Toby Brooks is an assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas, and a freelance author. He is currently building a wild 2006 Mustang GT Pro Streeter he hopes to debut at the 2014 Street Machine Nationals. His new book: Sensory Overload: Hot Cars and Wild Times at the DuQuoin Street Machine Nationals was released in June 2013, just in time for the rebirth of the new Street Machine Nationals. It is available at StreetMachineReunion.com/sensory-overload. You should buy a copy of it. Seriously, you should.
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.