With its definitive tension between elegance and brute power, there is no car as distinctly American as the Corvette, and there are few places where you can see that distinct flavor on display as clearly as at Mid America's annual Funfest customer appreciation party. Held in September, the event usually brings somewhere around 15,000 Corvettes and their owners to Mid America's sprawling 150-acre corporate campus in Effingham, Illinois, to meet Corvette celebrities, attend seminars on various facets of the Corvette, and to just generally enjoy themselves.
After attending my first Funfest in 2008, I made a point of blocking off my schedule for the next one, and in the due course of time, I was headed back up the arrow-straight I-57 in my battered, blacked-out Crown Vic, hurtling through the darkness for Effingham. In truth, when I got there Friday night, I was already late; the formal festivities had begun the day before, with a "Corvette fun run" road tour of the area and a lunch with Mid America founder Mike Yager.
For those who don't know the story of Yager and Mid America, it's worth retelling. Like many of us, Yager had simply fallen in love with the Corvette, and although he was already working as a tool-and-die maker, he took out a $500 loan and made himself a second job selling Corvette shirts and accessories out of the trunk of his car. Two years later, he quit his job and went full-time into the Corvette aftermarket business. Two thousand-nine marked the 35th anniversary of that first loan, and in that time Yager's passion for Corvettes has blossomed into a multi-million dollar business that's an industry leader in the sales and manufacture of aftermarket parts and accessories for Corvettes, Porsches, and air-cooled VWs. No doubt, it's a true American success story, and Funfest is Yager's way of saying "thank you" to the customers who have made it possible.
Every Funfest has a different focus. Past years have been themed around the Chevy Corvette Summer car, or the Challenge racers. Two thousand-nine, however, was more oriented toward participation, so that those who came didn't simply attend Funfest, they were part of it.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference was the far greater number of seminars this year than at previous events. While presentations by those well-versed in the field are an integral part of the Funfest experience, customer input led Mid America to add still more. "More" to the tune of 70-plus seminars, which covered every imaginable facet of the Corvette hobby.
For example, renowned Corvette restorer Werner Meier of Masterworks Auto gave a series of three presentations, each on different facets of Corvette ownership: the first on acquisition of a Corvette; the second on maintaining, storing, and insuring one; and the third on restoration. While the restoration presentation covered selecting shops and sources for various services, there were other presentations oriented more toward those who, like me, want to do it themselves. Such as Kenny Yager, who spoke on stripping paint from C1-C3 Vettes, and accompanied his talk with a demo of actually stripping a door. Glassworks actually built a Corvette hardtop on-site over the course of about six hours.
For fans of the more modern cars, there were presentations on C5/C6 tuning and tweaking by veteran automotive journalist Dave Emanuel (who also covered emission-legal exhaust upgrades) and late-model horsepower from Kevin Woodruff of SLP Performance Parts. More system-specific presentations came from Goodyear's Jay Robinson, who covered run-flat tires, Tom DeWitt, who spoke on cooling, and Michael Jonas of Stainless Steel Brakes, who was there to address braking systems in the C4-C6s. And for those who believe that things were meant to be used-and, occasionally, flogged-racer and author Richard Newton gave seminars on autocross and track-day events, as well as on suspension modification.
It also bears pointing out that, invariably, you get to ask questions during these presentations. While many of those presenting are well-known authors (Emanuel and Newton both signed copies of their books at Funfest), there's nothing like being able to actually have a conversation with someone about your particular needs, as opposed to simply reading what they've created for the general readership.
All of this, though, while enjoyable and helpful, isn't "participation" in the classic sense of the word. That was supplied on Funfest Boulevard, where you could put your car on the dyno and put some numbers to your car's performance, or compete in the Burnout and Exhaust wars. In preparation for the burnout competition, a "box" had been created and surrounded with bleachers, which were absolutely packed when Lance Miller of Corvettes at Carlisle fame backed in his C6 Z06 and made ready. Unfortunately, the roughness of the concrete made his burnout a non-starter. We all thought the show was over, until he idled out of the box onto Funfest Boulevard and, after a long enough pause to let us know his intentions, made the LS7 scream and used all 505 of its horsepower to turn rubber into smoke. The resultant cloud literally blocked out the sun.
Across Funfest Boulevard from the burnout box were the Exhaust Wars. We all know that Corvettes are loud, and are meant to be, and with that in mind, it's wonderful to be someplace where that's celebrated instead of complained about. Measured by a computerized device reminiscent of a drag-racing "Christmas tree," contestants backed their cars up and had a sensor put in place. When the lights counted down, it was time to put your foot to the floor and see how loud you could make it scream.
A C5 with a supercharged LS7 427 engine took a strong lead early on, hitting something like 128 decibels. Personally, I've always wanted to see how one of the older side-piped big blocks would do, but there's no denying that C5 sounded mean.
Another first was the all-Corvette auction held on Friday afternoon. For those who have never attended one in person, it's something to see-more than 50 Corvettes crossed the auction block, from solid axles and beautifully "correct" midyears to customs-even including a stretch-limousine Vette.
As usual, the GM Engineers had a tent where they displayed the newest models of the Corvette, this year adding the Grand Sport to the ZR1 that was such a hit when it debuted last year. Scheduled walk-arounds and question-and-answer sessions gave you the chance to learn about the cars direct from the source, but these inevitably pale in excitement compared with the road demos, where you actually get to ride in the cars. There was no word this year of anyone getting pulled over, but that may also have been because of the wet roadways.
Yes, unfortunately, it did rain, but the event wasn't rained out; in fact, I'm not sure something like Funfest can be rained out. Many Corvettes disappeared under covers and into trailers (and some just flat disappeared) but the festivities went on, including the seminars and the traditional Saturday night concert.
As for me, when the skies opened up and the rain fell, I ducked into the MY Garage museum, where many of Yager's Corvettes are on display. With the rain drumming on the roof overhead, I wandered between the prototype vehicles-such as Duntov's open-wheeled CERV-1, or the CERV IV that Chevrolet used to engineer the C5-and the storied racers, like the L88-powered '68 that was resurrected from the wrecking yard to take 15th overall at Le Mans in '72, a feat no Corvette would equal for more than 20 years. Eliot Forbes-Robinson's lightweight '69 racer was there as well, the one that took the class championship in the last SCCA A-Production race ever held, along with a 212-mile '88 twin-turbo Callaway that Yager's sons had restored to Bloomington Gold status. I also bumped into a friend from last year who has a lovely restomod '68, and caught up with him for a while before the rain slacked off.
The only thing that rain had affected was the presentation of the awards for the celebrity judging, which was postponed until the next day. The traditional Saturday night concert was still on; while past acts at the free show have included the Beach Boys, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Three Dog Night, the 2009 lineup combined the Jan & Dean show with rockers Survivor, best known for their hit "Eye of the Tiger," from Rocky III.
The real highlight to the event, though, was the people, and you'll really miss out if you go and don't take the time to talk to other Corvette owners. My favorite Corvette at Funfest? A '73, used as a daily driver. The owner had done an LS1 conversion, on his own, so he could enjoy his Corvette more. In these days when the economy has so dramatically affected the income we have available for our hobbies, I really admired the fact that he'd simply done it himself, with a little help from the Corvette Forum. But I only knew the owner had done that because I stopped and talked with him. I'm sure there are many more such stories I never heard.
I used to be fond of saying that every vintage Corvette, like every woman, is its own mystery, and there's a lot of truth to that. Each one has a story.
Some 10 years ago, Mid America released a book called When Did it Start for You? Compiled from stories that customers had sent in response to a series of ads, the book was simply people answering the question of when they first fell in love with the Corvette. That book, Volume One, has since sold out. Last year, though, the ads started running again, and Volume Two was out in time for Funfest. Makes me wonder what'll be new for next year.
Special thanks to Ed Baumgarten, Dave Emanuel, Lori Worman, and Mike & Laurie Yager