I went to Charlotte last week to attend my first Charlotte AutoFair. So what did I see, do and learn at this event? Well in a nutshell, I looked at thousands of cars for sale, scores of parts, drag raced a Ford Mustang, drove a racing lawnmower, ate some awesome county fair food, petted animals in the petting zoo, spent time with Bobby Allison and Ray Evernham, got a tour of the NASCAR No. 24 Hendrick Racing shop with Jeff Gordon’s step father, John Bickford, attended a full blown AACA show, got a tour of his Evernham’s car collection, and made a lot of new car friends, including Ray and John.
Sounds like a lot of stuff in four days and it was. Very little time was spent sleeping, but as they say, you can sleep when you are dead.
With all those activities, what did I learn during the week about the AutoFair?
Well, first and most importantly, I learned that the car hobby is not just reserved for rich old guys. There is a prevailing idea among “experts” in the hobby that younger people are not getting into classic and collector cars. I had this idea myself and have spoken and written about it quite a bit. The idea is that if younger people do not embrace the car hobby, then the hobby runs the risk of disappearing completely.
But after attending the AutoFair, my fears are much diminished. There were hundreds of younger people at the event buying cars, parts and the like. I personally saw a 21-year-old guy buying a Ford Flathead V8 and met a bunch of other guys in their 20s and 30s who were looking for everything from ’57 Chevy Bel Airs to Mustangs and Mopar muscle cars.
These were not just dreamers or lookers, but guys who were there to find and buy an old car. I would guess that at least 25 percent of the attendees at the AutoFair were under 40, which illustrated to me that the young guys are strong in the hobby even if they aren’t going to Pebble Beach and other such events. This does not mean they are not interested in higher-end events, but they are just not at that level of collecting yet. I am confident that they will get there.
The next thing I learned is that, if possible, try to go to AutoFair on Wednesday and Thursday. The vendors are setting up on Wednesday and Thursday and there are much fewer spectators on site either day, mostly just vendors and people getting their cars ready for sale. This gives you first shot at both cars and parts that are for sale. The nice silver Barracuda I saw on Thursday morning was already sold by Thursday afternoon.
Many people think that the best deals for cars and parts happen on Sunday but there are many great deals to be had early as well. You never know what kind of weather you will get in Charlotte in early April and this can lead to some great buying opportunities early. Also attending during the first few days is when you will find the most stuff for sale and when the really rare stuff is still available.
As a journalist, getting to the AutoFair early also allowed me the opportunity to drag race a new Ford Mustang at the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 4-wide drag strip. I had only tried out drag racing one other time and found the experience unlike any other racing I have done before.
I started out with some instruction from the staff at the Dragway and then went at it. My first time was just under 15 seconds for the quarter mile. After some more pointers, my final run came in at 14.363, which I was told was a great improvement. I felt good about it and decided not to beat the car up any longer and call it a day.
The tour of the Hendrick #24 shop happened at the last minute on Thursday and was mind blowing. We were not allowed to take pictures during the tour, due to the fact that a lot of Top Secret stuff goes on in a modern race shop, but the tour was still phenomenal.
Having John Bickford as tour guide did nothing but enhance the experience. The level of technology at a modern day NASCAR shop is mind blowing. The 24 shop has its own carbon fiber shop on site and makes just about everything for the cars. Modern teams are more like manufacturers of race cars than shops that just tweak a bit here or there. They are literally constructing cars from scratch. I owe John a debt of gratitude for this amazing behind the scenes look at a modern NASCAR team.
The rest of the week is a bit of a blur, with many cars throw in for good measure. Some of my favorite cars were those cars in Ray Evernham’s collection. This was such an amazing visit that we are going to cover it separately later.
Other standouts were the Modern Muscle display and the 101 years of Dodge display in the AutoFair show garage. If you love modern muscle cars or great Dodge muscle cars, you were in heaven in the garage.
By Friday and Saturday, Charlotte Motor Speedway filled with cars and people and getting around is a lot more difficult. It is definitely worth going these days as that is when the cars for sale corral that rings the entire track is filled as well. No matter what your taste, there was something for you to see or buy in the sale area, everything from rat rods and customs to imports and exotics, with everything in between.
Another tip about the Charlotte AutoFair is that you never know who you might meet while you are there. During our laps around the car corral we ran into race-winning NASCAR Camping World truck series driver Tim Peters, who was selling a really clean 1969 Mustang Mach 1. It was great to talk to him and have him show us his car.
By Saturday afternoon we were a bit worn out but somehow the opportunity to drive a U.S. Lawnmower Racing Association racing mower on the asphalt Legends car track behind the speedway. This was something I just had to do, especially with the opportunity for some expert instruction from the world’s fastest lawnmower racer, Bobby Cleveland.
I initially thought lawnmower racing was a bit of a joke but after watching a few races, I am here to tell you that it is serious and competitive stuff. The mower I rode was kindly lent by David Curtis, who is sponsored by Cattledog Coffee Roasters.
David’s mower, which started out as a wrecked Lowes lawnmower, is a proper race vehicle with tons of power and a surprisingly able chassis. These things are fast and you really have to hold onto a racing lawnmower with almost 50 horsepower on tap. I came in after about 10 laps and was told that I did a good job by both Bobby and David. Best of all, I returned the race mower to David intact and without any damage.
This is real racing on real racing vehicles and there cannot be a cheaper way to go wheel-to-wheel racing that we can think of. Besides that it was a ton of fun.
If the Charlotte AutoFair sounds too good to be real, it isn’t. This event has something for everyone and is one of the few car-collecting events that can really be enjoyed by the entire family. If you have not yet had the opportunity to attend this world-class event, be sure to mark your calendar to attend the next one, which is September 24-27.