DAKOTA DUO: Jim “Wally” Walczak, left, and Rod “Woody” Woodruff, Sturgis rally producer since 1982 and owner of the land occupied by the Buffalo Chip Campground. (Courtesy venue)
Jim Walczak has never been a biker, but that didn’t stop him from playing a crucial role running the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and music festival in South Dakota over the past 14 years.
Walczak, 69, a veteran facility manager at a half-dozen arenas and performing arts centers, retired from his role as chief operating officer of the Legendary Buffalo Chip Campground after the 2022 event in August.
A second heart attack just prior to the 2020 event that he missed to recuperate got him thinking it was time to hang up his cowboy hat after 45 years in the business.
Walczak, known as “Wally” by his friends and colleagues, has enjoyed a colorful career. It started in the mid-1970s, working concert security with college football buddies in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and culminating in Sturgis.
In college, Walczak had a pro football career on his mind. He played ball at Mankato State, and later, the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. In an effort to make the NFL, he switched positions from running back to kicker. Walczak stood out at a Cleveland Browns tryout camp that included 70 kickers and was invited to the team’s official training camp by Head Coach Sam Rutigliano.
“I had a phenomenal day, never missed,” he said.
The year was 1978 and Walczak signed a three-year contract as a free agent, to be paid $24,000 for the first season if he made the Browns. He lasted 66 practices until getting cut late in the preseason in favor of Don Cockcroft, the team’s longtime kicker.
“I wore a different concert T-shirt every day underneath my shoulder pads from working concert security,” Walczak said. “It was a hell of an experience for me.”
The NFL’s loss proved to be venue management’s gain. At the behest of Larry Dittloff, for whom he worked security for the Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium in LaCrosse and worked together to open a new arena in Casper, Wyoming, Walczak went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation administration.
Early in his career, Walczak worked for the NBA Denver Nuggets as director of special events at old McNichols Arena and ran an event staffing firm providing 1,200 part-time workers for Red Rocks, Fiddler’s Green, old Mile High Stadium and downtown Denver festivals.
He eventually transitioned to becoming a building manager, and over a span of about 25 years, ran Kellogg Arena, Casper Events Center, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and the Racine Civic Centre.
During his tenure at Rushmore Plaza in Rapid City, South Dakota, 30 miles southeast of Sturgis, Walczak got invited to attend the 1999 rally as a guest for concerts at the Buffalo Chip amphitheater, part of the sprawling 800-acre property.
One night, Def Leppard performed, and as Walczak stood in the wings watching the show, he could see things deteriorating in the pit, the space that serves as a buffer between the stage and the crowd. It was full of spectators. His venue operations instincts kicked into high gear.
“I saw they were losing the pit, which was wooden posts in the ground with a chain link fence across the front,” he said. “I ran back to the production office and told them they needed everything they could find to secure it. We cleared some eight-foot-long tables; they were perfect (as a barrier). We jumped into the pit. Def Leppard saw what we were doing, stopped the show, and asked people to back up. We secured it and got out of there. That’s how Woody says we really met.”
“Woody” is Rod Woodruff, a defense attorney by trade and producer of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally since 1982 on land he owns outside of town. The rally started as a “natural outgrowth of throwing keg parties in high school,” according to Woodruff. The difference is the Sturgis “keg party” grew into a mass gathering of a few hundred thousand people as it expanded in scope over the years.
“I couldn’t figure out why I would need to have somebody with his credentials and knowledge and experience to do all this stuff, but I wasn’t smart enough for that,” Woodruff said. “Jim saved my bacon that year with Def Leppard.”
The two stayed in touch over the next few years, during which Walczak developed a list of 11 recommendations to improve and streamline operations across all lines of business and stop wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
In 2009, Walczak found himself a free agent again after exiting his post in Racine, Wisconsin.
He headed to Sturgis and became Woodruff’s right-hand man to run the rally and other events such as flat-track motorcycle and auto races. Since Walczak took over, rally attendance has exploded from about 100,000 to as high as 750,000, per local government estimates, Woodruff said.
Every summer, for about a month, the Chip campground becomes one of the largest cities in South Dakota, but officials have never had an issue with overcrowding, Woodruff said.
“Wally’s an expert on crowd management and doing everything professionally in a way that would not offend or even be noticed by people,” he said. “It was perfect for our situation, particularly the challenging things that most of us didn’t have the time to delve into, such as ADA, putting in our sewer system — making things work. I can’t overstate the impact that Wally had here.”
Before Walczak came on board, Woodruff had implemented many of those best practices, but there were still some things to clean up moving forward at the Chip.
At one time, for example, the west gate entrance to the campground consisted of nonprofit groups holding a yellow nylon rope as recreational vehicles converged on the property. When RVs came rolling through the makeshift gates, those volunteers would drop the rope and jump out of their path. Walczak came up with a much better system of installing security sheds with three lanes reserved for RVs and one lane exclusively for motorcycles.
“It was a huge improvement to everything they were doing,” Walczak said.
In addition, as part of further development of the campground, Wally and Woody converted 20 acres of wheat fields into CrossRoads, a paved vendor area with a main bar for people to gather for free activities apart from the fees attendees pay for camping and concerts.
Walczak also formed the campground emergency preparedness plan approved by multiple levels of law enforcement and executed in tandem with local ranchers and cowboys that make up the security force.
“Jim was always a can-do kind of guy,” said Dittloff, now retired and living in Olympia, Washington. “With crowd management, you have to deal with alcohol and rowdy behavior. Those were all things he learned initially with me and then on his own in the arena business.”
The biker culture permeates the rally, which this year takes place Aug 4-13 at the Buffalo Chip Campground. Styx, REO Speedwagon, Whiskey Myers with George Thorogood and Lynyrd Skynyrd are among the headliners, booked by Brad Coombs of Meridian Entertainment, the promoter in Sturgis for 40 years.
For outsiders, the stereotypical image of outlaw biker gangs wreaking havoc may come to mind, but no gang colors are allowed on the property and everyone cooperates with the rules, Walczak said.
Woodruff said it’s a safe environment and there have never been any serious issues regarding violence over the five decades he’s been in charge since moving the event from downtown Sturgis to his property.
“What I have found is that it’s a melting pot of people from all walks of life,” Walczak said. “One year, we had three billionaires staying with us. You wouldn’t have known them from the guy riding his bike with a hunk of canvas and a sleeping bag. It’s become an international brand. In the early days, it was wild and wooly as it relates to how the women would dress, or not dress. But we adhere to the same ordinances as everybody else. Body painting is no longer allowed.”
The upgrades extend to the amphitheater itself, which is unlike any other in North America, Walczak said. It’s not the typical shed layout. There’s a big building in the middle of the Wolfman Jack Stage, the main stage, which has been converted to club seating with bar stools for about 170 people, situated 100 feet from the stage.
It was Walczak’s idea to develop a premium space as an upgrade that’s separate fee for those preferring a VIP experience. Otherwise, all events and amenities are included in campground admission except for concessions and merchandise. For the 2023 event, the early-bird price is $420 a person for a two-week campground stay, a relative bargain compared with other music festivals.
“I’ve told Woody I didn’t understand how he makes it so affordable every year with the amount of expenses it takes to run the property,” Walczak said. “People think we come in for three months and then go away. There are 24 full-timers now. We’ve got a great social media presence and video department. We’ve got the right people doing the job, young enough to be in tune with that demo.”
In retirement, Walczak and his wife, Sandy, live in a home on the Lazy H ranch, a 550-acre spread owned by Woodruff a five-minute drive from the Buffalo Chip Campground. Wally still makes himself available to consult with Woody and Robert Pandya, the Chip’s new chief operating officer and a motorcycle enthusiast.
“From day one, I promised Woody I would always have his back,” Walczak said. “I’ve always been told by my wife that I stink at (taking) vacations. But the doctors encouraged me to learn how to relax. I feel like every day is a Saturday, which is a big transition.”