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The Napa Syracuse Nationals

When I was a kid, my dad had a name for each of our family cars – because each of them had a personality, and each was a “family member.” Memories. Some high school friends and I got together recently, and reminiscing, we quickly recalled the first car that any of us had owned – and our many adventures that centered around that car. Freedom.

And as Rob O’Connor, president of Right Coast, Inc., the events organization that brings us the Syracuse Nationals, tells me, his father decided he was going to build a street rod, so he went to a car show. He returned with a steering wheel. When asked if that was it, he replied, “You have to start somewhere.” History.

Cars are part of American culture. Most of us can recall our first car, or the first family car. Some of us have focused on cars as a hobby or for the history and lore.

And all of us will find something to enjoy at The Nationals!

The Nationals, more than 2 decades old, draws fans, friends, and families from as many as 40 states – and from as far away as California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Idaho. “We’ll get 8 thousand, 9 thousand cars – and each car will have a story to go along with it.”

This year, any car from 1992 and older is featured throughout the show (you might find cars as old as 120 years!), with newer American muscle cars from 1993 displayed on Sunday.

Part of the charm, and the fun, of The Nationals is that it is one of those events that has, literally, something for everyone. Even if you just want to stroll the Fairgrounds, and enjoy the food, music, and meeting friends, you’ll likely run into more than a few at an event that can draw as many as 90,000 visitors in its three-day run.

Rob’s father, Bob O’Connor, was the original “car guy” behind the event. “He’d go drag racing with my uncle back in the 60’s,” Rob explained. “He traveled to shows all over the country, and then finally decided why not bring a car show to Syracuse. So he started The Nationals in 2000 – and got 4000 cars the first year.”

The Nationals has a regular lineup of areas and “events within the event” that people can’t wait to attend each year. The Swap Meet is where hobbyists and pros alike will find that “rusty gold” they need to complete a restoration project, or make a repair on a classic car.

At the Car Corral, they’ll find beautifully refurbished cars for sale.

And there are areas devoted to specific niches within the lore of older autos: Rockabilly, Women’s World, Memories on Main Street, Nitro Row, and even the Mini-Nationals for model cars.

For those who like to pick the winners or perhaps collect trophies, there are some presitigous awards given each year, including the Winfield Award, presented by Gene Winfield, who has over 60 years experience in customizing and racing hot rods – and movie credits to prove it, with his cars being featured in more than 25 films. Now in his 90s, Gene will be at the show, inspecting the entries from top to bottom before selecting the winner and awarding the $10,000 prize.

Maybe you enjoy getting to meet and greet celebrities? Each year The Nationals invites stars who are connected to classic cars. This year featured guests include Shirley Muldowney, known professionally as “Cha Cha,” and the “First Lady of Drag Racing.” She was the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association, and to drive a Top Fuel Dragster. Brett “Big Schwag” Wagner, the voice of Monster Garage with Jesse James, host of “Pass Time” and guest star of shows as big as “Sons of Anarchy” will be hosting Sparky’s Rockabilly Roundup. Frank Fritz, television host, antique collector and restorer, and best known for his stint as the co-host of “American Pickers.” And who won’t recognize Candy Clark, who, among many other films was notable for “American Graffiti?”

“It’s definitely about friendships and a shared love of cars,” Rob told me. “There are people who come here every year. They have their ‘spot,’ and they’ll meet there, just once a year – but because of this event, they’re old friends.”

So when you hear that faint rumbling of American cars on the road this summer, heading to the State Fairgrounds in Syracuse – it’s that time again. Muscle, motors, music, memories. The things that summers are made of.

The Napa Syracuse Nationals
Presented by the Maguire Family of Dealerships

July 15, 16, 17
State Fairgrounds:
581 State Fair Blvd, Syracuse, NY 13209-1588



Nancy Roberts