By all accounts, the 2023 Iola Car Show in Iola, Wis., was a barn burner. Attendance at the July 6-8 event reportedly squeaked past the 134,000-person mark to land at 134,008 in total, according to show officials. The show car areas were, indeed, bursting at the seams, with vehicles displayed in the traffic rows between the regular show car spaces as officials looked for places to park owners’ vehicles on Friday. According to Iola Car Show Executive Director Joe Opperman, this year’s show was unique for more than its attendance record.
“Honestly, I think this show had a very different feeling to it, and I really don’t expect to ever feel this good about how a show went ever again for a bunch of reasons,” he said. “The weather was perfect so the crowds were huge, word really got out about the show and the theme with the ’50s was good.”
“During the absolute busiest time on Friday, I had a chance to walk through the grounds and observe the show. I have never seen that many people at so many places. Volunteers were offering great service with a smile, and there was a sense of peace and calm and happiness, and I think that has to do with the current state of the world. Everything is so politically polarized, and this was almost like a vacation or reprieve from all of that. People were just very happy to be together and were patient and kind. It really was magic. The attitude that the participants and spectators brought was an overwhelming experience.”
Opperman credited the show’s 2,000 volunteers for adding to that magic, and to the many celebrities who met with participants during the show.
“The (‘50s) theme, the Vice Grip Garage feature was really, really good — that was super well received,” Opperman said. “Jerry Mathers was another slam dunk for the core older crowd. Little things, like the Festival (grocery store) Big Cart, and the monster trucks gave families and kid something to be entertained with. We had a little something for every category and age group, so there were a lot of things to be happy about.”
For 2023, the Iola Car Show boasted 2,257 show cars, about 3,900 swap meet spaces, 1,265 campsite reservations and a sold-out car corral. Past numbers have indicated that the swap meet and car corral were trending downward, but Opperman said this year saw a “big rebound of both the car corral and swap meet.
“The swap meet is something that, if you would have asked me five years ago what our numbers would be this year, I would have said 3,500, because of the overall trajectory and falling vendor inventory, and this year was a sold-out swap meet,” Opperman said. “They ended up reselling some swap space for no shows or sell-outs. It was a kind of testament to the group that manages that area.”
“The car corral we restricted and changed the layout, because that has been holding on really well considering you can go on Facebook Marketplace and list things for free — that had 120 more cars than we had last year.”
Opperman said the Iola Car Show staff anticipated the car corral would be smaller than in past years and this year it widened the aisles to create “luxury lanes” to decongest the pedestrian traffic, and it also enlarged each car corral space. However, the influx of car corral entries for 2023 required the grounds crew to add temporary fencing to create more space for more vehicles, because the car corral was oversold by the time the drive-ins arrived.
Opperman said “it was a great shock to me” and the car show staff will reevaluate the car corral layout for next year.”
The Iola Car Show campground is almost an event within itself, with many dedicated campers who annually return for the unique “event within an event” experience. Opperman said one particular hurdle at a past show turned away some campers, but this year the campground made a big comeback.
“The campground was probably at an all-time high — probably about 100 more spaces than the previous year — and again, we have been investing in improvements out there to make that a really good environment.”
“Several years ago, we had problems with the showers — people were getting cold showers and we just couldn’t get them fixed before the show. That really cost us some people. Some people left because of a bad experience, and now we have a new group of people discovering the show and enjoying the show and we’re seeing new families starting this as a new tradition.”
The staff of the Iola Car Show is already gearing up for next year’s event, which will be the 52nd annual. While the staff is still working out the specific details, the general theme for the 2024 event will be muscle cars. Watch for show updates at www.iolaoldcarshow.com.
Until then, the Iola Car Show is hosting The Rally, a cruise on Sept. 16 from the Iola Car Show grounds to the Menominee Casino Resort. Learn more at the car show’s website or call 715-445-4000.
The Old Cars staff was at the 2023 Iola Car Show photographing many show cars and trucks for upcoming articles, so keep your eyes on these pages for highlighted feature vehicles.
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