Food Lion AutoFair Turns 30
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In April 1977, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the "Star Wars" phenomenon was still just a quiet buzz among Hollywood insiders when the Hornets Nest Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America held a small car show and swap meet on the infield of what was then known as Charlotte Motor Speedway.
That "Charlotte '77" event, for which the club filled 300 vendor spaces, laid the groundwork for what 30 years later has become the world's largest automotive extravaganza-the Food Lion AutoFair at Lowe's Motor Speedway, which takes place April 12-15.
"That first show at the speedway was only a one-day event," said Mel Carson, executive director of the Hornets Nest Region. "We had put on a swap meet at another location in Charlotte, but outgrew it by 1977. Dennis Carpenter, who has a Ford restoration parts business near the speedway and was an early member of the club, put together the deal to move us to the track."
Today, members of the Hornets Nest Region work closely with the staff of Lowe's Motor Speedway in hosting the four-day mega-show. The event attracts more than 160,000 people who wear out their walking shoes visiting parts vendors in 10,000 flea market spaces and dreaming about the 1,700 collectible automobiles for sale in the car corral.
Because vendors come from as many as 30 states and Canada each year to the Food Lion AutoFair, the Hornets Nest group maintains a full-time office staff and a modern computer-tracking system to keep everything organized. The club follows a business-like organizational chart, in which members are divided into more than 40 teams that handle specific activities leading up to, and during, the show. Team leaders work together to solve problems through club tents based in the Blue, Green, Orange and Red flea market fields.
Most of the club's 500 members participate to some degree in the show's planning and execution, and a small army is mobilized on "Staking Day," the official kickoff of AutoFair week.
"Staking Day takes place the weekend before the show starts," said Carson. "Every one of the 10,000 vendor sites has to be clearly marked, and we drive short wooden stakes into the ground. Staking starts about 5:30 a.m. and usually takes about 11 hours."
Anticipating the needs of swap meet shoppers is one reason the Hornets Nest earned its reputation for putting on first-class events. Such a large show would be a sea of chaos for attendees if not for the comprehensive program the club distributes for free that breaks down vendor locations by field and site number.
The enormous car corral usually represents a century of automobiles, and the Food Lion AutoFair even includes an on-site North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles office to ensure each transaction has the state's blessing.
As if this weren't enough to keep a club busy, the Hornets Nest manages an AACA car show on Saturday of AutoFair, in which any factory correct automobile 25 years of age or older is eligible to compete.
Spectators can expect to see everything from brass-era buggies to modern muscle cars, and everything in between. Because it is a regional show, participants do not have to be AACA members.
"Lowe's Motor Speedway has been a great place to hold this event for the last 30 years," Carson said. "It's in a good central location, everybody likes coming here, and there's still plenty of room for our show to grow."
Other attractions scheduled for the Food Lion AutoFair include an Evolution of the Stock Car exhibit; prized rides of NASCAR stars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart; a real-life version of "Doc Hudson" from the animated hit movie "CARS," Atlanta Braves outfielder Andruw Jones' 2007 Cadillac ESV and a 75th anniversary display of 1932 Ford hot rods. The Food Lion AutoFair features 50-plus car club displays and a collector car auction conducted by Tom Mack.
AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.