The baby-blue, wood-paneled old school bus sat quietly on the edge of the parking lot Saturday, away from the roaring engines of antique and hopped-up cars.
Hundreds of car enthusiasts were milling outside the Gladstone Walmart Super Store, where the Hot Wheels toy car company had come to look for a winner.
The chosen one would compete against 14 other custom cars from across the country at the big show in Las Vegas, vying to be the model for a die-cast Hot Wheels toy car. The company, celebrating 50 years, launched its Hot Wheels Legends Tour in California, where it's headquartered. Gladstone was its second stop, and the winner there would get a free trip to Vegas and a trophy.
Baby blue was the lone bus Saturday, perhaps the least likely to win. Even owner Randy Roeber had picked another as a shoo-in to take home the prize.
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Jim Stone's custom Chevrolet El Camino was getting plenty of attention, bright orange with black flames across the hood and sidewalls. Its glossy silver engine was exposed in the back instead of hidden under the hood. Stone, the owner of ETC Physical Therapy in Kansas City, calls the car his Cadimino because its frame is half El Camino and half Cadillac Eldorado.
A friend had given him an early-model Hot Wheels El Camino and wanted him to build the toy as a real car. A year after his friend died of leukemia, Stone began to create it. He found nearly every part, minus the tires, on Craigslist. The El Camino came from Arlington, Texas. The Eldorado was shipped from Lake Tahoe.
"I cut and welded them together in one day and then set the El Camino body on top," Stone said. "This is a tribute to my buddy." When he drives the car, "there are always a string of cars following me into the filling station, like a Pied Piper, to ask about it," he said.
Contest judges gave Stone a shout-out from the public address system that mixed with hip-hop music blaring across the lot from giant speakers. "Nicely done. Great story and real Hot Wheels spirit," said Tyler Charest, a Hot Wheels die-cast designer.
Jason Williams of Liberty was admiring the Aztec gold, 1967 Buick Riviera built by Aaron Munoz of Kansas City.
"That looks sweet," Williams said as he stopped mid-stride to check out the elaborate paint job and engraving on Munoz's lowrider.
When Munoz found the car 10 years ago "it was just plain blue," he said. It took him six months working at his shop, One of a Kind in Kansas City, to transform it. He hand-painted a giant Aztec calendar on the roof and images of his three children as Aztec royalty on the door panels. The car won third place at the Vegas Lowrider Super Show last fall, he said.
If his lowrider was picked out among the many flashy hot rods, muscle cars and mean machines in the competition, "it would be a big honor," Munoz said. "I played with Hot Wheels when I was a kid. Everybody did. What an accomplishment to have your own."
And that's the draw to this touring show, said Charest. "Hot Wheels goes across generations, all ages. These people are car enthusiasts and they love their hobby. It's the Hot Wheels lifestyle: the smell of the gasoline, the sound of the engines, the pearl in the paint. We love it, we live it."
But the Hot Wheels people aren't just looking for the prettiest cars as they travel across the country, Charest said. "We are also looking for great Hot Wheels stories."
Roeber's baby blue bus has a story fit for a Pixar animation movie.
Roeber found the old 1938 Dodge bus in West Bend, Iowa, in a farmer's wooded, overgrown grove amid hundreds of other broken-down automobiles that had been put out to pasture.
"It had been a school bus until 1951," Roeber said. Then it sat forgotten in that grove for 60 years. Trees had grown up around it and through its windows. Roeber had to saw down the trees to get it out. One tree had wrapped around the old bus so tightly, "I had to carve it away from the bumper," Roeber recalled.
Roeber pulled the bus out of the grove in 2011. It took him and his wife, Vicky, their family and friends more than two years before it was ready to show off. The custom-designed bus is equipped with a toilet, shower, running water, a queen-size bed and a dining table. And a piece of that troublesome tree is displayed inside.
When Roeber saw the raggedy old bus in the field, he knew immediately how he would bring it back to life.
His wife had wanted an RV. He wanted a wood-paneled car, a "woody" car. "Now we have both in one," he said.
The two, from Algona, Iowa, have driven the bus all across the country.
That story helped drive the bus to victory. "I was just floored," Roeber said. "I thought another car had it, and we were just happy to be here. But I think it will make a nice Hot Wheels."
His wife agreed. "Everywhere we go with this bus, the kids always love it and want to climb in and look around," she said. "They can see the old school bus in it, and the reaction we get from kids is amazing."