Car City, USA

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Valley News Issue: March 2013
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How much does the Valley love its car shows, auto auctions and rubber-burning contests of daring and speed? Some say our car love is unparalleled.

It’s said that the first car in Arizona arrived via rail in December 1899 – a two-seat, steam-powered “locomobile” purchased for $600 by Dr. Hiram Fenner during a trip back east. Powered by a muscular two-cylinder engine, the locomobile terrorized Tucson-area pedestrians and coachmen with speeds in excess of 15 mph.

PHM0313 CC2Unfortunately, Fenner was no Mario Andretti. Incapable of managing the locomobile’s hair-raising horsepower, the good doctor crashed the vehicle into a saguaro cactus shortly after hundreds of his neighbors gathered to see its debut. “It’s kind of funny, when you think about it,” Arizona historian Marshall Trimble muses. “Fenner not only had the first car and the first license plate, but also the first wreck.”

Trimble notes that Fenner subsequently sold the car to an acquaintance, who promptly demolished the vehicle for good when he overheated the boiler tank, causing it to explode. So, instead of becoming a timeless museum piece, the locomobile became scrap. Presumably.

From these inauspicious origins, the automobile rose to assume a unique and prominent role in Arizona’s collective imagination. From the fabled northern Route 66 towns of Ash Fork and Winslow to the cruising mecca of Phoenix, the car is singularly suited to the state’s four-lane sprawl and top-down sunshine. We’re home to one of America’s elite car-hobby cultures, and host an exotic car auction scene second-to-none – the flurry of auctions in the Valley every January is “the Super Bowl of the industry,” according to one insider. Phoenix has also become a stock-car racing hub, with two NASCAR race weekends a year and a constellation of smaller events.

So take a cruise with us on a tour of Arizona automobile obsession. You’ll see everything from multi-million-dollar Duesenbergs to frame-laying Subarus to logo-plastered Sprint Cup stock-cars. And it all started with a steam-powered trolly, put-putting through the Old Pueblo with saguaro-dented fenders.

Classic VW enthusiasts flaunt their wares at the Scottsdale Pavilions.

It’s the coldest weekend in a quarter century in the Valley of the Sun, but sub-40-degree temps have failed to persuade roughly four dozen young car hobbyists to sit this cruise out.

“This is actually a really poor turnout,” the owner of the graphite-gray Audi A6 with day-glo-green brake drums says with mild distaste, scanning the tundra-like range of parking lot near the McDonald’s at the Scottsdale Pavilions. “Usually, this would be one of the busiest weekends of the year, with Barrett-Jackson in town and all. But you know people in Arizona: We’re pussies about the cold.”

The Audi owner, who asked to be identified only as “Mike,” is part of the most recent generation of car-modification wonks that have ritualistically frequented the Pavilions every Saturday night for the last three decades. Known as the “Pavilions Car Show,” the weekly gathering – in which car lovers old and young show off their rides, trade tips and shoot the bull – is perhaps the oldest and best-known of the Valley’s so-called “cruise-ins.” And the Valley may very well be the cruise-in and car show capital of the country.

Devoted car nerds like Mike are Nancy Perry’s livelihood. Known as the “Queen of Cruise-Ins,” the former Playboy Club bunny and race car driver organizes roughly 200 events a year under her Nancy Perry Productions banner, including the twice-a-year Cruise on Central and the well-attended KOOL-FM Car Show at University of Phoenix Stadium. (Insiders say the Valley hosts about 40 cruise-ins per week, and more than 300 car shows a year.)

VW row at the Pavilions

Perry – who learned to drive as a 10-year-old, racing a 1963 Chevrolet Corvair around her father’s junk yard on Chicago’s South Side – got into the car show/cruise-in business after attending a handful of anemic Valley cruise events in the early 1980s. “People just sat in their lawn chairs near the cars and looked at each other,” remembers Perry, whose prize piece is a ruby-red 1937 Ford Street Rod. “It was just very, very, very boring.” To cure what ailed the Valley’s cruise-in scene, Perry prescribed a lively infusion of live music, food vendors and promotional tie-ins. She estimates that 600 to 700 people attend her weekly Mixteca cruise-in at 67th Avenue and Bell Road (“during good weather, anyway”) and more at weekly events at Mesa Riverview and Chilly Bombers in Glendale.

In essence, car cruise events are migrations – and as with any migration, the plumage tends to look different depending on the season and time of day. “The older guys tend to come earlier in the day, when the sun is out,” says “Josh,” a 39-year-old Fountain Hills resident who, like Mike, asked to use only his first name. “They have older cars, too, usually – old hot rods, Mustangs and Camaros, and touring cars from the ’70s, like Cadillacs. Then when the sun goes down they take off, to Country Kitchen Buffet or wherever.”

A quick glance around the Pavilions parking lot on a Saturday night confirms Josh’s analysis: Few of the young men and women are over 30, and few cars seem to predate 1990: Civic Si sedans with disproportionally huge “wing”-style spoilers; 10-year-old Subarus with 22-inch Lexani rims probably worth more than the cars; a blueberry Toyota Supra with door-length MVP Motorsports decals.

Famed Oregon auto artist Randy Grubb shows off his hand-built DecoPod scooter.

Every few minutes, one of these plastic automotive peacocks roars out of the parking lot, its after-market muffler tuned for maximum sound pollution. Often, you can hear them all the way out to the freeway, like distant 747s. “Only the douche bags do the loud-as-possible thing,” Josh says with a smile.

After-market modification is the entry visa of cruise-in scenes, especially among younger drivers; anyone driving an unmodified, factory-only late-model production car is by definition an observer, not a participant. Josh and Mike reside in the understated margins of the “mod” scene – they reject the most ostentatious car-hobby accoutrements, like bi-plane spoilers and black lights, in favor of orthodox touches like a performance-enhanced exhaust system, new wheels and lowered suspension – “nothing crazy,” Josh says, adding that standard enhancements can easily run $10,000-plus.

On the more radical fringe of the car-hobby scene are the low-riders. Born in the Chicano communities of Southern California in the 1960s and ’70s, this particular segment takes the “how low can you go?” ethos to sometimes comical extremes. “They call it ‘laying frame,’” Mike says. “It’s when you lower the car so much that the frame actually scrapes the ground, and you get sparks.”

Just as influential on cruise-in culture is the street-racing revolution spawned by young Asian-Americans in California in the ’80s and ’90s – a subculture enshrined in The Fast and the Furious. According to cruise-in regulars, authorities stamped out street-racing in Arizona following a surge in popularity in the ’90s, but its aesthetic legacy remains: small, high-revving, late-model cars; brash colors and accessories; ample electronic add-ons and stereo wattage.

RVs stretch to the horizon at PIR. The raceway swells with more than 100,000 fans during each of its NASCAR Spint Cup weekends.

According to Mike, Scottsdale authorities imposed a strict 9 p.m. curfew on the Pavilions Car Show for a few years, but “let up when they saw that everyone was chill.” Today, the cruise-in typically lasts close to midnight – “especially the El Camino guys,” he says. “They don’t even get here until 10.”

On the more staid side of Valley car culture is the car show, which typically attracts an older crowd and more refined vehicle. That said, there’s significant overlap between the two communities, especially in the classic car scene. “A lot of people will pay to go to the car show in the morning, and then hit the cruise-in the late afternoon to meet their friends,” classic car enthusiast Al Tracy says.

The raceway swells with more than 100,000 fans during each of its NASCAR Spint Cup weekends.

According to Tracy, who operates, the classic car community falls into two camps: the “survivor” car enthusiasts who endeavor to preserve the vehicle’s stock essence, from the paint job to the engine; and the mainstream modification clique, who selectively modernize parts of the car to enhance performance or appearance. Both can be gratuitously expensive for serious car restorers, whether it’s a “survivor”-restored 1939 Lincoln with custom-made, era-appropriate tires, or a 1968 Chevelle with a new liquid-propane engine. Tracy says serious hobbyists sometimes spend between $70,000 and $80,000 to restore a classic vehicle that will knock the judges dead at a car show.

Nowhere will such a collector have more opportunities to do so than in Arizona, according to Bill Gilmore. As Assistant Curator of the Scottsdale International Auto Museum and a car collector himself (prize piece: a triple-white 1969 Lincoln Mark III), Gilmore has attended car shows and cruise events all over the country. In his opinion, the Valley is Valhalla for car nuts: “The only place that has more car shows is Southern California, because of raw population. But L.A. is horrible to get around in. It’s like, pick one show and you’re done for the day. But the Valley is easy to get around in, and has almost as many shows. My record is five in one day... Any time you wanna do something with cars, there’s something to do.”

Cruise-Ins/Car Shows
Saturday Mesa Riverview Cruise-In: This car-hobby gathering lures low-rider and novelty car enthusiasts, including regular appearances by a Ghostbusters replica 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor. Saturdays 5-8:30 p.m; 1061 N. Dobson Rd., Mesa, 480-461-0050,

Cruise on Central: This twice-yearly classic-auto confab has become the seminal cruise event in Phoenix, turning the midtown area near the Park Central Mall into an auto eye-candy playground every April and October. 3110 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-843-3545,

Goodguys Hot Rod Spring Nationals: See more than 2,500 hot rods, muscle cars, trucks and classics at this swap meet and car corral at Westworld. March 8-10. 16601 N. Pima Rd., Scottsdale, 925-838-9876,

Spring Cup driver Travis Kvapil rolls out of the garage area at PIR.

“I’m a sommelier,” the thirtyish fellow in the snap-neck Diet Mountain Dew racing jacket says. “I work in a restaurant in Las Vegas.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. “Backhoe mechanic” seemed more likely. Or “cobra breeder,” or possibly “Bass Pro Shop tackle manager.” The notion that this stranger could pair my veal scallopini with just the right earthy Rhone blend seems wildly paradoxical on this blustery Saturday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway, as the Great Clips 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series event storms to a rubber-burning, eardrum-splitting conclusion below us. 

Brand rep Kim Coon of Orlando – aka Miss Sprint Cup – poses at the pit.

I say as much, and wine-pairing NASCAR aficionado Dan Linzer shrugs. “That’s the stereotype [of NASCAR fans]: rednecks chugging shitty beer. Watching a bunch of cars go round and round in circles. But that’s not what it’s about. There’s a lot of nuance and strategy that you don’t see with the naked eye. Storylines. It’s a great sport.”

I scan the grandstands for the Phoenix International Raceway publicist who must surely be eavesdropping. This sommelier character feels like a well-briefed plant. Because authentic or not, he’s verbalizing precisely the same branding message the folks at the track floated on several occasions leading up to this early November race-day: NASCAR is for all people. NASCAR is diverse. NASCAR is evolving. And Phoenix International Raceway – as one of the sport’s busiest venues – is on the transformative cusp of NASCAR’s newly-global worldview. The 67,000-capacity track in Avondale hosts two NASCAR race weekends a year: one in November (headlined by the AdvoCare 500) and another in March (headlined by the Subway Fresh Fit 500). Each weekend, there’s also a slew of undercard races, like the new NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series 75, which features Mexican drivers and is part of the family-run racing organization’s effort to crack the Latin sports market.

Nationwide Series superstar Danica Patrick

The PIR marketing team even added a VIP-only wine grotto to the grandstand area, to crack the effete-and-possibly-Democrat-wine-drinker market. In other words, me.

People like me have resisted NASCAR for a long time. As a boy raised on a steady diet of Big Three professional team sports in suburban Southern California, I never so much as sniffed a stock-car race. People didn’t really consider it a sport. There was no temptation to like it – even as NASCAR popularity exploded in the ’90s and the ’00s, making it the second most-watched sporting entity on U.S. television behind the NFL. My complaints are those shared by most NASCAR non-fans: NASCAR is repetitive and loud; the multi-tiered competition structure is confusing; and the rampant corporate-branding is off-putting, cloaking every phrase in Infinite Jest-style endorsement-speak (e.g. the “Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola”) and making every car, race suit and available surface space look like one of those old steamer trunks plastered with port-of-call stickers.

race fans John Campbell, left, and Darryl Lavoy, both truck drivers from Elephant Butte, New Mexico

“It’s a necessary evil,” Linzer explains. “Stock-car racing is hugely expensive. The endorsements allow the sport to run at the high level it does.” Our conversation is made possible by Linzer’s two-way radio headset rig – otherwise we’d be screaming incomprehensibly into each other’s ears, like a pair of near-deaf centenarians on a patio in Miami Beach.

He helpfully points out interesting details about the race. For instance, the fact that some cars lack sponsorship: These are the untouchables of the stock-car world, the unproven race outfits scraping by on a dream. And not all sponsors are equal, Linzer adds, which is evident from watching the track: For every GoDaddy or Sam’s Club decal, there are four or five lesser benefactors like “Wood and Pellet Stoves” and “” He describes how most young drivers, especially those from humble backgrounds, start out racing go-karts, working their way up to off-road events and truck racing, before catching their break in the major NASCAR circuits. He explains that the difference between the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series is like “the difference between AAA minor league baseball and the Major Leagues... both are professional, but the Sprint Cup is the elite of the elite.” The Sprint Cup cars also have more horsepower, he adds.

Los Angeles residents Johnny Quinn and Natasha Kolbo, who have seen NASCAR events all over the country

For the NASCAR unitiated, this is the way to ingest the sport – with a stock-car sommelier to point out the various undertones and nuances. Once you achieve basic fluency, it becomes quite engrossing.

Dusk settles over Avondale, and the day’s crowd of 60,000 quickly evaporates; most have no interest in watching the late-afternoon undercard race, pitting up-and-coming drivers – many of them teenagers – against one another in slower, less well-endowed cars. But the fans don’t necessarily go home; thousands of them stay on-site at PIR’s adjacent RV campground.

It might be one of the great underrated sights in Arizona – acres upon acres of recreational vehicles, stretching to the horizon like prayer tents in Medina, many of them running flag trains proclaiming various NASCAR team allegiances (Miller Lite = Brad Keselowski, M&Ms = nemesis Kyle Busch), lands of origin (California, New Mexico, even a few from Canada) and cultural affinities (POW/MIA, “Don’t Tread on Me,” etc.). On the ground, this seeming RV ocean resolves into long, orderly rows where race fans string Christmas lights, hang plasma TVs and set out barbecue rigs – a thousand mini-habitats designed to sustain the weekend.

My first thought is: “Burning Man for Republicans.” Nothing wrong with that.

Dylan Kwasniewski exults with his race crew after winning the Talking Stick Resort 50, part of a developmental series for younger drivers.

Except for a deeply inebriated neighbor who inexplicably took exception to my pint-sized, portable grill – in retrospect, I think it offended his sense of masculinity, and he might have had a point – the citizens of this NASCAR gypsy town are unfailingly neighborly. Kelley Madsen and her teenage daughter Kenzi, both residents of Wyoming, decided to make the weekend’s suite of stock-car races the cornerstone of a week-long Arizona vacation. “The nearest [NASCAR race] to us is in Iowa,” Kelley says. “But the weather’s nicer here, so we made the longer drive.”

Young Kenzi is particularly smitten with Kyle Busch and his “bad boy attitude.” However, she doesn’t admire the diversification efforts (read: Danica Patrick) designed to court new fans exactly like herself: “I’m not really a huge fan of girls driving NASCAR. I think the main issue is to make sure they can compete. A lot of them can’t drive.”

Exploring the trenches of PIR’s RV city at night is a highly worthwhile activity, full of free beers and backslaps and drinking games where you toss things into holes. There’s also a slightly combustible air of good ol’ boy brio. “I’m Cowboy!” a large, sunburnt fellow says in greeting. “This is my place!” A San Diego resident, Cowboy has been making the hajj to Avondale for the last eight years, staking out a large piece of campground where he builds a bar, lays out cornhole courts and strings beer banners. Corona is an unofficial sponsor – every year, beer distributors give Cowboy several kegs, which he taps and pours for free.

Great clips 200 winner Joey Logano in the winners circle

“There’s nothing else like this,” he says, surveying the four dozen race fans in the makeshift nightclub. “Name another sporting event where this happens. You can’t.”

He has a point. This would never fly at Chase Field. The whole overnight RV scene is refreshingly unregulated and politically-incorrect – at least by “mainstream media” standards. The question is: Can it last? Over the years, NASCAR’s cloistered, one-dimensional demographic has protected it to some extent. We all know the NBA would dye its players green to put a few extra Martian butts in the seats, and NFL stadiums would fill their beer taps with raw broccoli juice if such a gesture stood a realistic chance of hooking vegans on football. In this era of development worship and focus-group obsession and wag-the-dog PR strategies, NASCAR was the one professional sport that seemed content to do things its own way: “Keepin’ it country” as redneck-proud singer Gretchen Wilson once put it. It was loud and dirty, but oddly pure.

But can that loud, dirty pureness survive the push for a kinder, gentler, more rainbow-y NASCAR? How long before Cowboy’s cornhole courts are gentrified?

This question nags me going into Sunday morning during the Sprint Cup main event. As the 43 four-wheeled billboards roar around the track at speeds averaging more than 110 mph, creating a cloud of pulverized rubber bits that you can feel in your mouth as you walk in front of the grandstand, it occurs to me that some of those bits must find their way into the wine glasses at the VIP grotto. That makes me smile.
The afternoon ends in spectacular fashion, with an intentional bump between racers Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, which causes Bowyer’s car to crash, which prompts members of Bowyer’s pit crew to rumble with Gordon’s crew and Bowyer himself to leap out of his car and seek out Gordon himself. This also makes me smile.

For the time being, Cowboy and his cornhole courts have nothing to worry about.

A cinnamon pearl 1936 Ford custom roadster inches onto the auction block at Barrett- Jackson. The car fetched $92,400.

A small mob has coalesced outside the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Collector Car Auction, packed so tightly around a 1913 Fiat Tipo 55 that the blocky roadster is concealed from view. As it turns out, the crowd’s fascination is less about the car – which looks a bit like a pygmy fire engine – than the man driving it: late-night funnyman and Barrett-Jackson habitue Jay Leno.

Later, a group of car fans similarly competes for a glimpse of a highly-modified, bubble-topped 1955 Lincoln Futura – familiar to car fans and TV junkies as the original Batmobile. When the orange-trimmed crime-fighting vehicle finally makes its appearance inside the auction tent, the crowds reacts as if Ghandi himself had walked on-stage – 30,000 souls joined in reverence, delight and disbelief. A collector from Ahwatukee Foothills claims it for a cool $4.6 million.

Across the Valley, a series of smaller but still-prestigious car auctions are simultaneously unfolding on this warm week in January – including the Russo and Steele, Gooding & Co. and RM auctions – along with dozens of seminars and car-lover confabs. By some estimates, more than 400,000 people will attend the events. “This is kind of considered the Super Bowl of car collecting,” Eric Deboer, a publicist for Hemmings Motor News, says of Arizona’s auction flurry. “Our industry builds its calendar around it.”
The auctions are a huge boon for tourism, plus sustain a robust auto restoration industry and give Arizona a healthier-than-average slice of the nation’s estimated $32 billion car-hobby market.

A Barrett-Jackson auctioneer solicits bids for a 1958 Corvette convertible owned by GM CEO Dan Ackerson. The winning $270,000 bid was donated to Habitat for Humanity.

According to Bill Gilmore of the Scottsdale International Auto Museum, two types of car collectors generally supply the “rolling sculptures” one sees at Barrett-Jackson and other elite auctions. The first are longtime collectors – or their heirs – looking to lighten their inventory of exotic mint-condition automobiles. Leno falls into this category. He typically auctions a vehicle a year at Barrett-Jackson (past specimens include a customized Star VMAX motorcycle and a car-towing tractor) and donates the proceeds to charity.

Occasionally, a so-called “barn-find” will make it to the auction blocks. These are classics that are babied and garaged by an owner unbeknownst to his family. When the owner passes, the family often has no idea of the car’s existence until somebody brushes aside cobwebs and finds it in the barn. That was the case with a 1965 Shelby GT350 that fetched $385,000 at Barrett-Jackson in 2009.

The second main artery that delivers high-value cars to the auctions is the classic-car restoration industry – professional shops that acquire classic cars and refurbish them. The Valley is replete with such craftsmen, who typically restore three to four cars a year, according to Al Tracy of One of the most prominent is Bob Adams Jr. of Scottsdale, nicknamed the “King of Kaisers” after his affinity for the Kaiser-Darrin, a fiberglass-body roadster built by Howard “Dutch” Darrin. Just 435 of the dimple-nosed two-seaters were built in 1954. The car never made waves on the auction circuit, fetching no more than $80,000 for top-quality models. Enter Adams. In 2007, the auto restorer – who grew up fixing cars on his father’s American Motors dealership lot in Wisconsin – tackled his first Kaiser-Darrin on a tip from an acquaintance. “‘I’ve got your next Barrett-Jackson car,’” he recalls him saying. “So I bought the thing for $25,000. It was definitely a challenge.”

Prospective buyers look under the hood of a 1941 Willys Swoopster roadster. The car, which sold for $60,500, has an after-market 550-horsepower Corvette engine.

Owing to the car’s age and miniscule production run, finding existing parts was virtually impossible. Adams had many of them custom-machined by third parties. For example, the Kaiser-Darrins’ unique forward-sliding doors require special aluminum rails. Adams presciently commissioned a machinist to manufacture four of the rails, in case he decided to restore another two-door Kaiser-Darrin. It cost him $350 for a set that probably ran no more than $1 when the car was sold new in 1954 for about $3,000. After a year of labor, Adams put his roadster up for auction. It fetched $160,000, shattering the record for a Kaiser-Darrin. Adams was hooked. “I ran out and bought as many [Kaiser-Darrins] as I could find,” he says. “They were just laying around. But then after three years in a row of setting records, everybody started to restore them... More of the cars were out there in working condition, and it kind of softened the market.” Now, he restores one or two a year.

The Valley’s abundance of auctions also blesses it with a robust and growing car museum scene. Mel Martin owns all but five of the 54 pieces in the Martin Car Museum in Phoenix. Located off the Black Canyon Freeway, the warehouse  opens up to reveal a fantastic automotive stash, including a magisterial 1930 Duesenberg valued at $2 million, and a Rose Parade-ready 1930 Buick LaSalle phaeton that Martin has driven on two cross-country road races.

Martin, who invites schools and nonprofits to the museum for free, says living in the Valley makes it easier for the 70-something to stoke the flames of his automotive love affair. “I usually will pick up a car or two at Barrett-Jackson,” he says. But he doesn’t claim to be the Valley’s most prolific car collector – that distinction, he says, must go to Ron Pratte, the media-shy multimillionaire developer who paid $5.5 million for a Shelby-Cobra and is rumored to keep upwards of 120 cars in his Chandler hangar. Even for comparatively modest car collectors – say, those with 119 or so fewer cars than Pratte – the Valley is a special place. “You can enjoy your cars year-round, which I like,” Adams says. “Back in Wisconsin, when the winter comes around, nobody is thinking about cars. And there are shows going on year-round... I just wish I moved out here sooner.”

Auto Museums
Martin Auto Museum: Auto collector Mel Martin’s personal showroom in Phoenix is impressively stocked with 54 vintage cars, including perhaps the only Model J Duesenberg (1930) in Arizona. Th-Sa, 12-5 p.m.; 17641 N. Black Canyon Hwy., Phoenix, 602-971-4753,

Scottsdale International Auto Museum: Soon to be a misnomer, this nonprofit that showcases more than 150 vehicles is in the midst of relocating to the Metro Center in Phoenix. The star: a 1936 Lincoln V-12 once owned by Howard Hughes. 9617 N. Metro Pkwy., Phoenix, 602-230-7111,

Penske Racing Museum: Peruse a showroom filled with Formula One racers commemorating the achievements of the Penske racing team. M-Sa, 8 a.m-4 p.m.; Su, 12-5 p.m; 7125 E. Chauncey Ln., Phoenix, (480) 538-4444,