Buffalo Chip Campground 2016

by Richard Olson
in Event Lighting
Lynyrd Skynyrd augments the lighting with side torms they carry. Photos by Ryan Terry
Lynyrd Skynyrd augments the lighting with side torms they carry. Photos by Ryan Terry

35 Years of Camping and Festivities in Sturgis, SD

Motorcycle enthusiasts have been flocking to the small town of Sturgis, SD to attend one of the largest bike rallies in the world for years. The Sturgis rally got its start in in 1938 by a group of riders of the Indian motorcycle brand, who originally held stunts and races, including the Black Hills Classic, as the first original event was known. The rally was canceled due to gas rationing in WWII, but roared back in the postwar years and has since grown into a magnet for motorcycle riders from around the world. The 2016 rally was the 76th event.

Kid Rock draws a huge crowd every time. Photo by Ryan Terry.

100-Fold Population Gain

Although an exact headcount is difficult to pinpoint, with so many bikers coming and going over a 10-day span, a total 739,000 were said to have descended on the town of Sturgis in 2015 — more than 100 times the year-round population. Despite the inevitable complaints about the noise, fumes and trash, the town’s economic boosters couldn’t be happier to welcome the bikers back year after year. Among them is Rod “Woody” Woodruff, who founded, and still owns, the Buffalo Chip festival 35 years ago.

Woodruff’s original idea was to provide a campground for bikers who needed a place to pitch a tent during the rally, with entertainment thrown in as a bonus. Both the campground and its party have grown considerably. Woody is still the President and CEO of the family-run business. Over nine nights, some 40 bands play the main stage at the Buffalo Chip Campground in front of a field of motorcyclists, many of whose owners sit perched on their bikes for the show. At the end of a song, the crowd lets the band know their appreciation by revving their engines instead of clapping.

There’s been a slow but steady progression over the years here as the stage and all the production elements have been upgraded. According to Steve Owen, the on-site production manager here for the last 14 years, it’s an ongoing process. “Woody is in charge of everything — this is his baby,” Owen declares. “I’m just the guy who makes it all happen when Woody wants something.”

Miranda Lambert brought her own video. Photo by Ryan Terry

Owen notes a few differences in the nature and vibe of the Sturgis music event. “Basically, this event is a giant campground. If you buy a ticket to camp out, you get a wristband to see the show. It’s quite a deal if you buy the tickets early.”

Indeed. A quick look at the website shows that one can purchase a pass for all 10 days of camping and nine shows for the low price of $195. If you plan on bringing an RV, the cost rises to $475. Of course, there are all kinds of VIP packages, and if a person wanted to come just for a single night that is possible for a $75 camping fee. But Owen is quick to point out that there are a lot of walk-ups for this show, it’s just smarter to make a reservation.

“This is the highlight of the summer, not only for the attendees but for the bands that come here. They all love playing here. Kid Rock has been here five times now, and it’s one of our biggest shows. The radio reported that 250,000 showed up here for one of his shows, and he holds the record. But in reality, we never know just how many people are here on any given night.”

Owen grew up right here in the Black Hills and has worked in the music biz his whole life. He toured with everyone from garage bands to major acts throughout his career before settling down to take on this gig. He’s well qualified, as he’s been PM at the North Dakota state fair for 37 years, among his many accomplishments.

“Some folks think all we do is concerts here at the festival, but it’s so much more,” Owen says. “We have drag races that go from the stage to past the Front of House area on one day.” An oval track exists for racing on the field in front of the stage as well. The Buffalo Chip CrossRoads section features bike shows, art (including the world’s largest V-Twin motor sculpture), crazy contests and fun interactive displays from motorcycle industry leaders.

Another Miranda Lambert look. Photo by Ryan Terry

An Ever-Changing Event

While Owen has been the production manager on the stage for many years, he has become Woody’s project manager for the last six. “Woody never stops mixing it up, so that keeps me busy,” he says. “One year he wanted a zip line at the festival. Then he wanted shooting ranges, and we built some. Then we added Jumbotron LED walls off to the side so everyone gets a good view of the musicians. This year, we also built giant shade sails at the Big Engine Bar for the bikes to park under and for us to stage bike shows of different sorts. We have six of them this week.”

The main stage at the campgrounds has certainly been overhauled over the years. Originally, it was just a wooden stage. A concrete slab came into place along with a steel beam roof to rig points from. There are eight cross stage beams for easy rigging along with ample space off stage for monitor consoles and backline techs. “Our original roof was made up of old vinyl billboards we stretched across the skeleton. We eventually traded that out for a proper vinyl roof, but after a few years we just went to a steel permanent corrugated roof to protect everyone. A few years back one of the acts demanded that we build a loading dock extension upstage. We stayed up all night building that thing to accommodate the artist, and that same dock still exists today.”

If you are going to play Sturgis, you are using their in-house production. You can augment the system with whatever you’d like, such as another truss of movers or a floor package of lights, or, in the case of Kid Rock, a lot of pyro. “We aren’t taking anything down of ours to make room and we aren’t staying here all night after the previous evening’s show so you can focus. But all acts are welcome to come in at 7 a.m. day of show and have plenty of time to get their gear set up. Owen adds. “We have stepped up the lighting considerably. We have always tried to advance in technology and, as our budget grew, we adapted. This year, David Stern from PCS redesigned a lighting system that all the LDs seem to be quite happy with.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd added a truss of lights they carried. Photo by Ryan Terry

Changing of the Guard

David Stern started Precise Corporate Staging (PCS) back in 2000 with his wife and business partner Marla, out of their house. He had been a touring backline tech with the likes of Bon Jovi and Van Halen before getting off the road in the late 90’s and settling into doing corporate gigs. He moved West from his home in New Jersey to Phoenix in 1998 and worked for an AV company for a couple of years.

He wanted to venture out on his own, so he started a little audio company at first with an EAW 650 rig. That built up, and within years he realized he needed some lighting for his events, purchasing his first Source Four pars and ellipsoidals as well as dimmers and consoles from ETC.

“Along the way I became more entrenched in lighting. By 2005, we had become a strategic partner for PRG through my friendship with Tim Brennan” Stern tells us. “That meant I would buy a batch of lights and they would rent them for a whole tour.” The lights would pay themselves off in the course of a long tour, leaving Stern with a big inventory at times. For instance, he bought 80 Mac 700’s to supply a need on a Madonna tour and 70 Clay Paky Alpha Beams when Tina Turner’s LD requested them. His inventory changes and he adds to it as needed. At Sturgis, there are a lot of Vari-Lites.

PCS owns video gear as well these days. Around 2006, a decision was made to expand into video production services. “We started buying Christie and Barco projectors with Da-Lite screens for the corporate events, as well as Folsom Switchers. Sony D35 cameras were the big cameras at the time and we invested in quality.” Stern explains. “Of course we were using Beta decks back then to play back media.”

Due to the ever-changing state of LED tiles on the market these days, PCS opts to rent those, when required, for events. He’s toying with the idea of buying some, but it may not be the most economical approach as long as companies like Nationwide exist. “There are a helluva lot of companies renting video walls from their garage these days,” Stern adds. “We didn’t really want to compete with those folks. I have a few choice vendors that supply us with LED when warranted.” he admits. PCS does own a high-res Main Light LED drape.

Three years ago, there was a change in production at the Buffalo Chip stage. PCS was called in to provide the lighting and audio gear for the event. The L-Acoustics V-DOSC audio array is a proven winner, and they showed up with new ETC gear on site as opposed to battered Par 64 cans. Stern was originally signed on for a three-year deal at the festival. After two years Woody approached him and said he was so satisfied with the production package that he wanted to tie up PCS for some time. “That turned into a ten-year deal, with cost adjustments as we go on.”

Woody adds, “A big part of the justification for a 10-year deal, for us, was the quality of service and confidence. PCS would continue to upgrade equipment so our audience would always be getting the state of the art production experience. And, for visiting acts, I would assume they like the ease of working with the Chip’s production manager.

VL3000 spots and 3500 washes are the workhorses. Photo by Ryan Terry.

The 120K of Pars are gone, replaced with four 60-foot-wide trusses and a PCS designed light system. Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash and VL3000 Spots are the workhorses. Martin MAC Auras are added to front light backdrops, while a plethora of Clay Paky Sharpys replace the ACL bars of old. A pair of full-size grandMA2 consoles is on site for everyone to use. I programmed my complete punt show in three hours from scratch thanks to the crack team of lighting technicians on site who looked after the gear and kept it working 100 percent. Kudos to the designers for utilizing Lekos and Mole fixtures as the only conventionals I needed.

Stern was on site in Sturgis for two weeks this year. PCS has the contract for the North Dakota State fair, which is held the prior week, so it works out well for him to use the same gear for both shows, since it has to travel from PCS’ headquarters in the Phoenix area. Stern is stationed in a working trailer located backstage during the Buffalo Chip event. From there, he can conduct business while looking after all the individual needs of the traveling shows playing the festival.

Attendance in 2016 may not be known for some time, but it was certainly packed at the campgrounds this year, with bikers and music lovers gathering to see the likes of Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert, Kid Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 3 Doors Down and Five Finger Death Punch headlining various nights.

By late August, the population of Sturgis had declined considerably as most of the temporary residents rolled back out toward the horizon. But if the riders come and go, the appeal of this annual event endures. There’s little doubt that this festival will run another 35 years.

Three Doors Down photo by Ryan Terry.