Cruisin' the Coast

The party’s on for the 20th Cruisin’ The Coast

A '32 Ford Roadster with a 354 Hemi engine is this year’s Cruisin' The Coast featured car on the 20th year T-shirts.
A '32 Ford Roadster with a 354 Hemi engine is this year’s Cruisin' The Coast featured car on the 20th year T-shirts.

Cruisin’ The Coast moves out of its teens into its 20th year in 2016, and still beckons car lovers from across the U.S. to South Mississippi each October.

In 1996, a group of casino executives and other business leaders looked for a way to extend the summer tourism season. That first year Cruisin’ was a 3 1/2 -day festival with 374 registered cars and a crowd of about 25,000 admirers.

This year, when early registration ended in August, a record-setting 6,630 cruisers already are registered. When registration reopens as the big week begins, organizers have their eye on topping last year’s record 7,639 cruisers.

“At present we have 41 states preregistered, Canada and Australia,” said Woody Bailey, Cruisin’ The Coast executive director.

Cruisin’ was fashioned after Hot August Nights, a very successful car cruise in Reno, Nevada. The impact on South Mississippi’s economy when last measured in 2011 was $20 million — just from out-of-state visitors — and it brings the cities and counties across South Mississippi together behind one colorful eight-day event.

Time to celebrate

The 20th year is cause for celebration, Bailey said. The Beach Boys, Art Garfunkel and Cheech and Chong will be among the performers at the Coast casinos. They’ll take the audience along with them to the ’50s and ’60s, when cars were longer and wider and way fun to drive.

The Great Lawn along the waterfront at Harrah’s Gulf Coast will host the 20th birthday bash for Cruisin’ on Saturday with a free concert by Big Bad Voo Doo Daddy and a blast of fireworks.

New at Cruisin’

The basics of Cruisin’ stay the same. Registered vehicles are parked and admired at the venues and events are scheduled every day throughout the week. By late afternoon, U.S. 90, also known as Beach Boulevard, is lined with spectators snapping pictures with phones and cameras as the cars cruise by and the sun sets over the water.

Gautier is combining Cruisin’ with its popular Mullet Festival this year. The highlight of the festival that celebrates the fish known as Biloxi Bacon is a mullet toss, something new for people who thought they had experienced all Cruisin’ The Coast had to offer.

The Car Corral will open Wednesday, a day earlier this year, and Salute to Our Veterans will move to Friday and return to the American Star Field at MGM Park in Biloxi. Mississippi Automotive Manufacturers Association, one of the sponsors of the Salute to Our Veterans, will be holding its annual conference across the street at the Beau Rivage and registered cruisers are invited to check out products on the conference floor.

Riding with the times

The 20 years of Cruisin’ reflects the past two decades of events in South Mississippi and the nation. It thrived through prosperous times and survived recessions; through sunny weeks when not a drop of rain fell and when the remnants of a tropical storm drenched the Coast and the cars.

There was a year when gasoline prices got very close to $4 and more recent years, when a fillup was $2 a gallon or less. Cruisin’ saw people through those terrible days following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the nation and through the uncertainty of what the Deepwater Horizon oil spill would mean to the Coast.

It survived 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when people who usually came to South Mississippi with their cars instead came as volunteers, brought their tools and helped Coast residents rebuild.

This year, those whose homes flooded in Louisiana may also be repairing damage to their antique cars. They may not be able to Cruise this year, but they will be back.

For there are as many reasons people keep coming to Cruisin’ as there are cars on the road. Some people search the venues for a model like their first car, their dream car or a sedan made the year they were born. Others are attracted to the sock hops, the music of the ’50s and ’60s and the poodle skirts. For the cruisers, it’s a chance to drive the Autocross course, get their cruiser blessing at Diamondhead, find parts at the Swap Meet or pick up a new project car at the Vicari Auction.

For everyone, it’s an experience to admire the color, the chrome and the character of these antiques and classics.