The sound of horsepower, the smell of gas and alcohol, and the atmosphere of fun permeated downtown Springfield, Illinois, as the latest iteration of the Route 66 Mother Road Festival came to town in late September. We made a point to seek out some of the nicest Corvettes and coolest entries powered by the popular Chevrolet LS engine platform.
This huge car show had its beginnings in 2001, starting as a charity cruise in the downtown area. As it expanded, promoters moved it out to the Illinois State Fairgrounds, where it stayed for a couple of years. Once it strained the capacity of the massive fairgrounds, it once again shifted back to the downtown and continues to fill block after downtown block every year since.
The historical highway is the centerpiece of the event, which commemorates the classics that traveled from Chicagoland to the west coast as the longest state highway system before interstate highways found their place. Pristine vehicles come from across the country to celebrate all that the ever-changing road had to offer. Not just a car show, the festival includes memorabilia vendors, performance marketplace, and entertainment.
A car cruise, burn-out contest, and the ever-popular Miss Mother Road Pin-up competition draw an audience. Over 20,000 reported spectators and thousands of cars pack the place every year, but this year’s Indian summer brought onlookers out in droves.
On Friday evening, the cruise kicks off the Bonnier Events festival in great style. Led by a police escort, vehicles of every possible make and model traveled from the east side into downtown. Well over 2,000 cars and drivers participated this year, making it a two-hour-long viewgasm.
The sides of the road were lined with both adults and kids enjoying the selection of good-looking rolling hardware. Cell phone cameras constantly flashed as the cars passed by. The 50s and 60s costumes were in abundance, and the kids held out their hands for the candy tossed to them.
“I plan early for this show every year,” Stan Parise, a participant from Chicago, says. “This is my favorite part of the whole festival. We don’t get to cruise a lot in Chicago though we do have a lot of parades. These folks are specifically here to see the cars and they really seem to like my split-window Corvette. My wife, Laura, and I wear our 60s apparel and bring plenty of candy for the youngsters. It’s a wonderful night, and thousands of people come to watch us.”
Even before the sun rises on Saturday morning, the show arena was beginning to fill. Groups from car clubs made their way into downtown together, backing into their spots. Space was quickly at a premium with cars continuing to flow in throughout the afternoon. Car owners proudly registered their cars and then cleaned and shined them as they waited for the judges to pass by.
“People ask if this is my husband’s LS-powered Mustang,” Shannon Dothan, Minneapolis, MN, says. “It absolutely is my own weekend car. I called the shots on the build for this one. Bill’s ’72 Corvette is sitting right next to it and also gets a lot of attention. We love bringing both of our babies here to Springfield. We have met so many good couples who are now our friends.”
By mid-morning, streets and sidewalks were packed full of attendees and their admirers. With thousands of cars on display, families could spend the entire day looking and dreaming. Dads lifted their sons and daughters to allow them a closer look without touching.
“Wow, this one is cool,” Jackson Danson, a six-year-old visiting from Davenport, Iowa says. “Dad says we’re going to start making me one of these, so I have it when I grow up.”
Tom Danson, his dad agreed. “You know, there’s not a lot you can do with your kids that brings such satisfaction with progress,” he says. “I really hope Jack remains interested in working on cars as he gets older. Not enough kids get hands-on into an engine or transmission these days. I look forward to teaching him just as Dad taught me.”
The state capital building makes a unique background for photos. Promoters intentionally keep the space available for any car owners to line up for the photographs. The historic Springfield downtown makes a picturesque setting for the opportunity. Promoters also encourage visitors to stop by the Lincoln era landmarks located within the downtown area.
For those showgoers looking for some horsepower, historical Washington Street is set up for a burnout competition in the late afternoon on Saturday. The sounds, combined with the smell of burning rubber, prompt spectators to gather. With encouragement, these drivers scrubbed their tires till white smoke rolled throughout the area. Billy Reese, a local from Springfield, got the nod for first place with his 1988 Chevy S-10. Runner-up was Jimmy Dixon from Pana, IL, in his 1975 Chevy Pick-up.
Another type of show that takes place is the Miss Mother Road contest. These ladies don’t just put on a costume and pretend to be a pin-up girl. These ladies truly embody the pin-up way of life. Miss Aurora Borealis was named Miss Mother Road as the winner. Miss Ruby Steele finished as runner-up with the title of Miss Route 66. The second runner-up was Miss Molly Mayhem, and she earned the name of Miss Route 55.
Hours of enjoyment were spent walking, talking to the participants, and perusing the thousands of cars on display. There was no easy way to choose our favorites. Still, with much deliberation, the top five in the LS/Corvette category were determined from the high caliber of Corvettes and LS-powered coolness paying tribute to the mother road.