Kempner: Shiny, fast, loud at mall … and baffling for tomorrow’s teens?

Sitting in Atlanta traffic is like being in car prison. You get a few hours in the rec yard, but no hope for parole.

Yet thousands of drivers flock the first Sunday every month to Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody — long before stores open — to spend hours ogling and conferring over the shiniest, loudest, bounciest, most elegantly restored or obscenely juiced up automobiles that money can dream up.

Those who show up at the massive (and free) car carnival in the parking lots known as Caffeine and Octane aren’t oblivious to broader society’s growing concerns with driving.

They just choose to hope for the best and ride it out.

“I’ve been saying the car game — certain aspects of it — are over for 40 years,” 82-year-old Chuck Beck told me. “It may be petering out, and it may continue.”

Beck, who lives in Villa Rica, had a wild hair some years back and built a motorcycle around a massive Lamborghini V12 car engine. It’s more motor than cycle.

Beck long has been in the business of creating cars from scratch, sometimes charging customers $100,000 for look-alikes of rare vehicles that can cost millions.

He’s sees the challenges ahead even as Caffeine and Octane draws more sponsors and bigger crowds.

Ride gets rough

Young folks appear less enthralled about automobiles and driving than past generations. Many teenagers delay getting their driver’s license.

Some of their elders have dropped out of car ownership cold turkey. Others have settled in hot communities like Old Fourth Ward or Avalon, where they can park their cars for days and forget them.

Traffic has taken the fun out of much of our driving. Spaghetti Junction has been named the worst truck bottleneck in nation for three years running.

And Georgia law increasingly requires drivers to put down their more favored pastime (smartphones). Gas-powered vehicles have lost just a bit of market share to all-electric rivals, but that shift could increase.

Uber, Lyft and car-sharing options such as Zipcar and Maven offer an alternative to car ownership (and public transit). Autonomous vehicles eventually might make cars seem more like merely utilitarian tools to get from one place to another.

Gen Z teens, and millennials who arrived before them, aren’t as likely to consider car ownership a necessity, according to a study by Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. (Both are part of Cox Enterprises, which also controls The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

But the vast majority still plan to own a vehicle, according to the study. Gen Zers just expect to be extra practical about it, focusing on issues such as safety.

The “p” word is not one of the themes I picked up on while walking around a Caffeine and Octane gathering outside Perimeter Mall.

‘What happens between A and B …’

I saw a healthy array of people who looked like they were in their 20s and even teens. They might be the exceptions.

Seth Kohler, a 17-year-old from Cumming, told me few teens he knows share his passion for cars.

“They are just like, ‘Why?’”

“For some people it’s just a way to get from A to B,” he said. But “it’s what happens in between A and B that’s makes it enjoyable.”

Some car fans are willing to drop thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars fixing up hobby vehicles. One of my car-loving brothers-in-law tells me it makes golf habits look puny.

Bryan Heidt, a 34-year-old car builder who works at Fuller Moto, is hoping that lasts. He wants a full career in the industry.

“I don’t know if in the next 30 years the industry is going to go away,” he said. But with worsening traffic, “cars are not as much a freedom as a burden.”

Adaptations are underway. Some custom shops are starting to specialize in modifications to electric vehicles.

Bulletproof Rolls Royce

But for now, Caffeine and Octane is overwhelmingly fueled by gasoline and diesel.

Fans gawk at thousands of vehicles, from restored VW minibuses to hot rods, tuned up Civics and high-dollar Lamborghinis and McLarens. There were drift cars, lowriders and a Rolls Royce I was told was bulletproof.

There’s no charge to attend or drive in vehicles. The organizer makes money through sponsorship deals with businesses and sales of branded merchandise.

I’m told as many as 15,000 people show up when the weather is good. (The next one scheduled is June 3 — today, if you are reading this in print — rain or shine.)

There are sister events, one for just exotic cars, another held at the beach and a TV show airing on NBC Sports Network.

Origins in East Cobb

Other car fan gatherings are held in Georgia and around the nation. But Caffeine and Octane is an especially big one, with aspirations to become a lifestyle brand.

It launched informally about a dozen years ago with a few car-loving guys in East Cobb.

Mark Ritter was one of them, a Delta pilot with a ‘97 Porsche 911 and a car hobby that eventually consumed well over $100,000.

“Atlanta is a car town,” said Ritter, who named the event and got a trademark as it grew.

Organizers frequently shifted locations, including some in north Fulton.

Ritter sold the event to Autotrader, which later sold it to the current owner, Bruce Piefke, a 63-year-old with a background in the events business and a particular affection for Porsches as well as ’60s and ’70s muscle cars.

About 85 percent of the attendees are guys, according to Piefke. He scurries to quiet inevitable competitions of revving engines.

He worries about the lasting power of the hot rod market, and he said he’s convinced electric vehicles will take more share from internal combustion vehicles.

But Piefke told me he doesn’t think car fans and gas engines will completely run dry.

“Performance is always going to be something as long as there is testosterone on the planet,” he said. “People like that power.”

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