The Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, South Dakota, known as the “World’s Largest Biker Bar,” might also be the most well-known biker bar. Having been a staple of the Sturgis rally for many years, and in more recent years being the subject of a reality TV show, proprietors Michael and Angie Ballard and partner Jesse James Dupree (also of the band Jackyl) are well-known faces in Sturgis and around the world. Sadly, the saloon burned to the ground in an overnight fire in September of 2015 and the future of the FTS brand was uncertain. However, many breathed a sigh of relief when Ballard announced that he would rebuild. The ground has been broken at the new location, which is five miles down the road from the original location and Michael Ballard and Jesse James Dupree were excited to talk about the new facility as well as the history of the Full Throttle.
Briefly, Ballard told the history of how the bar began, nearly twenty years ago. “The Full Throttle started in 2000. That was the first year we opened,” he said, “I started construction in 1999, but I’m from Tennessee and I grew up riding motorcycles all my life, and have always been in the industry. I used to be a bike builder back in the mid ‘90s, so I’ve always been in that world, if you will. I had another company and I was able to sell that company in 1999, which freed me up to do what I wanted to do. I always had a passion for motorcycles and I was always intrigued by a bar and restaurant. I came to Sturgis in May of 1999 and I found some property here and then I came back to the rally in 1999, in August, and I monitored all the properties and I found the one I wanted and I stayed after rally and purchased that property and then went back to Tennessee and packed up and moved to South Dakota and started construction.”
While it took many years to the build the Full Throttle up, it took only a few hours for it all to come crashing down. Dupree discussed how he found out about the fire: “I was about 550 miles away, about 1:30 in the morning when Michael called me and said, ‘Man, the Full Throttle’s on fire!’ And I was so out of it, I didn’t even know what he was saying. And then a couple of hours later my phone was just blowing up and I called him back and said, ‘Man, the Full Throttle’s on fire!’ and he said ‘I called and told you!’ But he’d been up with it all night long. Michael had just gotten back to Tennessee after the rally… Michael had just gotten that place shut down at the end of August… he’d just gotten back to Trimble, Tennessee, about 1700 miles away and trying to get settled back in when he got the phone call and it’s just absolutely devastating.” As far as the cause of the fire, Ballard explained, “It was an electrical fire. It was actually an extension cord that got coiled up behind a keg cooler, underneath the main bar. When you take an extension cord, if you coil it up and it doesn’t get air, it get’s really hot. It doesn’t necessarily arc and throw a breaker on the panel. It just gets hot. And it got hot and melted down and caught a cardboard box on fire underneath the bar…A two dollar cord took out a multi-million dollar facility.” According to Ballard, the only thing on the property that was not lost was the cabin area. All of the memorabilia, bikes, bartender stations, and decor are completely gone.
Initially Ballard was unsure if he would rebuild. As he shared, “You know, it’s such a kick in the nuts. It totally was such a major setback. It was my complete livelihood…It just took a while to digest losing something of that magnitude. It was like losing a family member to me. I just refused to really make much of a comment about it for a while and just set back and figure out what the next steps would possibly be. What really picked me up more than anything was the outcry from the public. Of course all the fans and the family, but total strangers reaching out through Facebook and the emails, and ‘I’ll come work for free. You have to build it back. It doesn’t belong to you anymore, just to you, it belongs to all of us.’ I could get it jump-started, but after that monster got going, it was something to see. So it’s the outpour and the outcry from everybody, is what made me make the decision to build back.”
The new 600-acre facility will be named the Pappy Hoel Campground and Ballard explained the significance behind the name. “Pappy Hoel is the man who actually founded the Sturgis Rally 76 years ago,” he said. “He actually owned an Indian motorcycle dealership here in Sturgis and he started flat track racing back in 1938. And he started a ride once a year through the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore. So in honor of the guy that started the event, we decided to name the campground the Pappy Hoel Campground. The Full Throttle Saloon is located on the main property, so “The Full Throttle Presents the Pappy Hoel Campground.” We’re under construction right now and it’s gonna be a bigger footprint than we had before. We’re gonna get open and going this year, but hope people bear with us, because it took me 17 years to get the other Full Throttle to where it was.” Dupree jumped in to say, “The first year of the Full Throttle, when people came to the very first year they were sitting there having a great time, bands playing, a lot of activities happening that happen at the Full Throttle- but they were literally watching the construction work that was still going on and that construction work never really stopped! Every year there was just an expansion that continued on and on, and different areas of the bar being built, different attractions in the bar being built. And the new facility is going to be no different. For everybody that is out there this year, they will be able to say that they witnessed the grand opening year of what will turn into an even bigger,badder machine. Party central, ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ for adults who love bad-ass motorcycles, beautiful women and a cold drink.”
Dupree went on to describe the amenities that will already be in place for the 2016 Rally. “We’ve got an existing campground that we’ve taken over, so all of the infrastructure for that campground is in place. And it’s a beautiful facility that’s right at the base of Bear Butte. Bear Butte is a sacred Native American mountain that has got live buffalo, and I mean, we’re literally right up against the base of it, and it’s just an incredible backdrop. We’ve got RV camping, we’ve got tent camping. We’ve got cabins for days. There were already 70 cabins on the property when we moved in… and Michael’s got almost 200 cabins that are coming over with it. An Olympic size swimming pool that’s already in the ground and ready to rock. So anybody out there that wants to know where the party is in the Sturgis area for the rally, they just need to go to www.fullthrottlesaloon.com, click on the camping tab and then make your reservations because we’re gonna be there for the whole event. It’s gonna be off the charts. It’s gonna be home-base for everyone that truly wants to celebrate the rally first class.”
The original FTS, with it’s multiple bars, stages, burn-pit, tattoo parlor, zip lines, stores, and more was situated on only 30 acres of land, so with 600-acres, it is clear that the there is limitless potential for growth.
As a fundraiser to aid in building back the bar, Ballard started a program similar to the Brick Project in Sturgis, where those wanting to donate can purchase an engraved brick that will be placed in the sidewalk. However, he said, “Us, being the Full Throttle and the type of bar we are, ours is a steel plate, and you can get your name, the name of the town you’re from, CNC’d out of steel and it actually gets welded to the side of the bar. We’ve got a lot of them sold right now. They’ll be up this year for rally-the people that have bought them-and also during the rally, we’ll have a booth set up that you can buy them and you can actually watch us CNC your name out of it and watch us weld it onto the bar.”
Much of the music line-up for the rally has been announced already, including Ted Nugent, Zakk Wylde (both with Black Label Society and also a solo project), Molly Hatchet, Sevendust, Cinderella’s Tom Keifer, and of course, Jackyl. “We’re still gonna have our Bikers Ball on the Thursday night. That’s turned into a tradition and we’ve been up against a lot of other big acts that have come in and performed during the rally, but every single year on that Thursday night, if you wanna know where everybody is at when the crickets are chirping downtown, it’s the Jackyl show at the Full Throttle Saloon.” In addition to the main stage acts, there will continue to be multiple stages throughout the venue, “and always the prettiest girls dancing on the bars and bartending. It’s a great time and we invite everyone to come experience the first year in the grand opening of the Full Throttle and the Pappy Hoel Campground!”
Fans may wonder if there will be another season of the reality show, featuring all their Full Throttle favorites such as Fajita Mike or Goat. At the moment, it’s not a done deal but Dupree says, “Well, you know we couldn’t commit to another season of the show when the bar burnt to the ground in September… So we weren’t able to commit to the network at that time, but we are in the talks now that we know what we are doing. Don’t be surprised if there’s not some cameras out there yet, but we don’t have a commitment that we’re doing it just yet.” Those who have watched the show know all about Ballard’s wife Angie and their daughter Emilly Grace. When asked about his family, Ballard gushes, “Oh, man, they’re amazing. I mean, having a baby, it’s everything your parents tell ya it’s gonna be. She’s two years old right now and climbing the walls. She’s got two gears, which is stop and wide open. And Angie’s just really turned into the mom of all moms. I mean, she’s dedicated everything to that little girl these past two years. It’s pretty amazing to do that she’s such an awesome mom and wife. She’s incredible. My hat’s off to her. And at the same time, she’s still handling our reservations on all our cabins and juggling part of the business for me… Having a little baby girl, it’s definitely a life changer for sure. All of the sudden, there’s something more important in the world than you are, you know?”
In addition to running the Full Throttle, Ballard and Dupree have thriving alcohol brands (Micheal Ballard’s Full Throttle S’loonshine and Jesse James Bourbon). According to Ballard, “I think the bourbon is in about 30 states now, and the moonshine is in about 20 states. We have a brick-and-mortar full-blown distillery that you can tour seven days a week down in a little ol’ town called Trimble, Tennessee. That’s actually my hometown of about 600 people population. I went back to that little town and we bought all the downtown… Pretty soon, we’re about to have our Third Annual Custom Car Show, the first weekend of June. Last year we had 6000 people come to that…. Jesse is about to move over to Trimble and start his distillery there, so we’re excited about that. We’ve got some new products coming out. It’s been very successful. We’ve been working our ass off on it for sure!”
And not to forget about Jackyl, who are heading out on tour and about to release some new music. Dupree says, “Yeah, we’ve got a lot of tour dates. You can go to Jackyl.com and check out new tour dates. I will be doing bottle signings as well, with Jesse James Bourbon and the Full Throttle Saloon. People always come out in the afternoon and I meet them out at a local liquor store somewhere. But the shows have been going great! We’ve got a brand new album that we’re gonna be releasing as well, and as luck would have it, I asked what the quickest we could get the album out was and they said, ‘Well, it’s probably gonna be the first week of August!’ So it’s gonna be fun. We’ll be able to release the new Jackyl record, right alongside with the grand opening of the Full Throttle. And the first single off the new record is called Rally, so…”
Always, the hype-man, Dupree threw in one last plug before getting back to the rebuild: “I encourage everybody out there, even if you don’t have an RV- go to the Full Throttle website. We’re going to be putting up some packages where literally you can have your RV or camper waiting on you when you get there. There’s a place that we’re utilizing that will bring the camper out, have it set up for you and when you get through, they’ll come and take it back. And all you have to do is make the trip to Sturgis and camp there at the Full Throttle Saloon. So check out the website. If you’ve never been there before, we encourage you to do it… This is gonna be year number one for the brand new Full Throttle. I mean, what else can you say except ‘Get your ass out there.’ Come on.”