Hot August Nights: Greased Lightning

Lucy is a 1955 Chevy Bel Air convertible.

Lucy is a 1955 Chevy Bel Air convertible, lovingly restored by Ken Clark and his wife, Tempe, and shown for the past 16 years during Reno-Sparks’ Hot August Nights. “When I show that car, I become 18 again,” the 70-year-old says. “The thumbs up, the applause from spectators—you just feel good.”

Hot August Nights is a city-wide celebration of the cars and rock ‘n roll of the 1950s and ’60s. Events—from car cruises to music to a sock hop and a prom—effectively turn the town into a showcase of decades past.

“There are live bands everywhere you go, food and craft vendors, activities for all ages and the most gorgeous cars you’ve ever seen,” says marketing manager Nicole Maddox. “Each participating property adds their own flair to the parties they throw. That’s the cool thing about Hot August Nights—each person will have a different experience each year, depending on what properties and activities they participate in.”

“It’s a great event,” agrees Ben McDonald, communications manager of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA). “Hot August Nights has a huge impact on the community. There are thousands of people who participate and thousands of people who come into town to see the cars.”

Hot August Nights was founded in 1986. The first year, with 30 volunteers and a budget of $65,000, organizers brought the Righteous Brothers, Wolfman Jack and Jan & Dean to Reno, but the most successful event by far was the car parade. Today, 6,000 classic cars cruise into town, drawing some 350,000 attendees, about 75 percent of which come from out of the area. The event, including the entertainment, is free for spectators; money raised—through raffle cars, specialty license plates and exhibitor donations—benefits the Hot August Nights Foundation, which was established to help local at-risk children through education.

Volunteers, like Clark and his wife, who have worked at the show for the past ten years, are the organization’s heartbeat. “It’s one big party,” Clark says, adding that he has even scheduled surgery around the event. “When it’s over, I probably go through a month of withdrawal.” As a volunteer, he says, “We not only represent Hot August Nights, we represent this whole community and the businesses of the area—we become community ambassadors.”

Despite the tremendous success and public involvement, the show has hit some speed bumps along the way. Last year, the Hot August Nights board of directors, unbeknownst to local government and tourism officials, created a new venue in Long Beach, California, for the first week of August—the traditional time slot for the Reno event. The decision led to an outcry from many who worried that the move signified the organization’s attempt to phase out of Reno, driving away the cars, parties and tourism dollars. The board eventually canceled the Long Beach show, citing a lack of entries and sponsorships, and CEO Bruce Walter resigned.

“We do not foresee any negative effects,” says Maddox of the controversy. “The recent announcements made in regards to Long Beach have solidified our commitment to this community and we feel that we will gain even more support moving forward.”

“RSCVA couldn’t be happier that Hot August Nights has no intentions of leaving the city,” McDonald adds. “We look forward to a long continued partnership with the organization.”

Next year, the event will return to its traditional spot at the first week of August. As for this year, come the second week of August, baby boomers and car enthusiasts of all ages will be out in high gear, celebrating the event’s silver anniversary with parties, music and, of course, those perfectly polished vintage vehicles.

“I love and live for this event,” says Clark. “On most days, it’s elbow-to-elbow people—it’s the best party on the planet.”

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