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We're headed to Chicago this afternoon and will be at Bloomington Gold tomorrow

Where Corvette Lovers Meet


Bloomington Gold is a curious name for an event that has long since left Bloomington, Ill., where it began, and has nothing to do with gold. Instead, it's a celebration of the car that defines rapid transit: the Chevrolet Corvette.

Thousands of Corvette enthusiasts will attend the annual four-day show, which opens Thursday at the Pheasant Run Resort here, about 35 miles west of Chicago. Most will come to admire thousands of Corvettes, old and new. Others will display their Corvettes and have them judged. Still others will bid at the auction of classic Corvettes, which can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"The Corvette is the American Ferrari, the first fast and cool sport car, and every baby-boomer boy's dream," says David Burroughs, a boomer himself at age 63, whose early fascination with the Corvette led him to create Bloomington Gold. In 1973 he took his first Corvette, a silver 1967 Stingray that he still owns, to a show in Bloomington, near where he grew up. But he deemed the judging to be arbitrary and inexact.

So Mr. Burroughs decided to evaluate Corvettes by how effectively they've been preserved or restored to their original condition: "no better, no worse, no different," as his standards specify. In 1978 he took over the Bloomington show. After winners started calling their cars "Bloomington Gold," Mr. Burroughs adopted that name in 1983.

That was exactly 30 years after the first Corvettes had burst upon the American scene with fortuitous timing. In 1953 the Korean War ended, Elvis Presley started recording music and Hugh Hefner started Playboy. Americans wanted to let loose, and a hot sports car was just the thing. The problem was that the first Corvettes were awful.

They had wimpy six-cylinder engines and two-speed automatic transmissions that were more suited to a go-kart than a real sports car. There were no door handles, so you had to reach inside to open the door. And the removable roof leaked.

Sales were slow (just like the car), so General Motors planned to kill the Corvette after only two years. But that drew a vociferous protest from Zora Arkus-Duntov, a midlevel company engineer. Arkus-Duntov had been raised by Bolshevik parents in St. Petersburg, fled the Nazis during World War II and came to America, where seeing the first Corvette at GM's Motorama display in New York inspired him to land a job with GM. When he learned the Corvette would be killed, he fired off a memo: "If the value of a car consists of practical values and emotional appeal, the sports car has very little of the first and consequently has to have an exaggerated amount of the second."

Arkus-Duntov proved persuasive. The Corvette got a reprieve, and he gave the car a sturdy suspension, tighter steering and a testosterone-fueled V8 engine. Chevy's stylists, meanwhile, added sumptuous side cove scoops to the 1950s models and rakish curves to the Corvette Stingrays of the 1960s.

Chevrolet caught a competitive break when Ford added a back seat to its rival Thunderbird in 1958, leaving the Corvette as the only true American sports car. Two years later the Corvette played a starring role in the TV drama "Route 66." And it was celebrated in the 1964 hit song "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean. (Singer Jan Berry was badly injured two years later driving his Stingray near the site described in the song.)

The Corvette suffered during the oil crises of the 1970s, when its engine was downsized to just 165 horsepower—less than half the power of a decade earlier, and about the same as what many four-cylinder cars have today. But when gas prices dropped in the 1980s the Corvette got a new infusion of muscle and better engineering. Today's top-of-the-line Corvette, the ZR1, boasts 638 horsepower and a $106,880 price-tag.

The car has spawned a Corvette cottage industry that includes several magazines and MidAmerica Motorworks in Effingham, Ill., which sells everything from Corvette parts to Corvette bathrobes. Several restoration shops specialize in making old Corvettes like new, often for a six-figure price. The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., displays classic cars along with the original copy of Arkus-Duntov's memo. Also enshrined there is the urn containing the ashes of Arkus-Duntov, the Bolshevik boy who saved America's iconic sports car.

America has dozens of annual Corvette shows, but only a few are large like Bloomington Gold. Mr. Burroughs, a soft-spoken and cerebral man, is fussy about its standards.

Corvettes have fiberglass bodies, but under their rust-free skins the key components are metal. Various Bloomington Gold designations are bestowed only on cars whose original or replacement parts meet the exact factory specifications. Different judges evaluate the exterior, the interior, the engine and the chassis. Even a square-head bolt gets a demerit if the original was round.

"We're in the credibility business," Mr. Burroughs explains.

To the aficionados who attend Bloomington Gold, Corvettes are known by their classifications: Gold Certified, Survivor and Benchmark—the last meaning that the car is in near-mint condition with mostly original parts. Corvettes also have various generations, the C1 through the current C6, that are defined by major model changes. Among the most iconic and expensive are the limited-production L88 Corvettes, built between 1967 and 1969, with up to 565 horsepower. In 2008 Bloomington Gold featured a special exhibit of L88s, which have "no fussy options, no other mission in mind but brute force," as Mr. Burroughs puts it.

He adds new features each year to keep the crowds coming, because revenue comes from ticket sales ($20 a day, or $50 for a four-day pass) and exhibitor fees (from companies that sell everything from premium car wax to insurance for collectible cars). No support comes from GM. Mr. Burroughs has sold Bloomington Gold to Dana Mecum, an auto auctioneer, but remains on as CEO.

One of this year's new features will be the Great Hall, an exhibition of historically significant Corvettes, including the prototype displayed at the 1953 Motorama. "What I want to leave behind is a documented history of how all this unfolded," says Mr. Burroughs. "How did this car create a loyal fan base and then became a phenomenon? I want to show how it all happened."

Mr. Ingrassia's latest book is "Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster" (Random House). He's now writing a book about the cars that helped shape American culture.

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Have a safe trip, and lots of fun looking at all that fiberglass. And get some damn ACE shirt pictures!

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Got the ACE shirt and will have pics tonight.

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Got the ACE shirt and will have pics tonight.

Oh SNAP! You should have said you were going earlier, you could have taken a Renegade with you to show off and I could have cut you a deal off any sales to help pay for your trip. Anyone else going...Mmmmm?

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