Hot Rods & Cool Cruisin’

by Michael Wojtas
Photography by Sabrina Ullom, Jerry Gray & courtesy of Central Illinois Cruisers

Chuck McCarty, founder of the Central Illinois Cruisers Car Club, likes to describe himself as “car-crazy.” He considers himself fortunate to work with area car dealer Gary Uftring because the enterprise allows him to indulge his automotive enthusiasm.

“I get a lot of special opportunities because I work with Gary. He owns 50 to 60 muscle cars that I work on during the week,” says McCarty. “There are a lot of other ‘car people’ in Peoria, and they don’t have the same chance I do to be around these old cars.”

With fond memories of the golden evenings he spent cruising Peoria’s Main Street in the late ‘60s, McCarty felt a community-wide void that afflicted his fellow car lovers and decided to do something about it. By putting together the Central Illinois Cruisers, he was able to rekindle rosy remembrances of days bygone and give local gearheads a place to commune.

Golden Days Revived
“We had a ‘50s-themed party when I turned 50,” recalls McCarty. “There were a lot of car guys there, and I got to thinking, how cool would it be to have cruise-ins like this all the time?”

McCarty has a long history with such events. Besides spending his younger years showing his rides off around town, he had also attended the Street Rod Nationals, which debuted in Peoria in 1970 before relocating to other locales, Louisville, St. Paul and Oklahoma City among them.

But not every Peorian who enjoyed the Nationals could follow the “granddaddy of street rod events” when it moved out of state. So after that party in 1997, realizing he wasn’t the only person in the area who cherished these events, McCarty initiated the Central Illinois Cruisers, a group for locals who share his enthusiasm for automobiles from decades past.

“There are a lot of people in the area with old cars who can’t just pack up and leave town, so I started thinking that we could bring the events to [them],” explained McCarthy. “People love that it’s free. Car shows cost money, and people have to sit there all day just to wait for a trophy. Here, they can just enjoy the event.”

At these events, members can show off their classic cars in a non-competitive environment, catch a glimpse of others’ classic rides, and mingle with like-minded hobbyists. Perhaps most importantly, though, the cruise-ins provide fertile ground for the cultivation of conversation.

“People like to reminisce and talk about the car they used to have or that their dad had…there’s always a story about these cars,” affirms McCarty.“ A lot of people in their 50s and older have had cars since their 20s and 30s, and they just want a place to show them off,” he says, adding, “Sometimes we get members who don’t even have an old car; they just want to come share in the fun. Group membership is open to everyone, and you don’t even have to be a member to participate in cruise-ins.”

It’s evident from listening to McCarty that the Cruisers are about more than personal reminiscence. The group was also created in part to honor Peoria’s rich history of automotive recreation.

Fast Times, Slo-Pokes
“I want to recognize these Slo-Pokes guys who are starting to get up there in age,” says McCarty, acknowledging the legendary group that introduced him to the idea of the cruise-in in the ‘60s. And McCarty wasn’t the only one influenced by these local car fanatics.

Peoria’s Slo-Pokes were the force behind that first Street Rod Nationals event 40 years ago. That initial event—which helped improve the public perception of street rods—drew 1,200 participants from around the nation under the banner, “All roads lead to Peoria.”

The Nationals provided a central location for East and West Coast street-oriented car enthusiasts to come together, and it put a spotlight on the Midwest. “The reason we picked Peoria,” as event co-founder Tom Medley recounted to Rod & Custom magazine last year, “was it was almost the center of the population of the U.S.” In the four decades since, the Nationals has snowballed into an annual destination for street rod lovers across the country. McCarty estimates that 15,000 to 17,000 people attend every year.

“All this generated from here and what the Slo-Pokes started,” he says. And with the Central Illinois Cruisers gatherings, he hopes to “put Peoria back on the map.” To help the area regain recognition from the national street rod community while commemorating the group that was here from the beginning, McCarty hosted the Memory Lanes cruise-in for the first time last summer.

Cruisers’ gatherings typically last for an evening, taking place at various locations on Fridays and Saturdays from spring through the fall. The expanded three-day format of Memory Lanes, coupled with mounting respect for the group that jumpstarted the Street Rod Nationals, leads McCarty to believe that the event, which this year takes place in late June, will be their largest ever.

“I expect to have 600 or 700 people at the Memory Lanes cruise-in this year, and it’s all so we can appreciate what the Slo-Pokes did,” he explains. This spirit of reverence and magnanimity is one of the Central Illinois Cruisers’ founding principles.

Cruise on over to centralillinoiscruisers.com to learn more about the group and get an updated schedule of cruise-ins in the Peoria area.

Cruising for a Purpose
While the Cruisers themselves don’t make money from their own events, they aim to use their popularity to lend a hand to those in need. “I try to have a charity like the Children’s Hospital come set up a tent at every event,” explains McCarty. “I let them choose their own way to raise the money, like a 50/50 raffle, and they get to keep all funds.”

Besides providing a critical mass of people to help raise funds for worthy causes, the Cruisers also stage events that directly improve the lives of area residents. “We’ll do events at the Rosewood Care nursing home and bring cars from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s for the older folks to see,” he cites as an example.

Such cruise-ins seem to make a genuine impact simply by creating a family-friendly place for “car-crazy” people—husbands, wives and kids alike—to gather, reminisce and enjoy their passion. “It doesn’t cost anything to go to a cruise-in; our events are just for the fun of it,” says McCarty. “That’s what I like—just getting people who like cars to come together, and giving them something special to do.” a&s

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