It’s an unseasonably warm 70 degrees in late November and I’m riding shotgun in a 1968 Plymouth GTX driven by Randy Scritchfield. We’re traveling eastbound on Kearney Street in Springfield, simulating a tradition that started in the 1950s and re-launched this spring after years of prohibition.
“Cruisers traditionally drive slow,” he tells me. “That way another cruiser might catch up to you.”
For the 64-year-old Scritchfield, cruising back in the early 1970s – when he started – meant driving from the Kearney Street McDonalds to Glenstone.
“[Then] turn around and come back. It was a fun time. You could make new friends, hang out,” he says.
Formerly of Kansas City, Scritchfield recalls driving his muscle car along Kearney when here visiting his cousin. When he moved to the area, Scritchfield became a frequent participant in the cruising Kearney tradition.
“Oh it was packed out here back then," he says. "There was young people all up and down Kearney Street. Mostly on the west side around McDonalds and Burger King. There was probably 200 [cars] or more.”
“It was the center of commerce on the north side," says Springfield City Councilwoman Phyllis Ferguson, whose district includes much of the Kearney Street corridor.
“You would’ve seen Kearney Street lined bumper to bumper with kids from all over the area… Kearney was the place to meet your friends, cruise, stop and get a burger, find a girl, talk to some boys. It was the social center of the city,” she says.
Cruising along a town’s main thoroughfare was popular in most small cities back then. Springfield was no different.
But, Ferguon says, “Instead of waning as we moved into a more technical age, by the 80s cruising consumed Kearney Street nearly. And therein became a rub between the cruisers and the neighborhood folks and businesses.”
So the city stepped in, and in 1993 placed a ban on cruising. Some say the decision actually drove business away from Kearney. But according to Ferguson, it was Springfield’s expansion southward that primarily led to Kearney Street’s decline. Retail shopping and full-service restaurants began to go away, and blight set in.
A year ago, the city began working on a revitalization plan for the Kearney Street corridor. It included implementing a study that later showed some $100 million worth of retail development opportunity. Then, in May, Ferguson’s push to bring back cruising officially re-launched to an abundant number of drivers and onlookers.
Scritchfield says the Midwest Auto Alliance "Had a contest to draw names out of a hat to see who got to be the first one to cruise Kearney Street and it just so happens I won. That was awesome. I thought that was really cool.”
He continued, “It was really awesome – my son was with me and my grandson was with me so it was like three generations here cruising Kearney Street for the first time in years.”
Since its re-launch, Scritchfield says he’s had a blast cruising and met some new friends in the process.
"I've had one of the best times I’ve had since I was a kid, this summer,” he says.
Driving a car that reminds him of his youth helps. Scritchfield sold his ’68 Plymouth 20 years ago, only to find the exact same car on the internet in 2016 and buy it back from a man in South Dakota. He’s since installed a new 440 engine with an 871 supercharger. The interior has been redone, and he’s toned down the tires, gears and shocks to make this former race car street legal.
Now, this black-painted muscle car has new life as a cruiser, and Scritchfield its driver. With the tradition back in full swing, he’s optimistic about the city’s efforts to revitalize Kearney Street.
“I’ve had friends come from out of town that come down here, from Kansas City, there’s people from Pittsburg, Kansas that come here, Joplin that come here for the cruise. We go out to eat. It brings money into the area.”
Since the relaunch, a Cruising Kearney Facebook page has also emerged and now touts more than 4,600 members. It’s yet another space where cruisers like Scritchfield can hang out and reminisce. Officially, the tradition takes place every second Friday of the month from April through October. And there’s talk of extending it to Saturdays.
Scritchfield says today’s cruising crowd is the same as he recalls in the 70s, albeit a different generation with some newer model vehicles. Those that fall into that older generation who’ve jumped at the chance to cruise again, they’re reliving the days of yore, says Councilwoman Ferguson.
“When you look back on times of your life that were really fun – that you had great times, you knew people, you did things that made you happy – I think that’s how Kearney Street is looked at by a lot of folks in this area. And that’s why we’re seeing people come back.”
For car enthusiasts like Scritchfield, any day of the week when he’s working on or driving his car is a good one.
“My garage is a man cave," he says. "I’ll never give that up. That’s what keeps me going, that’s what keeps me strong and in my mind that’s what keeps me young.”