1981 hit motorcycling and Sturgis Bike Week like 00-buck against a roadside sign. The raucous city park heart of the party closed and a young Sturgis resident, who grew up around High School keg parties, wanted to give bikers a place to camp out and party away from both the Man and the city fathers. At the time, I was the editor of Easyriders magazine
and I received a handful of sample shots from a new motorcycling freelance photographer by the name of Michael Lichter. His first ER assignment was to shoot the action in Sturgis, South Dakota. That changed the Black Hills Rally forever. The attendance in 1981 crested 12,000 riders. In 1982 it bounced to 24,000 and the rush was on.
Rod Woodward, or Woody, who worked in a dirt floor saloon as a kid and put himself through law school, to become an Attorney and a CPA, opened the Buffalo Chip in a field in 1981 with a handful of local folks. As Rod cut a dusty dirt road off Lazelle leading to his pasture lands, Harley executives cut a deal to buy H-D back from AMF. The popularity of Harley-Davidson was about to explode, and in 1982 Harley launched their first rubber-mounted FXR, which meant the new relatively vibrationless models could be ridden longer distances reliably, and more comfortably. Woody started to hire bands to entertain his guests. The Foggy Notion Band hit the first make-shift stage and played at the Chip every year for over a decade. Johnny Paycheck was part of the music groove with Susan Nelson.
A shot from 1982.
In 1983 Harley successfully petitioned the International Trade Commission (ITC) for tariff relief, which leveled the marketing playing field. The same year Clyde Fessler, a Harley VP, kicked off the HOG group, which immediately became the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle club in the world. And the Burnt River Band and the Nelson Miller Band rocked the rally.
With Harley-Davidsons mechanically improved, more riders developed a burning desire to hit the open road for longer distances. Rapidly, behind yearly features published in Easyriders, the Black Hills rally almost doubled in attendance annually. Rod endured partnership conflicts and bought the Chip land from a local dairy farmer. The farm had supplied cattle and milk to the troops at Fort Meade since the 1800s. Rod couldn't resist hiring major rock stars to entertain the growing crowds.
Then in 1984, with the help of AMF funding, Harley made the most significant difference to the annual Sturgis run by launching the reliably manufactured Evo engine, capable of 100,000 miles without a rebuild and the brothers hit the road big time. The late-night Chip party got so wild, no one remembers who stepped out onto the stage in '84 or '85. Could it have been the whiskey? But Woody faced one hurtle after another. There were no buildings on the land, no water, no electricity, and no sewers. He went to the bank to raise the funds to drill his first well on Chip land, 3.5 miles from town just off Lazelle, where his wife helped him make a steel silhouette of a Buffalo grazing on the hill overlooking hwy 34.
Then the Harley market took a quantum leap upward in 1986 when the factory launched the faux rigid frame Softail, providing hard core classic looks but with under slung suspension to ease the ride. The factory was on a roll, and the brothers rode to Sturgis to see Lynard Skynard play the Buffalo Chip in the driving 70 mph gale on a stage built from telephone poles with a galvanized tin roof. The band's tour manager took Woody aside after the event, which blew the roof into the next county, "I enjoyed playing here, but we're never coming back until you build a decent stage."
Woody took the challenge, bought a set of old amphitheater stage blueprints, and a semi-truck packed with stout used oil well stands (50 feet sections) of pipe. He hired a welder, David Vice, and the single-handed arc-stick welding guru built an iron clad stage that still stands today and shudders with the megawatt sounds of Steven Tyler, Kidd Rock and the antics of Pee Wee Herman. And of course, there are those wild unclad, skanky broads, during the late night parties, slithering across the stage. In 1985 Rod bought his first piece of heavy equipment, a 1959 Ford tractor, by trading on legal fees he was owed.
"At one point while we were building the stage it rained for 23 consecutive days," Rod said, "But he kept welding." David was an amazing man who worked for the Chip for over 25 years, building everything out of steel, 'cause he hated wood. He built their first water tower, and all their metal sculptures.
In 1990 Sturgis celebrated its 50th Anniversary and rocked the town to its core with over 500,000 attendees. Woody hired over 28 groups and entertainers to keep the crowds on their feet, including Bachman Turner Overdrive, Eric Burdon, Marshall Tucker, Joan Jeff, Tanya Tucker, Steppenwolf, and of course the Foggy Notion Band.
"We went from less than 100,000 Sturgis attendees a year to over half a million," Rod said. "We didn't know what hit us."
The early '90s just about kicked Rod's ass. The success of the 50th brought out the evil money-hungry spirits who thought the Chip took all the fun funds and pulled their licenses.
"We were forced to stop being a party, and become a business." Everything changed and they had to play politics to survive.
Just as he endured the first half of the '90s and built a stronger more acceptable infrastructure he signed Tim McGraw to play the headlining role during the 1995 Rally. All was well the day of the concert. The predicted weather was clear and warm until a slither of gray clouds mustered in the northern skies, and the report changed. An ass-kickin' storm was headed their way. Right on time, at 6:00 p.m. it hit with blistering fury and blew the bulbs out of their light towers. In two hours it dumped 2.5 inches of rain and peeled out.
"The staff and the spectators broke out their hairdryers and started to put the Chip back together," Rod said. Tim was scheduled to step onto the stage at 8:30, and just as the crowd grappled to pull all the elements back together, the storm hit the next town over, Wall, and took out their power grid.
"Tim refused to play even an acoustic set," Rod said and we were cooked. I could feel the pain in Rod's voice, but he and the Chip always recovered. For every obstacle, there was a solution. In 1996 the chip installed back-up generators, dug another well, and started to build their own sewer system. They were one more step closer to independence.
By the mid 1990s major bands rocked the Black Hills annually as the crowds grew to over 300,000. Each year I drank Jack Daniels back stage and delighted in the X-rated action after the bands packed up. For some unknown reason I shared the stage with Wolfman Jack in 1991, between acts. Classic rock groups such Commander Cody, The Kingsmen, Iron Butterfly, Mitch Ryder, the Doobie Brothers, John Kay & Steppenwolf and Charlie Daniels dialed their tunes from the Buffalo Chip stage.
For all the trials Rod stayed true to his doctrine and it paid off starting when he met Hoyt Axton in '86, who said to him, "Woody I need to find a new market for my music."
Then in the '90s he was introduced to Wolfman Jack and later Sam Kinison who saw the Chip as music nirvana and a way for groups to reach a new, and vast audience. They returned to Hollywood and reached out to their respective agencies.
In 1999 and Harley-Davidson launched the first Twin Cam models, and a caravan of sparkling 18-wheelers delivered a top of the line sound system to the chip, for 38 Special's "Live at Sturgis," album.
"I asked the producer," Rod said, "What's the big deal?"
"I understand there's an ambience here, like no other place on the planet," said the producer who had never experienced the Chip.
The music world opened its golden record doors to the steel Buffalo grazing on the hill. During a conversation with Rod Essig, a major group agent, someone said something to Rod he would never forget. "There ain't no place like this place, anyplace."
And so another element of the Chip flourished as Rod and David raised the money and dug their third well down a whopping 3182 feet for a solid water source, and Rod cut a deal with another power company, so he would have a backup supplier, and they finished their independent sewer system. The entertainment aspect of the Chip grew to include Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull, Billy Idol, Poison, Guess Who and Paul Revere and the Raiders.
But his heart dropped when he drove out to the Chip and witnessed a battalion of RVs parked on the adjacent land. He returned immediately to the bank for another loan. He had to buy more land in 2003, again in 2008, and 2010.
"I needed to predict better," Rod said. His mantra has always been to grow the facilities and the acreage as the crowd grew. "I need to give them what they need."
The Buffalo Chip rapidly became a monument to the free spirit of motorcycling annually in the Black Hills, and Woody supported every aspect of the Sturgis experience. Sturgis became the epicenter of the biker empire and needed a museum. Woody assisted forming the Sturgis Museum in 2001 and was elected to the board in 2003. In 2005 he kicked off the Legends Ride as a charity effort with Stephen Tyler, Kidd Rock and Pee Wee Herman. It has speedily grown to be one of the largest charity rides in the world. A portion of the proceeds goes directly to the Sturgis Museum.
In 2009 Rod was approached by Ken Conte, who worked with Michael Lichter's annual art, motorcycle, and photography exhibits. Michael had found himself without a home for the next rally. Rod stepped up and built a state of the art 7,000 square foot facility to provide Michael's art exhibit a free-to-the public, home every year.
As Rod and his family roll toward the 2011 Rally, the Chip is equipped with permanent buildings, three active wells, back-up generators, and 60 vehicles, including tractors, 18-wheelers, and front end loaders. The mighty Buffalo Chip is a now a two-mile long emerald city of pure motorcycle and music, with an Iron Buffalo to show you the way. Whatta story.