Gas was less than a buck a gallon, Reagan was in the White House in his first term, and a small town that few folks had heard of was about to become the epicenter of the street machine world.
It was June 1986. In an eleventh-hour change of heart, city fathers in Ionia, Michigan, performed an about-face and pulled the plug on plans to host the 10th installment of the Street Machine Nationals, so the "Woodstock on Wheels" headed instead for the rolling hills of Du Quoin, Illinois, and the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds.
From humble beginnings in Indianapolis in 1977, "the Nats" had grown from a relatively small show of some 1,300 cars and 10,000 spectators to a busting-at-the-seams phenomenon of 5,000 street machines and 113,000 spectators in less than a decade. After five years in Indy, the show spent three summers in Springfield, Illinois, and a forgettable 1985 in East St. Louis. After Ionia abruptly canceled its agreement, the event landed in Southern Illinois for year 10.
Some of the show's moves were simply to make more room for ever-growing car counts. Others were because townsfolk and law enforcement had grown tired of the show's raunchy reputation as a booze-fueled party-fest.
The April, May, and June Car Craft all mentioned Ionia. However, then-Editor Jeff Smith's July '86 CC editorial included the announcement that the show had been moved. While talking up the positives of Du Quoin, you could almost smell the concern that oozed from Smith's typewriter* about the change. "Overall, despite (the town of) Du Quoin's rather small size I think this year's Street Machine Nationals has a lot going for it," he quipped.
We had no idea.
Home at Last
Prior to 1986, all previous years of the show's marketing and production had been handled in-house by Car Craft. In addition to being a world-class car show, in its prime, the Nats generated as much as 60 percent of the feature content for the magazine for any given year.
However, the event had simply gotten too big to be run by a staff in the business of publishing magazines, rather than running car shows. Especially given the last-minute venue change, the CC crew was thrilled that Indianapolis-based Bruce Hubley and his team of golf-cart jockeys from Special Events (now Family Events) had been given the keys to the whole deal by Robert Petersen and his charges. Car Craft would continue to cover the event, and it was up to Hubley and his crew to run and promote it.
Hubley's first order of business was to find a replacement site for Ionia—and find it fast.
"I went down to Du Quoin with (Car Craft publisher) Harry Hibler and Bruce Hubley to take a look at it, and it was like going from the worst possible venue (in East St. Louis) to the best possible venue (in Du Quoin)," Smith recalled. "Du Quoin was so big, it would allow us—for the first time—to have room for all the cars. Lots of hills, green grass, and the lake with the wildlife—it was great. It was just fantastic," he added.
Hibler, Hubley, and Smith were convinced that they had finally found the home the Nats so desperately needed. However, the downside was the geography. Compared to previous sites, Du Quoin was in the middle of nowhere. With the nearest major city, St. Louis, more than an hour and a half away and hotel rooms in the immediate vicinity of the fairgrounds numbering only in the hundreds, organizers had grave concerns that the town simply would not be able to accommodate a massive influx of 5,000 cars and more than 100,000 people.
Although most car crafters couldn't have pointed to Du Quoin on a map before the show, 3,500 cars and 60,000 onlookers still managed to find their way to the fairgrounds that last weekend in June. All of them were probably changed forever. Whether it was the 1,500-plus plush, shady, and carefully manicured acres, the gorgeous sparkling lakes, the countless miles of smooth cruise lanes, the copious amounts of Aquanet-teased bangs on bikini-clad 20-something co-eds, or the seemingly endless sea of chrome, candy paint, blowers, tubs, and hoodscoops, a visitor couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the place. Throw in the smell of freshly burned race fuel, smoked Mickey Thompsons, sunburned flesh, and spilled beer, and it was three full days of unadulterated sensory overload.
As perfect as the venue was, the real magic was in the cars. Rick Dobbertin's mind-blowing Pontiac J-2000, worthy of two features in consecutive issues of CC in 1986, was freshly debuted. Matt and Debbie Hay's blown and injected Olds Ciera, Rod Saboury's wicked '63 Corvette, and Rocky Robertson's high-tech Buick Somerset headlined the show, too. Pro Street was in full, unabashed, '80s excessive effect, and the Southern Illinois soil literally trembled under a never-ending trail of lopey cams, surging blowers, and fat wheeltubs on nearly every participant's ride.
The October '86 CC heralded the news: The Street Machine Nationals in Du Quoin wasn't just a car show—it was THE car show. Editor Smith's October editorial was markedly different in tone. Du Quoin was no longer just a spot in the road that had "a lot going for it" in his mind.
"I couldn't be more excited about the 'new' Street Machine Nationals! I'm also enthusiastic about returning to Du Quoin next year," he wrote. "When word gets out about how great this year's event was, it'll be standing room only. I wouldn't miss it for anything," he concluded.
Competition Heats Up
The show was gladly invited back for 1987. Although most of the high-end Pro Street cars were repeats from the year before, a few new builds were brought out. On opposite ends of the Pro Street spectrum were Wayne Bushey's cool, red, classic '64 Nova Wagon and Charlie Teidt's low-slung, late-model Corvette. An unknown teenager from up the interstate in Manteno also made the trip in his Porsche-red, mild Pro Street '66 Chevelle. That same teenager—Troy Trepanier of Rad Rides by Troy fame—would return in 1988 with the car painted pink.
What spectators couldn't have known about an '87 show with so few new cars revealed was that most of the major players in pro street already had their eye on 1988. Hay, Grimes, Robertson, and Scott Sullivan had each either started or were planning major builds for the next year. It was shaping up to be the best ever.
And, man, was it ever.
The '88 Nats were arguably the single most impressive gathering of freshly built, cutting-edge, high-end Pro Street cars the world has ever seen. Oh sure, there were several noteworthy cars that made a splash prior to 1988, and there have been plenty of awesome cars in the years since. But the sheer volume of breathtaking, one-of-a-kind street machines debuted in 1988 may never be duplicated. It was unbelievable.
Nearly everyone who was anyone in the Pro Street game rolled out a trick new build just in time for the event. Two blowers from Hay were countered by three blowers from Grimes. Monochrome pink from Robertson was countered by monochrome Cheez Whiz from Sullivan. The build quality just kept getting better, and the competition was fierce. High style was in style.
As the cars got better and better, so did the event. In 1989, more than 100,000 spectators showed up, effectively multiplying Du Quoin's quaint population of around 6,000 17 times over. For one weekend in June, the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds had almost as many "residents" as Peoria.
Trepanier was back—this time with cool Steve Stanfordinspired graphics and a trick set of one-off Boyd's billets. Danny Taylor of Taylor's House of Colors in Louisville, Kentucky, was in attendance with a slick '80s Malibu. Neil Jacobs' awesome blown and injected Hemi '64 Belevedere just missed out on Pro Street judging because it was too old for the '67 cutoff. Rod Saboury was back with another trick Vette. If the Nats were a wine, the '89 vintage would go down in history as a very good year.
Late-model Pro Streeters continued to trend upward. The Hays' Thunderbird was back, as was Grimes' Eurosport and Robertson's LeSabre. Rich Gebhardt rolled out a trick citrus-colored Beretta, while Tom Davis's Sullivan-painted black and aqua version also impressed. Fueled by the popularity of NHRA pro stock versions of the little Chevy front-wheel drive, they were the first of many more to come.
Nothin' But a Good Time
By 1990, signs of strain and fatigue in Du Quoin had already begun to surface. Many local residents wrote to the local newspaper, demanding that city fathers do precisely as leaders in previous host cities had done and throw the show out.
However, it was hard to argue with the estimated $7 to $15 million economic impact. Every hotel for 75 miles was crammed to capacity. Sales were brisk. A gallon of bleach was about as easy to score as suitcase full of plutonium. Beer flowed freely. Trash piled high. Parking lots hid in a thick blanket of late-night burnout haze. It was wild and getting wilder by the minute.
Dare to Be Different took center stage in 1991, with Troy Trepanier's big-finned, mint-green '60 Impala leading the charge. Other notables included Chuck Davis' orange '89 Beretta, Keith Eickert's high-tech Monte Carlo SS, Rocky Robertson's Le Sabre, and Wally Elder's nasty blown and injected '69 Dodge Daytona. Pro Street was still going strong, and a fresh crop of new builds helped keep the trend alive.
The year 1992 proved to be one of the last big years for Nats reveals. Trepanier's '50 Buick, Al Hinds' Lumina, and a number of other top-notch Pro Street builds all showed up. Although car counts and attendance remained strong for the next several years, magazine coverage shifted to other events. It would be the beginning of the end for the event.
With national media coverage limited, the show's appeal began to slide. Each passing year seemed to include strong car counts and spectator ticket sales but eroded overall build quality. Pro touring and more participation-heavy events like the Hot Rod Power Tour gained in popularity. Memorable Pro Streeters included Bret Voelkel's air-ride-equipped '70 Mustang that would serve as the springboard he'd use to launch his company, Ride Tech. Others like Gary Buckles' body-dropped Camaro, Dave Verschave's Nova, Bob Maynard's inline-six Camaro, and Todd Clark's "Dem Bones" Camaro impressed, as well.
Although still going strong, by 1998, Du Quoin had had enough. City leaders and Family Events representatives were unable to come to terms, and the show was not invited back for 1999. After 13 consecutive years in Du Quoin, the Nats was homeless again.
The show managed to bounce around and stay alive for a few more years and ultimately landed in Lima, Ohio. It died a slow, painful death, finally succumbing in 2004. With just 791 cars and less than 15,000 spectators, it was a pathetic shell of its former self.
Back From the Dead
Fans of the event thought it was gone forever, but a persistent grassroots effort managed to sway Family Events into giving the Nats in Du Quoin one more chance for 2013. The event proved to be a smashing success, with a car count nearly triple expectations and scarcely any run-ins with the law. A number of Pro Street legends made the trek back, too, with a number of their iconic cars on display. For Nats fans, it was a nearly unbelievable dream come true. In many ways, it was like a trip back in time.
If only gas was still a buck a gallon.