The Friends of Coal Auto Fair is now in its 11th year, featuring two of the biggest names in country music — Jake Owen and Kellie Pickler — who will take the stage July 19.

The auto fair, which will encompass three days, July 18-20, came from humble beginnings though, featuring about 150 cars and only a few hundred attendees at what was then known as the Whitewater Run Car Show.

YMCA of Southern West Virginia CEO Jay Rist said much has changed for him since then as well; during his first auto fair, he sold T-shirts at a merchandise booth.

“The Y was trying to figure out how to do a fundraising event to help with the upkeep and the maintenance of the YMCA Paul Cline Memorial Youth Sports Complex,” Rist said of the event’s inception.

He said the idea came about for a car show, and after hours upon hours of meetings with YMCA staff, volunteers and other interested parties, the Whitewater Run Car Show was born.

During its first year, The Platters and The Vogues provided the live entertainment, and while the event was supported, the steering committee knew there was room for growth.

The mining industry was a supporter of the event during its inaugural year and that support only grew stronger once the Y decided to team up with the Friends of Coal to help the event grow.

“We saw a lot of support from the mining industry and some of the major driving forces for the show, Donnie Holcomb, Jack Fairchild, Warren Hylton, Byrd White, Steve Antoline, Skeets Loving, Jim Gilchrist — the list could go on. They’ve been a real backbone for helping the fair grow.”

Rist said from the support of the Friends of Coal, the event has really snowballed into the auto fair known today.

From just a few hundred attendees in the beginning, to a several thousand in 2013, Rist is expecting a bigger crowd this year than ever before.

“In 2006, we ended up with the Charlie Daniels Band and it just grew from there. It was like lightning in a bottle.”

Randy Owen, Josh Turner and Little Big Town, Ronnie Dunn and Travis Tritt are just a few of the names that have graced the auto fair’s stage in the past years.

“This year, being an official tour date for the Days of Gold Tour with Jake Owen and Kellie Pickler opening up for him, it’s pretty amazing.”

He said the transformation from old school bands into some of the hottest names in country has been phenomenal.

Owen and Pickler are expected to draw a huge crowd, and Rist predicts the event will sell out.

“It’s been an event that’s really taken on a life of its own and I think it’s something people really look forward to.”

The family-friendly event aims not only to have something for all ages, but also to be affordable for everyone.

Admission onto the fair grounds is only $2 and general admission concert tickets are $29.95. Children 6 and under get in free with a paying adult.

“We try to be as family-friendly as possible and also as affordable as possible.”

But Rist gives the credit to the auto fair sponsors, volunteers, especially the steering committee, and all the agencies and organizations involved with the execution of the event.

The car show and the Saturday night concert have always been the meat and potatoes of the event, but Rist said they always try to sprinkle in additional festivities.

“Keeping it fresh — that’s the biggest challenge. I think in some ways, the event has matured. The growth is there, but how far can we grow before we hit a ceiling? How do we keep it fresh?”

The auto fair team is far from running out of ideas though, and several new additions this year include the Hillbilly Mobile Zipline, which utilizes a rig to zipline 125 feet above the fair, new prizes for car show participants and a couple new car contests.

New prizes include cash prizes for car show winners, as well as the chance for a participant car to be featured in next year’s auto fair logo.

The car that is named “Participants’ Pick” will be awarded “Best in Show” and will be featured in all promotional materials for the event next year.

In addition to the burnout competition, a hydraulics contest and a limbo contest will also be hosted, where cars will try to see which one can go highest and which one can go lowest.

Rist said another new addition the car enthusiasts are working on is celebrating 50 years of the Ford Mustang, from 1964 to 2014.

“We’re looking to get a Mustang from each year of production. If we can get all 50 registered, that’ll be pretty awesome.”

While it’s easy to get caught up in the awe of the hundreds of cars at the event and the country music superstars on Saturday night, the real purpose of the event is supporting the YMCA and the children and families it serves.

Proceeds from the Friends of Coal Auto Fair will benefit the Y’s youth programs and maintenance of the Sports Complex.

“The growth of the event helps tremendously because the Y is a non-profit organization,” Rist said. “There may be a misconception that the Y has a lot of money, but that’s really not the case.”

He said just like other non-profit organizations, the Y has to apply for grants and host fundraising events.

Many people don’t think about the expenditures of the Y, such as goals for the soccer fields at the Sports Complex or kickboards and floaties for swim lessons at the Y’s pool, Rist said, but that’s where this money goes.

“It helps with supplies for pre-school and after-school programs. It helps with summer day camp, where these kids will make memories that will last a lifetime from their three months here with us. It’s pretty special.”

Nearly 60 teams from four states came to the Sports Complex on Mother’s Day weekend for the Little General Darrell Moore Memorial Classic, and Rist said many people complimented the facility.

“We’re lucky to have a place like this and it’s not just for soccer, it’s for a multitude of things. We run races out there, we have non-profits that host events there, and families find it a safe place to walk, bike, jog or run.”

As for the future of the auto fair, Rist said new items will be added to the agenda every year and he hopes to continue seeing families making the event a tradition.

“It’s going to be a big year for us. We should have a strong showing from not only southern West Virginia, but from people out of town as well.”

Rist is expecting an economic boon for Beckley and the surrounding areas during the auto fair weekend, and he said he believes that growth will continue.

“You can’t put a weight or a dollar amount on the importance of the Y and the effect that it has here in our community. By supporting the Friends of Coal Auto Fair, you’re investing your money right back into your own community.”

For more information about the Friends of Coal Auto Fair or to purchase concert tickets, visit friendsofcoalautofair.com.

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com

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