Doug Formanek would love to see the look on the faces of those first Winnebago International Travelers (WIT) Grand National Rally attendees if they could see the rally today.
“I think they’d be absolutely shocked just at how far the units have come,” the Winnebago Itasca Travelers general manager said on the eve of the 40th anniversary GNR that is set to kick off on July 19, according to the Forest City (Iowa) Summit.
“At the same time, I’m guessing the one common bond between the first rally and the one coming up is the love for the lifestyle.”
Back in 1969, more than 600 Winnebago vehicles – motorhomes and travel trailers – descended upon Forest City for the first-ever GNR. And they’ve been coming back every year since, well, almost every year since.
In 1970, the rally was held at the Lake of the Ozarks, but it returned for good to Forest City the following year.
And with another rally, this one themed “Witstock,” soon upon him, Formanek knows he and his staff are about to embark on a string of 16- to 18-hour days.
“It’s a lot of work and you want everything to go just right,” Formanek said before adding with a smile, “but there are just a few things we can’t control, like the weather.”
And when the weather turns bad, it is Formanek who has to make the tough decisions – like the one he made a year ago when he closed down the rally grounds for a short time because of heavy rains. During the “shutdown,” motorhomes were not allowed to enter the grounds and were parked across the highway until conditions improved.
“You’re not always the most popular guy, but it was the right decision,” he said. “You don’t want to tear up the grounds and, more importantly, you don’t want units sliding into other units. You do what you can.”
And Formanek said he does not hold the key to a successful rally; instead, his staff members and the hundreds of volunteers – many WIT Club members – who help organize events, park motorhomes, move people to and from events and plan activities do.
“We have people showing up already,” Formanek said last week, “and we couldn’t do it without them.”
And while the days are long – during pre-rally and rally weeks, they begin with a 6 a.m. meeting and don’t end until after midnight sometimes – Formanek said adrenaline and the reunion-type atmosphere carry him and his staff through.
“It is like a big family reunion,” he said, “and I’ve always enjoyed the people aspect. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always wanted this job. Now, I’ll tell you that we’re pretty tired folks when it’s all over, but it’s hard not to have fun with so many people around.”
Formanek is expecting at least 1,200 Winnebago owners to attend this year’s rally and well over 3,000 people will fill the grounds.
And the rally that brings motorhome enthusiasts from all over the U.S. and Canada actually has its roots in rallies held before that first GNR back in 1969.
Winnebago spokesperson Sheila Davis said a group called the Winnebago Travelers held rallies as early as 1965. Those first rallies were held in the Pammel Park area. The Winnebago Travelers officially became Winnebago International Travelers in 1969. In addition to the Winnebago International Travelers Club, a new club was formed in 1977 called Itasca Travel Club. Then in 1980, the two clubs were merged to its current name: Winnebago Itasca Travelers Club.
“The units have changed, the people have changed,” Formanek said, “but when it comes right down to it, the one thing that has stayed the same is people still love their Winnebago. And they love getting together and catching up. To be a part of that is pretty special.”