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NOV 1, 2017 | CHRISTOPHER SMITH

STURGIS MUSTANG RALLY: IT’S ABOUT THE DESTINATION . . . AND THE JOURNEY

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STURGIS, S.D. – Mention the word “Sturgis” to pretty much any motoring enthusiast, and visions of motorcycles invariably come to mind. After all, Sturgis, South Dakota, is a veritable mecca for folks of the two-wheeled variety. In recent years, however, this unassuming town on the edge of the famous Black Hills has also become a popular destination for enthusiasts seeking four-wheeled fun. Car clubs of all makes and models visit the area each year – but let’s be honest, there’s really only one manufacturer that matters, and not just because its logo is a cool Blue Oval. In fact, of all the car events that take place in and around Sturgis every year, the annual Sturgis Mustang Rally held over Labor Day weekend is the biggest of them all.

At this point, some of you might be wondering what makes Sturgis such a special destination for Mustang lovers. After all, this small town of 2,500 people is something of an oasis in a sea of sparsely populated hills and prairie, off the beaten path from just about everything. The rally itself is packed with events, but there’s something very special and unique that makes the Sturgis Mustang Rally a stand-out, must-visit event. More on that in a bit.

Unofficially, upwards of 1,000 cars made the pilgrimage to western South Dakota this year to partake in an event that spans nearly an entire week. Mustangs from all generations began rolling into town the weekend prior, though events didn’t officially begin until Tuesday afternoon with a golf outing that has become a recent tradition for the rally. From that point until the massive banquet Sunday evening, the entire Black Hills region becomes a Mustang playground for those who love to cruise, or race, or both.

And the scenery certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The official itinerary for rally goers included autocrossing, drag racing, an autocross school, an unofficial car show that takes over historic downtown Deadwood, an unbelievable car show that encompasses the entire town of Sturgis, and scheduled cruises every day that included a memorial run for our Veterans, a fun run through the hills, and a 100-plus mile poker run. The headquarters for the rally is the famous Thunderdome just east of Sturgis – a sprawling venue where most of the racing events are held, not to mention the banquet and numerous social events that occur through the weeklong party.

In the evenings are specialty events like the Mustang rodeo, where passengers try to lasso mini “horses” while drivers navigate a slow-speed course. The launchbox competition simulates the critical first 60 feet at the drag strip, only cars have to stop by the 60-foot mark as well. Barrel racing gives drivers a chance to steer with the gas pedal, navigating a tight course of barrels in what usually becomes a smoky exhibition of opposite-lock skill. Of course there’s also the burnout contest that adds even more atomized rubber to the atmosphere, and this year the killed-tire count rose exponentially courtesy of professional drifter Justin Pawlak and his Roush Mustang. Pawlak joined a group of drifters for an amazing sideways exhibition Friday night, then took over downturn Sturgis for more drifting action on Saturday during the car show.

By the time Sunday rolled around, many attendees had accumulated hundreds of miles of cruising and racing action, and were ready for a day of relaxation. Many people took the opportunity to take a close look at the specialty Mustangs on display, such as the Wounded Warriors Family Support Mustang Shelby GT350 that was signed by people all over the country. Attendees also turned to lady luck by drawing hands from the poker run, and rolling the dice to win a brand new Mustang. Yes, the Sturgis Mustang Rally gives attendees a chance to win a special ‘Stang created just for the event, which this year was a beautiful Roush Stage 3 Mustang. Nobody rolled the special combo needed to take the car home, so it joined the auction block with a host of other unique items that went to the highest bidder during the evening banquet.

This year’s closing ceremonies at the Thunderdome were made extra special with excellent presentations from Mike Rey at Roush, and Mustang guru John Clor from Ford Performance. Both men have attended the rally in the past, bringing their knowledge and passion for the Mustang to an event that’s evolved to become the largest Mustang gathering in the Midwest, and one of the largest in the entire world.

The variety of events and the camaraderie have certainly played a significant role in the rally’s success, but the truth is that Sturgis – and South Dakota’s Black Hills – is one of the best-kept motoring secrets in the world. Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, Spearfish Canyon, and Devil’s Tower are all within an easy half-day drive of Sturgis. Folks who stay from Tuesday through Sunday can enjoy a different drive of epic proportions every single day without running the same route twice. Some of those routes include Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, Needles Highway which winds among the spectacular granite cliffs of Custer State Park, and Iron Mountain Road – a 17-mile stretch of highway with 314 curves and granite tunnels that is so amazing it has its own website.

Then there are the incredible destinations like Devil’s Tower and of course Mt. Rushmore, but off-the-beaten-path stops like the South Dakota Air and Space Museum near Rapid City are just too numerous to mention.  So yes, Sturgis and the Black Hills may not be close to anything, but being located in the middle of the country, the area isn’t that far from everything. And once you visit the area, you’re hooked for life.

When you combine all this with the kind of friendships forged through a shared love of America’s most iconic automobile, it’s no wonder the Sturgis Mustang Rally continues to grow. It’s an amazing event in an awe-inspiring location, and if this year was any indication, 2018 will be better than ever.

Ed. Note: This year’s rally wasn’t without some measure of sadness. Sturgis Mustang Rally co-founder Gary Lippold lost a very courageous battle with cancer just days after the event, at the young age of 66. His love of the region and unbridled passion for Mustangs formed the backbone of the Sturgis Mustang Rally, and he will be sorely missed.

FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY CHRISTOPHER SMITH