The Route 66 Mother Road Festival is a national gathering of every genre of classic, custom, hot rod, and horsepower-crammed machinery. The overall celebration takes over the greater Springfield, Illinois, area, and has done so for the past 18-years. Currently held in late September, surrounded by the historical buildings and state monuments that make up downtown Springfield, this year the event filled nearly every inch of available real estate.
In addition to the car show, a nightly car cruise also takes place. Vendors, live music, a burn-out contest, and Miss Mother Road Pin-up contest round out the event.
The car show had its beginnings in downtown Springfield in 2001, relocating to the nearby Illinois State Fairgrounds in the following years. When it outgrew the massive fairgrounds, promoters once again brought it back to downtown where it remains. Now promoted by Bonnier Events, the spectacle brings in well over 20,000 spectators for the show, and this year’s exceptional fall weather hosted even bigger crowds than usual.
A reported 2,000-vehicles joined the Friday night cruise that kicked off the weekend. Led by a string of police cars, the parade rolled through the streets of Springfield into the downtown area. It was dusk when the cars started leaving the staging area and were still rolling through town two hours later.
Onlookers filled the sidewalks along the parade route, appreciating the broad spectrum of everything, ranging from vintage cars to pseudo race cars just itching to fill any given intersection with tire smoke. The gearhead spirit of Route 66 is alive and well. Many parade participants were dressed in ’50s and ’60s style garb, and candy was being thrown to the kids in true parade fashion.
“I watch this parade with my husband every year,” says Joann Venturini, a Springfield resident. “Even though we could actually walk out our front door and see the cars go by, we come to the east side to see them while it’s still light outside. The best cars to me are the ’55 Chevies. I had one of those when I was in high school. Those were good times, and this parade brings that all back to me.”
Attendees were up early on Saturday morning, moving into the blockaded downtown area, vying for their favorite parking spot. The parking staff remained busy throughout the day as four-wheeled customs of every shape and size continued to roll in throughout show time.
The event hosts do an exceptional job of grouping car clubs or specific genres of enthusiasts together on a given street. “I get my same spot every year,” James Cannon from Chicago says. “We travel along with our car club friends and park as a group. It’s a good way to meet new people, but we also get to hang out with the guys we see at the local car shows too.”
It’s a refreshing visual treat to see a group of 20 restored Chevy Corvairs or a pack of supercharged Pro Streeters parked as a group.
One particular street corner remained clear of cars so that entrants can have photos taken with the picturesque state capital building in the background. It is not unusual to see Abe Lincoln asking to sit in the cars on display in the historic downtown area.
As the day passed, the streets continued to fill with cars and attendees. Spectators got up close to admire the vehicles on display. Many fathers had their sons and daughters with them, providing teaching moments for their kids. “I like all these cars,” four-year-old Beth Andersen says. “Dad holds me up so I can look in them too. I’m not allowed to touch, but I like to look at the different colors of pretty cars.”
“I have the feeling I’m going to be building one of these with her when she’s old enough to do it,” Beth’s father, John Andersen, says. “It has been great seeing this mass of custom cars through her eyes.”
The Miss Mother Road contest had entries by several ladies who live the pin-up lifestyle. The winner was Miss Aurora Borealis. Miss Ruby Steele took home the Miss Route 66 title, and Miss Molly Mayhem earned “Miss Route 66” accolades.
I viewed one gentleman, Jimmy Kirk, from Kansas City, Missouri, who was on his knees, carefully inspecting an air bagged 1966 Chevrolet Impala. He said, “I’m building one of these at home right now. I’m just amazed that I have so many fouth-gen Impalas here to get some design ideas.”
The tire smoke began to roll out from Washington Street in the early afternoon as the burn-out contest got underway. Spectators gathered around to cheer for their favorites. It didn’t take long for the smell of burnt rubber to overtake the area. The winner was a local, Billy Reese, with his 1988 Chevy S-10. Jimmy Dixon of Pana, Illinois, was the runner-up in his 1975 Chevy Pickup.
Even if a roadster with two superchargers or a meticulously restored AMC Gremlin may not be your cup of tea, as you walked through the throngs of custom and respired cars throughout the weekend, you settled into a groove of looking, appreciating and enjoying everything with wheels.
Whether you are a tried-and-true Chevy lover or enjoy all restored, custom, and performance cars of every shape and size, the Mother Road Festival pays homage to everything based around the legendary Route 66.