After my article on the origin of the Mods & Rockers movements, friend of the industry Pepper Massey saw your comments requesting that I write the story of the Sturgis beginnings. Because Pepper is a former Rally Director at the Sturgis Rally Department and Executive Director at the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame, she jumped at the opportunity to tell you the true story of the way it all began.
“You can thank Clarence Hoel for the existence of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Better known as “Pappy”, he began his long love affair with Indian motorcycles as a teenager, using his motorcycle to drive cattle and ride fence lines on the family ranch. Pappy also helped with the family ice business, but with the advent of the refrigerator he knew the clock was ticking and he would have to find another way to support his new family, wife Pearl and son Jack. He applied for an Indian Motorcycle franchise and opened his dealership in his garage in 1936. Pappy is also credited with being one of the founding members of the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club, the club that acted as caretaker and guardian of the Sturgis event throughout the years.
The first club minutes from January 21, 1938 give little insight into the thought processes and conversations that would lead them to choose the club name, rather simply states that after submitting names such as Bearcats and Coyotes “the Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club was carried unanimously as the name of the Club.” Local lore tells a bit of a different story, combining two factors. Pick a direction and on any ride they took in the Black Hills Pappy and “the boys” (as they were referred to in club minutes) were bound to see Ponderosa Pines, also known as Jack Pines. On one of those group rides through the Hills a passer by was heard to remark, “those guys look like a bunch of gypsies”, and voila.
There were 18 charter members, whose names bear mentioning. Pappy Hoel owned the local Indian dealership; Archie Campbell owned the local service station (learned to ride his Harley in World War I); Roger Satterlee owned a pawnshop in town; Ray Jeider was the local mortician; George Cobbler was a student at Black Hills Teacher’s College (today called BH State University, Spearfish); Cecil Gibson, Wayne Milek, Charlie Stephens and Don Vodden were local high school students; Nicky Neugebauer and Gordon Rounds were serving in the Cavalry detachment at Fort Meade; Carl Hackett, Herby Larson, Ray and Ted Laurenti, Thomas McLaughlin were miners from Lead/Deadwood; and Joe Kelly and Charlie Stephens were employed in Sturgis. At those initial weekly meetings they discussed club colors and badges, AMA support, coffee pots, planned hockey games, races and events with the Rapid Pioneer Motorcycle Club (RPMC) from Rapid City. After meets the minutes would often include a footnote such as “Chicken feed big success. Hill climbs, fording rivers, squirrelling, all on impromptu program. No casualties. Everyone returned full and happy.” It was a simpler time.
Pappy and the boys had a good natured rivalry going with the RPMs. The Gypsies tended to ride Indians out of loyalty to Hoel’s dealership, and the RPMs rode mainly Harley-Davidsons. Races between the two clubs were held on the horse track in Rapid City until the Gypsies invited the RPMs to a race on the old half-mile track at the Meade County Fair Grounds in Sturgis. Both spectators and racers alike enjoyed how much extra speed could be built up on the banked corners of the Sturgis track, a result of the conversion the track underwent from horses to cars. It didn’t take the local merchants in Sturgis long to notice how popular the races were and see what a potential boon this could be, especially in post-Depression rural America. They organized to form the Black Hills Motor Classic (BHMC), planning a rally in 1938. However the merchants considered themselves socially separate from the motorcyclists who created and participated in the event, allowing only local business owners to join the “proper committee”. This didn’t bother the Gypsies who never believed themselves to be inferior to the “namby pamby” merchants. A few of the boys were business owners in town and were able to join the BHMC committee, acting as unofficial spies and making certain that the Gypsies always knew what took place at the “proper committee” meetings.
The Gypsies, pushed out of the picture, would not be outdone and planned an organized ride through the Hills called the Gypsy Tour. Gypsy Tours were an AMA term for a weekend ride that included social and competitive activities such as a picnic and races. The tours were readily accepted by local dealerships because in addition to the entertainment and social aspects, this was also an opportunity to showcase the new models. Keep in mind that many of the dealerships in the 30’s were small and demo rides in a sparsely populated rural area would draw potential customers. Much consideration was given to the date of the BHMC in 1938 however in the end the second weekend in August was chosen so as not to conflict with other established events in the area. In 1938 that weekend was August 12-14.
The committee set out to raise prize money to attract experienced racers. The purse was $500.00 and anticipation was high, both for drawing spectators and the racers to entertain them. To fill out the race weekend a parade was scheduled to include bikes and floats; a community dance; street carnival; and stunts at the fairgrounds. Pappy loved to perform stunts, which he called “tricks, fun and damn foolishness.” One of his favorites was crashing into an outhouse that was set on fire. The small building was specially constructed of dry, knotty boards that would break when he rode through it on his Indian, making certain to keep his head well below the handlebars. The fire tended to weaken the boards and make the stunt easier, rather than more dangerous. With the promise of dangerous stunts and an exciting race schedule, one of the committee members was remembered to have remarked that if the event was promoted and managed correctly there could be “entries from the whole cockeyed world!”. And the enthusiasm continued to build with the AMA’s recognition of the races. This was to be the first AMA sanctioned race in the region and with the extra publicity from the AMA the BHMC committee believed they could draw riders from as far away as Texas and California.
As the race drew closer the purse grew to an amazing $750.00 and riders from eight states, including California, had registered, thanks in part to the Springfield Mile. The Springfield Mile was a well respected competitive event that would draw the top racers in the country and was held shortly after the newly established Sturgis race, giving racers a convenient stop off on their way to Illinois. On race day nine competitors had registered – Gale Chandler, Gale Gilkerson, Johnny Spiegelhoff, Fred Ford, Dale Short, Al Nelson, Bill Smith, J.P. Lewen and Don Vodden. All of the bikes entered in the race were Indians except for two, Spiegelhoff and Smith rode Harleys. It was Harley-Davidson that won the day when “Smiling Johnny” Spiegelhoff crossed the finish line at the end of the first official Sturgis half-mile.
The winner had to share the spotlight with a local racer though. While the Sturgis Tribune headline read “First Annual Cycle Race Meet a Hummer”, a smaller headline read, “Johnny Spiegelhoff Is Very Fast But Meets His Equal In Rapid Speed Demon”. Nelson, who came in second, was from Rapid City and had a loyal fan base in the Hills. Spiegelhoff and Nelson remained friends and competed in many more races, never imagining that the little race in Sturgis, South Dakota would have special significance in motorcycle history, inextricably linking them not only to racing history, but to the great legacy that lives on today, better known as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally”. Pepper Massey.