Gas and Grease - The 2017 Philly Cheesesteak Run
The section of I95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia might seem like drab and uninspired stretch of pavement for the millions of commuters and travelers getting from point A to point B. However, it serves as the main artery for bringing together people every year in a celebrated event to scarf down the savory staple of Philadelphia's culinary prowess, the cheesesteak. It's not just any group of people, but rather an extensive faction of gear-heads piloting the best vehicles that Germany, England, Japan, and America have to offer to satisfy their craving for speed and the fine mixture of cheese wiz and steak. What caused this yearly pilgrimage to South Philly's very own Tony Luke's cheesesteak stand? Simply one man who found Bimmers and cheesesteaks belonged together, and clearly others shared his appreciation for the combo before finally the event took its current form.
For the past 8 years, native Baltimorean Chris Walsh has been the sole organizer for the Euro Philly Cheesesteak Run, came to fruition in 2009 and was born from Walsh's love for BMWs and the cheesesteak. The plan is simple. Walsh leads the main group from the Ikea parking lot in College Park, MD and makes a 130-mile trek to Philadelphia with a quick break in Delaware to regroup. Walsh started the run shortly after completing his business and marketing degree at Drexel in 2007, and the route is reminiscent of the trip he took often during his college days. There was no keeping Walsh from the city of brotherly love once he returned to Baltimore, and decided to band together a group of like-minded Bimmer drivers to his favorite cheesesteak stand in South Philly.
The initial promotion was straightforward. Walsh took advantage of the wonders of social media and created a Facebook event, which he shared on the regional sections of different forum sites, mostly BMW to start. Up until this year, Walsh relied solely on the Facebook event, since the cruise has acquired a large following of recurring attendees, and some new ones each time. Other than picking a weekend that's free of the congestion caused by Philly sports fans, the rest of the planning goes into monitoring road construction to make sure the slammed cars can keep their oil pans intact.
This year, the plan was the same, but with a few differences from last year. The main caravan set off from College Park bright and early and was ahead of schedule. Even the mass pulling over of BMWs in the Perryville Md. area didn't slow down the cruise.
"It's bound to happen," Walsh told me before the event, "someone always gets pulled over every year." With a large group of fast and loud sports cars flying down the highway, Walsh and the rest of the caravan have just accepted the fact that someone in the cruise is going to get a speeding ticket during the day. This year was no different, except with half of the group spending some time on the shoulder of I95. As stated, those who did get pulled over by the State Troopers accepted their fate and their tickets with little to no animosity.
Even with half of the group on the side of the road, everyone still arrived at the first rendezvous, which was the Delaware House, where I joined in. Once I pulled in, it was clear that this cruise was more than a car meet. Every newcomer was greeted like an old friend and old friends were greeted like family. Laughs, smiles, and hugs were going around our small corner of the Delaware House's parking lot, accompanied by the buzz over the first leg of the journey, and scoping out the open hoods of cars that made it so far. There was a sense of comradery from the group. The wide mix of drivers were more like a tight-knit community than a simple yearly get-together.
The last of our tagged BMWs made it to the rendezvous just in time to set back off on I95 shortly after 11am. I hopped in the back seat of Chris Walsh's VR6 B5 Passat, and got the cameras ready. Admittedly I was a little torn leaving my R53 Mini Cooper S behind, but after going through the photos from the day, it was worth it in the end.
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Unfortunately for us, the weekend traffic through Wilmington, DE and Chester, PA is always dense, which, in one sense, did give most of our members a chance to show off their race braking packages to avoid the endless stream of semis and commuters. Even after having to weave ourselves through the dense traffic, the main group arrived together at our leader's favorite south Philly cheesesteak stand, Tony Luke's.
One of the major changes to the cruise over previous years was the entry fee. Up until last fall the vast 200 spot parking lot across from the cheesesteak stand was owned by the Tony Luke's company, but was recently purchased by Tom Penrose to start one of Philadelphia's newest bar and grills, Toll Man Joe's. Penrose welcomes the Cheesesteak Run, and is planning to keep his lot available for the various shows and cruises that are interested in holding their events there, only requesting that they're coordinated through him first. While it was hypothesized that the $5 lot entry fee might have deterred some of the crowd, those who showed had no issues with the extra expense. The drivers weren't just paying for entrance. They also received a free drink at Toll Man Joe's bar, and a dollar from each car was going to a Philadelphia area food pantry, Philabunace.
There was still a sense of urgency once the group arrived at the parking lot, many of the drivers and passengers alike beelining for Tony Luke's to avoid the impending line that would be brought on by cruises coming from different areas. The lot was soon filled with pockets of different groups, some poking around under the hoods of other cars. The smell of grease and cheese wiz filled the air, and the sound of bellowing V8s and hissing turbos reverberated from within the man-made cave that is the I95 overpass. After stomachs were full, the area grew much louder. Between some drivers leaving after their cheesesteak, taking other attendees for a spin on Oregon Avenue, or in some cases, the occasional burnout, the symphony of smoke and fire intensified up until it was time to head home.
Walsh plans on continuing his cheesesteak run for as long as he can. After 8 years of growth, and not a single accident over that time, he revels in the success of the event. While Tony Luke's remains his meeting place of choice, it appears that it's time to move on. New ownership of the lot and the entry fee seem to be hurting the numbers of the event even with the apparent lack of complaints from those who attended this past weekend. He says he's already on the hunt for next year's location.
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