There’s one name synonymous with “The Best Party Anywhere” during the Sturgis Rally
– the Legendary Buffalo Chip Campground. This patch of prairie just outside of Sturgis wasn’t always party central, though. But when the Sturgis mayor put the kibosh on the party in City Park, a young Rod “Woody” Woodruff invited bikers out to his place to party. Thirty years later, the good times to be found at the Buffalo Chip are indeed the stuff of legends. For two weeks in August every summer, the Chip becomes a self-contained city, the temporary home to thousands of motorcyclists. The Buffalo Chip has it all, from a huge stage with a state-of-the-art sound system for the countless big-name bands that perform there to its own “Bikini Beach.” Hell, it’s even got its own Taco Bell on premise. The Chip is celebrating its 30th anniversary
this year, which means it’s going “all in” to bring us the biggest, baddest party yet. “The Burnout King” Nick Lee will be shredding tires daily, the Triple Threat Derby Girls will be smashing and dashing, world-class tattoo artists will be on premise with ink guns at the ready, the beautiful Buffalo Chip girls will be busy as goodwill ambassadors and that doesn’t even take into account the killer concerts they’ve got on tap, from rock legends Alice Cooper, Edgar Winter and Stevie Nicks to heavier, edgier bands like Pop Evil and Saving Abel. We got a chance to talk to the humble man who is responsible for making the Buffalo Chip what it is today. Here’s what “Woody” had to say.
Motorcycle USA: What were your original intentions with the Buffalo Chip?
Well, the city of Sturgis was tired of having all the bikers come into town and it got a little too unruly for them. The mayor said they needed to get the riff-raff out of town, so it just seemed like, well, let’s just have a big party out here. And that was it. That was all there was to it. There wasn’t any big deal. The rally was much, much smaller in those days. You pretty much had to have a couple of wrenches in your back pocket and know how to use them to get here.
Did you ever think you’d make it 30 years?
Never gave it any thought. Never doubted it, though. What are your options, quit and go home? I’m not ready to give up. It’s just one day at a time and after a while you look back and think, yeh, it’s been a lot of days. In my case, unfortunately
Rod 'Woody' Woodruff has worked hard to provide the best place to party in Sturgis for the last 30 years. To celebrate that achievement, the schedule of entertainment at the Chip this year is crazier than ever.
I don’t remember a lot of them, right? (Laughs) People like coming here and we really tried to throw them a party. We didn’t look at it as a business, it was a party. Our responsibility at this point is to continue to have more and more people come here without screwing up the feeling that people have about the place. There’s a freedom that lives here.
What are you looking forward to the most during the 30th annual celebration?
I never have a thing I’m looking forward to most. When people started saying, “Oh, 30 years, congratulations, you’ve been around for 30 years” I kept thinking “Christ, it sounds old to me.” I just don’t think of it like that. We’re just getting started is what it amounts to. What I’m looking forward to? It sounds hokey, maybe because I’ve said it so many times because it’s definitely true, is I have so many friends that I only see once a year when they come here to the rally. I know I’m too busy to spend a lot of time with them because there’s just too much going on, but what I look forward to the most is the people coming back. We get to BBQ a couple of steaks on the grill and have a couple of beverages along with it and listen to some good music. I’ve got to do a lot of work while all this is going on but I still get to enjoy just the feeling of the ambience of the place when you get a whole bunch of people here all looking to have a good time.
I know you’re a philanthropic man. How important is it to you to give back to the local community through efforts like the Legends Ride?
Here again, this is all just kind of a trite thing. And so, if you ask me to go on and talk about “Oh yeah, good for this and good for that,” you know, we’re just here to throw a party. It’s not me that’s giving to all these folks and charities. What we’re doing is we’re providing an outlet for our customers, the campers, the bikers, to come and drop a couple of shekels into the coffers for a number of charities. So you have all these people that are giving and when you get a large group of people that can give a little bit, it adds up. The real credit for all the charity stuff goes to all the people who actually get out and work the charities, who take care of the homes for kids, that actually drive the bus down to go get it serviced then drive the bus to take the kids to sporting events. Those are really the people who deserve the credit. Frankly, I don’t like to talk much about that stuff because we’re kind of a bit player in that whole deal. We’re privileged to really be able to make it possible for all these people that have given but really we’re just the middle man in the deal.
Sturgis has gained a reputation for its music recently and the shows at the Chip are a big reason for that. Did you realize since the beginning that the two were a good match?
People ask me how I came up with the idea for starting the Buffalo Chip
and I tell them it was just a natural outgrowth of throwing keg parties in high school. And you know, it’s true. When we had the keg parties in high school, we had music. When we got a little older, somebody started playing guitar. Then when we went to college, we had more people playing guitars and different instruments. So we started promoting
Sturgis has gained a reputation as a music and motorcycle festival. The Legendary Buffalo Chip is a big reason why.
shows, because just like any other party, you needed music. Truthfully, music affects everybody’s lives. All our memories, starting in high school and into adulthood, all those songs when you’re going through puberty, those are the songs we remember. All those songs in high school when we’re driving around drinking and trying to get laid, right? You need that association. We’ve got all these folks out here, most of them middle-aged, and it’s not that we’re going through a mid-life crisis or anything like that, but you come back 20-30 years out of high school and you still remember all those songs and you get a chance to party out in the middle of nowhere just like you did when you were at a keg party in high school. And so you need that music to complete the party, that’s just kind of the way I feel about it.
Do you have one or two shows that really stick out in your mind?
It would be unfair to a lot of people because we’ve had so many artists that were so, so good. Like last year. Bob Dylan and Kid Rock on the same stage on the same night. It’s never happened before, right? And it’s not likely to happen again, as far as that goes. You asked me for something that sticks out? I’d have to say that way back in the mid-80s when we had the Kingsman. That stood out. You get a bunch of guys in white suits up there that are a garage band doing “Louie, Louie.” It was something to behold. There have been some really big stars here but when Toby Keith came out in 2005, it started raining and instead of running back to the bus, he got the band on the stage through inches of rain. They played right through the whole thing. Lightning struck the stage and he never blinked. (laughs) You just respect people like that. The crowd respects people like that. It’s all a part of the magic that happens here. The artists want to come here, the crowd wants to come here, so again it’s just a party where people are having a good time.
What were you thinking when Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler fell off stage?
What the hell happened? Where’d he go? He was just dancing around on this little truss that he insisted on putting out there and if you look at the clip, he’d been favoring that right leg the whole time he was here. He’d been here for three days before that, just hanging out and meeting people. He’s up there dancing around and that right knee gave out
Rock legends Aerosmith were killing it onstage at the Chip a couple years back until frontman Steven Tyler fell off stage. A cell phone camera captured his fall and by the next day, the video went viral and the Chip was in national headlines.
and he tipped over. I didn’t expect him to break his collarbone and mess up his shoulder. That was unexpected but I was just wondering how he was doing. Everybody was concerned because nobody expected him to be hurt, but he was.
How did the Sturgis Road Show go over in Pennsylvania?
That’s another one of those things where like, shit happens. I could tell you that it went over really well and the people that were there loved it, but you’ve probably been to the Chip when we’ve had some bad weather. Well we went up to Harrisburg and what happened was, it was a two-night show and it rained on Saturday. It actually started raining on Friday, raining hard out there, and Saturday there were 63 tornadoes in the neighborhood. One of the tornadoes turned over a semi on the interstate, so the interstate was closed. The main thoroughfare to our venue was under more than three feet of water and the other half of the building we were in wasn’t as high as the half and it was under about a half foot of water, so they evacuated the other half of the building of the farm complex we were in. During the show, they had emergency crews with boats on the back of trailers evacuating the parking lot. All that said, it went pretty dang well. We had a few thousand people there. Styx was our lead act for that night and those guys are so good. I hadn’t heard them for years and forgot how good they are. When they hit that first chord, you knew that these guys are rock stars, there’s no monkey business here.
Any plans on taking the Buffalo Chip experience on the road in the future?
There really is only one Buffalo Chip. The experience you have here just can’t really be duplicated someplace else. Part of the reason we have the magic here is because we have people who have been coming here for almost 30 years. They got married here, they got pregnant here, they brought their kids and their grandkids back here. Some of them brought their husbands or wives ashes back here. We have the first guy that ever died here at the Chip, who had congenital heart failure at 32 years old, and his parents come back every year about two weeks before the rally and put fresh flowers near the gate of the campground. They’ve been doing this going on 20 years now. All of that stuff adds up to an experience that touches lots and lots of people and you can’t take that on the road. This is the place. So I’ve reconciled myself to that – this
Finding the Chip is easy. Just look for the giant buffalo silhouette on the hill.
is the place, we can go and do other things and we’ve gone other places and we’ve done other shows but there’s only one Buffalo Chip.
What separates the Buffalo Chip from its competitors?
The fact that we’re a party and we’re just out here to have a party. The other folks come out here because it’s a business and they think that all these silly bikers around here have gold falling out of their pockets and all they have to do is come out here and pick up the money off the ground and show us all how to do it right and how to do it bigger and how to do it better. They come out and they lose millions of dollars and they don’t get their bills paid so they don’t come back and then the next year, somebody new will come out and do the same thing. We’re here, this is our place.
What’s the biggest challenge year in and year out after setting the bar so high?
There’s a new challenge every freakin’ day out here. As I was going through a couple of them over the last couple of days, I’m like this is what really keeps life interesting. When we started, all we had to do was come out on Monday afternoon, open the gate and chase out the cows. Now because we’ve gotten to this point where we get so much attention from everybody, now we’ve got a full-time crew of about 20 people working out here to keep the grounds and the water system and the sewer system and the electrical system all working. Then we need to make changes physically every year so we can accommodate people better and more people than we did the year before so it’s a constant process of growth. We have to maintain everything we’ve done in the past in addition to building on it. The weather here in this part of the country is not necessarily conducive to it, but you just can’t ignore something because it doesn’t take care of itself. It goes down in a heartbeat if you’re not continually maintaining stuff and taking care of it. So that’s what we do, whatever needs to be done to make it as good as we can make it for 10 days in August.
Last year, I read an article in the local paper about you threatening to move the Buffalo Chip because of the troubles with traffic. Any validity to that story?
Absolutely there was some validity to it. It goes against the saying that there’s only one Buffalo Chip but at the same time, if we could find another property outside of Meade County which had better access than this place, I would do that. I made offers on other properties. We haven’t come together with that. It’d be a five-year plan because you just can’t pick up and move. No, I wasn’t joking about that, it may be necessary.
At the same time, the Dept. of Transportation is working hard to improve traffic and I think there will be a huge improvement this year in traffic because frankly, nobody ever took it seriously before and there’s people in the city of Sturgis who actually like the group of bikers (in town). They felt like it kept people locked in town or something instead of realizing it just kept people from even coming close to town.
So the city this year, for the first time in 30 years, the highway department for the state of South Dakota has come in and they’ve convinced the city of Sturgis to reroute traffic, to open some additional lanes of traffic so people can get through town more rapidly without the delay, without all that stopping and stopping and stopping and pushing your bike.
So I don’t think there’s going to be any of that this year. I think traffic’s going to flow pretty smoothly through town and I think that the connecting road will probably be completed by the 75th (anniversary) and 2015 (The building of a new road from I-90 to Highway 79 along a route that would extend 131st Avenue east of Sturgis has been a point of contention for years). I think that the connecting road will be done and then there will be another way here and another way into town, and after that there will be no traffic congestion through town or at least it will move more smoothly.
They’re putting in new lights, new monitors and traffic officers to keep traffic moving. They’re getting rid of some of the stoplights so you don’t have to stop every block. And they’re putting in a temporary stoplight out here with a traffic design engineer operating it personally every day so that when you’re coming and going from the Chip there’ll be somebody there to keep the traffic moving smoothly instead of there being any unnecessary delays.
If you ever moved the Chip, do you think you could find a place with the same character as the current location?
That’s why I’ve allowed myself a couple of years to find a property. There’s a lot of things about this place that weren’t exactly the best, which is why we have to have our own wells, which is why we have to have our own sewer system and plumb in power from two different power companies and so on. But I found a couple of properties that I think would be real, real good. But I haven’t been able to arrange for purchase and frankly if the traffic situation gets handled and this road gets done, like I told you before, this is the place and you just can’t make it anywhere. So I want to stay here, but I won’t be trapped.
There’s been so much improvement because of the involvement of the Dept. of Transportation this year and our governor (South Dakota’s current governor is Rep. Dennis Daugaard). We’re in a unique situation where we have a governor now who appreciates bikers and the fact that they come. In 30 years, we’ve never had that. In the old days, the governors thought that everybody on two wheels was a career criminal. It got better over the years but right now we’ve got a governor who said “This is important.
The Buffalo Chip is like a three-ring circus for bikers. Last year, their newest entertainment wrinkle was a high-wire act that rides out over the crowd. This year they've added a zip line so bikers can get their own chance to fly over the Chip's amphitheater.
This bike rally is important and we need to help.” And I think this is one reason everything is going so well and that’s why I feel so optimistic.
What does the future hold for the Buffalo Chip?
We’ve got quite a bit of growth coming in this year. We’re gonna have quite a few more custom motorcycle builders, we’ve got the roller derby girls out here doing roller derby and competing. We’ve got helicopter rides like a taxi. Now we’ve got helicopters that instead of just taking a helicopter ride up and looking around only to land in the same spot, now we’ve got helicopters that , if you want a ride to the Chip from Rapid City, they’ll come get you. They’ll pick you up, bring you back. Deadwood, Spearfish, same deal. And then we’ve got a 155-foot hot air balloon out here that takes people a couple hundred feet up, a tethered balloon ride which would be kind of a rush. And we’ve got four zip lines. So if you’ve been to Las Vegas down on Fremont Street, those guys from Fremont Street brought their zip line up and we’re going to try it out tonight for the first time. It’s about eight stories tall where you take off from and you go all the way across the amphitheater, 30 miles an hour, to land on the east end of the amphitheater. You fly right over the party deck, right over the Top Shelf lounge in the middle of the amphitheater and I think that will be a rush.
What do you like to do to get away from it all?
I think that I’m going to take a little ride out to the Rocky Mountains. I love the West. Peter Fonda for years took a ride every year, a 10-day ride, down one side of the Continental Divide to the Mexican border, then turns around and comes back up the other side of the Continental Divide. And I don’t know if anybody’s done that or not, but when you talk about magnificent, unparalleled beauty, there’s nothing like that ride. I’ve got a couple of things here to do but I think come the first of September, we’re probably going to do that. What I think I’m going to do is probably go up to Canada first and then down because last time I took that ride, there was about 16-18 inches of snow when I got there. My favorite bike isn’t fuel injected so when you get that high up it struggles just a bit. I’m probably going to take one of those new Victorys this year and I’m going to hit the Canadian border first and maybe slip in through the Canadian Rockies, stopping by and visiting some friends along the way.