A few years ago, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art presented an exhibition of automotive art. “Dream Cars: Innovative Design/Visionary Ideas” featured 17 of the world’s most stunning concept cars.
I was among the throngs that jammed High during the exhibitions run. Before leaving, I did a lap through the museum gift shop and bought what I thought was a souvenir of the show, a T-shirt promoting “Caffeine and Octane: World Class Speed and Style.”
I’ve worn that shirt on a series of annual cross-country road trips, but only recently learned that the shirt wasn’t designed for the museum’s concept car showcase but for a monthly Atlanta-area car show that has grown into an NBC Sports television series and soon will open its own car-centric restaurant, Caffeine and Octane at the Garage.
As it turns out, rather than using the Cars and Coffee moniker, the group of car guys who met in the parking lot of a Panera Bread restaurant in metro Atlanta called their gathering Caffeine and Octane. The group outgrew that parking lot, moved a couple of times to larger quarters, and then…
“About seven or maybe eight years ago, Auto Trader was looking to expand its brand, knew of Caffeine and Octane and purchased it from the founders,” explained Bruce Piefke, who had operated an events company for a couple of decades and was brought in by Auto Trader as a consultant to create a plan to take Caffeine and Octane national.
However, there were changes that transformed Auto Trader into Cox Automotive, “the original CEO left, long story short, after about two years they offered the opportunity to me to purchase it.”
Which Piefke did. But instead of taking Caffeine and Octane national, he took it international, in the form of a television series. He also moved the monthly Atlanta show to the parking lot of Perimeter Mall, where it has become the nation’s largest monthly car event, and he also staged a couple of Caffeine and Octane at the beach weekends on Jekyll Island (and is adding other locations this year), and most recently has begun to turn a former Firestone tire shop into a television studio, cafe and event space.
Piefke’s Special Events Network has done as many as 1,500 events a year. It started by organizing consumer events for radio stations.
“Back in the ’90s, radio stations were social media,” he said. “We created events that fit the format of the specific radio station.”
Since taking over Caffeine and Octane, Special Events Network has cut back to around 100 events a year, doing movie nights at military bases, where it sets up huge inflatable movie screens for an evening’s entertainment.
Piefke was so impressed by the stories people were sharing at Caffeine and Octane car shows that he launched a television series that is about to begin filming its fifth season.
“What drew me were the people, the stories, the camaraderie, the diversity,” he said. “I don’t know of any other hobby or passion that people have that appeals to every color, every race, every age group, every domination. It’s the diversity not just of the cars but of people.
“I wanted to do a TV show that was different. Not a build show. No drama. No fake deadlines. Just a show about the people and their passion.”
The show is hosted by historian Skip Smith, builder Bryan Fuller and drag racing champion Rickey Gadson. It airs weekly on NBC Sports and is distributed to 65 countries around the globe.
By the way, the monthly Caffeine and Octane show typically attracts more than 2,500 vehicles and as many as 20,000 spectators to the Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody, Georgia, just off the I-285 ring road north of Atlanta. The event takes place the first Sunday of each month, running from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m. so the parking lot can be cleared for shoppers arriving as stores open at noon.
The Caffeine and Octane at the Garage restaurant will be in Sandy Springs, Georgia, about 6 miles north of Perimeter Mall. Piefke hopes to have the restaurant — and its 150-space parking lot — open for business and car gatherings sometime in the summer of 2020.