The “world’s biggest biker bar” is now a mound of ash days after the epic 75th annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. And after scores of firefighters couldn’t snuff the flames early Tuesday morning, the bar’s owner was out of town visiting his native Tennessee and feverishly trying to hop a flight back to its ruins, The Daily Beast has learned.
Michael Ballard, 50, was in Trimble, Tenn., along with his wife, Angie, visiting family when they received word that their pride and joy, The Full Throttle Saloon, had become a tinderbox.
“I’m waiting on him to call,” Ballard’s older brother Raymond “Cass” Ballard told The Daily Beast. “The moment Michael heard he was up all night long, but he couldn’t get a flight out last night.”
Michael Ballard had become a famous South Dakota denizen after he founded the bar and became a reality TV star with a strong run of shows that began airing back in 2009 on the truTV series Full Throttle Saloon. He couldn’t get back to South Dakota until Wednesday morning, his brother said.
The bar is a total loss.
“When I heard it I wanted to throw up,” Cass Ballard said. “It just made me just that sick because I know what went into that thing for the last 15 years.”
But he did relay good news to his brother.
“I texted him a little bit once he was there and asked if anybody has gotten hurt because that was the first thing we were worried about,” Cass Ballard said. “And he said, ‘No, everybody is OK.’”
According to reports, a clerk manning a store near the blaze claimed that a witness came in minutes before 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday to alert someone of the inferno.
Heavy smoke made it tough for the volunteer firefighters who descended on the scene from neighboring towns, including Fort Meade, Whitewood, Newell, Vale, and Piedmont.
The fire had engulfed the watering hole within two hours.
The state’s fire marshal was on scene all day, according to a source close to the investigation, but it’s unclear if foul play was involved.
The owner’s brother was also in the dark on whether it’s an accident or arson.
“I’m sure the fire marshal will be involved and determine where it started and we’ll be the first to know,” he said.
The bar had become a family enterprise, he added. “Michael built it from the ground up, and we’ve all been a part of it.”
He had taken pride in his brother’s batching of his own moonshine, which was distilled next door and was later franchised out West.
“That’s the business he started here in Trimble [Tennessee],” he said. “He put the distillery in up there and made it his own ‘Full Throttle S’loon Shine.’”
In fact there was as much as 500 gallons of grain alcohol in the neighboring distillery, but it’s unclear if the potent hooch had any relation to the fire.
This past week marked the 75th annual rally which, according to its website, attracts over a half-million bikers from all 50 U.S. states and has become a popular draw for folks from around the world, including Japan, Australia, Germany, and Britain.
On the Sturgis Volunteer Fire Department’s Facebook page an outpouring of support and skid mark criticisms piled on. Doug Harrison, a manager at Mattress Depot USA in Mount Vernon, Wash., tossed: “Maybe the new one won’t be built out of herpes and broken pallets.”
Diehard patrons fended them off with support. The owner of rival local bar Thirsty’s, Frank Morrison, swatted away some attacks. Morrison came to the Ballards’s defense.
“Regardless of what a person thinks about the Full Throttle or Michael Ballard it’s awful to see any business burn to the ground. Alot [sic] of blood,sweat,and tears went into the making of that business. It is a real loss,” he wrote. “Our thoughts are with you! Good luck.”
It was a banner year, too, before the famous rally came and went.
The family business was well in the black, Raymond “Cass” Ballard said. “He was at rally numbers before the rally even happened,” he said of his brother.
In the past 75 years, the bar hosted several nights of “Angieland’s Best Butt Contest” as well as Full Throttle’s “Rockstars Beer Belly Contest,” “Best Burnout Contest,” and “Best Sleeve Tattoo” in its revved-up two-wheel, seven-day extravaganza.
Originally pegged “The Black Hills Classic,” the rally, founded by a local Indian Motorcycles merchant named Clarence “Pappy” Hoel, is the biggest time of the year to rake in profits—but this year the rally was a bonus. After all, the bar’s merch sales was flying off shelves, like the T-shirts Michael and Cass’s mother, Ruby, had off their reality show successes.
And Cass brought his secret barbecue sauce from Tennessee to diners at the Full Throttle. “We made it when we got there,” he said.
He also gave a little nod to their dad, Raymond Sr., in creating the menu. “We have rag baloney,” he said, using the shorthand for meat surplus meat that is its own dish and popular around the South.
“You get bits and pieces of meat and stuff and cook it in sauce,” he said. “My dad called it hillbilly steak because it was the only thing we could afford.
“At the Full Throttle one day I bought five-pound sticks and people went crazy for it. And now it’s on the menu as Hillbilly Steak.”
The family has already been hit with the loss their older sister Vicki, who succumbed to breast cancer five years ago. Every year there’s a memorial ride in her honor.
She was an integral part of the bar’s success.
“She was our older sister and she worked with Michael every day, and she did the bookkeeping and receipts, and she was a large part of this,” Cass Ballard said. “We all had a hand in it, so it’s a loss for all of us.”