DAYTONA BEACH — Jeep owner and longtime brand loyalist Darren Falk won’t be attending Jeep Beach until Friday, but he made the trek from St. Augustine early enough on Monday to be first in line when event registration started at noon at Daytona International Speedway.
“I didn’t want to wait until Friday to do it, because it’s going to get really busy here soon,” said Falk, 52, a retired employment recruiter who has been a Jeep fan since he was a teenager.
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By midday, he had plenty of company on Monday’s official opening day of the weeklong event that runs through Sunday in Daytona Beach.
Hundreds of Jeep fans were waiting in a line behind him that snaked across a parking lot filled with an array of colorfully customized vehicles that continued to arrive in a steady stream at the Speedway’s Gate 70 entrance on Midway Avenue.
A quick scan of the license plates illustrated the event’s broad appeal: New York, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ontario, Canada, among many others.
Why do they come?
“It’s the camaraderie” said Falk, who recently bought and refurbished a 1985 Jeep CJ-7, the same model year that he once drove in high school. Now, he takes his two sons on road trips in it.
“Just being able to go off-road is part of the attraction,” said Falk, who has invested $20,000 in adding upgrades to the vehicle. “I enjoy taking them to the Ocala National Forest. We pack a cooler and make a day of it. It’s my toy.”
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‘We love our Jeeps’
The bond among Jeep owners also is a key element of the event’s appeal for Jen Schmidt, who traveled to Jeep Beach for the fourth time with her husband, Jeff, from Cincinnati in the couple’s gleaming black 2020 Jeep Gladiator Rubicon.
“Jeep owners are all the same,” she said. “We love our Jeeps and it’s neat to see what people can do with them. Every one of them (customized vehicles) is different.”
On Monday, that was evident in a diverse, if brand-loyal, assortment of vehicles decorated with everything from giant inflatable rubber ducks to giant American flags and skeleton passengers hoisting beer steins. In the performance realm, upgraded accessories ranged from heavy duty suspensions to custom light bars and wheels equipped with tank treads instead of tires.
“It all adds up,” said Fred Wendt, 54, of Waterford, Michigan, about the investment in extras that he and his girlfriend, Teri Mizinski, have made in her Jeep Wrangler Sahara. To emphasize that point, he was wearing a T-shirt adorned with the message “I work to support by gf’s Jeep.”
The shirt was the same retina-burning shade of bright orange as the custom “Orange Crush” paint job on the couple’s Jeep, nicknamed “Chester” after the animated snack-food mascot for Cheetos.
“They only made that color for two years,” Wendt said.
Additional custom features include upgraded bumpers, a lifted suspension, a winch, a fuzzy orange steering-wheel cover and two “eyeball” headlights complete with eyelashes.
“The headlights shine right through them,” said Teri Mizinski, Wendt’s girlfriend. A lifelong fan of the automotive brand, she bought Chester, her first Jeep, two years ago. “I always wanted one; and this is my first and only Jeep. This is totally me.”
Jeep fun for a good cause
Such devotion is the driving force behind Jeep Beach, said Charlene Greer, the event’s executive director and chairwoman. Now in its 19th year, the volunteer-powered Jeep Beach has become a beloved annual event both for its positive impact on tourism and its focus on raising funds for area charities.
Incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charity in 2017, Jeep Beach has donated over $2.8 million to area charities over the past decade through the event’s annual weeklong fund-raising efforts. Recipients include the Boys & Girls Clubs of Volusia & Flagler Counties; the NASCAR Foundation; the Childhood Cancer Foundation, as well as more than 30 additional nonprofit groups.
In 2021, Jeep Beach raised $500,000 for Volusia and Flagler nonprofits, more than any other year in the event’s history.
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This year’s Jeep Beach is poised to build on that momentum, Greer said on Monday.
The event is expected to draw some 200,000 visitors and about 20,000 Jeeps, she said. On Monday, she estimated that about 5,000 Jeeps already were in town.
“We’re seeing a huge crowd already,” she said. “Things are looking big. COVID is over and the floodgates are open. Who wouldn’t want to come to the World’s Most Famous Beach, put the top down and cruise the beach? We’re expecting tremendous growth.”