STURGIS, S.D. – Labor Day is always special in the South Dakota Black Hills, because that’s when the Mustangs come to town. Specifically, the 2018 Sturgis Mustang Rally (SMR) spanned August 27 through September 2, and if you weren’t able to attend this year, here’s what you need to know: It was loud, filled with tire smoke, graced by gorgeous weather, framed by an extraordinary backdrop of mountains, plains and unforgettable roads, and there were a lot of Mustangs on hand. How many? 639 Ponys were officially registered for at least one event during the week-long celebration, but the number sails past 1,000 when the “unofficial” cars that are simply in town to hang out are included.
That figure spans every single Mustang generation and covers all models, from stock first-gen six-cylinder cars to modified Roush monsters, Bullitts, Shelbys, Saleens, everything. In short, SMR 2018 was one of the largest Mustang events in the world.
This year’s event actually had an official start earlier than ever, with the historic town of Deadwood hosting a special free concert on Monday, and Mustangs were the honored guests. In addition to great music, early-arriving Mustang owners couldn’t resist making some music of their own with an impromptu burnout contest that fans – and Deadwood officials – thoroughly enjoyed.
Tuesday saw Rally registration finally open at the Thunderdome, the legendary venue just east of Sturgis that serves as command central for the entire event. Vendors lined the parking lot, cones were set up to lay out the autocross course, and Mustang friends spanning the entire country began to arrive. The traditional Tuesday golf outing saw many of those friends reconnecting for the first time in a year, when the 2017 rally came to a close.
Wednesday is always an emotional day at the Rally because it’s dedicated to the men and women serving in our armed forces. This year was no different, with Mustangs lining up over a mile deep to cruise through Sturgis enroute to the Black Hills National Cemetery for a special ceremony, followed by a stop at Ft. Meade near the Thunderdome to visit veterans at the VA medical center. Representatives from Wounded Warriors Family Support were on hand for the day – and the entire week – to help honor those who’ve sacrificed in the name of freedom. The day wrapped up with the Mustang Rodeo – a fun-filled, slow-speed challenge where driver and a single passenger attempt to “rope” certain obstacles.
Thursday saw rally participants on the road for a special cruise through nearby Spearfish Canyon, a 20-mile stretch of golden granite cliffs carved by Spearfish Creek, capped by an extended stay in Deadwood where Mustangs once again were the guests of honor. Nearly the entire length of historic Main Street in the Wild West town was filled with Mustangs, giving Rally attendees a chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of Deadwood.
The evening was capped at the Thunderdome with the launch box competition – a contest that mimics the launch and first 60 feet of a dragstrip pass, only contestants must stop within that distance. The traditional burnout contest followed, which saw some truly biblical destruction of rubber.
Friday sent rally-goers on a campaign through the beautiful South Dakota Black Hills for the annual poker run, which included a pass to enter Custer State Park and experience the Needles Highway – an unforgettable drive through the highest points of the hills, with elevation nearing 7,000 feet. Meanwhile, autocross participants were jumping into the first round of competition at the Thunderdome. With the Rally well into its stride at this point, it was time for a drifting expo, courtesy of Ford’s opposite-lock master, professional drifter Justin Pawlak. Local drifters also put on a hell of a show, not to mention the Rally participants who signed up for Friday night’s barrel racing competition.
Saturday is always car show day, and once again the entire town of Sturgis was consumed by the Rally. Over 600 cars took station on Main Street for the day, and a gorgeous blue sky brought fans and enthusiasts flocking by the thousands. Every Mustang generation was represented, and just about every specific model as well. From wonderfully stock four-eyed Fox Bodies to biblical GT500s supercharged to the brink of insanity, or a ’78 King Cobra and even brand-new GTs, there was something for every Mustang lover to see. That included Pawlak’s tire-killing Roush drift car, which went from static to a very dynamic display with a second drift expo, this time at a local grocery store parking lot across from the show. (After all, donuts aren’t just something you get in the bakery department!)
Saturday concluded with an epic parade of Mustangs through Sturgis, followed by drag racing at nearby Sturgis Dragway. The weather was perfect. The cars were perfect. The action was intense. It was truly an evening straight out of a Mustang owner’s dream.
Given the early start to the 2018 Rally, Sunday was a welcomed day of relaxation for many. The final rounds of the autocross competition were held and the action was literally some of the most intense ever witnessed in the history of the event. Between passes many folks browsed the vendors or enjoyed the family of Bullitt Mustangs – from 1968 through 2019 – that were on display in the Thunderdome’s massive tent. Poker-run hands were drawn, folks rolled the dice (literally) for the annual Mustang giveaway, and when the evening banquet finally began, everyone was ready for some good food and camaraderie. The traditional auction and awards ceremony carried the event well into the night, capping what many people felt was the best Sturgis Mustang Rally in the event’s 12-year history.
One might say Sturgis is well off the beaten path for such an event, but here’s the plot twist: The quiet location has everything to do with why over 1,000 Mustang enthusiasts make this annual pilgrimage. Anyone who’s been to the Rally will say the South Dakota Black Hills are the best-kept driving secret in the country, turning otherwise pleasant cruises into unforgettable experiences. And that’s just referring to the official activities held during the event; embark on your own and you could experience a completely different drive of epic proportions every single morning for the entire Rally and never run the same route twice.
So yeah, the Sturgis Mustang Rally is off the beaten path. Once you get there, however, you’ll be beating a path back to the action year after year.
FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY CHRISTOPHER SMITH