HOUSTON — As Jeep Gladiators, Grand Cherokees and Wranglers conquered hills and uneven terrain set up inside the expansive NRG Center, it almost felt like old times.
That feeling of normalcy was among the biggest attractions for visitors to this month's Houston Summer Auto Show, one of the first new-vehicle expos since the coronavirus pandemic began more than a year ago. So was Camp Jeep, a show staple that draws long lines and resembles an amusement park attraction.
There were new rules, a reminder that the world is still coping with a crisis as auto shows begin to reemerge, meaning riders got the Jeep experience only from the back seat as masked drivers whisked them around the bumpy setup. Once the rides ended, cleaning crews disinfected the Jeeps and nearby Rams, which had a test track of their own, before the next passengers hopped in.
"We're pumped to be back," said Benny Munguia, a Camp Jeep track manager who was shuttling people around the course and felt safe with the additional protocols that were put in place. "I've been doing it a long time, and I missed driving a lot."
The Houston Automobile Dealers Association, which runs the show, had to overcome a barrage of obstacles befitting Camp Jeep, including evolving public health guidelines and the microchip shortage that prompted some automakers to skip the event because they lacked inventory to show. In some cases, local dealers stepped up to represent their brands with independent displays.
Organizers also had just a few months to put the whole thing together. The May dates they had been aiming for were originally blocked by the popular Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, but when that multiweek event was canceled, the dealer association sprang into action.
Some automakers, including Kia, Stellantis and Subaru, committed immediately. Others didn't sign on until just before the mid-April deadline.
With extra floor space to fill, the association expanded the five-day show to include boats, RVs and fishing and hunting knives. It also added "summer" to the name to reflect the move from the show's usual January timing.