Vintage cars of all makes and models have been traveling to Springfield, Illinois, in September for the past 18 years. The event is the Route 66 Mother Road Festival, and it is the place to see and be seen for street rods, hotrods, various customs, and their owners.
The show is a weekend-long party created by the opportunity to pay homage to the Route 66 highway of years past. Since the highly traveled vintage road passed directly through Springfield, Illinois, it is the perfect locale for one of the numerous tribute festivals.
Not just a car show, it memorializes all that is Route 66 with tents filled with memorabilia, a pin-up girl competition, cruising, lots of music, and everything hot rod.
This show has continued to increase in numbers of cars and spectators every year. Car owners travel from across the country for the happening that commemorates this portion of the old Route 66.
Beginning in 2001 in the downtown area of Springfield, the event was sold to new promoters a couple of years later and moved to the nearby grounds of the Illinois State Fair.
It didn’t take long for the show to burst the seams on the fairgrounds. The event has since been transferred back to the streets of downtown Springfield, once again. A reported 25,000 visitors attend the festival each year, and thousands of cars are on display.
“My wife Janet and I have made this one of our stops on Route 66 every year,” Arthur Reyes tells us. “We have traveled what is left of the Route 66 highway many times, but this show is a focus point of the history that we love to attend.”
A cruise for charity kicks off the Bonnier Events festival on Friday night. Well over 2,000 vehicles were lined up in the parking lots on the east side of Springfield by sunset. An Abe Lincoln actor led the parade in a convertible, along with a police escort, as they filled the town’s main corridors and ultimately headed through the crowds of spectators into downtown.
It took more than two hours for all the cars to leave the lot tightly packed together. Participants genuinely embrace the opportunity to dress in clothes from the heyday of Route 66 to show off for the watchers. Plenty of photos were taken as the vehicles passed through the center of the city.
I saw one onlooker looking over the street rods with sharp detail. “I am building my own ’37 Ford Coupe, but wasn’t able to get it done in time for this show,” Oscar Smith says. “It will definitely be a driver for me. I don’t believe in spending time making a trailer queen. I will be cruising in this event next year.”
On Saturday morning, it didn’t take long for space to be at a premium. Show-goers have their favorite spots and try to be in the same place with their same friends on an annual basis. Several car clubs bring their entire membership with them and park together. Before show judging began, kits of car cleaning and polishing products were highly evident.
“We’re not part of any car clubs,” Bill Defina says. “We feel like we’re part of a group at this show because we always park in the same spot, and we know the guys who park around us over the years.”
Downtown Springfield is full of Lincoln-based history and attractions. The cars on display were allowed to bring them over to a specific corner by the historic Old Illinois State Capital to use as a backdrop for photos of their custom cars. Visitors to downtown can enjoy the history of Route 66 in the vendor marketplace. Everything from souvenirs, historical displays, and performance vendors are all on display in the blocks of exhibits.
A popular competition at the Mother Road Festival is the pin-up girl contest. The girls who enter aren’t just dressing up for the judging; several of them embrace the pin-up lifestyle and are well-rehearsed with their alter egos.
Miss Aurora Borealis was the Mother Road overall contest champion, with Miss Ruby Steele earning the Miss Route 66 (first runner-up) title. Miss Molly Mayhem was also honored as Miss Route 55 (second runner-up.)
Just for fun and bragging rights during the festival, the burnout contest brings a crowd over to watch the dedicated burnout cars and trucks. The smell of burning rubber filled downtown in mid-afternoon as the competition got underway. The winner was Billy Reese, a local from Springfield, in his 1988 Chevy S-10. Runner-up was Jimmy Dixon of Pana, Illinois, driving his 1975 Chevy Pickup.
It was an enjoyable walk down memory lane talking with the entrants about their cars. The competition was stiff, and the choices were tough for our Rod Authority team to select only five picks. After viewing the throngs of custom cars in the event, we shot our favorite cars and made many new hot rod friends along the way.