The Harley-Davidson company has been associated with the rally in the South Dakota town of Sturgis since its inception decades ago.
The big, throbbing Harley “hog” is the rally’s official motorcycle.
The town’s main intersection is Main Street and Harley-Davidson Way.
The plaza at the center of Sturgis is the Harley-Davidson Rally Point, and those who assemble there stand on a huge Harley-Davidson Logo.
Bill Davidson, grandson of company founder William Davidson, attended the plaza’s official opening in 2015, a ceremony that involved a blowtorch and a chain rather than scissors and a ribbon.
As that was the 75th anniversary of the rally, the plaza included 75 bricks from Harley-Davidson’s hundred-year-old headquarters in Milwaukee, transported to Sturgis by a fleet of motorcycles.
The opening ceremonies for the rally have been held at the plaza every year since then, featuring speeches, celebrity appearances, live music and a daredevil motorcycle jump, all accompanied by the rumble of thousands of Harleys.
The company was always a big presence during the nine days that followed.
“Usually, we have trucks and staff and products and demos and everything,” a company spokesperson told The Daily Beast on Friday. “This year, we aren't doing that.”
The difference is the pandemic, which makes a mass gathering of any kind dangerous, especially if the turnout is expected to reach 250,000 and the participants largely dismiss such proven precautions as wearing masks and social distancing.
The dangers gave pause even to a company that counts on people’s willingness to risk being pinballed around without the protection of seat belts or air bags.
To have participated in the rally as it had in past years would have meant being party to recklessness of a different order even than riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
If you hop on a hog without a helmet, you are endangering only yourself.
But if you go about without a mask you are endangering others.
This time, the company sent no staff, no truck, no products, held no demos.
“We made the decision to kind of support it in a different way,” a spokesperson said. “This year, we're doing it in a way that supports social distancing.”
Instead, the company came up with the “Let’s Ride Challenge,” which invites enthusiasts to embark on various mapped out, “curated” rides, ranging from short to “epic.”
"More than building machines, Harley-Davidson stands for the timeless pursuit of adventure,” Jon Bekefy, General Manager of Brand Marketing, is quoted as saying in a press release. “The Let’s Ride Challenge is Harley-Davidson’s invitation for all riders in this challenging time to rediscover adventure through socially distanced riding to find freedom for the soul.”
The breathless hype apparently seeks to convince Harley fans that you can feel the wind in your hair without the risk of getting COVID in your lungs, that freedom does not necessarily mean putting those around you in peril, that you can be adventurous out on the road without joining others in mass madness.
The official opening was still held at Harley-Davidson Rally Point with its huge Harley-Davidson logo on Harley-Davidson Way, but there were no company representatives present, much less a descendant of the founder. And Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen pared the ceremony to simply reading a boilerplate proclamation.
“Over the last decade, we’ve evolved the opening ceremonies,” he noted. “I didn’t think we’d evolve to 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 allure. That attraction among hardcore bikers had survived the company’s spat with President Trump in 2018 when it said his tariffs were forcing it to move some production overseas. Its absence from Sturgis this year is not likely to cause Harleys to suffer the fate of Japanese bikes, which sound like supercharged sewing machines and have been piled up and burned during past rallies.
Carstensen turned the microphone over to Noala Fritz, a Gold Star mother who is accompanying a traveling exhibit called “Remembering Our Fallen,” which is occupying part of the plaza during this rally. The exhibit presents photos of all the Americans who died in our two longest wars.
“Home of the free because of the brave,” Fritz said. “All gave some, these men and women gave their all.”
She said a few words about her son, Army Lt. Jacob Fritz, who was kidnapped and murdered along with three fellow soldiers in Karbala, Iraq, in 2007. She then spoke of all the fallen whose pictures now travel from state to state.
“They all took an oath to defend our country against our enemies, foreign and domestic,” she said.
None of the fallen could have likely imagined that we would face an unseen enemy at home that has so far killed more Americans than died in all our wars since the start of the conflict in Korea. And if health-care workers are now the ones on the front lines, we all need to be in this desperate fight against COVID-19. The very least we can do is take the simple precautions that have proven effective in diminishing the spread.
“Enjoy the rally,” the mayor said after Fritz handed back the microphone.
He was standing on that Harley-Davidson logo and behind him was an American flag.
“Be safe,” he added.