Route 66 News

Shake-up at the Route 66 Festival

A committee that oversees the June 9-12 International Route 66 Festival in Amarillo, Texas, recently took the responsibility for organizing the festival and its awards night away from longtime Route 66 enthusiast Jim Conkle.

In the wake of that move, Conkle has vowed to hold another Route 66 festival in Joplin, Mo., the following weekend. Conkle says his festival would include the Will Rogers Awards and Route 66 Summit.

Bob “Crocodile” Lile, a member of the Amarillo committee, was reluctant to talk about the move. However, he provided e-mails from various sources with the festival for background.

The 13-member committee includes representatives of the Old Texas Route 66 Association, the Sixth Street Route 66 Association of Amarillo, roadies, and the City of Amarillo. Without delving into he-said-they-said minutiae, the primary reasons Conkle was relieved of his duties seem to be declining attendance and revenues and organizational mistakes, such as setting dates for the Amarillo festival that conflict with the popular Illinois Route 66 Motor Tour.

In light of that, it’s understandable that the committee decided to go another direction. But Conkle says he was kept “in the dark” — no one consulted with him about changes sought. He said in an e-mail if he’d been clued in beforehand, he would have stayed on to help the Amarillo festival.

Conkle has vowed to organize his own Route 66 festival and banquet in Joplin, Mo., on June 16-19 — a week after the Amarillo event.

Although it’s not clear on the event Web site, Amarillo organizers say they’re still planning for awards during their banquet. In an e-mail, Lile said there “probably” would be awards, “but not as many as last year.” (Ten awards were given during the 2010 banquet.) Lile was reluctant to say much until the committee makes a final decision.

An e-mail, however, makes it clear that for now, “Will Rogers” will not be part of the event’s name, because the committee will not use it without the Rogers family’s approval or blessing.

Conkle says he controls the Will Rogers Awards and the Route 66 Summit and has permission to use Cyrus Avery and Bob Waldmire’s names on the awards. But it was my understanding the fledgling Route 66 Alliance would undertake much of the festival’s organization. Since Conkle was removed as an Alliance officer during a reorganization a few months ago, his claim to the Will Rogers event and Summit seems dubious.

Regardless, I am skeptical about how successful another national festival and awards event would be. Most roadies likely will feel indifferent to it at best and hostile at worst, and many have already planned their vacations for the summer. It’s hard to imagine the Joplin festival drawing much of a crowd.

In the end, one has to ask: “What’s best for Route 66?”

Perhaps Amarillo committee members could have handled Conkle’s dismissal better. But there seems little doubt they have the long-term health of the festival in mind. They want it to be viable again so Route 66 fans will keep coming. It’s difficult to fault them for that.

I have known Conkle for years and love him like a father, but his quest to create another festival and awards event seems spiteful. Advancing the cause of Route 66 and its preservation should be the goal. Instead, this seems to be retaliation, and little else. If Conkle truly has the welfare of Route 66 in mind, he needs to drop this idea and move in a more constructive direction for the Mother Road.