“Anybody ever see one of these?” called out Lowell McCann on Friday evening, as he pulled through the curving driveway of Homestead retirement and assisted living facility, 2929 Sternberg Dr. “It’s never been restored, this car’s original.”
A dozen gray-haired women lined the drive in their wheelchairs, looking and smiling appreciatively at the parade of classic cars driving past, including the peacock blue two-door fastback with McCann at the wheel.
“It’s pretty,” said one woman with a close-up view from her curbside wheelchair of McCann’s 1963 Ford Galaxie XL hardtop.
“Hey,” hollered another woman to McCann, smiling from her wheelchair. “Have a good night!”
It was the regular cruise night and poker run for Thunder on the Plains, a loosely formed group of about 16 car enthusiasts who host the event on the last Friday of every month during the spring and summer.
On Friday, they started assembling around 6 p.m. at the collision center parking lot of James Motor Co. Inc., 13th and Main. By 7 p.m., there were 30 cars, lined up and parked in a way that strollers could browse and enjoy.
“This is just like a car show,” said Jim Doty, Antonino, who along with his wife, Shelby, were working the cruise night. “There’s no charge.”
Usually anywhere from 40 to 50 cars show up, with participants paying $5 a hand for the poker run, and drivers buying anywhere from one hand to four. Proceeds go to the group’s charity work. Since they began the monthly cruise nights and an annual car show in 2017, the group has donated $21,000 to local charities, said Harold Bettis, of Hays, another member also working Friday’s cruise.
“We’re not a club,” explained Bettis, wearing a lime green T-shirt with “host” lettered on the back.
“We’re just a group of car enthusiasts,” added Jackie Lang, also working Friday and wearing a host T-shirt. “We’re open to anybody and everybody; we don’t have dues.”
“We don’t have officers,” Bettis added.
They do meet the third Monday of every month, usually at Auto World, 722 E. 8th St., and from the sounds of the banter Friday night, it looks like joking around and having a good time might be mandatory. They have 124 sponsors and growing, who supply anything from cash to in-kind donations to help them host the annual Thunder on the Plains show in September.
“At the end of the year we save a little to operate with next year,” said member Louie Gilmore, who later in the evening would be handing out poker chips at Leroy’s Shamrock gas station, 1509 Vine St. “At least 90 percent is donated to local charities.”
On Friday night, Bettis arrived in his maroon 1941 Ford two-door sedan, which he bought a year ago in September. Lang and her husband Mark Lang, drove their red 1967 Pontiac Firebird convertible.
Doty was in a late-model pick up instead of his 1958 Chevy Apache.
“Mine is in the shop, the radiator has been overheating,” he said. “This year I put about 1,800 miles on it. I’ll come to town and run errands in it.”
Jeff Zerr, Hays, is one of the younger ones at the cruise night. His white Ford Mustang, modified for drag racing, was turning heads as it rumbled into the parking lot, drowning out the rhythms of the 1970s music.
“It’s a 1995 Ford Mustang with a Chevy engine,” explained Zerr, laughing. “Killing a purist one day at a time.”
That’s a popular swap that started in the 1990s, said Zerr, who owns JZ Automotive Repair Shop, 1201 Canterbury Dr. It’s a 5.3 liter engine from a 2012 Silverado, with a large turbocharger, and an exhaust pipe out the front passenger side, with racing slick tires for traction, and a rear spoiler.
“The Ford chassis is good for drag racing, and the Chevy engine is good for power,” said Zerr, who does all the work himself. His hobby is drag racing, often at SRCA Dragstrip in Great Bend. His Mustang on Friday night was drawing a lot of lookers and conversation.
“The classic cars are nice, it’s just not for me. Mine’s not very pretty, but it’s fast,” Zerr said. “The typical classic car, a nice restored one, they’re just very expensive. So for a young person, something like this is something the average 30-year-old person can afford. You get a $70,000, $80,000 classic car, it’s not something most 30-year-olds can attain very easily.”
Tyler Dougherty, Hays, and Logan Stanton, Ellis, were at the cruise, each one with his own 2010 Chevrolet Camaro. The two friends, also among the younger car owners, bought them at about the same time four years ago.
Dougherty’s came from an elderly Junction City couple in their 80s, with 15,000 miles on it. Stanton’s came from an older couple in Kansas City, with 18,000 miles on it.
“It just sits in a storage unit now,” said Dougherty, hoping to hang on to it for years to come.
“Mine sits in the same storage unit,” said Stanton, making them both laugh.
Zerr does their automotive work.
“You need any performance stuff done, he’s the one to talk to,” said Dougherty. “He’s very talented. Very.”
Stanton caught the Camaro bug from his father.
“My dad back in the day had one,” said Stanton. “I liked the styling of the new ones and I saved up 'til I could buy one.”
The two try to make the monthly car shows. Dougherty had forgotten about it Friday evening until the last minute.
“I was coming back into town when I remembered, so I hurried up and went home and went and washed it,” he said.
For Friday’s poker run, there were four stops, where drivers grab three poker chips, red, white or blue, at each stop.
“At the end, we draw red, white and blue and determine the value of the chips, $100, $75 and $50,” said Bettis. “Whoever has the highest and the lowest wins. We divide the winnings in half.”
The McCanns drive their Galaxie around town quite often, making trips to the Sonic or the Golden Q. They usually hit cruise night with friends who either ride with them or bring their own cars. Jo Ann and Tom Schroller, Hays, were driving their 1929 Model A on Friday.
“I graduated with her,” says Vonda, who went to Hays High School, as the two cars pulled away from the first stop.
At Homestead, Doty was working the chips handout.
“Winner winner chicken dinner,” he laughed, holding out a velvet Crown Royal bag for Lowell to draw out chips.
“Give us the good ones,” said Vonda.
She recalls cruising back in high school in Hays, when cars on Main were bumper to bumper.
“That’s just what we did,” she said. “It would take about an hour from one end to the other.”
As Lowell steered from 13th Street onto Main, she remarked on the one-block stretch in front of the Hays Public Library.
“It would take 15 minutes to get from this end to that end,” she said, pointing to the stoplight at 11th.
That’s not how it is now.
“We were doing it last night,” she said, “and we were the only ones on the street.”
That’s one purpose of cruise night, Bettis had explained earlier.
“We want to get the cars out on the street,” he said, “so people get to see them driving around.”
Anyone with an interest in the group can call Bettis at 785-623-3853.