Sturgis Rally Rumbles On: How The Buffalo Chip Became A Beacon For Freedom

With Some Controversy,
Andrew Cullen / Getty Images
– With Some Controversy,
the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota is underway as possibly the largest gathering in the U.S. since the pandemic began, and with outdoor concerts as part of the attractions.

Although the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is kicking off amid a media firestorm as maybe the largest mass gathering taking place in the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic landed Stateside, the potentially hundreds of thousands of leather-clad, Harley-riding freedom trekkers entering Sturgis, S.D., for the rally are actually seeking some sense of normalcy.
“‘Normal’ is a word people who come here just enjoy the heck out of,” says Rod “Woody” Woodruff, owner of the Sturgis Buffalo Chip, the largest campground and concert venue at the rally. “We have all these folks coming from California, Oregon and Washington, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, saying, ‘Oh my god, it’s so nice here, it’s so wonderful to be some place where it’s like normal.’ It’s a word that’s pretty popular around here.”
The Buffalo Chip has become an institution at the Sturgis rally, with this year being its 39th year in business, hosting nine days of motorcycle shows, museum exhibits, stunt shows, and concerts this year including Smash Mouth, Trapt, Lita Ford, Reverend Horton Heat, Lit and others. 
For the Buffalo Chip, the Sturgis rally is an entire year’s worth of business crammed into nine days. 
“This is what we do, the reason we came into existence, and the only thing we do – for 39 years, essentially,” Woodruff says. 
As the coronavirus pandemic led to mass shutdowns across the country, Woodruff gave much credit to the state’s governor for allowing the event to go ahead but says that doesn’t mean Sturgis and the Chip are not taking the pandemic seriously, with hand sanitizers, signage and a setting already conducive to social distancing. 
“We also have some extra heavy stringent COVID-related protocols for backstage. We’re damn proud of the artists who are coming, who’ve got enough backbone to do it despite pressure from others in the music industry as well as folks who want to devastate the economy.
“This doesn’t mean we’re not conscious that if someone does happen to get the virus it could be fatal or devastating. We’re not wanting that to happen to anybody. We are taking it seriously and have been planning for months.”
One artist playing the event has been somewhat vocal about wanting to perform – virus be damned. Psychobilly band Reverend Horton Heat has played the Sturgis rally nearly every other year for the last 15 years, making it a mainstay in the whole scene and playing similar events all over the world.
Rev’s agent, Scott Weiss of Atomic Music Group, says the event is a cultural phenomenon that means a lot to its attendees as well as the artists.
“This event is this demographic’s Lollapalooza or Coachella, it’s the annual pilgrimage, and I think that with or without live music, it was still going to take place this year,” says Weiss. 
To outsiders, the Sturgis concerts may seem like a victory to the concert business as performances taking place in a large setting at all, but Weiss puts it in perspective.  
“If there is any victory at all, it is pretty freaking hollow,” Weiss says, laughing good-naturedly. “Sadly, this is essentially the biggest event of the year, and in our lexicon this was just a regular old gig [in any other year].” 
However, much like attending the rally amid COVID-19 is up to the choice of the campers and riders themselves, Weiss notes that concerts are similarly a decision for artists as well, and that can be complicated.
“Everybody wants to be working right now, but it’s everybody’s individual choice as to whether it’s safe and logical to be doing it,” Weiss says. “To me, the overwhelming majority of [artists] are opting to simply stay home, whether it’s because they simply want to be safe themselves or for the optics of wanting to appear to be safe.”
While keeping business alive, Woodruff says it’s not quite a home run.
“It might be a moral victory that we’re staying in business, but that doesn’t mean anybody is going to make a profit,” Woodruff says. “We didn’t have any cancellations, maybe three or four, and we were setting a record pace for our reservations before the fear of death was inflicted on everyone in the country.
“Should it be something for the rest of the country to take a look at? I don’t know, but I hate to see the Bill of Rights be crushed like it has been in the last few years and particularly the last few months. At some point in time some government is going to go too far, and people here are already sick and tired of it.”