"It's not a car show," says Yancey Johnson, one of the organizers of the Road Rocket Rumble. "It's a party."
Not that the all-things-rockabilly celebration, which will be held for the 10th time June 18-20, was quite as expansive in its first year. Before Tom Culbertson became the event's chief coordinator, another guy conducted a rockabilly festival on the city's Eastside. Culbertson, a regular at the function, suggested adding a car show. While the event (now with car show) continued to grow, lack of a suitable venue kept it from really getting off the ground. Eventually, the original organizer bowed out. Culbertson took the wheel.
The Road Rocket Rumble is now held at the Clarion Waterfront Hotel on the Westside. What started with some 30 custom hot rods, most owned locally, now numbers in the hundreds, including some brought in by national and international enthusiasts.
"This year I think we're going to see our highest numbers yet," says Naomi Long, another Road Rocket planner. "We're pretty much known throughout the land," she adds, noting how one participant had his car shipped from Sweden to New Jersey to drive to the event.
The Road Rocket Rumble, an anachronistic playground on which enthusiasts can play out their slicked-hair fantasies, will feature a slew of rockabilly bands, including locals Mandy Marie & The Cool Hand Lukes, along with the Indiana-based Star Devils, Colorado's Hillbilly Hellcats and Kim Lenz & Her Jaguars from California.
The pin-up contest has become a favorite part of the weekend. Contestants compete on stage for the title of Miss Road Rocket, with winners chosen by audience reaction using a decibel meter.
"We have women who come to the show just to be in that," Long says. "They work all year on what they're going to do, what they're going to wear and how they're going to do it."
Dozens of vendors will sell everything from vintage clothes to hot rod parts, vintage hot rod films will be screened and My Classic Car
host Dennis Gage will make a special appearance.
Culbertson has the perfect look for such a gathering: slicked-back hair and a black shirt, tattoos covering his brawny arms. He's owned and operated Road Rockets custom hot rod shop on South Lynhurst Drive since the 1970s.
Culbertson was born into cars. His grandfather worked a blacksmith on the first pickups, before they were manufactured with full bodies. His father owned a service station, where hot rods were a common sight.
"The only time I haven't been around it was when I was in the Marines," Culbertson says. "Even then they put me in motor transport."
It was the hot rods that stuck with him. He left the service and inherited, then sold, his father's business following the oil embargo. Each one is different, Culbertson says. Same as their owners.
"The reason why kids are the way they are today is because they grew up with a chrome deficiency," he says, rubbing the fender of a sleek, classic Buick in his shop.
"If I wanted to make big money, this place would be loaded with Toyotas. I'd have five young guys in here on computers. But they're not much fun to work on."
The Road Rocket Rumble is one of the biggest celebrations of its kind in the country. Such prestige brings people from all over - many are repeat visitors.
"The whole thing is like a family reunion," Long says. "It's a whole network of people, which makes it really nice. And new faces get added every year."
They go beyond Bettie Page look-alikes and dudes in rolled-up jeans and greased pompadours to include whole families and retirees. Culbertson remembers one 80-year-old man who decided to burn his tires when leaving the parking lot - just like the young guys.
"It was cool to see a guy his age acting like he was 17 again," he says. "That's what this is all about."