Ban Proposed on Beloved Pigeon Forge Rod Run Tradition

cars with for sale signs line the parking lots along the parkway in pigeon forge during rod runa

For Sale signs may soon be a thing of the past along the Parkway at Pigeon Forge Rod Runs (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

The days of seeing cars lined up with ‘For Sale’ signs along the Parkway may be numbered

In my 30 years in the area, Rod Runs meant classic cars lining the parkway adjacent spots in Pigeon Forge. Some were there to ogle the classic cars, others were there to trade, dicker and deal. But now, state officials want the city to enforce regulations, meaning sellers couldn’t use signs to advertise their cars.

The state of Tennessee wants the city to enforce regulations that ban advertising – aka for sale signs – in parking lots during Pigeon Forge Rod Run events. The state leases Parkway adjacent land to the City of Pigeon Forge, which sub-leases it to businesses. Those businesses have allowed unofficial Rod Run participants to park in those spaces and occasionally advertise their classic cars for sale. While the state’s lease to the city includes a provision outlawing such practices, the city’s subleases do not. The state – through the Tennessee Department of Transportation – is asking the city to redo the leases and enforce the prohibition.

Cars on the Road during Rod Run
Cars cruise the Parkway during Pigeon Forge Rod Runs (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What is the Pigeon Forge Rod Run?

The Pigeon Forge Rod Runs are biannual events where classic car enthusiasts come to Pigeon Forge and celebrate car culture. Some participate in the official event at the LeConte Center. Others cruise the parkway or spend the weekend hanging out in select parking spots alongside the road. It’s a decades-old tradition. 

When I first started coming to Pigeon Forge, I can remember the classic cars and their proud owners sitting nearby in folding chairs. Visitors would stop and chat about the various modifications or whatever. Sometimes money would exchange hands and the classic car would get a new owner.  

Over the years, locals have learned to avoid the strip – or Pigeon Forge altogether – if they don’t want to participate. Parkway traffic is usually packed during Rod Runs. It’s generally considered among the busiest weekends of the year. Woe to the unsuspecting non-car enthusiast tourist who unwittingly scheduled their vacation during one of the two Rod Runs. 

In addition, in recent years the unofficial side of the Rod Runs has gotten a little wild. After dark – at least anecdotally – there have been more lawless incidents like public drinking and fighting than in the past. As a result, there was an online petition to ban the Rod Runs. While it garnered attention, it never got traction. 

When I was a kid, I used to go to the Rod Runs with my stepdad and uncles. They were car guys and it was a lot of fun. But now, I’d rather do something else and avoid the crowds. 

leconte center pigeon forge
The official Rod Run events take place at the LeConte Center and is a ticketed event (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Official Rod Run vs Unofficial Rod Run 

The official Rod Runs event takes place at the LeConte Center. It’s a ticketed, gated event. There’s a massive swap meet, and car owners show off their pride and joy. There are several awards given out as well as a huge cash prize. The state leasing request will not affect the official Rod Run in any negative way. 

The Unofficial Rod Run? It’s essentially the overflow culture. It’s the Rod Run with which I am familiar and described above. People line the Parkway throughout Gatlinburg, parked in the spaces facing the main road. People cruise up and down the strip. It’s a little like the old George Lucas movie “American Graffiti” which celebrates – in part – American Car Culture. If you’re into cool cars and cruising, it’s a good time. 

However, it has gotten a little wilder with the changing of generations. My earliest memories are chiefly of people my grandparent’s age sitting in those old-style folding chairs alongside a car from their youth. People who could remember firsthand the car culture of the ’50s. Now? Like everything in the world, it’s changed somewhat. There’s a little bit more of a dangerous feel, a little bit more of a Mardi Gras-style culture. That doesn’t mean you’d be unsafe to take your kids at night. That said, I would advise you to be more aware than I was 25 or 30 years ago. 

Rod Runs in Pigeon Forge
Classic cars and automobiles line the streets of Pigeon Forge on the “unofficial” side of a spring Rod Run event (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

What’s the proposed Rod Run ban?

It’s an enforcement of a regulation that’s been in the books between the state and the city since 2016 at least. Essentially, the state owns the land and leases it to the city which leases it to the businesses. The agreement between the state and the city bans parking cars in the spots along the road for advertising. The sub-lease agreements between the city and the businesses, however, omit that regulation. The state has asked the city to update the subleases and then enforce that ban. The state doesn’t want cars for sale signs up and down the strip. 

The ban would not hurt the official Rod Run because it’s all inside the LeConte Center space. For instance, a Rod Run official told the Mountain Press that enforcement would likely drive commerce into the official venue. 

Why is the state doing this now? I suppose it’s not good enough to say, “It’s the law” and leave it at that. It protects local businesses and – probably billboard owners – from people essentially gaining free advertising space. I could theoretically park in one of those spots with a placard advertising TheSmokies.com instead of buying billboard time. Also, Pigeon Forge has a lot going on most days – visually – a bunch of ragamuffin homemade advertising won’t help. But that’s mostly speculation based on years of sitting in various planning meetings. My guess is TDOT doesn’t want to have to justify why the practice is allowed a couple of times a year when someone tries it on non-Rod Run weekends. 

Also, how far will the prohibition go? If somebody’s papaw wears a T-shirt that says ‘Everything’s Got a Price’ while sitting by his 1956 Ford Fairlane, is that an advertisement? What about a hat that says, “Make me an offer?” Seems like a slippery slope to me. 

– John Gullion, Contributor, TheSmokies.com
a golf cart gets pulled over at a car show
Area police are usually busy during Rod Run events. Enforcement of the proposed ban may further strain an already taxed system. Pictured: A golf cart gets pulled over during an unofficial car show event. Golf Carts are not street legal in Sevier County and regulations are heavily enforced on car show weekends (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

What’s the status of the ban?

Under consideration. According to the Mountain Press, city leaders are considering TDOTs’ “request.” Going back and getting the leases re-done would surely be a pain. But it’s not insurmountable. Enforcement, however, is a thorny issue. Pigeon Forge law enforcement is busy on Rod Run weekends. Are you going to have code officers running up and down the strip, citing car sellers or the businesses that are leasing the spots?

Also, how far will the prohibition go? If somebody’s papaw wears a T-shirt that says ‘Everything’s Got a Price’ while sitting by his 1956 Ford Fairlane, is that an advertisement? What about a hat that says, “Make me an offer?” Seems like a slippery slope to me. 

The state of Tennessee ultimately owns the Parkway and – at least in the short term – will likely get what it wants. Will the unofficial Rod Run folks, the Pigeon Forge businesses and the city be able to make enough noise to get the folks in Nashville to have TDOT revisit the regulations? Time will tell. 

Ultimately, Rod Runs has been a celebration of car culture going back decades. The new focus on previous regulations may change the way things are done along the strip, but the Rod Runs are too big to be undone by the lack of For Sale signs. Ultimately, everyone will adjust. The dust will settle. And there will be other fish to fry. 

PS: Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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