The people behind the state’s largest monthly show are bringing legends and rarities to Sanford’s inaugural Triple Crown event
By Billy Liggett | Photos by Mike Thomas
On the first Saturday of every month in a large parking lot at the corner of Page Road and South Miami Boulevard in Durham (near Morrisville), car enthusiasts from all over the state — and the Southeast — gather to show off their pride and joy, to see in person some of the fastest and most well-built cars around and to “talk shop” with strangers who share their passion. On a smaller scale, nearly 40 miles to the south in Sanford, a similar gathering takes place on the last Saturday of the month in the parking lot in front of Camelback Brewing off of Spring Lane.
“It’s a community,” says Jonathon Nowell, who noticed a growing interest in and around Sanford and launched the Facebook group Sanford Car News in 2019 to bring that community together. “We’re amazed at how far people will drive to come hang out and talk cars. We knew there was interest here, but it’s just blown up.”
The consistent success and growth of Morrisville’s Cars and Coffee — which averages more than 3,000 cars and thousands more people — and Sanford’s monthly Cruise’N Camelback events have paved the way for the biggest and most ambitious gathering yet in the Triple Crown Charity Car Show slated for Sept. 9 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center in Sanford. Anywhere between 200 and 400 judge-worthy cars are expected to pack the civic center’s outdoor parking area (this part is free to spectators), and 30-plus additional cars will make up the indoor “Legends Display,” which will cost $5 a person for entry (fee is waived for those who enter a car).
Organizers have asked that the identity of the “legends” stay under wraps, but the combined estimated worth of the showcase will be roughly $15 million. Think “supercars” and rarities. A collector’s dream.
The people behind the inaugural show not only know a thing or two about cars; they know about putting together a show, too. Attorney and Sanford native Harrison Wicker, the son of the man whose name adorns the civic center, sits on the board of Morrisville’s popular event. Car enthusiast and professional photographer Mike Thomas has built an impressive portfolio shooting the Cars and Coffee event for the past few years. Nowell and Sanford Car News partner Graham Maxwell have had their finger on the car community pulse in Sanford for four years. And local enthusiast John Jinnings has a collection that could fill its own car show.
They — with the backing of sponsors like Wilkinson Chevrolet and friends from Morrisville — have brought enormous validity and high expectations for this first-year event.
“It’s already a success,” says Thomas, owner of Maximum Performance Productions, which specializes in event photography and video production. “I say that because we’ve already raised thousands for these charities, and that’s the main reason we’re doing this. As for expectations, if we get 400 cars out there, that’s a 10 out of 10 for me. I know a lot of people are interested in what we’re doing, and I’d love to see it take off and become a yearly thing.”
THE BIG IDEA
It was Thomas who first brought up the idea that would become Triple Crown last year. A car enthusiast who lovingly calls his 2017 Chevy SS Sedan “Red,” Thomas says the idea to start an annual show that blended the fun of a “cruise in” with the competitiveness of a judged “show” (as well as a showroom for the high-end vehicles) came to him after the last few years of attending events across the state. Having people who could take that idea and make it a reality didn’t hurt, either.
“It was a great idea,” says Wicker, a Sanford native and current partner of Wicker Law Firm PLLC in Raleigh. “And Sanford has the perfect venue for it. My dad [former North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker] is a car collector, and we know people with great collections. We had everything we needed to get this off the ground.”
One of those collectors is Jinnings, an Indiana native who only recently moved to North Carolina and brought with him a “massive collection” of rare Fords and Shelbys. Wicker says Jinnings was heavily involved in big shows in Fort Wayne, Indiana and has been huge in planning Triple Crown. Another big influence has been Rob Ayers, organizer of Cars and Coffee whose backing has lent credibility to a first-time event.
“Have you ever looked around a room and said to yourself, ‘We’ve got the perfect group here to get things done?’ That’s how I felt about this,” says Wicker.
The group went over things they liked and didn’t like about other shows — such as unqualified judges and, thus, inconsistent scores — while planning this one. They also reached out to their friends and got 80 percent of their Legends Display filled before ever reaching out to the public. A partnership with Southern Integrity Auto Transport cut down on costs to bring those vehicles to Sanford, and with over a week remaining until the big day, already nearly $20,000 has been raised to benefit the three big beneficiaries of the car show — the Lee County Education Foundation, the Christian United Outreach Center and Central Carolina Community College’s Automotive Restoration program.
Months of planning has led to what they’re calling a “four-part show.” In addition to the 30 “finest legend cars” inside, there will be 30 hand-picked “selects” parked out front. There will be a Top 30 judged car show open to all makes and models (which requires the $20 registration) and an open-class cruise-in open to all makes and models of cars, trucks, motorcycles, vans, etc. Food trucks, a DJ, door prizes, raffles and all the other event trimmings will be there, too. Security will be on hand, and they’re asking that incoming vehicles refrain from “tire spinning” to keep things safe and to respect the property.
IGNITING A PASSION
The official temperature on this late August Saturday afternoon in Sanford is 100 degrees, but in the dark paved parking lot in front of Camelback Brewing, it feels more like 115. Walking just a few minutes on the asphalt heats the bottoms of shoes. In other words, it’s hot.
That doesn’t stop Nowell, Maxwell and their neon green shirt-sporting team from Sanford Car News from putting on another Cruise’N event. On most end-of-the-month Saturdays, this lot is packed with new Camaros, Corvettes and Mustangs, classic Chevy and Ford trucks and the occasional hot rod or classic 50s-era cruiser. On this day, the lot is about 75 percent full — still impressive considering the conditions.
Whether it’s their passion or just their hobby, Nowell says the crowds keep coming because of a shared love for cars. Nowell lowers his hand toward his right knee and says he was that tall when his passion for anything on four wheels was ignited.
“My dad always restored cars, and so I’ve always just kind of been around it and naturally fell in love with it,” he says. His pride and joy is restored 1987 square-bodied C10 Chevy Silverado. Maxwell owns a ’67 blown Chevy Camaro with the engine coming out of the hood. Both are often seen in the Camelback lot, and both are sure-fired conversation starters.
“The drive for us is being able to start something and have this many people here because they love being here,” Nowell adds. “There’ve been a lot of people come up to me and say how much they enjoy this and how, for some, it’s a family thing. There’s one father and son in particular who live nearby and said that since they started attending these, they’ve bought two cars and restored them together, because they fell in love with what we’re doing and they wanted to bring that home. I feel like it’s touched a lot of people.”
For Wicker, the love of cars also began at a young age. His father was a big race fan, and his uncle owned a classic Corvette, which Wicker first took a ride in when he was 4 (he still remembers the experience). But he was forever hooked the following year at the Coco-Cola 600 NASCAR race in Concord — a race with a Hall of Fame top 6 finishers in Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt.
“When they fired those motors, and I heard and felt the cackling of the camshafts, it captivated me,” Wicker says.
A lot of work has gone into putting the Triple Crown show together, and according to Wicker, the wheels are already turning, so to speak, to plan a bigger and better event in 2024.
When the day does hit, Thomas says he hopes to get a chance to pause and take it all in.
“If it’s anything close to what I think or hope it can be, it’ll be awesome,” he says. “We wanted to bring something like this to Sanford, because we know for many of the kids — and even the adults — they’ll be seeing cars like this for the first time ever. They’re like art to me, and I see beauty in it. I hope others, when they see this show, see the same thing.”
Learn more about the Triple Crown Charity Car Show and check for updates at its event page on Facebook.