Car buffs rally to support Iola show
Event draws vehicles, spectators
By Greg Seubert
It was supposed to be the final day of the Iola Car Show & Swap Meet.
Instead, it turned out to be a perfect opportunity for a ride.
Concerns over COVID-19 caused organizers to cancel this year’s show, which would have been held July 9-11 in Iola.
Instead of sitting empty on what would have been the show’s busiest day, there was plenty of activity at the show grounds July 11 for the Rally for Iola.
“The loss of the Iola Car Show event is really quite devastating financially, but I’m very encouraged by the turnout today,” Joe Opperman, the show’s executive director, said shortly before more than 500 vehicles headed out for a 60-mile cruise through Waupaca County.
“We put together a great program that will allow for safe social distancing and give people something really historic that’ll be remembered for a long time,” he said.
Participants paid $15 to enter their vehicle in the ride, which headed north of Iola on County Trunk J and included visits to Big Falls, Clintonville, Symco, Manawa and Ogdensburg before returning to Iola.
“This is a very important rally,” Opperman said. “The Iola Car Show brings in $1.5 million annually once a year and that money goes out into a lot of different areas in the community and surrounding communities.”
Front row seat
Vehicles headed out of Iola shortly after 10 a.m. The parking lot at Hitterdahl Lutheran Church, four miles north of Iola on J, was a popular spot to watch the rally.
Michael Gentry of Stevens Point showed up there shortly after 9 a.m. with friends Deb Jakusz of Stevens Point and Chris and John Charewicz of Plover.
He goes to the car show about every other year.
“Old cars are a part of America,” he said. “It’s nostalgia. You go back in time a little bit.”
The Charewiczes came up with the idea of watching the rally from the parking lot.
“We drove the route last week,” Chris Charewicz said. “We found this and said, ‘If nobody’s out there, this is great.’ I’m surprised there aren’t more cars here.”
“Whoever thought of this had a very good idea,” Gentry said. “This route is great.”
Although Gentry and his friends were aware that this year’s show had been canceled, Opperman said people still headed to Iola expecting to find a show.
“We were still receiving calls and messages yesterday asking if the Iola Car Show was canceled,” he said. “We’ve seen some people roll into town ready to come to a show that was canceled two months ago. It is a wildly popular event and we’re making lemonade out of the situation.”
Show organizers made the decision in May to cancel this year’s event.
“We watched event after event be shut down and we really felt a couple months ago that we would be safe, we would be through this and the timing would work out well,” Opperman said. “As things moved closer, we realized that wasn’t going to be the case. We started working on alternatives and we’ve come up with an incredible program. I can guarantee that nobody going through this program today is going to leave without getting goosebumps at some point.”
More than 400 vehicles were registered heading into the day of the rally, according to Opperman.
“It’s a crowd that does not like to preregister,” he said. “They like to see what the weather’s going to be first.”
The weather cooperated, as drivers left and returned to Iola under plenty of sunshine.
”We really wanted to showcase scenic Waupaca County while keeping it simple,” Opperman said. ”There are some areas we would like to go through but didn’t because we didn’t want extra traffic controls. We wanted a nice, right-turns-only, easy-to-not-get-lost route. That’s what we’ve come up with.
“When we started planning this, it was with the idea that we have to plan this for the strictest possible rules,” he added. “When we started, it was no restrooms open, that means no food. This was really watered down, but as we got closer and things freed up a little more, we started adding in pieces that we knew we wanted. We have the right partners, we have the right food sources, I’m really happy with how it came together.”
Another event planned
Now that the rally is in the books, show organizers are turning their attention to the Fall Back to Iola Swap Meet & Flea Market, planned Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 5-6, at the car show grounds.
“We really wanted to have those dates on the calendar,” Opperman said.
The Automotion Classic Car Show is tentatively rescheduled for the following weekend in Wisconsin Dells.
“I can’t tell you for sure that that’s going to happen yet, but we wanted to be on the calendar to be sure that it was possible to put something on,” Opperman said. “We have 4,000 swap vendors and this is their business. They need a venue to conduct sales. We’ve already gotten into the planning of that with first-come, first-serve and no preregistration. We’re planning it optimistically with the full understanding that it may not happen.”
Canceling this year’s show turned out to be the right call, according to Opperman.
“Safety first was our plan from the outset,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to come here and find too many issues with what we’re doing. The car enthusiast is a very passionate crowd. This is kind of an if you build it, they will come situation.”
Gentry doesn’t own any collector cars, but does have a 2005 Harley-Davidson anniversary edition motorcycle.
“I’m just going to sit here and let my video camera run,” he said. “I’m originally from Tennessee. If I have anybody that wants to look at it, I’ll send it to them and tell them what we do up here.
“A lot of people in Tennessee know about the Iola Car Show,” he said. “For me, it’s a walk back in time. Your first vehicle, your first prom, all that stuff.”