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Syracuse Nationals

“The NAPA Auto Parts Syracuse Nationals presented by Meguiar’s Car Products and the Meguire Family of Dealerships”

July 16-18, 2021“Other than music, nothing really hits people’s memory or nostalgia like cars.” The more I thought about Rob O’Connor’s statement, the more it resonated. A song, or seeing a particular car from the past, can kindle a memory, or take you back to a particular era like nothing else, including times you weren’t yet around for!

Rob O’Connor is the president of Right Coast Inc, the events organization that each year brings us the Syracuse Nationals, a now 21-year-old event that is, along with the State Fair, one of the most looked-forward to events in the area. But beyond that, the Nationals draws people from as many as 40 states in any given year, including such distant ones as California, Texas, Oklahoma and Idaho. In its very first year it hosted 4000 cars (that number is more like 9000+ today), and has grown to attract as many as 90,000 people.

What’s the magic of the show? Rob might suggest that his father, who started the event, has one answer: “Cars are a statement of people’s personalities; we have 9000 cars and 9000 stories.”

For Americans in particular, cars symbolize all sorts of things: family, legacy, open roads, travel, memories. Most of us have at least a few memories of a family car trip, our first car, the windows open on a hot summer day, the “new car” smell, maybe even a drive-in movie.

The Nationals concentrates on older cars – this year, only cars from 1991 and earlier are featured in the show. You might see cars as old as the early 1900s! But on Sunday, American “Muscle” cars from 1992 and later are on display – Camaros, Mustangs, Chargers, Corvettes, and more!

Rob says the show was founded by his father, Bob O’Connor, who “was a car guy, all his life. He would go drag racing back in the 60’s with my uncle,” Rob adds, “and he won a national championship in ‘65.” He put his drag racing on hold when his family was young, and worked in the printing room of the Herald Journal, but his love of cars never diminished. Nor did his entrepreneurial spirit, and Bob O’Connor went on to start several businesses, while indulging his passion for cars with a 1932 woodie wagon he built over several years, eventually traveling the country with it to attend car shows. “Finally, he decided to bring a car show to Syracuse,” said Rob. “ So, he started the show here in 2000, and drew 4000 cars, which is kind of unheard of. After a few years of the Nationals, that was his focus. He started several other car shows up and down the east coast.”

“My dad bought a street rod,” Rob says. “It was from the early 40s, a four-door convertible, so kind of high end. When he started taking it apart, he found bullet holes that had been patched and repaired. It made us wonder who had owned that car, and how the bullet holes got there. But that’s part of the appeal of old cars – they do have stories to tell.”

The Nationals features several areas and events that people look forward to each year. One of them certainly is the Swap Meet, where car aficionados can find “rusty gold,” those rare parts that are hard to find, but are what is needed to complete a build or repair.

Another is the Car Corral, where cars for sale are showcased. And of course there are vendors with parts to sell. “We like to say, if you come with enough money in your pockets, you can leave with everything you’ll need to build the car you want to build, from scratch,” Rob said.

“There are events within the event,” he added. “Like, there’s a whole area dedicated to “Rockabilly” – they have their own bands, stage, and awards. Or Women’s World, and Memories on Main Street. And everyone looks forward to the fireworks on Saturday night.”

New this year: Nitro Row, bringing nostalgia drag race cars, and a lot of “noise” to The Nationals. At set times, they’ll fire up these monsters so you can hear – and feel – the power. Also, enjoy remote control car drag races – cars look like muscle cars from 70s, but “drivers” are controlling the action from their remote.

There are many awards, but one in particular Rob noted is the Winfield Award – named for Gene Winfield, one of the original custom car builders, who started in late 40s in a chicken coop in the Mohave Desert. People submit cars from all over the country; Gene, now in his 90s, selects six to come to the nationals. Gene comes and inspects the cars, top, bottom, even getting down under the vehicle, and picks the winner. Besides bragging rights, the winner gets $10,000 and a custom trophy.

Asked to name what makes the Nationals so popular and special, Rob said, “People. The Nationals is a boost to the local economy – from restaurants and hotels, to bars and shopping, Visit Syracuse estimates Syracuse Nationals is worth about $15 – 20 million a year to local business.”

“And my dad was very enthusiastic about giving back to the community. Over the years The Nationals has donated about $1.7 million to local organizations like Golisano, Vera House, SPCA, Food Bank, and Ronald McDonald House,” he adds.

As Bob O’Connor was a generous man and always had his non-profit and charitable partners on his priority list, adding the Alzheimer’s Association of Central New York as a partner after Bob’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s became a priority for Rob. With the introduction of the partnership in 2019 with the 20th anniversary show, The Syracuse Nationals also created a space inside the Expo Center, next to the Alzheimer’s Association: Memory Lane, which displayed pictures, awards, news articles and memorabilia dedicated to the legacy Bob had created before his passing in December, 2019.

“And it’s definitely about friendships and a shared love of cars,” Rob continued, reflecting on the event’s popularity. “ There are people who come each year, they have their ‘spot,’ and they’ll meet there, just once a year – but because of this event they’re old friends.”

Go to sponsor NAPA for a discounted ticket, and the website syracusenationals.com for all the information about registration, events, awards, vendors and times.

When you see those classic cars rolling into town, you’ll definitely want to get out to the Fairgrounds and enjoy some muscle, motors, and memories!

Check the website for daily opening and closing times, schedules of events, local lodging/camping/restaurants – and more! Guests are asked to respect COVID precautions as needed.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.