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Hot August Nights

            It feels as though I've tripped through a time warp in the twilight zone.  Hundreds of Ike-era dress-alikes jam the dance floor.  The guys sport sideburns and blue jeans while their partners bob ponytails and poodle skirts.

            This could be a sock hop from "Happy Days," except for one thing.  Like the cars that brought them to Reno, these Richie and Joanie Cunninghams have definitely covered a few miles.

            They've come to Nevada's second city to twist and shout through Hot August Nights, world's largest nostalgia festival.  The event offers a four-barrel flashback to a time when carbs fed V8s, steering wheels were spun with necker knobs, and true Nirvana was a cute date and a full tank of gas.  For one hopped up week, the clank of slots yields to garage-band music and the purr of 5,000 entered vehicles, all 1972 vintage or older.

            The festivities begin with an evening kickoff party.  With my Japanese import stashed in the hotel parking lot, I ride there in a friend's '50 Ford.

            "The car belonged to my grandfather," she says.  "The fuzzy dice are mine."Oldie Chevrolet

            A roped off parking lot bulges with polished cars.  They range from scorching hot rods to ice-cool classics.  The money spent on vanity plates alone could feed my family for months -- OLDIE, OUR 57, COOL59, 1QUIK67, ROCKN54 and 17AGAIN.

            After the obligatory hula hoop contest, a band takes the stage.  Coifed in pompous pompadours, they pound out driving tunes.  Most of their repertoire were already golden oldies before these guys were born.  Still, they perform with enough flash and credibility to make Dick Clark proud.  I hum "Little Deuce Coupe" as I head to bed.

            In roll-'em-all-night gambling towns, mornings tend to be quiet, calm and peaceful.  It's an ideal time to stroll the Truckee River Walkway.

            When '32 Fords graced Reno's new car showrooms, the "Biggest Little City in the World" was the country's divorce capital.  After terminating marriages, liberated spouses supposedly flung their wedding bands into the river.Reno sign

            No rings glimmer today.  Instead, I find residential areas filled with tidy homes and trimmed lawns.  Owners appear concerned about maintaining a high quality community.  Even Hot August Nights began as an old-fashioned, charity fund raiser.

            "We started this in 1986 to earn money for the Easter Seal Society," says founding board member Jim Webster.  "I don't think any of us knew how large it would grow."

            Now the biggest event in western Nevada, Hot August Nights draws more visitors than the mammoth Reno Air Races.  The wingless set uses one of their runways as a drag strip.

            Cars are divided by class.  Some are built for speed, their supercharged hemis growling with enough power to light a casino. Others, like Mike Shaal's MGA, are totally stock.  He's pitted against an equally unmodified Mustang.

            "I've never raced on a strip," Shaal says.  "It always used to be the back roads.  And that was 35 years ago."

            The two pull up, engines revving to redlines.  Lights turn green and drivers pop clutches.  Seconds later, the 'Stang streaks across the finish.  The British four-banger has barely reached midcourse.  Although thoroughly dusted, Shaal idles back, grinning like a guy who just locked braces with the homecoming queen.  

            In town, an automotive swap meet offers a garage sale for the garage.  An indoor arena displays vehicles for sale.  A cherry '49 Mercury can be had for $50,000.  A '34 Ford street rod goes for $42,500.  A redder-than-red, fuel-injected '59 Corvette is available for a mere $39,500.  I feel the checkbook tugging.

            Instead of spending, however, I opt for free entertainment.  In addition to blast-from-the-past cover bands, Hot August Nights features a "Who's Who" of who was.  Performers have included everyone from Frankie Avalon to Jan and Dean.  Thankfully, there's not an Elvis impersonator in sight.Singer

            "We try to get all the old '50s and '60s people we can track down," says event director Dave Saville.

            Sitting stage-side, I see acts I've admired since I was knee high to a hubcap.  Most are a bit chunkier than when they last appeared on "Shindig," but they still play sock-rocking loud.  I groove until it's time for cruising.

            In days when gas was cheap and malls were simply shopping centers, strutting ones wheels up and down the main street was the best way to meet friends and friends-to-be.  Back then, cruising was barely tolerated by the men in blue.  Here, they barricade cross traffic to facilitate it.

            I join a sidewalk throng.  Under the glow of casino neon, we watch vintage vehicles flaunt by.  Their license plates come from all over North America. Hot August Nights

            "We have 30 to 40 states represented," says a Hot August Nights registrar.  "Plus we get a slew of Canadians coming down from British Columbia and Ontario."

            Most of the front seat occupants sport more than a few gray hairs.  Some travel with stuffed animals in the back seat.  Others have stuffed their kids back there.  The younger ones seem delighted to be the center of attention, but one teenage lass looks miserable.  She's locked in a 15-year-old's nightmare -- stuck with her parents and seen by thousands in the rear of an uncool Buick.

            One hot rod with racing slicks chirps its tires.  A motorcycle cop rides up behind.  Anywhere else, the officer would have issued a light-flashing invitation to pull over.  The police here are more interested in spectators.

            "We get a few punks who cause problems," says volunteer Stan Lippman.  "But by and large, we've been fortunate with the people who come to enjoy this."

            Most problems with young rowdies happen after midnight, long after most of us have become dream lovers.  We want to awaken refreshed to enjoy the next day's show-n-shines.

            Hot August NightsCars adorn lots and streets, turning them into galleries of automotive artistry.  Spiffed up and Simonized, four-wheel masterpieces glow in the midday sun.  Owners often sit beside their showpieces.  Proud as parents, some brandish scrapbooks depicting the rebirth of their cherished restorations.

            I shuffle through waves of gawking humanity.  We all seem drawn to different cars from divergent decades.  A sun lover, I like the topless sports cars from the '50s and '60s.  Others prefer stock coupes and sedans of the '40s.  I watch a college-aged blonde ogle a '30s-era hot rod with glassy-eyed ecstasy.

            "Wow!" she says.  "This is a visual orgasm!"

            I don't remember young women talking that way back in the days of "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction."  Theme songs from those bygone shows play Sunday at the start of the event's closing day parade.

            Hot August NightsI watch from the shady sidewalks near the University of Nevada, a few blocks north of downtown.  Two by two, cars motor by in a continuous stream of shimmering sheet metal and chrome.  Makes and models, colors and hues intermingle in a linear quilt of automotive designs.  They bring back fond remembrances of times when malts were made from hand-scooped ice-cream and drive-in movies were watched from the back-seat -- if they were watched at all.

            Owners beam.  People cheer.  Cars keep rolling by.  Succumbing to wheel-dust lust, I feel pangs of desire again tugging at the checkbook.  Next year, it could be me waving to the crowds.

            Then I imagine what would happen if I ditched my Nissan and drove home in something like that flaming red, two-seater 'Vette.

            My wife would heave both me and her wedding band into the Truckee.