Photo—Sonic Summer Nights

Spring blooms in Versailles with a Saturday night cruise

A week before the first Sonic Summer Nights event in Versailles, organizer Travis Kurtz guessed there might be “forty to fifty, or as many as seventy-five” vehicles in the kickoff event, which also doubled as the Darrell Bias Memorial Cruise.

You could say Travis was a tad bit off on his estimate. At 9:30 a.m. on April 16, a bright, cool day, an estimated 190 vehicles showed up at the Sonic Drive-In on Highway 5 and participated in the annual cruise. The highlight was a stop at the still-new Ozark National Speedway buried deep in the Ozark Hills near Gravois Mills.

The cruise is named for Versailles car enthusiast Darrell Bias, who built Bias Race Cars. He died three years ago and was well known and respected in show-car circles. He assisted Travis in the early years of the event, putting the events together and even mowing the grassy areas around the Sonic Drive-In.

Additional dates for Sonic Summer Nights are May 21, June 18, July 16, August 20, and the End of Year Bash on September 17.

For the kickoff on April 16, drivers made the thirty-minute drive to the speedway and lined up to run the 3.8-mile asphalt track, courtesy of the speedway. They came in show cars, muscle cars, convertibles, SUVs, pickups, and work trucks. I can report that there were license plates from Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

It was a huge success, but it really should not have come as a surprise. The event, first held ten years ago, was a moderate success from the beginning and has continued to grow.

Sonic Summer Nights founder and organizer Travis Kurtz.

Once upon a time …

Saturday nights in small towns have evolved. No longer do young people cruise small town streets in cars with bench seats, covering the same route over and over before and after the Saturday night movie and serials featuring Flash Gordon as he escaped deathly perils every week. Those images, along with the scent of movie treats, are seared into my memory.

In those days, the relationship between the young men driving and their girlfriends was directly proportional to her proximity to him on the bench seat. That was the same in all small towns like Versailles, but that time is past.

However, in this Morgan County town of about 2,500 people, the streets come alive, like those yesteryears, six nights a year on the third Saturday of April through September.

Springtime has opened like a budding flower in Versailles as my significant other of fifteen years, Joyce Mitchell, drove us to the Sonic Drive-In on Highway 5, a few hundred yards north of the only stoplight in town for the year’s first event.

The rites of spring had begun earlier, preceding Sonic Summer Nights, as the two crowded highways – 5 and 52 – filled with vehicles pulling boats or campers to begin sojourns to the Lake of the Ozarks. The first big event was a huge, three-day swap meet at Jacobs Cave, eight miles south of Versailles. And now Versailles was ready for a Saturday night drive, and we were eager to attend the first Sonic Summer Nights of the season.

The event, now in its tenth year, is Travis’s brainchild. He’s a former manager/partner of the local Sonic restaurant. Travis was recently promoted to the position of operations manager for four Sonic restaurants owned by the same group: Kevin Umstattd, Miles Umstattd, Joe Helland, and Jesse Growth.

Drivers are there to show off their vehicles and to socialize with one another and the spectators. The vehicles – as well as the spectators – come in all ages. Spectators leisurely come and go to admire and gawk at the vehicles on display. Lawn chairs abound, with neighbors talking to neighbors, or strangers doing the same and forging friendships.

‘A good thing for the town’

Spectators milling about the show vehicles are as hard to count as fleas on a dog’s back. Both Travis and Versailles Police Chief Chad Hartman were stumped to guess a head count except to say, “It is in the thousands.”

The chief adds that there is never any trouble from all the vehicle traffic, which is “a good thing for the town.”

Dina Dunklee, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, echoes Chief Hartman’s opinion of Sonic Summer Nights.

“I believe that the event has greatly benefited our community by bringing families from all over,” says Dina, who is also a member of the board of aldermen, representing Versailles residents in the North Ward. Her husband is Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney Dustin Dunklee.

“It is nothing to see all the cars throughout the town all day long,” she adds. “When they are here, they are not only shopping, but also are eating at our local restaurants. I, for one, think Travis Kurtz has done an amazing job in making sure everyone benefits.”

Chris Byars, the owner of Bee’s Knees, a downtown brew club, agrees.

“I see a spike in business of new people,” he explains, “and those people return to Bee’s Knees to eat and sample our line of beers and enjoy the entertainment.”

How it all began

Travis was born in Edwards, Missouri, about fifty miles southwest of Versailles in Benton County. His first job was at Sonic when he was sixteen years old in 2004.

“I always had an interest in cars and attended car shows at the Lake of the Ozarks and California, Missouri,” he says, “but I thought there was something missing that I could do different or better.” He followed the advice of friends and initiated the Sonic Summer Nights, with the first event taking place in May 2013.

“We had six cars and maybe twenty spectators,” Travis recalls. His first sponsor was BW Graphics.

He laughs, “Now we have almost thirty sponsors.”

The event, except for the Bias Memorial Cruise this year, begins at 6 p.m. and runs until 11 p.m. A DJ has been added, along with a fireworks display in the evening.

“But we have cars beginning to show up at nine a.m.,” Travis notes. “They explore the town, shop, and visit with other car owners as they begin showing up.”

There’s also a trophy for best car, though “there are really no criteria for the award,” he says. “It could be a $150,000 hot rod one time and the next time a cool pink caddy with a good story behind it.”

Family traditions

Keith Bias of Centertown has attended every show but one. He is a cousin to Darrell Bias, the cruise’s namesake.

“We are a hot-rod family,” Keith says, adding, “We have several cars and just love what Travis has done. People come from all over: Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, and other states. We have a 1946 Ford hearse we like to take to the show. It draws a lot of attention.”

Travis is quick to compliment his Sonic neighbors for helping make the event a success. With each event drawing as more than a hundred cars – and almost 200 for the 2022 kickoff event and cruise, as well as thousands of spectators – people spill over onto neighboring businesses on Highway 52.

“If I didn’t have their cooperation, we wouldn’t be nearly half as big as we have become,” Travis says.

“No doubt about it,” Keith adds with emphasis. “Travis has created one of the best family-oriented car shows in the Midwest.”

Just ask the Sunrise Cantina in Sunrise Beach where the cruise stopped for lunch after running the track at Ozark National Speedway. Thankfully, not all the 190 cars stopped for the tasty taco buffet. Sunrise Cantina was expecting 75 people – not 190 vehicles with who knows how many people in each car.

Travis was lucky with that estimate as 100 people showed up for the buffet. He added, “That had me worried.”