Vail Automotive Classic brings a full weekend of cars, planes and bikes |

Vail Automotive Classic brings a full weekend of cars, planes and bikes

Melanie Wong
Buck Roetman, left, and Gary Rower, right, practice aerobatic manuevers Friday at the Vail Valley Jet Center in Gypsum in preparation for the Wheels and Wings festival taking place today. The first aerobatics show will take place at 10 a.m. followed by a second from 1 to 2 p.m.
Townsend Bessent | |

Vail Automotive Classic schedule

Wings & Wheels Festival: Catch air shows at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, and the Auto Auction at the Vail Valley Jet Center. Tickets start at $20 for adults and $5 for children.

Vail Village Car Show: From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday, see drool-worthy vehicles and motorcycles on Meadow Drive and Bridge Street. Admission is free.

More info:

GYPSUM — It wasn’t until I was nearing the Vail Valley Jet Center and I could hear the low buzzing of the show planes and see the smoke shooting out from their tails as they shot straight up in the air, plummeted back toward the ground, then tucked into a roll that I realized I might have gotten in over my head.

I was excited at the prospect of flying in one of the show planes featured in this weekend’s Wheels and Wings festival, but I didn’t realize the gravity of what I’d signed up for until I saw those brightly colored planes doing loops and barrel rolls startlingly low in the sky. I started to sweat.

To be perfectly clear, I am a big wimp when it comes to roller coasters. I get seasick without fail, carsick on winding mountain roads, and felt nauseated for hours after my last tilt-a-whirl ride at the carnival. “What happens when you throw up while upside down in an open cockpit?” I wondered.

‘Let’s fly’

“What happens when you throw up while upside down in an open cockpit?” I wondered. … I try not to think about the tilt-a-whirl and ways I might ruin Rower’s upholstery.

However, I was distracted as soon as I saw the show planes up close, gleaming and pristine on the runway. My steed was Gary Rower’s 1942 Army Air Corp PT17, the Stearman. It was the very definition of the word “snazzy,” with its shiny white and red stripes. Rower is a flying enthusiast and professional air show pilot, and it’s difficult to not feel safe with his credentials — he’s an Air Force veteran and pilot for a major airline, and was among the first to fly 1,000 hours in an F-16.

We strap on parachutes, goggles and headsets, and we’re off. No looking back now.

However, there is looking down, and from a few thousand feet up, the valley looks absolutely stunning. The gypsum hills to the north, usually overshadowed by the New York and Gore ranges further east, look dramatic from the plane. The snaking river looks graceful and a brilliant green from this high up. As we drop lower to just 500 feet off the ground, you really appreciate the view the birds get as they soar over Eagle County.

“Are you ready to go upside down?” asks Rower over the intercom.

I try not to think about the tilt-a-whirl and ways I might ruin Rower’s upholstery, but I figure I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t do it. I take a deep breath.

“Let’s do it.”

Rower took the plane in a big loop in the air, as well as a barrel roll, and I went between wanting to close my eyes and not miss a second. I felt like I should have my hands up in the air screaming like a kid on Splash Mountain. You don’t know which way is up, and the 4 Gs (meaning the forces on your body are four times the force of gravity) make it difficult to make any sound at all.

“How was that?” crackles Rower’s voice over the intercom.

“I see why you like doing this,” I reply with a huge grin.

A weekend of cars, bikes and planes

This is the sixth year of the Vail Automotive Classic, a weekend festival started by a group of local car enthusiasts. The event has grown to a full slate of events, with several thousand spectators.

Friday kicked off with the Battle Mountain Road Tour, in which some 65 cars completed a day tour over Battle Mountain to Leadville and back into Gypsum. The main attraction Saturday is the Wings & Wheels Festival, featuring two air shows (courtesy of Rower and several other pilots) at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the Vail Valley Jet Center in Gypsum. A number of cars ranging from brand new to vintage will be up for auction as well. The weekend ends on Sunday with the Vail Village Car Show from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., where attendees can see new and vintage cars and motorcycles lined up along Bridge Street and Meadow Drive.

A portion of the proceeds from the event go to Eagle County Senior Life and Jack’s Place at the Shaw Cancer Center.

“This event has slowly grown over the years and has been very well received by the community, which is really key to its success,” said Vail Automotive Classic board member Rich tenBraak.

Another board member, Don Welch, said the event has come a long way from the time that he and 30 or so other car enthusiasts would meet for “Cars and Coffee” each Sunday.

“We hear from people that it’s one of those events you don’t want to miss,” he said.

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

Support Local Journalism