Thrifty Thrills: 10 under-the-radar car events that won’t cost you an arm and a leg
For a long time, it seemed that classic car shows, rallies, and tours were reserved for spectacular cars typically out of reach to most of us. Fawning media coverage of such exclusive events only reinforced the thought. But the times have changed, and these days, the world is brimming with thrilling automotive adventures on the cheap, many of them accessible for less than $10,000, car included. Some events lack any barrier to entry and will lay out the welcome mat for every car owner and every car type, from a star-spangled Cadillac limousine to an AC Ace roadster. Welcome to the modern age of automotive events, born out of contempt for exclusivity and designed for the masses by friends and free-thinkers looking to do something inexpensive and fun with cars they love.
Despite the straightforward nature of drag racing, it takes a wealth of insider knowledge, talent, and experience to be successful. If this is why you never explored drag racing beyond Thursday night fun runs, fear not: The International Roll Racing Associa-tion is here for you. Roll racing allows speed demons casually interested in drag racing to compete in a sanctioned race, with little to no prep to their car.
The competition format borrows the rolling start from illegal street racing but places it within the safe confines of a drag strip, alongside other licensed racers. Eliminating the launch also saves wear on the drivetrain. Instead, racers roll tandem at 40 mph, a spotter triggers the green light, and the race is on. No times, no brackets, just head-to-head racing.
Currently, the IRRA operates six classes based on mile-per-hour capabilities, which generates a diverse roster that ranges from domestic muscle to high-powered imports. “You might see a Honda Civic race a Ford GT,” says IRRA founder Chris Harris. The group, which has now eclipsed the 500-member mark, held seven events in 2021 and shows no signs of slowing in 2022. The rolling start helps. (raceirra.com)
24 Hours of Lemons
In 2006, a group of buds led by “Chief Perpetrator” Jay Lamm and “Assistant Perpetrator” Nick Pon set out to create an inexpensive series for wheel-to-wheel racing. “Even in SCCA Spec Miata, there were significant investments for licensing, tires, and car prep,” says Pon. “We wanted to reduce—or remove—those barriers.”
The result is arguably the biggest riot you can have on a racetrack for less than $500. As the name suggests, 24 Hours of Lemons is an endurance race on a paved road course featuring spray-painted crap cans. (If you enjoy automotive atrocities at a slower pace, Concours d’Lemons—the race’s sister act—allows owners to enter their cars in a judged show.) Unlike most races, the true victors aren’t those who cross the line first—they are the ones who do it in style. “We have an overall winner trophy, but that’s not the one people want,” says Pon. Their Index of Effluency (a lampoon of Le Mans’s Index of Thermal Efficiency), which factors in the car with its finishing position, is the most prized. “We don’t care if you won in a BMW, but we may award you the Index if you finished 10th in an AMC Hornet.”
Trophies aside, the real juice behind the international popularity of Lemons is the ease of involvement—an original goal of the founders—resulting in an eclectic race roster. “You can have a driver that ran Le Mans and the guy who does his landscaping on the same team.” How’s that for no barriers? (24hoursoflemons.com)
Classic Car Adventures
Many of the world’s most vaunt-ed classic car road rallies are far more exclusive than Studio 54 in its prime. Big-ticket seats are often reserved for retired road racers, white-collar collectors, and assorted automotive glitterati. Such events are a great way to spend piles of cash, but Classic Car Adventures is here for the rest of us. Dave Hord and his crew at CCA serve up scenic routes and breath-taking journeys to the masses.
“We started 12 years ago because there weren’t any rallies that casual motorists could afford to enter,” says Hord. “And we’re all about accepting any collector car.” No membership fees, no monthly meetings—just book a drive and show up.
Every August, Hord and fellow adventurers gather in British Columbia to embark on what may be CCA’s most popular escapade: the Rush to Gold Bridge. “It hearkens back to an era when classic cars weren’t, well, classic,” says Hord, “and if you wanted to explore caves on Vancouver Island, for example, you took your Fiat or VW.” The rugged, three-day noncompetitive drive explores over 600 miles of paved—and unpaved—roads. Unlike many rallies, the route isn’t pre-run, which provides another challenge. “We’ve gone up logging roads only to find that the path is no longer open.”
Classic Car Adventures features nine other rallies throughout the year, including single-day free events, across Canada and the United States, with 60 or fewer entry spaces per event. “We’re all about getting people to use their collector cars,” says Hord. (classiccaradventures.com)
“We wanted a space to celebrate 1980s and ’90s cars,” says Radwood founder Art Cervantes, “and every car show in California was all metal bumpers or modern supercars.” Inspired by the Goodwood Revival’s period- correct automobiles, attire, and entertainment, Cervantes and his fellow dudes developed an event to celebrate all things radical—specifically, any car from 1980 to 1999. “I love this era. Eighties cars were from my formative years,” says Cervantes, “while the ’90s cars were ones that I couldn’t afford in high school.” The first event, held in 2017 in Cervantes’s hometown of San Francisco, offered 400 spots, first come, first serve. They sold out immediately.
Since then, Radwood has grown into an international phenomenon by tapping into show-goers’ nostalgia, which has always gone beyond cars. In addition to the usual rows of bodacious rides—MR2s, Beats, Countaches, 944s, R5s, Testarossas—Cervantes and his crew booked famous rappers, held extreme sports exhibitions, and handed out awards for best attire. To manage the behemoth, which quickly became a full-fledged brand with global reach, Cervantes left his software job in Silicon Valley. In 2019, the event came full circle, as Cervantes puts it, when Radwood held its first show across the pond at the Goodwood Revival. (radwood.com)
The Gambler 500 first grew legs in 2014 when a group of friends organized a 500-mile waypoint rally in impractical $500 cars, from Portland to Bend, Oregon, and back, on rutted two tracks and soggy service roads. Over suds at a local bar that doubled as a finish line, scores were tabulated for the 10 teams. By year three, word-of-mouth popularity had tripled the car count. “I remember thinking 30 was enough cars,” says founder Tate Morgan. Then one of their YouTube videos featuring a lifted Miata, airborne stock sedans, and other off-road buffoonery broke the internet, netting some 4 million Facebook views in a couple of days. The following year, 860 cars rolled into Portland.
The Gambler has since morphed into a segment with many ancillary projects, including the Sons of Smokey, the world’s largest public land cleanup task force. The original race, which now takes place during the annual Gamblertown festival, welcomes over 3000 off-roaders every summer, despite the event’s intentionally ill- defined parameters. “We use how vague we are as a qualifier,” says Morgan. “If you can’t figure out how to get on board through our sh*tty website, you probably don’t belong in a $500 car in the middle of the desert.” And according to Morgan, they only have two rules: “1) Don’t be a dick. 2) Fun is greater than rules.”
As focus has shifted away from the actual waypoint rush, Morgan and his fellow Gamblers have removed any type of gatekeeping, including the original $500 maximum vehicle purchase price. Rusty Porsches, scrubby Geo Metros, retired limousines—it’s all fair game at the Gambler. (gambler500.com)
Caffeine and Octane
Since the first cars and coffee, held in the shadow of Orange County’s Crystal Cove Mall back in 2003, nearly every local car club has hosted its own version of the informal morning meet-up. Most are held in parking lots and most start and end before noon. None, however, is as large as Atlanta’s Caffeine and Octane.
The first Sunday of every month, in the parking lot of Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody, Georgia, more than 3000 cars park cheek-to-jowl, drawing more than 15,000 spectators. “The cars and the people are so diverse,” says event owner Bruce Piefke. “People who wouldn’t even make eye contact on an airplane become friends at a Caffeine and Octane.” Piefke has built on the idea of an informal gathering to include food trucks, marque-specific lots, and event awards.
Regulars make the trek from neighboring cities—Charlotte, Birmingham, Savannah—to display their rides. In fact, Piefke and his crew witnessed so many people coming from out of town (even as far away as Australia) to check out the event that they purchased Lanier Race-way, an oval track across the street from Road Atlanta, with plans to turn that into Caffeine and Octane Raceplex. “The racetrack, plus the 60 acres that come with it, will create a destination for enthusiasts,” says Piefke. If it’s anything like Caffeine and Octane in Dunwoody, it will be larger than life. (caffeineandoctane.com)
Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional
Since 2009, Concours d’Lemons has been the counterpunch to snobbish golf course car shows. It has given participants a place to show their rolling eye-sores and revel in the odd and obscure, with honors like Soul-Sucking Japanese Appliance, Unmitigated Gaul Award, and Worst in Show.
Not to be outdone, eight years ago, our fellow petrolheads across the pond started their own celebration of automotive oddballs—the Concours de l’Ordinaire at the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional.
The judges review thousands of applicants before selecting the final group of 50 to grace (sully?) the grounds of Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire. Emphasis is placed on less exotic cars (built between 1966 and 1996) and favors lower trim levels.
“The Festival of the Unexceptional was created to recognize that car enthusiasts come in all shapes and sizes,” says Hagerty U.K. director Mark Roper. “The passion for driving and our hobby is the same.” Twingo, Cherry, Arna, Acclaim—all obscure, all aver-age, all unexceptional. And all will, once again, grace an English lawn in 2022. (hagerty.co.uk)
Back in the early aughts, Chris Stewart and his college buddies started the West Michigan Honda Meet, annually angle-parking their homebuilt imports in the state parks around Grand Rapids. “It all changed when we found out we could rent a racetrack,” says Stewart. The group pooled its money to move the yearly celebration to GingerMan Raceway. Stewart and his crew recruited locals from the Mitten State and laid out the welcome mat for anyone even moderately curious about club racing.
Honda Meet continued even after Stewart moved to Chicago for an advertising job. There, he developed friendships with those involved in Chicago’s bustling music scene. “I had so much segmentation among my friends,” he says. “I was like, how can we get everyone to hang out together?” GridLife was Stewart’s solution.
Cars and crowds amassed at GingerMan in 2014 for GridLife’s debut, an extensive festival of auto racing and live music. “You go to car shows or races as a spectator, and there’s maybe an hour or so of entertainment before you get bored,” says Stewart. “I used what I knew from the ad world to keep attendees engaged throughout our festival.” Whatever Stewart and his crew are doing, it’s working: GridLife has expanded rapidly since the first fest, and there are now 14 events across the country. Many include professional drifting, time attack, and a touring car championship. Oh, and plenty of live music. (grid.life)
As the Gambler 500 grew, it became evident to the original group of off-roaders that racing was no longer an option. The sheer size of the event would preclude any real com-petition. Rather than erase it from the menu, in 2019, Chuck Brazer spun it off into its own racing series, called HooptieX.
“It is rallycross for cheap cars, and for everybody,” says Brazer. Twenty events dotting the continental U.S showcase unconventional rides slinging mud and getting air. Competitors fall into one of four classes: Two-Wheel-Drive Garbage (must cost about $500), All-Wheel-Drive Garbage (must cost about $500), the Hater Class composed largely of daily drivers, and Super Soft, made up of purpose-built off-roaders.
The $65 entry fee earns you about nine laps—or 15 minutes—on a 1–2-mile course. “The best part of the gig, for me, is seeing someone who has never raced come out in their mom’s car or whatever is in their driveway,” says Brazer, “and then seeing those people have natural driving talent and get hooked.” (hooptiex.com)
Hot Rod Power Tour
To promote the first annual Power Festival, a sprawling car show in Norwalk, Ohio, Hot Rod magazine editors pitched a cross-country road rally from their office in Los Angeles. In May 1995, a caravan of customs rolled from the roof of the Petersen Automotive Museum through America’s heartland, a stunt that went viral be-fore that was a thing. The companion fest is long gone, but the Power Tour soldiers on, now in its 28th year.
The tour’s route changes annually, and upward of 5000 people take part, whether for just a stint or two or for the entire route, to earn a coveted Long Hauler plaque. “The routes tend to avoid big highways and you end up driving through back roads and small cities, says Hagerty senior editor and eight-time Power Tourer Brandan Gillogly. “Every cafe and gas station along the trail becomes a temporary car show. Occasionally an old downtown main street will be filled with muscle cars and classic trucks, making it easy to imagine what the place could have looked like 50 years ago.”
Plenty of participants opt for high-dollar protourers, street rods, and modern muscle cars to make the journey, but Gillogly asserts that a large contingent is made up of sub-$10,000 rides, including 1980s and ’90s pony cars, Mavericks, four-door Novas and Chevelles, and full-size 1960s cruisers. This year, the Power Tour begins its 1000-mile journey at Memphis International Raceway and meanders through the southeast before concluding at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Is this the summer you make that Long Haul? (motortrend.com/events/hot-rod-power-tour)