Uncommonwealth: Wildcat fans tailgate in style with their tricked-out vehicles

ctruman@herald-leader.comSeptember 15, 2013 

For some University of Kentucky football fans, the luxury boxes have nothing over their luxury mini school buses, trailers, vans and ambulances.

Yes, ambulances.

These are not the standard tricked-out recreational vehicles that start with something big and fancy and make something even bigger and fancier.

Nor are they the sensible machines endorsed by Cars.com for tailgating: the Honda Odyssey and Dodge Caravan, GMC Acadia, Nissan Xterra, Toyota 4Runners and Subaru Outback.

The converted minibuses, trailers, vans and ambulances are also not places where you can spend the night, but are often big enough to grab some shade when the sun beats down on pregame grillers.

In the tailgating city that surrounds Commonwealth Stadium before home games, you'll see that almost any kind of vehicle can be converted into a tailgating dream.

All it takes is a few thousand dollars to purchase the original set of wheels, the talent to fiddle with the engine and any rust issues, paint, reupholster and on occasion the ability to rip out a former medical supplies cabinet to make a wet bar.

It also helps to have a taste for all things Wildcat blue and the ingenuity to lay football field carpeting perfectly straight on the floor.

Mike Torbey redid a white conversion van in 2007. Now it boasts a "football field" carpet inside with a television blaring through a window, a goal post that can be mounted on top and a carbon dioxide tank that allows a keg to be hooked up.

Torbey paid about $2,000 for the van and an additional $5,000 "for everything else," although he said that the paint job was the biggest part of that.

Sheree Sharp of Lexington remembers first seeing her party wagon, a former ambulance, while on her way to a wedding. She and her friends tromped across a country field in dresses and heels to get a look at what would eventually be purchased for $2,000 and turned into a pregame pleasure palace for a couple thousand more. Sharp said that while the ambulance is important, it's what happens outside with her "central core group" of six tailgating friends that makes the work worthwhile.

"The bus," as Sharp calls it, has a drop-down flat screen that descends when you open the back doors and is decked out with UK decor and a satellite dish. Sharp and her friends have five tents that they put up nearby

"We've put a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money" into the ambulance-turned-tailgate vehicle, Sharp said.

Roy and Jason Wright have a cargo trailer that has turned into a full tailgating travel lounge. Outside, a Big Green Egg — the Rolls Royce of grills — holds a flock of roasting chickens.

Nina Wright, who is married to Roy and lives with him in Salt Lick, said: "We always have people over here wanting to know when we got it, what we've done to it," she said. The TV folds down, and they have a new satellite unit to ensure reception.

"Every year they add a little something to it," said Nina Wright. "It's what they like to do."

The Wright tailgate party even has its own Web site: Wrighttailgate.weebly.com.

Nina Wright said that the family hasn't kept track of how much it has spent, but that it's "probably way too much."

"We started out with a smaller trailer and outgrew it," she said.

But, "The amount we have spent is totally outweighed by the wonderful times we share with family and friends," she added

Tailgating is hardly a phenomenon limited to UK: In Buffalo, grilling before Bills game is famously done on the hood of a 1980s Ford Pinto: burgers on a saw, hot dogs on a rake, and wings in an army helmet.

But back to the sultans of Central Kentucky tailgating: Before the recent UK game against Miami of Ohio, Kentucky Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, presided, not over a political wrangle, but over his University of Kentucky fan bus for tailgating.

It's quite a nifty-looking machine: Once a small school bus, the interior seats have been recovered in sparkly gray material. Palmer's three young daughters romp around. The bus can be used for UK football tailgating, or, for the daughters, more girly pursuits.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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