Crayton looks back on 20 years of cars, friends at Oakboro Cruise-In
Published 10:29 am Thursday, September 28, 2023
By Chris Miller
Jerry Crayton was at Disney World in 2010 when he met a couple, who inquired about where he was from.
After he replied Oakboro, Crayton received a response he never expected.
“They said, ‘Well, that’s where they have that awesome cruise-in,’ ” Crayton recalled. “I said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
That more than 500 miles from Stanly County two strangers knew about the Oakboro Cruise-In, where hundreds of antique cars roll into downtown on the fourth Friday of each month, helps illustrate the enduring legacy of the event Crayton, 83, started 20 years ago in April 2003.
“I had to keep control from getting a big head,” he said with a laugh.
Similar to the town’s iconic Fourth of July parade, the Cruise-In has become indelible — it’s practically woven into Oakboro’s identity, its DNA, consistently drawing thousands of people from across the Charlotte metropolitan area and beyond. Crayton recalls a man once traveled to Oakboro in his mustang from Hoover, Alabama, more than 400 miles away.
“Most people get something like this started and it will be stopped maybe in a year, but 20 years of still doing it, that says quite a bit about a person,” Stanfield resident Larry Huneycutt said.
A former student of Crayton’s and vintage car aficionado, Huneycutt regularly attends the cruise-ins, displaying his vehicles while also in search of new ones to buy. He estimates each year he buys two to three vehicles during the cruise-ins.
The cars typically begin arriving at 3 p.m., with the event starting at 5 p.m. and running until around 9:30 p.m. The cruise-ins feature vehicles across all eras, from classic hot rods to newer muscle cars to motorcycles. Crayton even recalls a 1902 Ford Roundabout having been on display.
“I just think it’s awesome that our little town is able to accommodate such a big event,” Police Chief TJ Smith said. “It’s amazing to see the togetherness of the town and the people who attend the event. It just shows how heartfelt and loving our town really is.
“I hope we have 20 more years of it,” Smith added.
How the event began
Crayton always had a passion for cars — especially antique ones. The owner of several classic vehicles, including a 1940 Chevrolet Street Rod and a 1961 Corvette, Crayton taught auto mechanics at West Stanly High School for 32 years, retiring in 1996.
From 1980 to 1987, Crayton organized several cruise-ins at the school’s parking lot, often attracting more than 700 cars. He also regularly attended car shows in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Following his career at West Stanly, Crayton opened an antique store on Main Street. It was one of the few businesses in downtown, as the town was struggling to gain a foothold following the closing of Stanly Knitting Mills, which had been Oakboro’s biggest employer.
“We had zero foot traffic,” he said. “After the mill closed, everything was dead.”
Looking for a way to bring more people to the community, Crayton went back to his roots: He pitched creating an event where classic car enthusiasts could come together to show off their vehicles.
Modeled after the Somernites Cruise, held each month in Somerset, Kentucky, Crayton and his wife traveled throughout the county, eagerly passing out fliers about the cruise-in. Word-of-mouth gradually expanded to neighboring counties, as momentum for the event grew.
Even after receiving approval from the town council, Crayton said certain officials were still unsure if the event could draw enough people to really make an impact.
After months of publicity, the inaugural Cruise-in took place on April 26, 2003. Crayton had modest expectations, which were quickly surpassed.
“Everybody was saying you’ll be lucky if you have 20 or 25 cars,” Crayton said. “On the very first night, we had over 100 vehicles and around 2,000 people showed up.
“I was very, very excited,” Crayton. “It was overwhelming, really, being so huge that first night.”
‘A life of its own’
The momentum generated from that first event has not slowed down. If anything, the cruise-ins have grown in stature as more people learned about the excitement taking place in town.
“It’s good family fun,” said Mark Rowles, a former colleague of Crayton’s at West Stanly, who regularly brought his kids when they were younger. “We’ve had a ball.”
“There are people that come from Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia,” he added. “They’ll be here every fourth Friday. Some of them are driving several hundreds miles to be here.”
Crayton was on vacation at North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with his family in the summer of 2005 when he received a phone call. The person asked Crayton to save him a spot at the upcoming Cruise-In, as staff from Car Craft, a national magazine devoted to automobiles, hot rods and drag racing, would be in attendance.
This was news to Crayton.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” he said he told the individual. “I didn’t even know it, because the magazine had not notified me.”
Crayton cut his vacation short to be at the event, which featured around 400 vehicles and thousands of people — more than any prior Cruise-In.
“Even though we looked like aliens from the planet Kodak, the locals were friendly ’cause deep down they knew that it was Cruise-In night in Oakboro, North Carolina,” according to the short article featured in the September 2005 edition of the magazine. “That was a good thing.”
The chief attraction for many was the Burn Out, where individuals competed in a cordoned-off area, spinning their tires to see which vehicle could generate the most smoke. The Charlotte Observer wrote a detailed story about it in 2005, and it was the subject of a documentary, “Burn Out: The Resurrection of a Small Southern Town.”
“It was just surreal,” Rowles said about the atmosphere surrounding Craft Car officials being at the event. “It’s hard to describe that feeling because there were people from everywhere.”
The national exposure helped bring more people to the monthly cruises. People later told him they learned about the event from added publicity.
The cruises helped instill a renewed energy into the town, especially the downtown businesses, with people eager to explore the restaurants and shops.
The man who used to operate the Fountain Grill, now the Los Jacubes Mexican Restaurant, told Crayton that “on cruise-in nights, he made enough to pay his monthly expenses,” Crayton said.
He also appreciates that since the cruise-in started, the number of downtown businesses has steadily increased. “Now everything’s occupied,” Crayton said.
The 2005 success illustrated to Crayton that the cruise-ins had staying power and would not be going away anytime soon.
“After that, really, that’s when it took on a life of its own,” Crayton said. “Even if I had nothing to do with it now, it would continue because people are used to coming.”
‘A time warp’
About 10 years ago, Rowles was in the street taking photographs of the many stylish cars on display when a semi-truck drove by. The driver, not sure what to think, pulled down his window and asked: “Did I just drive into a time warp or what?”
“It just looks like I went back in time 40-50 years to be here,” the man added, according to Rowles. “This is amazing.”
The man’s account is a testament to another reason the cruise-ins have been so successful. As much as the vintage cars can transport people to an earlier era, so, too, can the town. Compared with the bigger, urban communities around it, the look and feel of Oakboro, with a population of about 2,100, can often feel like a blast from the past.
“Time hasn’t forgotten it, but in a lot of ways it has,” Rowles said. “You don’t have all the hustle and bustle of a city. The town gives you the 1950s/1960s-type vibe.”
Rowles theorizes the same type of event would likely not be as successful in a larger, more sprawling community.
“Cruising was something that was done in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s,” Rowles said. “That’s the big era of cruising and Oakboro’s still there, for the most part. And that’s a good thing. That’s Oakboro’s blessing; that’s their calling card.”
No signs of slowing down
After two decades of car enthusiasts making the monthly pilgrimage to Oakboro, the event is as strong as ever.
“The word is still getting out there and we’re getting new people every month,” he said. “That’s what keeps it going.”
The event has cultivated a dedicated following, with close to 7,000 followers on its Facebook page, where announcements are posted and photos shared.
When asked what it means to him that the Cruise-In has become such an integral part of many people’s lives over the years, Crayton said “it just shows that I had a good idea.”
Crayton is confident the Cruise-In will continue well into the future, once he no longer plays an active role.
“It will continue as long as we have gasoline cars,” he said with a chuckle.