CARLISLE, Pa. – The Carlisle Ford Nationals is not just another Ford car show. Those who have attended this yearly Blue Oval extravaganza will likely tell you it is THE Ford car show to experience. After more than two decades of growth, the annual Ford Nationals certainly has found itself on every Ford fan’s “bucket list,” leaving show-goers wondering how it can get any bigger or better. Well, the 2019 edition of the show accomplished both – adding even more features and attractions than ever before and setting both show registration and attendance records in the process.
As if having more than 50,000 fans and 2,500 Fords fill the Carlisle Fairgrounds for an extended three-day party on the first weekend in June every year somehow wasn’t enough, this year’s show set records at the gate as well as with the 3,100-plus cars that registered for the show field – marking it the largest Ford Nationals for Carlisle Events since its inception back in the mid-1990’s. This year’s show field was pushed to the limits of the rolling Carlisle Fairgrounds, and with the number of vehicles constantly increasing year over year, the event shows no sign of slowing down. But what powers the show to sustain this momentum? Here’s the scoop:
The statement “there’s something for everyone” is all-too-often used for many car shows, and not all are completely accurate. For Carlisle, however, it’s actually an understatement. From Mustangs to Broncos and from Mercurys to Lincolns, you can still see just about every kind of vehicle that Ford has ever produced in the company’s 116 years of existence at this show. Yes, we even found a few 1900’s-era Fords on display – and even parts for them in the Swap Meet!
The show has now grown so large that if you wanted to walk the entire show to see every vehicle and attraction, you would need at least two full days on the Carlisle Fairgrounds; the good news is, the show covers Friday, Saturday and Sunday, giving you time to give it a shot.
We’ve reported before on some concerns that there’s a trend of fewer pre- and post-war Ford cars coming out to the show, being replaced by more and more Mustangs. While that is true of just about every all-Ford show held across the country over the past several years as the number of owners of the early cars begins to dwindle, the good news is that Carlisle Events has used Model Reunion and Anniversary Gathering formats to help maximize attendance for some of the possibly overlooked older Fords. From Model T’s to Model A’s to Edsels and even the Pinto – all Fords are celebrated here and all get to share their time in the event spotlight. That’s one of this show’s best-kept secrets to its ongoing success.
You could have bet your Mustang that there were going to be plenty of cool Ford vehicle gatherings there this year: Among the top model attractions was the “Show within a Show” for the Bullitt Nationals, plus a celebration for 50 years of the Mustang Mach 1, the Boss Mustang, the Mercury Cougar Eliminator, and the Ford Maverick. Plus there’s was a big 40th Anniversary display for the Fox Body Mustang and the first Fox Platform cars. You get the idea.
Yes, Carlisle weather can be unpredictable – even hot and muggy with heavy thunderstorms rolling across the Pennsylvania countryside on any given afternoon. (We’ve seen cold, rain – even hail during our years at the Nats!) But the weather has been great the past few years, and although rain came late Saturday night and gray skies eventually took over the Fairgrounds on Sunday this year, warm and sunny was all that was on tap for the big Friday-Saturday show days – and that also contributed to the big turnout.
Another one of this show’s secrets and why it has become a magnet for regional enthusiasts is that this venue gives Ford clubs their own designated tents – allowing them to set up camp right on the show field and host a gathering for their own members. Most of them decorate their tent in a special theme each year, and throw their own party within the bigger show party. Carlisle Events sponsors a Club Challenge award given to the club that draws the largest number of entrants, as well as the Coolest Club Hangout award (chosen by Ford Performance) for the place that has the best and most fun “vibe” for its members.
For example, the Venom Invasion (whose club hangout won as being the “coolest”) not only set up a well-decorated camp, but also customized their display tent with food tables, TV’s, kid’s activities and much more. Giving the clubs a venue where they can gather while being part of a big weekend attraction is a specialty feature of this event, especially since not all clubs have the wherewithal to host their own show each year, or one big enough that could draw lots of cars.
For Ford Performance, the Carlisle Ford Nationals is our “Super Bowl” for visiting with Ford clubs face-to-face, and getting to spend time with several dozen on a single weekend. In speaking with several, we heard that clubs such as the Maverick Comet International Club uses the Ford Nats to host one of its largest annual events. This can also help bring in new members, plus get the club officially recognized by Carlisle Events and Ford Performance all at once!
Perhaps one of the biggest clues to the show’s success can be found in the show program. In fact, you really shouldn’t attended the event without grabbing the official event guide produced by Carlisle Events. There you can clearly see a jam-packed show schedule, and the results of the Carlisle team’s remarkable efforts in order to ensure you’re never looking for something to do. Ford VIPs, celebrities, authors and speakers from all across the hobby are accessible every year at the Carlisle Ford Nats. This year at the seminar tent and in the display buildings you could find speakers such as John Clor (Ford Performance Enthusiast Communications Manager) Tony Alonso, Scott Hoag, Al Joniec, Mike Finnegan (of Roadkill), Donald Farr, and many more. The time slots can be found in the event guide along with times for the Burnout Contest, Vehicle Walk-Around’s from ROUSH, Saleen, and Ford Performance – even a big parade that runs from the Fairgrounds to a Downtown Carlisle Street Party on Saturday.Ford brought its stars from the 2019 new vehicle lineup for Ride-and-Drives, while Ford Performance and Gateway Classic Mustang teamed up to offer free, hot-lap ride-alongs with pro drivers in the new 2019 Shelby GT350 Mustangs around the Gateway Classic Mustang Autocross Track. Plus, attendees got up-close with the latest rides from Ford Performance, including the just-announced 2.3L High Performance Package Mustang and the much-anticipated 2020 Shelby GT500 Mustang. And of course, that’s not to mention touring a show field full of historically significant Ford vehicles along with related activities for each.
Watching the crowds you’ll notice an assortment of wagons, strollers, and other forms of kid-carrying equipment, which shows that bringing the family and the younger ones along has become quite the trend at Carlisle. In fact, the show has made several adaptations over the past few years to accommodate those who don’t wish to walk or even see the entire show field. The kid’s activities include a Cash Grab on the stage, a full kid’s activity center with crafts, a playset, and specialized T-shirts in every color. They also host a Monster Truck attraction which gives rides that include a flattening of a few cars on the trip.
And there’s even special area for the ladies, dubbed the Woman’s Oasis. This specialized tent features shopping from 20+ female-oriented vendors, including Cosmetology Training, Free Manicures and Pedicures, Aromatherapy -- and even a Tiki bar where it’s always five o’clock.
With its huge show field, still notable swap meet area, massive manufacturer’s midway, and well-trafficked car corral, plus all the special vehicle displays, contests, seminars, celebrities, parade and many club gatherings – it’s no wonder the 2019 Carlisle Ford Nationals set records.
That’s our insider’s view of why the Ford Nationals at the Fairgrounds in Carlisle, PA, is the biggest annual all-Ford celebration of its kind on the planet. It’s the place where Ford fanatics can find the cars, the people and the activities that made them all Ford fans in the first place. And it’s why we’ll be looking for YOU and all your collectible Fords to be there for the whole weekend from June 5-7, 2020. Trust us – and the thousands of Ford folks who visit the Carlisle Nats every year -- you won’t want to miss it!
FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY MARCUS CERVANTES