STURGIS, S.D. Outside the Knuckle Saloon, co-owner Ken McNenny lights a cigarette, leans on a bar and nods to a steady stream of motorcycles humming up and down the street days before the official start of the annual rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.
McNenny has little time for sleep or riding while preparing the popular hangout for the 75th anniversary Sturgis motorcycle rally that organizers believe may draw a million people to western South Dakota from Monday to Aug. 9.
“The adrenaline’s flowing,” McNenny said in an interview on Tuesday as the air thickened with the aroma of hamburgers and gasoline. “It’s the excitement and making sure you maximize your profitability and have fun.”
The first rally, organized by Clarence “Pappy” Hoel, who had bought a motorcycle franchise in Sturgis, was a simple race with nine participants and a handful of onlookers in 1938. It was not held a couple years during World War Two.
It has grown into an international gathering, attracting hundreds of thousands of biker enthusiasts, and hundreds of vendors hawking T-shirts, key chains, corsets and of course motorcycles along with body-piercing and tattoo services.
“I came out in 2009 and promised I’d never miss it again,” said James Bakalich, of Florida, who is staying for two weeks.
During rallies, a sea of black leather, boots and bandanas swamps the sidewalks of Sturgis, population about 6,900 at other times, as people gather to meet up with other bikers and gawk at the hundreds of Harleys, Knuckleheads and custom-built bikes.
The two-story Knuckle, which opened 15 years ago, stretches half a block with a dozen full-service bars, a deck overlooking the street, a back street grill, restaurant and brewery.
The saloon would not be there without the rally, said McNenny, who said the staff quadrupled to about 200 for the rally, from about 50 at other times of the year.
Dominos opened a downtown Sturgis location in July to go with a stand at the Buffalo Chip Campground where concerts and acres of open field lure hundreds of people each year.
“A lot of people rely on the income, but by the end, they’re done with it,” said David Shearer, 30, a Dominos regional operations director who grew up in Sturgis.
Down the street from the Knuckle, a small line formed in the entryway to Matt’s Barber Shop as owner Matt Karrels combed and snipped the ends of James Schram’s gray hair and beard.
“It was all bikers,” said Schram, who first came to Sturgis in 1989. “Around 2000, I noticed baby strollers and tennis shoes and then there were complaints about nudity and cussing. I thought, ‘Then why do you come here?'”
Schram said he and his wife moved to the area from Minnesota a week ago and plan to watch the party from afar.
“We sold our bikes and we’re going to sit up in the hills and listen,” Schram said.
Organizers aim to broaden interest in the rally, which had attendance of about 442,000 people last year with 681 city-issued vendor licenses, down from a peak estimated at 633,000 and 943 licenses at the 60th anniversary rally in 2000.
“We’re trying to tailor it to the younger generation,” said Heidi Kruse, executive director of the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce. “There are misconceptions about who’s filling the town. There are now accountants and lawyers. It’s certainly not the biker gangs from the 70s.”
Karrels, whose barber shop has chaps and a shotgun nailed to the wall, hesitated to call the rally family friendly. “It’s a cross between spring break and a biker rally,” he said.
The rally has not been immune to crime, but arrests for general causes, drug arrests and traffic violations are down from the late 1990s, according to Sturgis statistics.
There were seven felony drug arrests and 54 misdemeanor drug arrests in 2014, down from 56 felony drug arrests and 307 misdemeanor drug arrests in 2000.
Local residents plan ahead for the congestion brought by the influx of bikers, or get out of town.
“It’s the most work and most fun in a week,” said Brian Cripe, 24, who added it can take two hours to drive a block. “You work hard and you play hard.”
(Reporting by Kayla Gahagan in Sturgis, South Dakota; Editing by David Bailey and David Gregorio)