Looking Back At Carlisle’s Winter Autofest In Lakeland, Florida

Enthusiasts and fans of all makes and models have likely heard of Carlisle Events and their bevy of car-centric shows held at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania fairgrounds throughout the year. The small Pennsylvania town becomes “the place to be” throughout the summer months, but what if there is more fun to be had?

Carlisle Events has answered that question by providing northern enthusiasts a respite from the cold during its Winter Autofest, which is held every February at the sprawling Sun n’ Fun facilities in Lakeland, Florida. Home of the world-renowned Sun n’ Fun airshow, the grounds are home for several automotive events that comprise Autofest, all occurring during the same weekend.

The history and vast acreage of the Sun n’ Fun facilities make it a great venue for Winter Autofest. Photo: David Bowman/Instagram: humble_media

Winter Autofest is a joint effort between Carlisle Events, Carlisle Auctions, the National Corvette Restorers Society, and the local Imperial Mustangs of Polk County. These entities join forces to make Lakeland the epicenter of all things automotive. Anyone who has attended one of the many events held at Carlisle can attest, the folks of Carlisle Events know how to put on a party!

For the Corvette faithful, there was a Corvette-specific show field during Winter Autofest. Coupled with the Corvette swap meet and NCRS’ 42nd Florida Winter Regional, there was plenty of shopping, showing, judging and swapping to keep you well within the realm of Corvette nirvana. There were over 400 cars offered in the auction with a one-hour spot specifically for Corvette-only bidding.

The NCRS held their Winter Regional event at Winter Autofest and NCRS members were vying for ribbons and awards while Winter Autofest was handing out both Celebrity Pick and Autofest Favorite awards.

The Imperial Mustangs of Polk County hosted its Mustang show on Saturday, which brought scores of pony cars onto the grounds in an impressive parade of colors and Mustang generations. Judged classes for the Mustangs offered their owners the chance to take home the tin for their building and cleaning efforts.

Carlisle Auctions offered over 400 cars during the event. Saturday featured a one-hour, Corvette-only offering. Photo: David Bowman/Instagram: humble_media

A first for Winter Autofest was the Mopar show field, which was open to all cars that fall under the Pentastar banner. Two clubs, the Central Florida Mopar Mafia and the Florida Mopar Association came out in force to wave the Mopar flag and even though this was the first year for the class, the Mopar area was almost unable to contain all the entrants. Reportedly, plans are already afoot to increase this show area exponentially, as this group is sure to grow next year.

The Mopar show field went full-send with the Florida Mopar Association and Central Florida Mopar Mafia bringing in the largest groups of single-club cars for the event. The Central Florida Mopar Mafia took home the number one spot for most cars from a single club.

There was also a Cruise-In, which included a show field for all makes and models which didn’t fit into the previous three classifications. Entrants for the Cruise-In area ranged from a 1925 Model T Ford boat tail speedster to all models of GM, Chrysler, and Ford; customs, restorations, and resto-mods. Trucks, as well as all-electric autos and imports, were in attendance within the Cruise-In. A vast array of colorful cars were found making use of the all-encompassing show area, soaking up some rays in the midday sun.

Carlisle Auctions was also going full-force, offering over 400 classic and muscle cars to the highest bidders. With Carlisle Events’ connections within the industry, they were able to secure several personalities for seminars and meet-and-greet sessions. Mr. 4-Speed himself, Herb McCandless, along with TV personality, Lou Santiago, World-Class Corvette Technician Paul Koerner, and SEMA star-car builder, Mike Staveski were on-hand to answer questions, sign autographs, and enjoy the automotive surroundings with attendees.

The Cruise-In afforded all makes and models a place to be part of the event and participate in the race to capture a judge's eye (and an award). Photos: David Bowman/Instagram: humble_media

There were several display tents throughout the grounds. There was a 1970 display that highlighted many makes and models of cars built that year. Herb McCandless had several of his historic, Hemi-powered cars for viewing and another favorite was the Race-Inspired display, which featured such notable cars as Richard Petty’s Superbird, numerous L88- and early Fuelie-powered Corvette race cars and another Hemi-powered Sox & Martin ‘Cuda.

A crowd always formed whenever these cars would fire up for either a stroll around the Sun n’ Fun facilities or to head over for a brief photo-op by the MIG fighters which were stationed nearby. Other avionic enjoyment could be had by flying over the entire show in an open-cockpit Stearman biplane.

A Chilly Start

Weather leading up to the event was amazing, but the event got off to a chilly start, thanks to Friday’s cold front moving through with lower temps, an early morning rain, and constant breeze. Saturday started off a bit chilly but by noon, temps were climbing into the 70s and the sun kept the chill at bay.

World-Class Technician Paul Koerner, Corvette Engineer Tom Hill, TV personality Lou Santiago, and Mr. 4-speed himself, Herb McCandless were on-hand throughout the event, speaking with attendees and answering questions in numerous seminars.

Attendees rolled through the gates in droves by foot and in their cars looking for fun, parts, and answers to their pressing questions. Vendors filled the swap meet areas and the midway, looking for the next buyer of the wares while others supplied great food for the hungry masses.

The swap meet area held parts and automobilia from every aspect of road-worthiness. There were parts awaiting restoration, new parts to replace old ones, and even items to decorate your garage or man cave. Photo: David Bowman/Instagram: humble_media

Saturday’s chilly start was soon broken by exhaust sounds and smell of race gas. Entrants of the Race-Inspired display were rounded up for a short parade lap around the event grounds. Instead of a museum-esque display of three-dimensional posters, the cars in this special display were meant to be enjoyed. The smiles and a vast number of cameras was a sure sign that everyone enjoyed seeing and experiencing the cars as they were intended.

As temperatures began to hover into the low-70s, many attendees from the northern states soon lost track of the season and succumbed to the year-long summer-like season that envelops the great state of Florida. Sunscreen was the order of the day and many attendees took home tan lines and one of the Celebrity Pick or Autofest Favorites awards as a reminder of the fun they had during the event.

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The number of cars for show field attendance, enthusiast foot traffic and vendor spaces from this event are all headed into the record books. The next opportunity to see them will come next year when the automotive world will head south to enjoy automotive fun at a place called Sun n’ Fun.

The next Winter Autofest is slated for February 19-21, 2021, but you can also bide your time by visiting one of the many Carlisle Events being held during the not-so-snowy summer months in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Just remember, when you’re ready for Old Man Winter to be done next year, you can beat him to the punch by setting your sights on Lakeland, Florida and the Carlisle Events Winter Autofest 2021.

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About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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