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Destination: Sturgis Mustang Rally

By Molly Barari

Most folks assume that once the last motorcycle has zoomed off into the sunset in early August, Sturgis becomes a sleepy little town for the rest of the month. Most folks assume wrong.  

There is another rally in town that’s gained serious momentum over the years, flooding Main Street and the Thunder Dome with every generation of the Ford Mustang. This year’s Sturgis Mustang Rally (SMR) will be held from Tuesday, August 29 through Sunday, September 3. Rally founder Frank Lawton estimates 15,000 people will flock to Sturgis each day that week to celebrate the American Ford Mustang.

Lawton, 68, said he got the idea for the SMR about 13 years ago. Lawton had participated in the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and noticed many downtown stores had to shut their doors afterward.

 “I thought, ‘This isn’t going to happen!’” said Lawton. “I wanted to bring more business to Sturgis, keep people employed, and keep the town alive for more than just the motorcycle rally.”

 The timing was impeccable, as Lawton was nearing retirement. He and his wife of 50 years, Judy, built a retirement home in the hills outside of Sturgis. Lawton – who’s been a Mustang lover since 1964 as a kid growing up in New Jersey – poured his heart and soul into making the Sturgis Mustang Rally a reality. The SMR has only grown bigger and better in its 11 official years of operation, drawing Mustang enthusiasts from all over the world, including Germany, Australia, Austria, Peru, Canada, Mexico and Italy.

“It’s not just a rally. It’s a destination,” said Lawton. “Every day there are a variety of events, and every night there’s a social. We not only show the cars, but we have training classes for how to race. It’s basically five days of fun with your Mustang!”

From cruising through the beautiful Black Hills to drag racing, autocross, poker runs and a Mustang rodeo – the SMR literally has an activity to suit every interest. Here are some of the week’s highlights Lawton says you won’t want to miss:

  • Golf Outing – Tuesday is the 3rd annual SMR Golf Outing at the Elkhorn Ridge Golf Club in Spearfish with an awards banquet to follow. Proceeds will benefit the Wounded Warriors Family Support Fund. Space is limited to the first 72 golfers for an $85 donation per person, which includes 18 holes of golf, the practice range and a banquet. Contact Jim Leahy at to register.
  • Autocross – Race your own car, or ride along with a professional. There is also the BFGoodrich Autocross Driving School on Wednesday for both entry-level and more experienced drivers. This provides two days of autocross instruction at the Thunder Dome. You’ll boost your autocross game with help from Terry Earwood, one of the premier instructors of the legendary Skip Barber Racing School.
  • A Mustang Rodeo – A timed couples event on Wednesday night at the Thunder Dome that promises laugh out loud fun! Couples are given some bean bags and lassos. They must drive the course, toss the bean bags, and lasso the (adorable) stick horses for points.
  • Burnout Competition – Where else are you allowed to burn rubber? Only at the SMR on Thursday evening at the Thunder Dome.
  • Launch Box Competition – It’s not just about 0 to 60. It’s about how fast you can launch and stop in 60 feet on Thursday evening at the Thunder Dome.
  • Barrel Racing – A Friday evening rodeo event for your car at the Thunder Dome with cash prizes for first, second and third place.
  • Live Entertainment – Friday night is Grease Lightning Night at the Thunder Dome with music from the era. There will be a hula hoop contest, bubble blowing contest, and costume contest.
  • Drag Racing – Pure adrenaline for the racers, and loads of enjoyment for the audience on Saturday night at the Sturgis Dragway. It doesn’t matter if your car is six or eight cylinders, stick or auto.
  • Car Show and Shine – This happens Saturday on Main Street with voting for the Mustang of Choice awards. There will also be car cruises through the Black Hills throughout the week – from military and veteran tribute runs to poker runs to fun runs. There is also a Parade Cruise after the Show and Shine on Saturday.
  • Auction – Saturday at the Knuckle Saloon’s Pavilion is the annual auction. This is a great place to pick up Mustang memorabilia, collectibles and yes, cars! The SMR organizers are currently taking consignments. To inquire, visit
  • Dice Roll to Win a Mustang – Everyone registered for the Rally has the chance to roll the dice for a chance to win a brand new 2017 Roush Stage 3 Mustang named Snake Eyes. Built just for the Rally, Snake Eyes’ winner will be announced Sunday afternoon at the Thunder Dome. The car will be auctioned off if no one wins.
  • Awards Banquet – There is a Sunday evening dinner and awards banquet at the Thunder Dome where awards and honors are given for the entire week’s events. Trophies, certificates and cash, oh my!

There are three different registration packages ranging from $75 to $150, depending on which events a person plans to attend during SMR week. Lawton said the Sturgis Mustang Rally is unique because not only does it raise funds for Wounded Warriors, but some proceeds from the week go toward providing a scholarship for Sturgis High School students.

Lawton said he’s grateful that his children are involved with the Sturgis Mustang Rally each year. His son, Charles, travels from Arizona to assist with the week, and his other son, Frank Jr., comes from Rapid City to support the event.

As soon as this year’s SMR ends, Lawton will be busy putting together the 2018 event, along with the help of his original board members: Gary Lippold, Robin Shrake, Ed Hinker, Dan Jacobsen, Butch Shields and Leland Hollis.

“The Rally would never happen if not for this dedicated group,” said Lawton. “And thanks to all the other volunteers and local sponsors who make this event possible.”

When Lawton isn’t busy planning events for the SMR, he enjoys hunting, fishing and being involved in the World Fast Draw Association, where he practices cowboy-style shooting. He also travels the country promoting his Rally.

“Doing this Rally is really a full-time job,” he said. “But it’s worth it, because long after I’m gone, it will continue on.”

For more information about the 2017 Sturgis Mustang Rally, including a complete event schedule and contact information, visit


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