The Buffalo Chip Forges The New Path Forward
Originally Published In The November 2016 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
In addition to this being the other side of the Sturgis Rally’s big 75th, the 2016 running of the Black Hills Classic brought with it another unique anniversary that I thought it important to highlight in this issue: The Buffalo Chip Campground’s 35th. Now the reports have already been pouring over my desk since I’ve been home from the rally about attendance numbers being down and the rally being slow for vendors but for those in the know, this was a year like none other, a year of building toward the future and a year in which the Buffalo Chip did not disappoint. Before we get into how The Chip killed it this year, let’s take a look at their illustrious 35 years in making this spot the biggest show on the motorcycle planet. While this year may have been down, the idea that they would have to overcome some adversity was no stranger to Rod “Woody” Woodrufff, owner and CEO of the famous Sturgis location. In fact, the very inception of this now massive complex began from a time that the Sturgis Rally almost got voted out of existence. Most everyone knows of the infamous “City Park” incident, where the outhouses were burned to the ground. Well, it was put to a vote by the town of whether or not to even have a rally again after that. The town decided to close City Park, Woody figured this was the perfect time to move the party out to less populated property and thus began the Buffalo Chip Campground. Well, actually that’s romanticized just a bit. Woody and some locals had begun to work the dirt road to lead out from town and the Chip had been on its way, but the closing of City Park sealed the deal. The first big acts to play the Buffalo Chip stage were Johnny Paycheck and Susan Nelson. Now remember this was a time when the total number of rally participants was only about 40,000. So, over the years they have had to meet an increasing demand on resources by the flood of rally goers that exceeded half a million by 1990. Now for those that are recently new to the Sturgis Rally, or to motorcycling for that matter, you may see the monstrous creation that 35 years of this man’s life has become and think that it’s always been a giant motorcycle music festival. In truth this is the story of a man with an idea, the will to see it through and the intestinal fortitude to meet every obstacle with a solution and keep moving forward. In the early days of The Chip there was no water, no sewage, even the steady supply of power was a problem as storms in local towns could knock the Chip off the grid and leave them with no way to entertain guests. One item at a time Rod would get through an event, assess the specific weak point in his fence and bolster their efforts for the next year. From drilling wells on the property to installing back up generators, The Chip has worked over these 35 years to become independent of everything around them, all in the name of building a better mousetrap.
Woody’s own history highlights where the strength and determination came from for this lifestyle. He worked in a local saloon as a young man to put himself through law school; eventually becoming a lawyer and a certified public accountant. Both degrees I’m sure have served him well over the years but probably not as much as the will it took to make yourself better through hard work. In the early days of the Chip, that’s exactly what it took. When they would have tragedy like the roof blowing off their stage in ’86 during Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first set there ever, Woody would just set that determination in motion and find a solution. In that case, he scored some old steel, a set of blueprints for an amphitheater and the very stage you see at the Buffalo Chip today was created. By the 50th Anniversary the Sturgis Rally was in full gear. The numbers went up and with it the party at the Chip grew as well. That year they had an incredible 28 acts take the stage. Names like Bachman Turner Overdrive, Marshall Tucker, Steppenwolf, all signed on to rock the crowd. As music became a bigger and bigger part of the motorcycle rally, its place and importance with the Buffalo chip grew as well. Over the years The Chip has become one of the greatest stages to play and national musicians clamber at the chance to entertain their crowds of over 65,000. Some of the biggest names ever have graced that steel welded stage like: Alice Cooper, Steven Tyler, Kid Rock, Jethro Tull, Billy Idol, Poison, Guess Who, Buckcherry, Def Leppard, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. PeeWee Herman has played the Chip, Weird Al and Sam Kinison from the ranks of comedians. Country music legends like Toby Keith and Big & Rich have all been there, in fact, there is not a part of music culture that hasn’t been represented at the Buffalo Chip in these 35 years. Even when it comes to the hard core, Five Finger Death Punch packs them in at the Chip. Moreover, acts that you wouldn’t expect cut their teeth on the main stage. This year saw the likes of Elle King, who many wondered how the crowd would react to, but still as an innovator in delivering entertainment, the Chip made it happen and presented her to a crowd of motorcyclists that stood in that same field, now the size of a small town, to hear this lady lay down her craft. Daredevils also have made the Chip home throughout it’s time line and acts like “Jesus” jumping through a flaming shithouse, Ed Beckley’s exploding coffin stunt and the one and only Robbie Knievel jumped over the main stage in 2000. While everything hasn’t always gone smooth, as many may react to the news of Roland Sands rolling off the stage this year on his Indian Race bike, it’s not by any means the first time. Steven Tyler fell off that very same stage, Peter Fonda wrecked a chopper behind it and even Nancy Sinatra’s famous boots stumbled across it. In the end, the show goes on and the party just got bigger.
There have been so many important aspects of our time and this culture that have come from the efforts of the good people behind the Buffalo Chip. One that demands recognition is the Sturgis Museum and Hall Of Fame. Woody himself was partially responsible for the Museum getting off the ground and was elected to its board in 2003. Just a few short years later he would start the Legends Ride through the guidance of Lon Nordbye, a Chip Lifer. A portion of the proceeds they generate each year go directly to the museum and it has grown into one of the largest annual Charity rides in the world today. In 2009 Michael Lichter had no home for his annual Sturgis Gallery. Through work with Ken Conte, Rod agreed to build a 7,000 square foot facility that would ensure Michael had a permanent home for his “Motorcycles As Art” exhibits. As you can read in this issue, Michael’s exhibits have become such an important facet of our life and times that this single act by Mr. Woodruff deserves a huge debt of gratitude from the riding public. Many artists such as Jeff Decker, Richie Pan and George Painter have graced the walls of these shows and of course the compliment of Michaels own photography is always a breath taking experience for anyone who appreciates our history and his perspective on it. I could go on for thousands of words about the work they have done in the past and the careers they have helped launch through their work at the Buffalo Chip, but the reason I laid down the little bit of it here was to celebrate their 35th Anniversary and give you a sense of why I think what they did this year was so important, in regards to where we go next.
While many may have laid back for what was surely to be a slow year at the Sturgis Rally, the Buffalo Chip forged ahead. They have had enormous success over their storied history and much of that has come from being able to predict where things go next. To that end, it would seem as if Woody went to his crystal ball again and filled the Chip with the cement that would create the foundation of our next decade. They continued the good work of “The Biker Belles” women’s motorcycle ride, The Legends Ride and the many social and charitable causes that typically fill the days of their rally week, there was an air of something new that came along with it all this year. On Wednesday, August 10th of this year the Chip threw down an anchor that made sure the racing heritage of the Black Hills Classic would never be lost. While professional racing has moved further and further away from the party, this year they would be reunited under the name Moto Stampede. One side of the Chip’s Amphitheater became an invitational drag race track that saw heads up racing just feet away from spectators. The crowd was in awe as the mix of waiting Hooligan racers filled in for their shot at this new feature of the Chip. Just a short while later the tables were turned as Roland Sands and celebrity Carey Hart kicked off the first Super Hooligan Flat Track Races in the Amphitheater on a track built specifically for this event. This garnered the attention of major media outlets and moto journalists alike, the real victory was won on a level that I’m not quite sure many of them get: the passion of motorcycle riding. You see, in our minds the thrill of the very first time you ever rode a motorcycle, ever did a wheelie on one without crashing and the first time you ever went faster on one than you thought you should, that feeling still exists. Roland Sands and his team of Hooligans along with the Buffalo Chip deserve huge kudos for tapping into that and making motorcycling fun again in a way that just throwing a field party doesn’t do.
With the help of the staff at The Buffalo Chip we have collected some outstanding imagery to represent the then and now of their timeline but you’ll be surprised, for as much that has changed, so much has stayed the same. While young upstarts might say that Sturgis has become a circus where drunk people act out, and in part they might be right. From these pictures you can see that’s always been a part of it’s tradition, but at the same time the Buffalo Chip has never let off the throttle and has taken the steps to build toward a future. The future that now sees the motorcycle rally as an important part of both the music and the motorcycle industry, and will forever have the Buffalo Chip to thank for a large part of its growth. Now, like I said, there’s so much more to talk about here, the fact that the work of reaching out from the Chip even beyond the gate where you pay to get in, continues in a facility just a few years old called the Crossroads. In this smaller amphitheater, free to the general public, they host live music events, some of the best bikes shows in the business go down and many a good cause is given a rally point. To that end, the days are long for Mr. Woodruff and his staff. At the end of this year’s rally they already had travel arrangements made and you will see them at every other show, collecting intelligence, gathering performers, taking a barometer of what the next big thing will be so that next year’s Sturgis Rally remains ahead of the curve. It’s an old practice I’m sure he learned from the master and one of his own heroes, William F. Cody “Buffalo Bill” which continues to give The Buffalo Chip the title “Best Party Anywhere.”