STURGIS | Traffic counts from the opening three days suggest the 81st Sturgis motorcycle rally may not be a monster in terms of attendance.
Data released Tuesday by the South Dakota Department of Transportation show a substantial increase in the number of vehicles entering Sturgis compared to the same period in 2020, but far below the near-gridlock levels of the 75th rally in 2015.
Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin isn’t quite ready to buy the smaller numbers just yet.
“I still think it’s a big year and will be one of the biggest,” said Merwin, at a Tuesday briefing in downtown Sturgis.
The DOT figures show a total of 188,579 vehicles entering Sturgis over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as counted by a number of cable sensors installed along Interstate 90, on off-ramps and other highway entrances scattered around the community.
The three-day total exceeds the number of vehicles counted over the opening weekend in 2020 (160,806), but falls well short of the 236,283 vehicles tallied in 2015 when the traffic count was 739,000. In 2020, the count was 462,182.
Broken down by day, 55,326 vehicles counted on Friday, up 11% over 2020 but down 13.2% from 2015.
On Saturday, 67,482 vehicles entered Sturgis, up 23.1% from last year and down 18% from 2015.
Sunday saw 65,771 vehicles entering, up 17.1% from the same day in 2020 but down 27.2% from the landmark year of 2015.
“I’d still argue that Friday and Saturday were big,” Merwin said. “The first couple days, we were like ‘oh, lordy, this is gonna be a ride,’ but it’s kind of slowed down.”
Another indicator of a busy rally is a high number of calls for service, with lower numbers of citations for traffic and other misdemeanor offenses.
The Sheriff’s Office’s tally for the first four days, through 6 p.m. Monday, show 67 more calls for service (399-332) over the same period last year, while citations written have actually dropped from 88 last year to 75 so far this year
“That’s typically how it goes. When the crowd is up, our (citations) are down, because we can’t turn around and stop a speeder or you can’t get through the crowd to chase after somebody, Merwin said.
“The other thing is our guys are taking other calls and trying to keep everybody safe, so we don’t tie ourselves up with the small stuff,” he said.
“With the bigger rally, we get into being proactive, rather than reactive,” said Sturgis Police Chief Geody VanDewater.
“Because there’s so many people here, we don’t have the time to proactively enforce traffic laws,” VanDewater said.
Merwin did agree that the overall pace of the rally, which reached the halfway point of its 10-day run on Tuesday, seems to be easing.
“It’ll be interesting for the overall week. Today, it’s pretty light out there,” he said. “Crowd-wise, everybody seems to have it figured out.”