STURGIS, S.D. — It will take some time and tallying before official attendance numbers for the 75th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally are in, but bikers and officials who've packed the small Black Hills town in western South Dakota say it's one of the largest rallies they've ever seen.
Attendance projections for this year's rally, which runs through Sunday, breached 1 million people — which would be a huge jump from the current record, an estimated 633,000 people who flooded Sturgis at the 60th rally in 2000. State and local officials have reported indications that this year is outsized, including heavier traffic, higher vehicle counts and more fatal accidents.
Sturgis police Chief Jim Bush, who has worked nearly 40 rallies in the town of roughly 6,900, said he can see that Sturgis and the surrounding area are bustling with more visitors than usual.
"I'll still say if not (the biggest), it's going to be darn close to the biggest rally we ever had," Bush said.
Preliminary South Dakota Department of Transportation counts released Tuesday put the number of vehicles entering the Sturgis rally over the weekend at nearly 40 percent higher than last year. Pedestrians often outpaced the mass of bikers inching toward the main downtown rally area on Wednesday.
Tony Mangan, a spokesman for the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, said the increased numbers of people and heavier traffic come with, "unfortunately, the possibility of more accidents."
Traffic fatalities tied to the Sturgis rally grew to nine on Tuesday, compared with three during roughly the same time period in 2014.
Bret Brower, who has been to five rallies, said he saw an injured rider when he was traveling to the nearby Black Hills town of Deadwood. The 57-year-old from Ellensburg, Washington, said he's been more careful this year when riding, "especially when you see somebody sprawled out on the highway."
The South Dakota Highway Patrol said Wednesday that authorities have so far seized over $10,000 more in cash compared with last year's rally. There have also been 17 more felony drug arrests and over 200 more citations compared with last year.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, whose office includes the state Division of Criminal Investigation, said the traffic fatalities and the implications of the felony drug busts have been concerning. But Jackley, who praised a strong working relationship between local, state and federal law enforcement officials, said the rally has been pretty nonviolent so far.
Rusty Mitchell, a 57-year-old from Fallbrook California, said he hasn't seen much rowdiness or fighting.
"These are basically good, working class people out here for a good time," Mitchell said as he pointed up the line of bikes parked into the distance.
Brower, who said he planned to leave early because the rally had become "a little bit too much," said he has talked to a lot of first-time attendees who came for "the big granddaddy" 75th anniversary.
Tim Swezy, who was polishing his Yamaha Warrior on Main Street in Sturgis, said the anniversary is part of the reason he decided to attend this year — that, and it's been "on the bucket list."
The 56-year-old Illinois resident, who also explored the Black Hills area for a few days with his wife, Sandy, said he hasn't had a bored moment.
"I'll probably come back on the 80th," Tim Swezy said. "I've got a lot of things to see."