In 1967, 12 members of the newly formed Hornets Nest Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America decided one of the first things they should do is to sell some vintage car parts. A flea market was organized after they found a suitable and available parking lot and the club was in business.
As the club grew in membership, it realized its annual flea market venture was fast outgrowing each of the locations they filled. Something had to be done.
Fortunately, the Charlotte/Concord, North Carolina club was located near the Dennis Carpenter Ford Restoration Parts company (in Concord). The business began in 1970 when Carpenter started reproducing plastic injection-molded dash and interior knobs for vintage Fords in his basement.
Carpenter knew H.A. ”Humpy” Wheeler, then the new general manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and presented the idea that maybe a vintage car flea market might work on the speedway property. Thus, in 1975, the Charlotte AutoFair was born.
A year earlier, Mel Carson joined the Hornets Nest Region and, of course, got involved with helping organize a newly expanded flea market at the race track, joining 30 club members who laid out 200 vending spaces for parts sellers.
This year marked 44 years since that first AutoFair and Carson could not imagine the event would ever become as large and expansive as it is today. Dubbed the largest automotive collector event in the Southeast, the show, flea market, car corral and AACA regional meet rivals the granddaddy of collector car events, the Eastern Fall Meet held each year in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Much has changed since those early events were organized. The Hornets Nest Region continues to host the event, and Carson is executive director of the club, overseeing a full-time staff of four who tend to the needs of more than 500 members.
“We aren’t the largest region in the country,” said Carson, “but we have easily the most active, and much has changed since those early days of event planning and setup.”
The club uses over 300 volunteers to stage the AutoFair each spring, laying out more than 9,000 vending spaces and working out the logistics of having a car show, car corral and AACA regional meet in one place and within four days.
“We used to use yellow chalk lines to place the vendor spaces,” Carson said during a brief break from the busy routine of checking and rechecking all the needs for an event this large. “Now we bring in a team of surveyors and use a computer to place stakes and assign everyone a spot in four separate fields.”
“We have a talented group of volunteers and we hire a bunch of off-duty police officers to help keep things under control during the event.”
Carson, who became executive director in 1990, said the biggest challenge each year is getting vendors to sign up on time.
He said adapting to the changes at the speedway also presents some challenges.
“The speedway is a business, of course, and they have made many changes over the years, adding things like the infield road course and various buildings meant to serve their audience and race teams.”
The AutoFair didn’t host the AACA regional meet until 2008, but that also places some issues into the mix as the requirements for this important event must be incorporated into schedules and space in the complex.
The 2,000-acre Charlotte Motor Speedway encompasses the 1 ½-mile NASCAR track, the country’s only all-concrete four-lane drag strip (ZMAX Dragway), a ¼-mile clay oval track that hosts events like the World of Outlaws races, and the infield NASCAR 2 – mile road course.
The 2019 event was held April 4-7 and attracted 150,000 spectators, 900 “for sale” collector vehicles, 1,000 show cars parked on the asphalt track, and 302 AACA vehicles competing in the judged regional meet.
Just walking the grounds is a big undertaking and it’s nearly impossible to take it all in just one or two days. The Hornets Nest Region must provide everything from portable toilets (vendors could even rent their own) to electric scooters (no golf carts allowed).
Volunteers shepherded show cars, spectators, vendors and support staff to surrounding parking areas and provided shuttle transit to various points of interest on the property. The Hornets Nest folks even had motorized transport available to help parts buyers move their purchases to their vehicles. It appeared the planning committee didn’t miss a single detail.
While Carson is executive director of the regional group which is governed by a 12-member board of directors, he is also the 2019 president of the national AACA, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania. This is one very busy car nut.
The Hornets Nest Region puts a lot of effort into AutoFair, but also provides another great benefit with its 501(c)3 foundation to provide educational scholarships to young people and to those being educated in vehicle-related studies. The HNR Foundation also provides donations to the AACA Museum and Library & Research Center and to other organizations related to the preservation and restoration of collector vehicles.
The Charlotte AutoFair should be on every gearhead’s wish list. The quality of all the aspects of the event is top notch and reflects the passion of the Hornets Nest Region to host the best collector event in the country.