Corvette a decades-long tradition for local police officer

CHAMPAIGN — Back in '71 or '72 Steve Mechling was walking to high school one morning when he spotted a neighbor pulling into his driveway after working the night shift at the Clifford Jacobs plant.

There in all its glory: a sunflower yellow 1966 Chevrolet Corvette. (Cue the choir singing.)

"That's how it all began," said Mechling, who soon befriended the owner of that car.

A few months after turning 16 years old in 1973, Mechling took possession of his own "pampered pet," as he called it.

A 1971 little white Corvette convertible with saddle leather interior.

He took on three jobs to pay for it: one to cover the car payment, one to cover the insurance and one to pay for gas. He labored at the tire shop, a landscaping company and pumped gas at a service station.

But on the weekends?

He'd roll the top down, turn the key and head to Steak 'n Shake followed by the Red Lion bar in Campustown.

Mechling is one among thousands of Corvette enthusiasts converging at the State Farm Center this weekend for the Bloomington Gold Corvette Show.

Mechling, who joined the Corvette Club of Central Illinois shortly after becoming an owner, attended the very first Bloomington Gold show 40 years ago in Bloomington. He has not missed one show since.

Having the show held in his hometown (he was born and raised in Champaign) "is unbelievable. It's something I've dreamed about," he said.

This is the first year the show will be held in Champaign County. The company has said it will be here for five years. An estimated 3,500 Corvettes and 35,000 people are expected to attend through Sunday.

As part of the event, Corvette drivers will attempt to set a record for the most Corvettes in a road tour. The tour will depart at 6 p.m. Saturday from the State Farm Center (via First Street, Windsor, Duncan, Curtis and Staley roads), head west on Illinois 10, then south through the country to Monticello and return to conclude in downtown Champaign.

A University of Illinois police officer who patrols on motorcycle, Mechling was asked to be the police escort on the tour. Joining him on the tour will be his wife, Chris, who will drive her 1961 jewel blue Corvette. His daughter, Kate, will drive either a 1958 Corvette or a 1986 Corvette with his other daughter, Leigh Anne.

"It is America's only true sports car," Mechling said. Back in the 1950s, "the U.S. never really built a sports car. There was the European stuff — you had Jaguar, Alfa Romeo or Porsche."

When Corvettes were entered in road rallies across the country, "people started paying attention. They would run like a scalded dog. ... They were truly sports cars," Mechling said.

"There's a pride of ownership. Like Harley-Davidson (motorcycles) with their big saying, 'if I had to explain, you wouldn't understand,' it's the same way with Corvettes," Mechling said.

As for the little white Corvette, many years ago he sold it to pay for various household items after buying a house with his wife. He would buy other Corvettes throughout the years, but still waxes nostalgic about that first one.

The local man Mechling sold it to later sold it to a Corvette owner in the Chicago area. Mechling will occasionally see that owner, who restored the white Corvette, at Bloomington Gold shows.

"I may have a shot at buying it, you never know. I will look for him this year," he said.

Bloomington Gold

The show is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

The tour kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday at State Farm Center and will conclude in downtown Champaign.

More information: http://www.bloomingtongold.com

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