It's hard to imagine seeing 15,000 Corvettes in one place. But then again, it's also hard to imagine how Mike Yager, a former tool-and-die maker, was able to turn a business run out of the trunk of his car into a multi-million-dollar industry leader in Corvette parts and accessories. Nonetheless, he did, and it's Mid America Motorworks, the company he created, that hosts Corvette Funfest. An annual customer appreciation party usually thrown in September, Funfest draws 15,000 Corvettes to the Mid America corporate campus in Effingham, Illinois, effectively quadrupling the town's population over a long weekend.
"You've got to come," the Mid America folks told me last year when I was covering the Walter Mitty Challenge. And come I did. Having penciled in the September 19-21 dates on my mental calendar, when the 18th rolled around, I fueled up my blacked-out Crown Vic Police Interceptor and headed north through Tennessee and Kentucky to Effingham. Perhaps it was a travesty to drive a Ford, but what Corvette get-together is complete without a Crown Vic in the rearview?
Theoretically, I could have flown, but somehow it seemed wrong not to drive. Besides, the nearest airport is in Indianapolis. So after 10 hours of road construction, accident cleanups, and endless cups of coffee, I straggled into the Fairfield Inn, past the framed Funfest Corvette Challenge poster on an easel in the lobby. Fortunately, my reservations were made a couple of months earlier: Many of the hotels have special event rates for Funfest, but if they don't have any rooms left, the rate hardly matters.
Now is a good time to point out that Funfest isn't a car show; it's called a "customer appreciation party," and that's pretty accurate. The leading item at the top of the calendar of events reads, "All Day...Have Fun." There's no cost to attend, and there's a vast spectrum of things to do over the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that comprise the event. From tours of Mid America's facilities to displays set up by Corvette-parts vendors (many of whom will do installations on the spot) and autograph sessions and seminars with some of the top names in the hobby, the only hard part is trying to see everything. In addition, every year Funfest has a theme, usually related to one or more of the cars that reside in Mike Yager's MY Garage museum. Last year, it was Corvette Summer; this year the chosen cars were the Corvette Challenge cars from 1988 and 1989.
Not long after its introduction in 1984, the C4 Corvette went on to absolutely flog the competition in the SS class of the SCCA's Showroom Stock Endurance Championship. With a record of 19-0 during its three years of dominance, the Corvette won the '87 manufacturer's title by 81-7, understandably upsetting other manufacturers--specifically, Porsche, who wasn't used to getting its clock cleaned so monotonously. "While we would be content to thrash our competition eternally," the poster announcing the Corvette Challenge read, "the gruesome sight proved to be too brutal for the SCCA." Sort of. It was actually too brutal for the boys from Stttgart, who threatened to take their toys and go home if SCCA didn't ban the Corvette from competition.
So, with Teutonic efficiency, the best Corvette yet was thrown out on its ear. Enter John Powell, who was running a race series in Canada. Largely by force of personality, he convinced Goodyear, Exxon, and the then-much-smaller Mid America to put up a total of $1 million to start a new, Corvette-only race series. With sponsorships in hand, he approached Chevrolet and asked them to produce 50 factory race cars for the series he had named the Corvette Challenge. Although the General had been conscientiously aloof from racing for decades, Powell's persuasive power carried the day. On March 29th, five months after being tossed out of SCCA, the identical factory racers were delivered to their teams at Chevrolet's Central Office in Warren, Michigan.