By all accounts, next year’s 75th anniversary of the largest motorcycle rally in the world will be the biggest biker bash ever staged, an event so well-attended that organizers and law enforcement cringe and lodging providers wonder where they will all stay.
Some officials estimate overall rally attendance could reach 1 million next year, more than double the typical number.
"I think it's possible we could reach 1 million," said Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush.
If you're a true biker, you are going to be in Sturgis next year, Bush said.
"This is mecca in the bike world. And, it's an anniversary year," he said. "Our surveys show that the average age of those who attend is close to 50. A lot of those folks won't see another big anniversary in mecca. So that to me is more an indicator than any other thing."
Less than a week following the close of the 74th rally, Denny Bergers of Prime Rally Rentals has filled nearly all his vendor spaces for the 75th Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Bergers owns Mr. Al's and Mr. Al's 2 on the north side of Sturgis Main Street.
"Mr. Al's 2 is completely filled up and Mr. Al's has just a few vendor spaces available still. I've got emails and phone calls to return, so I'm pretty confident that within the next couple weeks we'll be 100 percent full for the 75th," he said.
Bergers said he was at the 50th Sturgis motorcycle rally and says if next year's anniversary year is anything like that, it will be "phenomenal."
"I remember at the 50th there were vendors that were pulling out mid-week because they ran out of product. We were fortunate then that we were overnight airing product on a daily basis. Our UPS bill was pretty high obviously," he said.
This year was the 33rd rally for Bergers. He believes those coming for the 75th will arrive early.
"What I have done with my buildings and the contracts for next year is I have opened it up similar to what they do at the Harley-Davidson dealership in Rapid city where it's two full weeks and three weekends," he said. "I'm hoping the city goes along with this with extending the vendor licenses to a 16- or 17-day permit."
Bergers said there were a handful of vendors that came this year just to get their foot in the door for next year.
"They wanted to lock in their spot so they knew they had it for next year," he said.
Finishing his 33rd consecutive rally at the sprawling Sturgis Buffalo Chip complex, where big-name performers fill the week with concerts and thousands of rallygoers make camp, President Rod Woodruff predicts a 75th observance that will top the charts.
“I’m very confident the 75th will be remarkably more heavily attended than anything we have experienced before,” Woodruff said last week. “It will be the biggest rally we have ever had.”
As evidence, Woodruff noted that the Buffalo Chip began accepting reservations for 2015 in May, four months ahead of any previous schedule. When they sent out an email to previous customers, allowing those loyalists a chance to book their camping spots ahead of anyone else, staff members were astounded by the response, he said.
"We sent out one email to our existing base and gave them three days before releasing spots to the general public," Woodruff explained. "We had record sales for three days. It knocked us right off our heels and that was just one email."
Woodruff said a banner year for the Black Hills event would buck the trend of other major rallies conducted throughout the U.S., all of which have experienced declining attendance over the past decade.
“It’s not the economy that impacts the rally, it’s people’s experiences,” Woodruff said. “There’s a fad cycle. There was a time when motorcycling was cool and everybody was doing it. But it’s like Levis; once everybody had 20 pairs, the luster wore off."
Woodruff said attendance has been off in Sturgis and at other rallies across the country. “Rallies failed," he said. "A decade ago, Daytona rivaled Sturgis in attendance but it’s virtually gone, a mere shadow of its former self. If that’s the case, we thought we wanted Sturgis to be the last rally standing.”
Sturgis Rally Director Brenda Vasknetz said the 75th could double last year’s official estimate of 467,338 attendees. Social media and visitor inquiries indicate unprecedented interest, she noted.
"A lot of the comments we do see on our social media side are, 'Can't wait for the 75th.' That's the chat," she said. "The chief (Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush) thinks there will be close to a million people here next year. I know we can handle it because you can only fit so many people into our town."
But Woodruff isn’t so sure, contemplating a 2015 meltdown complete with downtown Sturgis gridlock and traffic moving at a snail’s pace on Lazelle Street, all of which will have a negative residual impact on future rallies. The “City of Riders," he fears, may well become the “City of Idlers.”
Woodruff worries that not enough planning has been done to handle the extreme traffic. “Because of that, we’ll see the same thing happen in 2015 as we saw happen after 2003 — people will remember the traffic jam more than they’ll remember the good times."
He imagines a scenario where it could take three hours to move across town if a million bikers show up. "We’ve got an hour-glass configuration and we’re going to have a lot more sand. In fact, we’re going to bring an extra pound of sand and most of it won’t get through the hour-glass,” he said.
Tom Griffith of the Rapid City Journal contributed to this story.