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Eternal combustion at the Salem Super Cruise

Published: Thu, June 28, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

The Salem Super Cruise is the quintessential small-town America festival.

The annual High Mass of muscle cars took over the Quaker City last weekend, bringing a carnival-trailer food court with overpriced pizza and sausages, pony rides and oldies cover bands on every street corner (“Time won’t let meeeee, oh nooooo ...”).

Ear-splitting roars from hot rodders revving their engines pierced the night about every 15 seconds. Teens with flock instincts congregated and scattered, only to reunite elsewhere, like birds.

And sweet-faced young ladies walked hand-in-hand with their boyfriends, blissfully wearing T-shirts with obscene messages.

The Super Cruise piggybacks off the Steel Valley Super Nationals, a gathering of hot-rod and classic-car afficionados who make an annual pilgrimage to the Quaker City drag strip just north of Salem.

Each evening, they cruise — actually, more like crawl — through the main streets of downtown Salem.

The streets are choked with cars, while folks of all ages navigate their way through jam-packed sidewalks.

Bar patrons spill out into the night. Young men ride in the back of suped-up pickups. It’s like Happy Days all over again.

And it’s the kind of event that could work only in a city like Salem.

The classic American small town, Salem’s downtown is still full of stores, eateries and a theater.

The hundred-year-old buildings and narrow sidewalks of East State Street — the main drag — create an atmosphere that couldn’t have been done better by Hollywood. Surrounding it are a grid pattern of tree-lined streets dotted with neat, wooden homes housing a working-class populace that mans the factories on the edges of town.

Last weekend’s weather also fit the role: hot afternoons that gave way to cool summer evenings. Perfect.

There was magic in the night, and a Springsteen song ran through my head:

“I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.

“She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot outside the 7-Eleven store.”

Salem Super Cruise weekend has been around only for a handful of years. Before that, the Super Nats were at Canfield Fairgrounds, with the hot rodders doing the nightly cruise down U.S. Route 224 in Boardman.

It never was a good fit. Sure, some people would sit in folding chairs at the edge of the shopping plaza parking lots that line the bland suburban strip. They watched the slow parade of polished chrome, supercilious spectators in a twisted memorial to the death of the ozone layer.

But it was a a culture clash, greasers in the Canfleld-Poland corridor. Plus, the store owners and residents of Boardman weren’t the least bit impressed. The novelty wasn’t even close to being worth a three-day traffic jam.

So the Super Nats moved to Quaker City Motorsports Park seven years ago, and the city of Salem embraced the cruise with open arms.

It’s a match made in heaven.

Sure, one can easily find fault, especially in the way it thumbs its nose at green technology. But I’m sure there is a Prius festival somewhere in California or Colorado, if you’re interested, with a tofu stand and carrot juice.

Actually, global warming never enters the picture because the Salem Super Cruise isn’t about politics or social issues.

It’s about the four-wheel freedom dream, the hot rod, the muscle car, the Harley- Davidson, each lovingly restored, polished and powerful, and coursing through small-town America.

Ride on, Salem. Well done.

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