MARGATE — For one group of friends and neighbors on Absecon Island, the week before the Miss America competition means it’s time to polish their convertibles.

Friends Jerry Steiner, 65, Hal Augustine, 69, Stan Singer, 71, and Steve Grayson, 65, all of whom live within a few blocks of each other in Margate, were inspired by Steiner to use their convertibles in the traditional Miss America Show Us Your Shoes Parade in Atlantic City and drive the candidates.

It’s an event that has drawn the group of friends together for years, and continues to expand: Steiner, the “veteran of the group,” recruited Augustine, Augustine recruited Singer and Grayson, and Singer has recruited other friends.

“(Steiner) was telling me about it, and it sounded really great,” said Augustine, who will drive Miss Wisconsin in this year’s parade. “We all had a great time. … I called everybody that I knew who had a convertible.”

The Miss America parade, the kickoff to the competition that features the 51 candidates celebrating the spirit of their home states with costumes and handmade shoe creations, returns to the Atlantic City Boardwalk on Sept. 8.

While the Miss America Organization has undergone changes and scrutiny over the past several months, this tradition is for sure. Locals plan to continue this year their routine driving in the parade — and some have been doing it for decades.

More than half of the 69 cars in the parade this year are from New Jersey, said Todd Marcocci, the parade producer and president of Under The Sun Productions Inc. Other cars and drivers will hail from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

“There’s not one other parade in the world like this,” Marcocci said.

This year’s competition will include changes to the evening gown portion and will not include a swimsuit competition. Earlier this month, Miss America 2018 Cara Mund, who is scheduled to lead the parade, penned a letter to former Miss Americas asking for support in the difficult time she has had under board Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper.

But the parade has been a standing tradition.

Steiner has been driving in the parade for about 20 years, not counting the years the pageant wasn’t located in the city, he said. In recent years, the Boardwalk has been packed for it.

“A lot of the original drivers have returned,” he said. “For our rookies coming this year, they are in for a thrill. The trip down the wood is just fabulous.”

For Singer, this will be the first year he will participate with his white two-seat convertible. He said he has been going to or watching the competition for about 40 years, and has gone to the parade several times. He will drive Miss Washington.

“I have a convertible, and wanted to give it a try,” he said.

Phyllis Barry Thomas, 65, of Galloway Township, has a long history with the parade. When she was living in Atlantic City and on her way to work at Caesars Atlantic City one day in 1985, a woman came running up to her while she was driving her Chrysler Convertible.

“She said, ‘Oh, I’m from the Miss America pageant and we need you and your car in the parade,’” Thomas said. “I got Susan Akin.”

Akin won the competition that year, and Thomas has continued driving in the parade. This year, she’ll drive Miss Louisiana in “Little Silver,” her 1999 Mercedes-Benz.

“I’ve had runner-ups, but I never had a winner since,” she said.

Tara Woodside, 32, of Pennsville, Salem County, said the parade and competition is a “family affair.”

Since 2009, she and her mother have been hosting a tradition inviting her young cousin, Madeline Grusemeyer, 14, and her friend, Abigail McFarland, 14, for a Miss America sleepover.

The gathering evolved, and now this year will be the fifth year Woodside drives a car in the parade.

“There’s just something all-American about watching Miss America,” she said.

For Chuck Naylor, 57, of Northfield, taking part in the Miss America parade is an opportunity to be part of the organization he has watched on TV since his childhood, and to combine that with his passion for classic cars.

Naylor belongs to a car club with his 1965 blue convertible Ford Mustang. Three years ago when a friend told him the parade was looking for additional drivers, he jumped right in.

“I love classic cars, I love what I do and it just rounds it off to being in parades,” he said. “It’s a neat experience.”

The Miss America parade is free to view on the Boardwalk, but there are seating areas in front of Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall still available for purchase for $45.

Contact: 609-272-7239 ESerpico@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressSerpico

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