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Hot-rod Hoosiers


Quell your need for speed at Evansville's annual show of souped-up, old-time rideables.


Everyone in Evansville knows when it's time for the Frog Follies. They may not know the exact dates, they may never have stepped foot inside the show and they may not even like cars, but they know when it's coming.

The biggest hot rod show in Southern Indiana got its name when the Evansville Iron Street Rod Club staged a bull frog race at the inaugural event in 1975. The name stuck. Only 44 street rods were registered that first weekend, but now the number has grown to 4,000. Held at the Vanderburgh County 4H Fairgrounds, it's the largest show in the country that only allows cars made before 1949.

In years past, women usually came with their husbands to ride in the passenger seat of their cars. But Jill Furnish from Aurora started out helping her husband with his hot-rod restoration business. Now, she has a car that won Best in Show.

"The few women and I used to get teased a lot," Jill says. "It used to be 'his car,' then 'our car' and now it's 'her car,' too. It's not just a man's game anymore. I'd be on my back polishin' and cleanin' just like any man would do and I wasn't the only one."

But getting to the shows does offer special challenges. "I had a permanent in my hair, and we would drive to the shows in an open car with no top and by the time we got there, my hat had flown off and my curly brown hair would look like it had exploded. Clean lasted until we got to where the show was."

Evansville's Pride

The Frog Follies happens gradually. Summer winds down, kids go back to school and people on their commute to work start wondering when they'll see their first car of the season. On a normal day, Northsiders driving down Highway 41 pass the same old airport and the same old Whirlpool factory. During the first few weeks of August, though, it feels as if they're driving during a different time.

Pulling up to a red light, they glance over to their right side and see a man wearing overalls and a straw hat, smiling happily to himself, sitting in the driver's seat of his 1949 Dodge Wayfarer. It's painted black with yellow and orange flames on the sides, and it's so shiny that it looks brand new. To the left, they see a woman driving her 1935 Volkswagen Beetle. It's painted candy apple red with large black dots and looks like a giant ladybug. A girl in the car behind them yells, "Hey, I like your car!" He looks back, smiles, and tips his hat. The light turns green and they're off.

When I was younger, I was that girl in the passenger seat of my dad's car, telling everyone I saw that I liked their car. But at the time, I had no idea what a hot rod was.

Since then, I've learned that hot rods are cars that have been modified to increase acceleration. It's all about speed and appearance. The average hot rod can go up to 150 miles per hour and the fastest ever recorded was 241.4 miles per hour in April 2010, according to Hot Rod Magazine.

Street-rod enthusiasts come from all parts of the world to flaunt their souped-up cars at the Frog Follies. Last year, Robert Souza drove to Evansville from Selah, Washington. That's 2,151 miles and would take 34 hours to complete without stopping. Normally, vintage car owners wouldn't drive their cars any distance to prevent dings, wrecks, and wear and tear. However, the Frog Follies is a show of "rideables," Jill says.

Hot-Rod Bonding

Jill and her husband, Al, run Al's Hot Rod Barn in Aurora. They met at a stock car race. Jill used to go to the races with her friends and they always bet on who would win. She didn't know who the racers were, but would always bet on the same car because she liked the color. It turned out that car was Al's. Mutual friends introduced them, and they've been married for almost 50 years. The pair has worked on hundreds of cars together. They're best friends, and Jill learned most of what she knows about hot rods from him.

"I came into it with enthusiasm and no knowledge," Jill says. A lover of competition and sport, Jill jumped into hot-rod restoration and rebuilding without any apprehensions about being a woman in the hot-rod business.

She and her family have countless trophies, but she can still tell you where each one came from and a funny story about it. One of her cars, "Hot Pink Pearl," or "Trashy," is a bold, bright pink 1930 Model A Ford Roadster. It won Best in Show out of more than 500 cars. She got the inspiration for the color from some hot pink tennis shoes. "It's a hoot. Men wanted to look at the car but wouldn't because it was pink. They'd take pictures and say, 'I want my wife to see this car,'" Jill says. By the end of the show, the men were asking to drive it. "When you stamped on that one, it went."

Jill has judged shows of 700 to 800 cars. At some car shows, judges walk around and say negative things about the cars to the drivers. "If a judge is negative, it will kill a show in a heartbeat," Jill says. "A show can live or die by how the participants are treated."

When Jill judges, she treats owners with respect. "I don't care if the wheels are falling off, I'll say, 'Nice car,' because they love the car."

Jill and her family have made car restoration their livelihood. It's not just a hobby to them -- it's a family thing and it brings great joy to her to see a car come back to life. Recently her 10-year-old grandson won a trophy that was two feet taller than he was. "He had a grin from ear to ear," Jill says.

It's this passion that make the hours spent working and reworking their cars worthwhile.

Some people, like Jack Skaggs of Martinsville, go to junkyards and find old, rusty cars that don't operate and fix them up to impeccable shape. These are called "barn finds," and if you get a good one you're lucky.

Born This Way

Jerry Camp, owner of A-Plus Rod & Kustom in Boonville, specializes in parts for hot rods. He doesn't find them in junkyards -- he makes them. Since 2007, his business has been 11th in sales in the nation for Vintage Air, which is a special type of air conditioner. He was a member of the Evansville Iron Street Rod Club from 2000 to 2008 and organized the entire event for four of those years. He grew up working in his family's auto shop with his father and started working on his own hot rod before he was even old enough to drive.

Jerry carried on this tradition with his son, Andy. Andy says he grew up in the back seat of his dad's 1946 Ford Tudor sedan.

They've been attending the Frog Follies for years. Jerry says the event is about the love and the art of the sport. To ensure that the tradition lives on, all of the proceeds go to local charities and a scholarship fund for students -- like Andy -- interested in working in the automotive industry.

In their shop, and in Jill and Al's shop, they still see a demand for hot rods that they believe will never die down despite the recession. It's in people's blood and it's ingrained deeply in their family traditions. It's more than fast cars and fancy designs -- it's the thing that keeps them connected to other people and makes life fun and worthwhile.