Gangster or entrepreneur? — that’s the question Ray Sasseville poses as the title of a soon-to-be-published autobiography of the White Rock B.C motorbike enthusiast who is about to introduce the Sturgis motorbike rally concert concept to the Merritt B.C Music Grounds on Thursday August 21st to Sunday August 24th.
A glance at the book’s front cover depicts a menacing looking Sasseville replete with his biker shades and biker vest. Yet flip to the back cover and there’s the same Sasseville poised at his office desk, all clean cut, decked out in an Armani suit posing with his signature Louis Vuitton briefcase.
Yes bikers are respected business folk and Sasseville is scoring points with the local Merritt B.C business community as he builds towards presenting a respectable four-day Sturgis Canada festival that will act as an economic landfall for the local community.
“You look at Sturgis South Dakota, the town’s population is only 6,627 people yet during the first week of August every year, the Sturgis Festival attracts upwards of 400,000 people,” explained Sasseville over the phone from his White Rock B.C enclave. “There is no reason why our festival can’t have the same economic impact for Merritt B.C”
With a concert lineup boasting the likes of Burton Cummings, Canned Heat, Molly Hatchet, The Stampeders’, a reunion of Alias plus a Can con roster featuring the likes of Coney Hatch, Nick Gilder and Sweeney Todd, Killer Dwarfs, Jerry Doucette, Teenage Head , Moxy and Burton’s support band, The Carpetfrogs, Sturgis Canada boasts a stellar talent lineup. Topping the list though is an appearance by Katey Sagal and The Forest Rangers whom Sasseville rates as potentially the most important draw of the week.
To the RV crowd, Katey Sagal is Peg Bundy from the hit TV series,”Married With Children”. But to the biker fraternity she is Gemma Teller-Morrow, a cult heroine of the hit FX biker TV series Sons Of Anarchy’ , now entering its seventh season. “The interest in Katey Sagal is enormous, I would say there as great a buzz in Sagal than there is in Burton Cummings,” Sasseville allowed, noting Sagal is an equally entertaining country/rock music artist.
Certainly, if you were to cast Ray Sasseville in a movie or a TV series he would be Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider and it’s his love of bikes and his relationship with the biker community that has sparked a desire to recapture the spirit of the world famous Sturgis South Dakota bike rally, initially established in 1938 and transplant a Canadian version to an idyllic 200 acre site five kilometres outside Merritt’s city borders.
“I have been travelling down to Sturgis since, 1968, I got my bike license when I was 14, and I like the Sturgis Bike Rally a lot,” explained Sasseville. “So in 2010, I am sitting with the then Mayor of Sturgis and I expressed an interest in setting up a sister festival in B.C. I know a lot of my biker friends got DUI’s when they were like 16 and couldn’t get across the border to attend Sturgis so I thought it would be great if we could bring Sturgis to them.”
With the previous Sturgis mayor’s blessing, Sasseville has registered the name Sturgis Canada and in 2011, organized his first bike rally concert in Salmon Arm B.C after realizing a similar bike group had already laid claim to his Merritt venue. For someone, who has virtually spent a lifetime working with either four wheel or two-wheel vehicles as a car franchise owner or a bike satellite tracking installer, Sasseville was admittedly a neophyte at the concert/festival game and his initial efforts in Salmon Arm and subsequent follow-up effort in Vernon B.C in 2012 were financially disappointing.
“I can’t blame anyone else because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” said Sasseville of the financial indiscretions which saw a sizable amount of money go missing, a block of tickets ending up being sold on the black market, an expensive bike, offered as a raffle prize go missing plus a bunch of unauthorized invoices getting approved during his initial efforts at Salmon Arm. I would say 99% of the people I hired did a great job but it is always that one per cent that ruined things. We were making payments as we went and it was only after the Salmon Arm festival was completed that we realized we had funds missing and unapproved invoices had been submitted.
Sasseville and his business partner, Langley B.C real estate agent, Joan Hanson also ran into trouble the following year when the contract for them to use an adjacent campsite to their Vernon concert venue was cancelled at the last minute, due to false reports to the landowners that Sturgis North event was gang related, thus causing further difficulties and mistrust which impacted attendance immensely. Sasseville says this year there will be no such problem due to there being between 5,000 and 7,000 camp spaces on site.
Not to be deterred by those setbacks, Sasseville and Hanson targeted the former Merritt Mountain Music concert site, and although they had to forfeit their deposit in 2013 because they needed more time to plan their Sturgis Canada event, the four-day festival is now set for August 21st-24th and Sasseville promises four complete days of both onsite and offsite activities.
Drawing from popular events staged at the original Sturgis festival and at Daytona Beach, Sturgis Canada is set to execute such daily activities as Bike Rodeo and Burn Out events, a Miss. Sturgis Canada Beauty pageant , the ever popular Cabbage Patch ladies’ wrestling event (which according to Sasseville, pulls more fans than some of the bands and is worth $1,000 to the overall champion), bike display contests and there’s even off-site day trips for out-of province visitors, to visit Okanagan Valley vineyards, a West Coast Whale Watching trip (if sufficient numbers register) and two special parades; a veteran’s celebrity poker run (Saturday) to raise funds for The Wounded Warrior’s Program and the Sunday Ladies’ Cancer Ride fundraiser.
Check on the Festival’s website and you will find a number of letters of endorsement from politicians and celebrities citing Sasseville’s fund raising activities. “A percent of our profits is always earmarked for charities like Sick Kids and we allow charity organizations to have free vendor space at our festival,” notes Sasseville proudly.
Add to this, Californian Mad Mike Hughes will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Evel Knievel’s famous Snake River Jump by launching his $2 million dollar rocket 750 feet into the air, travelling 2,000 feet and powered by just four gallons of water and 20 lbs of propane.
“When you are staging a four day festival it is important to have enough activities going on to keep your patrons occupied ,” noted Sasseville. “We have a gorgeous venue, we have room for 5,000 campsites, the venue itself is self-contained with 37 buildings, we have a 15,000-person capacity beer garden, the main stage has hosted the likes of Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers in the past, a wide variety of vendors and if you just want to get away from things, you can park a deck chair in the middle of the Coldwater River which flows through the site and sip on a cold one.”
When asked if he thought there was an existing stigma against Sturgis Canada being perceived as a `biker event’, Sasseville is quick to reassure that the biker element is only one aspect of his crowd and that having motorcycles on site is actually as a big a draw for the RV crowd as the bands themselves.
“For one thing, 95% of all bikers are just `weekend warriors’ who love to get out and congregate at events like Sturgis Canada. Then you have your 4% bike professionals who are people in the actual bike business and your final 1% are in the bike clubs. Yes we do get members of bike clubs in attendance but provincial liquor laws say they can’t display club colours or have patches on their vests. It’s all about security and we have yet to experience any trouble with bike clubs and we don’t anticipate any in the future.”
Saying that attendees are welcome whether they arrive on two wheels, four wheels or on foot, Sasseville is determined to learn from the problems of his first two attempts and claims he has a three-year plan for the site that will stage at least one major music festival each year plus future country music, jazz-blues festivals and even a heavy metal concert in the near future.
“With all the site improvements alone we are anticipating that the festival will grow in popularity for the 2015 event and that it will keep on developing,” explained Sasseville. “I am looking for a partner to join me in actually buying this site. Then I want Sturgis Canada to be one of THE main concert venues on this continent,”
Ray Sasseville, Photo Credit: Greg Eymundson / insight-photography.com