Even the official Sturgis Rally motorcycle brand thinks the mass rally is too risky
The mass gathering at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally amid the pandemic is too crazy even for the company whose name is anything but synonymous with the annual event.
The Harley-Davidson Company has been associated with the rally in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota, since its inception decades ago.
The big, thrilling Harley ‘hog’ is the official motorcycle of the rally.
The main intersection in town is Main Street and Harley-Davidson Way.
The square in the center of Sturgis is the Harley-Davidson Rally Point, and those who gather there stand on a huge Harley-Davidson logo.
Bill Davidson, grandson of company founder William Davidson, attended the square’s official opening in 2015, a ceremony that involved a blowtorch and chain rather than scissors and tape.
As it was the 75th anniversary of the rally, the plaza included 75 bricks from Harley-Davidson’s century-old headquarters in Milwaukee, transported to Sturgis by a fleet of motorcycles.
The rally’s opening ceremonies have taken place in the square every year since, with speeches, celebrity appearances, live music and a daredevil motorcycle jump, all accompanied by the roar of thousands of Harleys.
The company was always very present during the nine days that followed.
“Usually we have trucks, people, products, demos and everything,” a company spokesperson told The Daily Beast on Friday. “This year, we’re not doing that.”
The difference is the pandemic, which makes any mass gathering dangerous, especially if turnout is expected to reach 250,000 people and attendees largely reject proven precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing.
The dangers have given even a company that relies on people’s willingness to risk being stuck without the protection of seat belts or airbags pause.
To participate in the rally as he had done in previous years would have meant being complicit in a recklessness of a different order than riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
If you jump on a pig without a helmet, you only endanger yourself.
But if you walk around without a mask, you put others at risk.
This time, the company sent no personnel, no trucks, no products, organized no demonstrations.
“We made the decision to support him in a different way,” a spokesperson said. “This year, we’re doing it in a way that promotes social distancing.”
Instead, the company offered the “Let’s Ride Challenge”, which invites enthusiasts to embark on various “organized” rides, ranging from short to “epic”.
“More than building machines, Harley-Davidson represents the timeless pursuit of adventure,” Jon Bekefy, the brand’s chief marketing officer, was quoted in a press release as saying. “The Let’s Ride Challenge is Harley-Davidson’s invitation to all riders during this difficult time to rediscover adventure through socially distanced riding to find the freedom of the soul.
The breathless hype apparently seeks to convince Harley fans that you can feel the wind in your hair without risking contracting COVID in your lungs, that freedom doesn’t have to mean putting those around you at risk, that you can be adventurous on the road without joining others in the mass madness.
The grand opening still took place at Harley-Davidson Rally Point with its huge Harley-Davidson logo on Harley-Davidson Way, but no company representative was present, let alone a descendant of the founder. And Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen reduced the ceremony to just reading a catch-all proclamation.
“Over the past decade, we have evolved the opening ceremonies,” he noted. “I didn’t think we would evolve into this.”
The mayor was nearly drowned out by the roar of a passing Harley, a sound that seems to be a big part of their appeal. This attraction among hardcore bikers had survived the company’s feud with President Trump in 2018, when it said its tariffs required it to move some production overseas. Its absence from Sturgis this year is unlikely to make Harleys suffer the fate of Japanese motorcycles, which sound like supercharged sewing machines and have been piled up and burned at rallies past.
Carstensen passed the mic to Noala Fritz, a Gold Star mother who accompanies a traveling exhibit called “Remembering Our Fallen,” which takes up part of the space during this gathering. The exhibit features photos of all the Americans who died in our two longest wars.
“The house of the free because of the brave,” Fritz said. “All gave, these men and women gave everything.”
She said a few words about her son, army lieutenant Jacob Fritz, who was kidnapped and murdered with three fellow soldiers in Karbala, Iraq, in 2007. She then spoke about all the dead whose photos are now traveling from one state to another.
“They all took an oath to defend our country against our enemies, foreign and domestic,” she said.
None of the dead could have imagined that we would face an invisible enemy at home who has so far killed more Americans than have died in all of our wars since the Korean conflict began. And if healthcare workers are now the frontline ones, we must all be in this desperate fight against COVID-19. The least we can do is take the simple precautions that have proven effective in decreasing the spread.
“Enjoy the rally,” the mayor said after Fritz returned the microphone.
He stood on this Harley-Davidson logo and behind him was an American flag.
“Be safe,” he added.