Cruisin' the Gut returns to downtown Vancouver

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter


photoCrusin the Gut. Courtesy of Aaron Potter / OneBloom Photography


If you go

What: Cruisin' the Gut.

When: Noon to 11 p.m., July 21.

Where: Along Main Street between Sixth and 28th streets.

Cost: Free. Participants are encouraged to visit local businesses and bring three nonperishable food items for Share House.

Information:Cruisin' the Gut

Kiggins Theatre

After the cruise, at 11 p.m. Kiggins will screen "Bullitt," the 1968 action thriller starring Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Vaughn.

Information: Call 360-816-0352.

For Jeff Petersen, 60, the unusual-looking car was his ticket to the social scene in the late '60s and early '70s, when cruising was king.

"It was a way to show off your car," Petersen said. "Maybe you'd put a new set of wheels on, wax it up and you'd cruise around, meet the skirts, brag to your buddies. Sometimes you'd take a date. It was the scene."

Cruising was a popular practice for Vancouver's teenage crowd from the 1950s up until perhaps 20 years ago, when the Internet started to soak up the social scene. But once a year, the spiffed-up classic cars and nostalgic drivers return and plunge Main Street back in time for the Cruisin' The Gut celebration.

Founded in 2009 by Phil Medina, 36, who used to cruise Highway 99 back in his youth, the event Saturday is part classic car parade and part homecoming celebration. People come from all over to share stories, meet old friends or just hang out and watch the cool rides, he said.

"There's something about being on the street and getting old school approval that makes it just so much better than a car show," Medina said. "You drive around, girls hoot at you, you hoot at girls, and everyone hoots at the cars."

Medina grew up hearing tales about cruising around Vancouver from his mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles. When he reached high school, it was just a natural part of the city's history and culture, he said.

"When I started cruising, my parents and family, they embraced it because it was something they used to do," Medina said.

He founded the event mostly because he wanted to find a place where he could cruise again in his turquoise 1961 Chevy Parkwood station wagon. He also wanted to get the community involved and support downtown businesses and Share House, a charity that helps homeless and hungry Clark County residents, he said.

"It's really a revenue generator," Medina said.

Each year, it draws thousands of people — and more than 1,000 classic cars — to downtown, where businesses often have special food, drink and item deals.

Last year, it also netted about 3,120 pounds of food and $3,127 for Share House, he said.

Beyond that, the event is just good clean fun, said Mark Brislawn, 62, who, along with Petersen is a member of the Slo Poks Car Club.

"I was an active cruiser," Brislawn said. "I started in '66 at 16. I had a '30 Model A pickup that I reconstructed myself. I've transitioned through different cars since then, but it was just always a fun deal. As a kid I couldn't wait for Friday and Saturday nights so I could cruise with my friends."

The high school crowd today might not quite understand the draw of cruising, but in some ways it's similar to what teens do now when they text each other or chat on Facebook, Petersen said.

"Before all this social networking on the computer, cruising was the thing," Petersen said. "You saw your friends. It was a see and be seen thing."

Another fixture back in '60s and '70s was Jim Finn, a Vancouver police officer who was paid by George Propstra, owner of The Holland and Burgerville, to monitor the cruising scene when he was off duty around the time that Petersen and Brislawn were teen cruisers, they said.

"He was a car guy and a good friend," Brislawn said. "He was very accommodating to the young guys and the kids, but he'd always keep us under control."

Ironically, after he retired, Finn, who died a few years ago, ended up joining the Slo Poks Car Club, Petersen added.

"A lot of our members had interactions with Jim, who enforced the rules but was fair," Petersen said. "It was kind of funny that later on he ended up as a member of our club."

One of the things Finn tried to keep under control was the drag racing on Lower River Road, but ultimately more than a few races were held back in cruising's heyday, Petersen admitted.

"In the downtown area, if you noticed there were a lot fewer cars around, chances were there was some pretty good racing going on down at Lower River Road," Petersen said. "So we'd beat feet down there to check it out."

Drag racing isn't permitted at Cruisin' the Gut, but there will be a display of some classic dragsters at the corner of 12th and Main streets this year for the first time.

Burnouts also aren't allowed. The spinning tires and rubber smoke caused some problems two years ago, but with better policing and monitoring, there were almost no problems with it last year, Medina said.

"Last year the Vancouver Police Department issued two tickets for the whole thing," Medina said. "They did a really good job of keeping it well-contained. It's a family event, and this is just not the place for burnouts. There are too many people."

There are no limits, though, on waving hello and cheering on drivers like Petersen, who will once again be cruising the streets — as ever — in his green VW dune buggy.

"It's a real flashback and it's just a lot of fun," Petersen said. "Everybody's got a smile on their face and the streets are packed with spectators. There's no way you can go down there and not be grinning from ear to ear."