On Friday, the 82nd annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will see thousands of bikers ride into the Black Hills of South Dakota. To commemorate the occasion, we’re taking a look at the man who founded the iconic chopper rally.
Long before the word ‘Sturgis’ became synonymous with the annual gathering event that brings together motorcycle enthusiasts, J.C. “Pappy” Hoel was just a local Indian Motorcycle dealer. Born in 1904, Hoel is known today as the father of what would become the world’s premier motorcycle festival.
The event brings more than half a million motorcycle enthusiasts to the town. It’s also in an isolated corner of one of the nation’s most sporadically populated locations.
“Pappy was the man who put the brotherhood in motorcycles,” Coe Meyer, a Sturgis motorcycle historian, said in an interview. “He’s the reason so many people come here today.”
Sturgis is also known as a uniquely American event. Centered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the festival takes place hundreds of miles from the nearest major city.
Hoel would later combine his love for motorcycle racing and his respect for WWII veterans struggling with PTSD from combat, to create an iconic event.
Hoel’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally debuted in 1938 as a racing event and a way to promote his motorcycle dealership. Little did he know, the event would transform into something far beyond anything he ever expected.
Hoel combines his love for bikes with respect for veterans to create Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
“He was like a P.T. Barnum-type character. He always had a trick up his sleeves,” said Vinny Terranova, who knew Hoel and his wife, Pearl. Today, Terranova owns his original Junction Avenue motorcycle shop known as Pappy’s Vintage Cycles.
“He loved motorcycles, loved racing and loved motorcyclists,” added Terranova. “He and Pearl always had a pot of beans and franks on the grill. Nobody left hungry.”
Hoel and his wife ran the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for nearly half a century before gifting it to the city in the ’80s.
It was a monumental moment for both the couple and the small, mid-western town. To this day, it’s considered an impressive achievement for a city of just 7,000 people.
“The impact isn’t just on our city, it’s across the whole state,” Sturgis director Tammy Even-Cordell said.
“People who come to our rally stop all across South Dakota. They visit tourist sites. They congregate at bars, restaurants, and hotels. It impacts the entire state.”
In 2015, for the 75th anniversary, 747,000 choppers rolled through Sturgis, according to the South Dakota Department of Transportation. Hoel died on Feb. 1, 1989, at 84 years old. Today, he is buried in Sturgis, the city where he was born and which he made famous.