Chili Cook-off and Willys/Jeep Rally Eclipse All Events In Wrightwood

PHOTO: T. A. Graydon - NewsPlus

Hands in the air, Allan Fitzgerald from Palmdale ties Dakota Robson of Lake Elsinore (giving a peace sign) for the win in the Jalapeno Eating Contest.

On Saturday, October 14, 2023, Wrightwood witnessed a tasty, enjoyable, and educational experience with an Annual Chili Cook-off, a Willys Jeep Rally, and a “Ring of Fire” Solar Eclipse.

Hundreds of loyal Willy’s/Jeep enthusiasts enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow off-roaders and adventurous friends, gathering in and around the Wrightwood Village. Over two hundred Jeeps of all configurations showed up for a perfect day in the San Gabriel Mountains. The Chili sampling and Jalapeno eating contests, along with a Jeep Rally, were a tasty collaboration of two annual extravaganzas. The Annular eclipse was an awe-inspiring extra.

Hearing the word “Jeep” immediately brings to mind an image of the outdoors, the freedom to travel across the most rugged terrain, and the military history of this hero of a vehicle. Members of the 20 Jeep-strong Jeep Junkies, Bob Mazzotti and Terry Smith of Agua Dulce, said about their Jeep Cherokee, “Owning a Jeep is a whole lifestyle.”

Tony Arriaga proudly poses next to his 1963 Willys Wagon, coming all the way from Hacienda Heights, CA for the Annual “Wrightwood Willy’s/Jeep and Chili Cook-off.

Kim and Lisa Ziepke of Phelan were in Wrightwood with their 1944 Ford GPW (General Purpose Wagon), which resembles the familiar Jeep Cj (Civilian Jeep) series of modern war personnel vehicles. Willy’s/Jeep Rally event collaborator and Wrightwood merchant Sarah Jessica Bailey said, “It is wonderful to see this event become larger each year as it provides a lot of customers for our shops in the village.”

Even Wrightwood’s own “Santa Tom,” who will be appearing at Wrightwood Place Tuesday, Dec 5 and 6, from 4 to 8 pm, was showing off his bright Red 2017 Jeep JKU Sport, obliging comments like, “Is that your new sled?” and “What will Rudolf do?” Spreading out from Park Street like fingers, Willys/Jeeps vehicles commandeered downtown Wrightwood.

Wrightwood’s own “Santa Tom,” who will be appearing at Wrightwood Place Tuesday, Dec 5 and 6, from 4 to 8 pm, was showing off his bright Red 2017 Jeep JKU Sport.

With The Jeep Rally in full swing, the highly anticipated Chili Cook-off and Jalapeno Eating contests were held in the Wrightwood Community Building and Parking lot, where eight chili-cooking competitors prepared their secret concoctions. DJ Ryan from Rancho Cucamonga played his “All Vinyl” catalog of records, providing great tunes for all on his Dual-turntable Pioneer/EV speaker system.

Chili Cook-off Coordinator Leslie Mihalko and Chili Cook-off winners, Josuah and Chelsea Hash 1rst, Tim Bickham 2nd, Rick Fornier 3rd, and Honorary Mayor Tina King.

Fourteen vendor booths were set up, providing various goods and services. Only allowed to produce five gallons of custom chili each, the contest would ensue until the chili ran out. Each chili taster would purchase “Chili Tasting kits” from the Wrightwood Chamber of Commerce Booth and then proceed to sample each of the eight entries. Judging would determine the first, second, and third place winners, along with a “People’s Choice Award.”

The First-Place chili masters were Josuah and Chelsea Hash in chili booth #5. Second Place honors Tim Bickham in booth #1, and in booth #6, Rick Fornier cooked his way to Third Place. Chili Man Tim Bickham also stirred up the People’s Choice Award with his delicious confection.

Wrightwood Chamber of Commerce volunteers Ilene Hershkowitz and Alicia Ureste-Weber and Honorary Mayor Tina King (center) cooked up a mean bowl of chili.

The Jalapeno Eating Contest was a true test of gastronomic courage. After signing medical waivers, the brave six pepper-eaters raced the clock to finish a bowl of Jalapeno Peppers in front of hundreds of cheering spectators. Tied for First Place, Dakota Robson of Lake Elsinore and Allan Fitzgerald of Palmdale graciously shared a drink of ice-cold Victory milk afterward.

As an extra added attraction, an Annular solar eclipse was visible from much of the Southwestern United States, allowing a good viewpoint in Wrightwood. NASA partner Eclipse Ambassador and Mountain Hardware provided free Solar Eclipse glasses to enable safe viewing of the rare event. Eclipse Ambassador Iranelde De Oliveira was on hand to distribute the special glasses and answer eclipse questions. It is worth noting how inventive people can be trying photography through the glasses with their cellphones to capture “The Ring of Fire.”

Event Coordinator Leslie Mihalko is glad to be part of this community, paying forward her years of experience hosting events in Wrightwood. The Wrightwood Chamber of Commerce, local merchant Sarah Jessica Bailey, and its group of hardy volunteers expertly promoted and presented a Willy’s/Jeep Rally, A world-class chili competition, and a Jalapeno eating face-off. Wrightwood hospitality “eclipsed” that day with fun, food, and friendliness. The question remains: did they come for the Jeeps or the chili?

For information on vendors, this, or any events in Wrightwood, visit or call (760) 249-4320.

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