20th Century Racing Seeks to Save Historic Sturgis Half-Mile

It has a history said to stretch back 100 years. Once upon a time the thunder of horse’s hooves filled the air around the dirt oval as they barreled down its back straight full-tilt. It was born from pioneering spirit, an avenue for settlers from nearby Ft. Meade outpost to prove who was the best rider and had the fastest horse. About a quarter-century later, horsepower of another kind began to call the Sturgis Half-Mile home, brave riders on metal machines with no brakes testing their mettle on the dirt track. Thanks to local Indian Motorcycle dealer Pappy Hoel, the track helped spawn a little gathering in the Black Hills known as the Sturgis Rally. It is steeped in history, home to AMA nationals and over the years host to some of the best dirt track racers around. Brittney Olsen, co-owner of vintage motorcycle racing club 20th Century Racing, thinks the original Sturgis Half-Mile dirt track is the most significant motorcycle racing venue in South Dakota history.

It’s also in danger of falling victim to development. The old Meade County Fairgrounds where the track is located happens to be prime Sturgis real estate, and the city has tossed around the idea of using the property for residential development. According to Olsen, they’re planning on building a new, world-class facility in Sturgis, another nail in the coffin for the old dirt track. As Coe Meyer, owner of Sturgis’ Gypsy Vintage Cycle and White Plater member puts it, “the racetrack becomes a stepchild” to industrial development.

Brittney Olsen battles Jim Wall on the Sturgis Half-Mile at the Pappy Hoel Classic.

Brittney Olsen battles Jim Wall on the Sturgis Half-Mile at the 2014 Pappy Hoel Classic.

But organizations like Olsen’s 20th Century Racing and Meyer’s White Plate Flat Tracker’s Association aren’t ready to let the Sturgis Half-Mile go gently into that good night. With “preserving the magnificent history of early motorcycle racing” part of 20th Century Racing’s mission statement, Olsen is compelled to save the Sturgis Half-Mile.

“It’s the half-mile track that started the rally. It’s the biggest piece of motorcycle racing history our state has to offer. If I’m living up to my mission statement, the time is now because the city is planning on developing it and getting rid of it,” said Olsen.

Part of her plan is to hold the “Spirit of Sturgis Vintage Motorcycle Festival” at the track in late August. The idea spawned in a conversation between Olsen and Indian Motorcycle Sturgis owner Bruce Eide. After sponsoring Olsen’s racing efforts last year, Eide was so impressed with the job she did promoting vintage motorcycle racing on the 1938 “Spirit of Sturgis” Indian Sport Scout she raced, he approached her with the idea of promoting a vintage festival similar to Barber, and the seeds for a benefit to save the track were sewn.

The “Spirit of Sturgis Vintage Motorcycle Festival” is scheduled to take place August 25-28. It will be instilled with the spirit started by Pappy Hoel, from gypsy tours through the Black Hills to half-mile vintage motorcycle races on the historic track. There will be an old motorcycle exhibition, vendors, collectors, Oil & Ink Expo artwork, and a party on the infield post-race. The Hell on Wheels crew is coming out from California for some vintage motorcycle racing action. The festival will be an all-ages affair, with field games on bicycles for kids under 16 planned along with motorcycle field games for kids over 16. Olsen said they’ll also be teaching kids how to kickstart a vintage bike. The festival is scheduled to take place a few weeks after the rally, when there’s less craziness in town but the weather in South Dakota is still nice.

20th Century Racing's Brittney Olsen is taking on the task of saving the historic Sturgis Half-Mile dirt track.

Vintage motorcycle racer Brittney Olsen knows the historical significance of the Sturgis Half-Mile dirt track and is making it her mission to save the track from development. 

Meyer and the White Plate Flat Trackers Association have been doing their fair share of promoting the track as well by hosting the “Pappy Hoel Classic” at the Sturgis Half-Mile during the rally. The two-day event features both vintage motorcycle racing and an AMA All-Star pro level race. Meyer said last year a 90-year-old man was laying down hot laps in the vintage races and beat several racers half his age to the finish line. The 2016 Pappy Hoel Half-Mile Classic  will be held Monday, Aug. 8 and Tuesday, Aug. 9.  Like Olsen, The White Platers know roots of the Sturgis Rally are steeped in racing and want to ensure the future of the rally stays true to those roots. The White Plate Flat Track Association, a national organization comprised of current and retired motorcycle racers, were granted a three-year stewardship of the Sturgis Half-Mile in 2014 and have held races at the track the last two years to honor Pappy. Meyer said attendance doubled at last year’s “Pappy Hoel Classic.” Named for the white plate that denotes a professional racer, White Platers are “dedicated to the preservation of the names and history of the Professional Expert motorcycle flat track racers.”

Both Meyer and Olsen agree that the surface of the track is one of the things that makes it so special. Meyer calls it “meticulous,” while Olsen, who won her first-ever vintage motorcycle race there in 2014, calls it the “best track that I’ve ever seen, no divots and foot holes.” She was excited about the prospect of getting a “blue groove” and called racing there “glorious.” From the grandstands to lighting to parking, the track hasn’t changed much over the years, but that’s part of why it provides such an intimate experience for fans.

And while these two events will reignite the flames of glory to the Sturgis Half-Mile, saving the historic venue is still an uphill battle. The site hosts a local rodeo as well, but for most of the year, the dirt oval remains unused. Selling its worth based on historical value alone is a hard sale. But fighting to honor those who raced on its manicured dirt, those who have sacrificed blood, sweat and tears there, is something worth fighting for to people like Olsen and the White Platers. Sturgis is rooted in racing, and those roots run deep, deeper than grooves on old dirt track.

Spirit of Sturgis poster

2016 Spirit of Sturgis Vintage Motorcycle Festival (tentative schedule)

Aug. 25th Pre-Party Meet & Greet

Aug. 26th Gypsy Tour through the Hills
Half-Mile Vintage Motorcycle Races – 1920s to Mid-80s
Old Motorcycle exhibition and party on the infield following the races

Aug. 27th Gypsy Tour through the Hills
Hell on Wheels Vintage MX
Race at the Jackpine Gypsy Racing Compound
Trophies and Awards Banquet

Aug. 28th Gypsy Tour through the Hills

(Photos courtesy of Brittney Olsen/20th Century Racing)