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by Bruce Caldwell  More from Author

Tips for Attending Your First Car Show

Car show season is rapidly approaching, so it’s time to start planning what shows you’d like to attend. If you’re new to the hobby or if you’ve gone as a spectator but never a participant, the following primer should make that first show more enjoyable.

Local, Regional, or Long Distance

Choosing the right show can have a significant impact on the fun factor. We suggest starting with a small, local event and gradually building up to regional or long distance shows. If you’ve enjoyed a particular show as a spectator, that’s a good starter show to try as a participant.

Most cities/regions/states either have printed or online event calendars. Check the calendar and call the contact number or visit the online link to make sure the printed dates are correct. It’s a good idea to pre-enter, both for potential entry fee savings and time/hassle savings at the event.

The two largest street rod event promoters are the Goodguys Rod and Custom Association (, and the National Street Rod Association ( Joining these organizations gets you their excellent monthly publications and is the best way to be apprised of their numerous events.

Single or Multi-Day

The larger the event, the more likely it is to be a multi-day affair. Some really large events get hopping before the official start. This is true of large combination swap meet/car show events such as those held in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Arriving early can be a way to see cars before the hordes descend on the scene.

If your time is limited, it pays to pick the best day(s) to attend. Generally speaking, Saturday is the premier day. Many people (and their cars) are still traveling on Friday, and many have to leave early on Sunday. Staying through Sunday can be critical if you’re up for an award or hoping to win a lucrative door prize. The big participant giveaways, such as a new car or a turnkey street rod, require winners to be present with their street rod on the grounds.

General or Specialized

The large, generalized, multi-year shows offer the most things to do and see. For a long time, street rod shows were limited to pre-1948 vehicles, but the Goodguys expanded their cutoff dates and the NSRA has been following suit. Some events are still capped, so check ahead.

The biggest thing to consider between generalized and specialized shows is whether you want a huge experience or a more intimate one. The highly specialized events such as Classic Chevy, Mustang, F-100s, or rat rod shows are great if your car is unfinished or if you’re starting a new project. You can get lots of highly specific ideas and advice. Other car owners can check out your in-progress ride and share their valuable experience and contacts.

Drive or Trailer

Trailering a street rod to a car show has been a very hot topic in the past and can still be volatile among the diehard “No Trailer Queens” crowd. There doesn’t seem to be as much animosity as there once was, but if there isn’t a stigma about trailering, there is definitely still honor in driving. These cars are called street rods, not trailer toys, so they should be driven if possible.

Many people feel that the trip is the best part of an event. It’s a way to see the country in a unique form of transportation. Road trips are best when done with one or more friends for companionship, safety, and help if anything breaks. Many large events have loosely organized “tours” where entrants travel the same route and participate in events/shop tours at lunchtime and overnight venues.

Trailering your car behind an RV is an acceptable way to save on motel bills and bring more friends/family than the average street rod can accommodate.

When to Arrive

Car show attendees can be territorial. That’s a polite way of saying the “power parkers” treat prime parking spaces like the Oklahoma Land Rush. These events are supposed to be fun and low-key, so fighting for parking spots like door buster bargain shoppers the day after Thanksgiving seems contrary to the purpose of attending a car show.

Local, one-day-only shows may have a cap on move-in time. This is usually due to limited space and crowd/spectator safety issues. Ask about these limitations if you’re a first time participant. The big, national events usually allow cars to come and go all day (and many do), but traffic can be highly congested mid-day when most spectators are present.

Arriving earlier is generally better than later, but it’s a personal choice. The later you arrive at big shows, the farther away you’ll have to park from the main activity areas. Areas with trees or building shade go very quickly. The best shaded areas are those that enjoy afternoon shade. Consider this if you’re picking a parking spot before the sun comes up.


There are many facets to picking the ideal parking spot. Even if power parking at the main entrance isn’t a goal, consider how dusty (or muddy) an area may become. Dry, grassy or dirt-covered areas generate a lot of annoying dust. Parking near busy restrooms can increase careless stroller incidents. The same goes for being too close to messy concession stands.

At small car shows, there generally isn’t any choice about parking. The show organizers have to park cars in an orderly fashion to maximize space and time.

Display/Additional Information

It’s nice to let other participants and spectators know about your car. Some type of display sign or even a neatly printed poster board is a smart way to thank people involved in building your car. It’s also a good way to avoid answering repeated questions about what color the paint is and who painted it.

A sign with key information is important if you’d like to see your car featured in some media coverage. Most photographers are pushed for time, so being able to quickly gather enough pertinent facts for a good caption increase the chances of your car being published.

On the flip side, a common complaint from photographers is about signs placed right in front of the car, making photography difficult without the sign showing. Placing the sign off to the side or in the back seat or trunk is a way to convey information and still provide a good photo op.

Improved Chances for Media Coverage

Where you park your car can improve your chances of media coverage. The “power parking” spots have the drawback of too many people in the way for an uncluttered photo. Parking over or near pavement or post-mounted signs isn’t good. Having large “RESTROOM” letters right behind your car doesn’t invite magazine coverage.

Look around for nearby poles, advertising or other distractions that can ruin a photo. Be aware of parking spaces that are half in the shade and half in blazing sunlight. Try to keep lawn chairs, coolers, and other clutter back away from the car. If you see someone seriously photographing your car, offer to close the hood or shut any open doors.

Speaking of clutter – avoid extraneous display materials, especially stuffed animals and dolls. Every professional photographer I know detests those bumper-leaning “cry baby” dolls, and most refuse to photograph cars (no matter how nice) if dolls are present. Little kids, on the other hand, love dolls and stuffed animals, so their presence can encourage sticky little fingers to touch your car.

Car Prep: Before, En Route and During

Start your car prep long before any event. Winter is a good time to do maintenance and upgrades. A commonly heard story is how a car was finished just hours before a show, but that’s an invitation to a break down. Key systems to check are starting, fuel, and cooling.

A topnotch cooling system is very important for large events. Traffic jams and hot weather equal boil-overs. It’s embarrassing, to say the least, and worrying about cooling problems takes the fun out of cruising.

Traveling with other enthusiasts is always a good idea, as is belonging to an emergency road service organization such as AAA. A cell phone is a must. Each time you stop for gas en route to a distant show, you should check fluids and tire pressures. Awareness is the best way to avoid mechanical problems.

Starting with a super clean car makes event detailing quicker and easier. The various spray wax/detailer products and micro fiber cloths are easy and compact for fairground touchups.

Food, Clothing, Etc.

Most street rods have limited luggage space, so smart packing is mandatory. Pack multi-function clothes or items that can be layered. If you’re driving a roadster, be prepared for rain or unseasonably cold weather. Headgear is important for sun protection and staying cool.

Eating concession food can be expensive. Bring a well-insulated cooler so you can buy lunch and snack foods off-site. An ample supply of water is necessary to stay hydrated, because many the best events are held in very hot and humid locations during the warmest summer months. Don’t forget sunscreen.

A digital camera or video recorder is another must-have item. You’ll want a visual record of all the fun things you saw and did at your first rod and custom show.

When it comes to large outdoor shows with every possible kind of hot rod and custom car and truck, it’s hard to beat the numerous Goodguys Rod & Custom Association events. These professionally run events offer something for every automotive enthusiast.

Smaller, specialized events are great if your car fits the show’s parameters. Billetproof or rat rod shows are fun, because they usually include great music and other activities with the car show.

Highly specific shows such as Tri-Five classic Chevy events are a good way to focus on your favorite cars and years. These shows have fewer entrants, so it’s easier to see all the cars, study details, and talk to other fanatics.

Most outdoor car shows are held during the warmer months, so shade is a premium commodity. Depending on the venue, shaded areas can be limited. An early arrival is the best way to garner a shady location.

Multi-purpose fairgrounds are common rod show venues. They tend to have natural shade (trees) and manmade shade (buildings). A key to getting the best building shade is determining when a coveted, covered area is in the shade. You want the shade during the hot afternoon times.

The term “show and shine” is often associated with car shows. You should detail your car at home, but bring supplies for a touchup at the event.

Serious detailers even bring special car care organizer bags, like this one offered by Griot’s Garage.

The large, multi-day, professionally run events such as the Goodguys and NSRA shows have specific entry points where security personnel check your passes each time you enter the venue. Keep your passes and/or wristbands where they’re readily available.

Cruising the fairgrounds or “Main Street” is a popular activity. It’s a fun way to see the event and to be seen. Cruising can be mostly crawling with lots of inattentive spectators, so pay careful attention to where you’re going.

Event cruising on very hot days is an invitation to overheating. Be sure your entire cooling system is in top shape before leaving home. A boil-over is embarrassing and could damage your car. An electric auxiliary fan is great to have.

If you want to see your car in a magazine’s event coverage, be sure to fill out the window sticker. Print clearly, preferably with a fine point Sharpie, so your info is easy to read or photograph.

Spectators and photojournalists appreciate vehicle information signs, but many car owners place signs where they block good photos. Placing a sign in the back seat is a nice way to provide information and credit the car’s builders without impairing photographs.

This creative 1957 Chevy owner had all the car’s pertinent information lettered on its custom radiator shroud.

Placing an information sign in the trunk is another good option.

Foldable lawn chairs should almost be considered mandatory equipment for big car shows. You can only walk so long before wanting a comfortable place to sit. These chairs with their own canopy are a great idea.

The larger car shows have lots of food vendors, but the selection can be limited at smaller shows. Like any spectator/sporting/music event, prices are always higher inside than out, so plan accordingly if you want to save money.

Young children don’t have the stamina to walk for endless hours, so consider bringing a stroller, or better yet, arrange for Grandma to care for them at home. This lucky young rodder had a tricked out wagon for easy cruising.

Remember that car shows are supposed to be about cars, not knick-knacks and memorabilia. Leave the kitsch at home. Most professional photographers detest stuffed animals and those annoying “cry baby” dolls that lean against cars. Such cutesy stuff is almost a sure way to keep your car out of any event coverage.

Show promoters strive to hold their events during predominantly good weather times, but rain does fall when least expected. Plan accordingly, especially if you drive a topless roadster.


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