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The 'Bu is BACK!

Check out Mark Grimes' '65 Malibu firing up for the first time in forever. The car was named America's Best Street Machine in the December '87 issue of Car Craft Magazine.

They're Baaaaaaaaaaack.

Car Craft Street Machine Nationals returns to Du Quoin, Illinois

By Toby Brooks

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 ever even 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 tenth installment of the Street Machine Nationals, and the “Woodstock on Wheels” headed instead for the rolling hills of Du Quoin, Illinois and the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds.

After starting out in Indianapolis in 1977, “the Nats” had grown from a relatively small show of some 1300 cars and 10,000 spectators to a busting-at-the-seams phenomenon of 5000 cars 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 St. Louis before landing in the Southern Illinois countryside for the tenth installment.

Some of the show’s venue moves were simply to make more room for the ever-growing franchise of automotive perfection. Others were likely because townsfolk and law enforcement had grown tired or leery of the show’s growing reputation as a blown and injected party-fest.

Ads in the April, May, and June Car Craft all mentioned Ionia. However, then-editor Jeff Smith’s July ’86 editorial, “Point of View,” included the announcement that the show had been moved. While talking up the positives of the venue in DuQuoin as any good editor would do, you could almost smell the concern that oozed from Smith’s pen about the change. “Overall, despite DuQuoin’s rather small size…I think this year’s Street Machine Nationals has a lot going for it,” he quipped.

We had no idea.

Prior to ’86, all previous iterations of the show’s marketing and production had been handled in-house by Car Craft staffers. In addition to being an awesome event to participate in and attend, in its prime, the Nats generated as much as 60% of the feature content for the magazine for any given year.

However, the show had simply gotten too big to be effectively 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 probably couldn’t have been happier that Indianapolis-based Bruce Hubley and his team of walkie-talkie clad golf cart jockeys from Special Events (now Family Events) had recently been given the keys to the whole deal. Car Craft would continue to cover the event, and it was up to Hubley and his crew to run and promote it.

Although most folks couldn’t have pointed to DuQuoin on a map before the show, 3500 cars and 60,000 onlookers converged that last weekend in June and it is safe to say that every one of them walked away changed. Whether it was the 750 acres of shady and manicured lakes and fairgrounds, the countless miles of smooth asphalt for cruising, the copious amounts big-banged, bikini-clad, 20-something 80’s ladies, or the seemingly endless sea of chrome and candy paint, blowers and turbos, tubs and hood scoops, visitor couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the place. Throw in the smell of freshly-burned 103 octane, smoked Mickey Thompsons, sunburned flesh, and spilled beer and it was 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 ’86, was freshly debuted. Matt and Debbie Hay’s blown and Injected Olds Ciera , Rod Saboury’s wicked ’63 split window Corvette, and Rocky Robertson’s wild ’86 Buick Somerset headlined the show, as well. Pro street was in full, unabashed, 80’s excessive effect and the Southern Illinois soil literally trembled under a never-ending trail of lopey cams, surging blowers, and fat wheel tubs on nearly every participant’s tricked out ride.

The October ’86 issue heralded the news: the Street Machine Nationals in Du Quoin wasn’t just a car show. It was an event. It had become a rite of passage for gearheads around the globe. Editor Smith’s October Point of View 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.

As time drew on, the show followed a predictable trajectory, growing bigger, crazier, and more outrageous with every passing year before fading in the mid to late 90’s. After more than a decade of decadence, 1998 marked the last year of the show in Du Quoin.

Until now.

Fifteen years after the gates closed on the last Nats, the incessant requests of a growing number of the show’s devoted followers have managed to win over the Car Craft staff that it’s high time for a family reunion. CC has again aligned with Hubley and his team for 2013 to do exactly what 4600+ Facebookers asked for: Bring Back the Street Machine Nationals to Du Quoin, Illinois.

And what a dandy it is gonna be. The aforementioned Dobbertin, Saboury, Hay, and Robertson will all be in attendance as will other prolific and legendary names like Gebhardt, Grimes, Maynard, Elder, Buckles, Voelkel, and so many more. Scott Sullivan, who many credit for being the originator of both Pro Street AND Pro Touring, will be there with his iconic Cheeze Whiz orange ’55 Chevy. And make no mistake, this is far from just an old car show. In addition to the historic pro street builds already confirmed, the grounds will once again be overflowing with state-of-the art automotive excellence from top builders and craftsmen of today, as well.

I intend to do exactly as my dad did for me when I was an 11 year old kid. Namely, I’m going to load up my family and head to the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds the last weekend in June for the greatest show on wheels. You should too.

I just wish gas was still a buck a gallon.

  Toby Brooks is an assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock and a freelance author. His forthcoming book: Sensory Overload: Hot Cars and Wild Times at the Du Quoin Street Machine Nationals is scheduled to be released in June 2013, just in time for the rebirth of the show. You should buy a copy of it. Seriously, you should.    

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