A quarter century of celebrating cars
Roots of local show tace back to another milestone
Originally published 2012-08-16
It all started, like so many efforts do in Gunnison, as a partnership between the community and Western State Colorado University.
It was 1986 and the university — known, of course, until recently as Western State College — was celebrating its 75th year of offering undergraduate degrees, which began in 1911. According to Jim Barry, a longtime resident and car buff, university supporter Sharon Livermore came up with the idea of using cars to help illuminate the accomplishment.
“She was involved in everything in town,” Barry explained to the Times this week, over piles of old newspaper clippings, faded photos and hand-typed notes. “She had the idea the we’d have a parade, with 75 cars, one for each of the years Western had been in business.”
Barry, who is now retired from a career with the U.S. Forest Service, was asked if he could help come up with the cars. They came within five or six, he said, of finding one for each year.
“You’d be surprised at what came out of the woodwork,” he said. “We had to have tractors fill in for a couple of those years. But the cars were amazing. Don Simillion had an old Packard that I don’t think anyone has seen since.”
Gunnison’s love affair with an annual celebration of the auto was born. There was no show in 1987, but by 1988 then-City Manager Dale Howard had gotten the city involved in the effort, offering support and the ideal setting of Jorgensen Park as the place to hold the event.
This weekend marks the 25th celebration of the Gunnison Car Show. It’s become a staple of the Gunnison summer, drawing hundreds of visitors to town and providing locals with a family-friendly weekend of fun.
The Gunnison Car Club now organizes the event, from the Friday Night “Cruise In” with live music on Main Street, to a Poker Run, breakfast cruise to Crested Butte and other ancillary events. Jim McDermott is one of a large handful of active club members.
“I was born and raised in the automotive business,” he said, referring to the McDermott & Co. dealership his family built in the 1920s and ran until 1973. “I guess I’ve got motor oil for blood.”
One of the keys to the show’s popularity, in McDermott’s opinion, is that it’s open to all — any make or model, a characteristic that traces back to that inaugural event.
“What appeals to me may not appeal to you,” he said of tastes in automotives. “I might walk right past a new Porsche to go see a John Deere tractor.”
Even more than this diversity, however, McDermott said the car show provides a nice boost for the community and a good time for all the participants.
“There’s a core group of folks who come every year,” he said. “It’s like seeing a bunch of old friends.”
Another important aspect of the car show is a commitment to giving back. The event serves as a fundraiser, proceeds of which the club grants each year to local nonprofit organizations and community efforts.
Some years those grants can total as much as $9,000, said Mike Callihan, club president.
The car show has not only grown in popularity among entrants — some years numbering more than 300 strong — it’s evolved in other ways under Callihan’s leadership. Three years ago the club partnered with CarbonFund.org to “offset” the environmental impacts the show creates.
“It costs us about $500 to completely offset the impact of the car show,” mainly through the planting of trees in other parts of the United States, Callihan explained.
Four years ago the Gunnison Car Show became one of the few in the country granted with the honor of presenting a Lee Iacocca Award, in recognition of the famed industry titan and in support of diabetes research. This year’s Gunnison Car Club recipient is Budd Wells, the Denver Post’s longtime automotive writer.
Other club members who have an active hand in putting the show on include Beckett Tyrer, John Tarr, Jack Loken, Johnnie Walker, Gary Shondeck, Rita McDermott, Fred Henry and Alysia Pearcy.
“The real story is that you have this very small car club that puts on what’s been rated as one of the best car shows in Colorado and attracts national attention while doing it,” Callihan said.
“We hope the show gives Gunnison another good weekend during the summer,” McDermott added.
It’s been doing just that for 25 years. And Jim Barry had a hunch it might.
“From those first few years, we saw that the show was going to grow and really be successful,” he said.
(Chris Dickey can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)