters will be Woodruff's wife, Carol, who runs the box office, his son, Daymon, who handles construction and infrastructure, and his daughter, Toni, who shepherds a flock of Chip vendors.
Woodruff concentrates on the entertainment.
"Together, we make a heck of a team," Woodruff said.
A unique Chip saga
It's also a heck of a story.
There are other big campgrounds at Sturgis - Glencoe, for example, which has a drag strip.
There also are a raft of biker mega-bars, such as the Loud American Roadhouse and various motorcycle-parts "saloons" - the Full Throttle, the Broken Spoke, the Side Hack and the Knucklehead.
All of these Sturgis venues and others do big business during the motorcycle rally, which runs officially through next Saturday.
The Buffalo Chip, however, pioneered the campground-vendor-concert combination that has spread to motorcycle rallies nationwide. The Chip, in fact, has a Florida branch, the Kickstand, which sets up in the infield of the Daytona Speedway for Biketoberfest in the fall and Bike Week in the spring.
The Buffalo Chip itself occupies almost 500 acres of rolling prairie east of Sturgis. The fence gets pushed back almost every year, but Woodruff said the campground's growth has gone mostly unnoticed in the Black Hills. "On the national level, they understand what goes on here," he said. "Local people don't. On a state level, they don't. National level, they do."
Part of that local ignorance may be the result of Woodruff's own close-to-the-vest style.
The Buffalo Chip never releases attendance figures n for camping or for the open-infield concerts that continue throughout the rally. And the Chip is so big, it's never sold out, which makes it even harder for outsiders to estimate attendance.
Employees number "in the hundreds," Chip spokesman Mike Sanborn estimated, but the number of vendors, the revenue and other statistics are trade secrets.
Pressed to give a sense of the campground's economic size, Woodruff said, "Our budget is far greater than the city of Sturgis' budget for the rally."
Buffalo Chip evolution
Woodruff founded the Chip in 1981.
Two years later, Sturgis closed City Park to camping after rowdy bikers took over the park and set fires. Some of the culprits were gang members, others were drunken revelers and many fit both categories.
The Buffalo Chip soon won a reputation as the place that sort of biker ended up n a safe haven inside an enormous piece of private property. The Miss Buffalo Chip contest, the "pickle lickin'" contest, the impromptu amateur nudity and late, late partying all added to the mystique.
In the early 1990s, the Chip even lost its beer license for a couple of years.
Woodruff, who is an attorney, sued to get it back and won.
"This place has potential," he said in an interview in 1993.
He turned out to be right.
Delbert McClinton played the Chip in 1993, and since then, the Chip's reputation as a top music venue has grown. ZZ Top was the star last year, and Tim McGraw plays Sunday night, but there is music every day n including the "pompatus of love" Steve Miller Band (Thursday) and the Suicide Kings, an up-and-coming metal band that will open for Disturbed and Queensryche on Friday.
"The entertainment industry realized early on we were doing something different," Woodruff said.
That difference included targeted marketing, VIP treatment for music acts and a huge stage facing a gigantic infield with a gentle, natural slope.
The audience brings its own chairs n many of which have two wheels and Harley-Davidson engines When big acts play, everyone within 50 or 60 yards of the stage is standing.
Bigger every year
As the music got bigger and better, the Buffalo Chip infrastructure grew.
Daymon Woodruff, 32, has seen a lot of that growth in person. His first summer at the Chip he was only 3 years old. His parents had recently divorced. "I had him for the summer, so guess where he ended up," Woody Woodruff said. "He learned how to do wiring, he learned how to do plumbing and he learned how to pound nails at a very early age out here."
Now, Daymon Woodruff is handling a little bit of everything, his father said. "I wish my parents had raised a kid that good," he joked.
Daymon also helped build the campground's first plumbing system. Now, it includes a sewage system, water lines, three wells and Osage, Wyo.'s water tower, repainted silver with the Chip's logo.
There are three shower areas now n one that's free and two set up by shower vendors.
There is also a new box office, too, which Carol Woodruff hopes will ease a bottleneck at the Buffalo Chip.
Other amenities include a convenience store and myriad food vendors, including national chains such as Domino's Pizza. ("The best pie in the pasture.")
Other vendors sell motorcycle gear. Friday, in fact, a Harley-Davidson store opened at the Chip, above the new Miller Time bar.
Today, Jack Daniels will celebrate the distillery's birthday at the new Jack Daniels Bar, featuring a 7,200-square-foot deck overlooking the infield.
"Vendors are the backbone of the industry," Rod Woodruff said.
As late as Thursday, new applicants were calling Toni Woodruff begging for space. "There's no more room!" she said in frustration, after ending one cell call. She found room. There's always room at the Chip, she said.
Woody Woodruff hired his daughter to handle vendors about five years ago. "She's a lot nicer than I am," he said. "Everybody likes her a lot more than me."
The Buffalo Chip people
But Woodruff does know how to take care of his regulars, like the Mississippi biker who arrived about 5:30 a.m. one morning last week, hauling his bike behind his pickup.
"This guy drives up and wants to know if the coffee shop is open," Woodruff said. "He always comes early because he likes this one particular barren spot on the side of a hill. He loves it so much he told his wife that someday he wants to die right there."
That's customer loyalty, and Woodruff's crew works at it. (Note that Woodruff was on duty at 5:30 a.m.)
"We have a peculiar marketing strategy," Sanborn said. "We ask people what they want, then we give it to them." Go to www.buffalochip.com, and you even find a survey asking what you want.
But the Buffalo Chip crew already has a pretty good idea what you'll say. They know their customers n many of them by name.
"This party is a family affair," Woody Woodruff once wrote in the Buffalo Chip Gazette. In fact, Carol Woodruff's son, Chase Newland, would be helping out this summer, too, except he is serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq.
When the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute into the Chip on Monday and the B-1B bombers perform a flyover and a Medal of Honor recipient is presented a flag, the lump in Carol Woodruff's throat will be authentic.
The patriotism fits right in with the loud, music, the plentiful drink and food, the motorcycle stuff and outlaw atmosphere n the template of Buffalo Chip growth.
A couple of years ago, a National Geographic television producer asked Woodruff to further boil down the Chip formula. Woodruff said, "We started with nothing, and every year we added something."
Contact Bill Harlan at 394-8424 or email@example.com