JANESVILLE, Wis. — Tyler Bidlack shook a can of spray paint and spritzed matte-black primer over barnacles of rust on the fenders of his friend John Brandl's dark blue Chevrolet pickup truck.
Under a pink and purple sunset in a Janesville parking lot just west of Festival Foods, a crew of about a dozen people in their late teens gathered beneath the glow of a Potbelly Sandwich Shop sign.
The teens milled around near where Brandl, 18, of Clinton and Bidlack, 17, of Elkhorn had parked their big diesel pickups.
A few teens were from Janesville. Others, including Bidlack and Brandl, had ventured in from outlying communities: Orfordville, Lake Geneva, Pell Lake and the Rockford, Illinois, area.
They were meeting up for a Friday night of cruising on Milton Avenue — Janesville's equivalent of the Miracle Mile.
By sunset, Milton Avenue and some of the parking lots along the mile-long commercial strip would start filling with more pickup trucks — big, souped-up diesel Chevrolets, Fords and Dodges with blaring exhaust pipes, worn paint and tires, truck beds full of young men in ball caps and young women with sweatshirt hoods drawn tight over their hair.
At 8:58 p.m., Bidlack watched Brandl pull out toward the strip-mall and chain-restaurant glow of Milton Avenue, his truck bed and crew cab seats jammed full of friends. Through a cloud of black exhaust, Brandl flashed a broad smile and motioned for Bidlack to follow him.
Bidlack hit the gas pedal in his own pickup, a heavy-duty white Dodge with his Instagram handle emblazoned on the window. He turned and glanced back at the three female passengers and black dog in his truck bed, all hunkered around a spare Goodyear Wrangler tire.
Bidlack flipped on an electric blue interior light and cued up country singer Kenny Chesney's "Summertime" on the stereo.
As he throttled onto Milton Avenue, windows down and a cool breeze riffling his longish hair, Bidlack laid out how he and his friends view their favorite pastime: weekend nights cruising Janesville's main drag.
"We pretty much put all our money in our trucks to make them cooler, better and quicker," he said. "We're not out here drinking or smoking weed. We're just a bunch of high school kids. We're just trying to have fun."
Milton Avenue's summertime guests of dusk to midnight — the circuit cruisers — make their presence heard with loud blats of exhaust, the revving of big engines and sometimes the squall of tires on the street, a chorus of sound that echoes through nearby neighborhoods.
Up close, the cruisers are a familiar sight to some residents whose drive to an evening dinner can put them in front of, behind or alongside jacked-up pickups, souped-up Honda hatchbacks or the occasional muscle car.
Some residents say Janesville's street cruising ethos is tied to the era from the 1960s to the early 1990s, when the city's former General Motors assembly plant rode a crest atop the auto industry.
The city's identity as an auto manufacturing town bled though to the working class, cultivating a cultural affinity for cars and a fascination with cruising.
Janesville's one-time cruising strip — the Milwaukee and Court street "circuit" downtown — was considered a statewide hot spot for weekend cruising until the 1990s, when the city banned cruising downtown.
In his 20 years on the city's police force, Lt. Mike Blaser has seen the northern stretch of Milton Avenue become galvanized as the new cruising strip, although he said the dynamic has changed through the years.
Sport motorcycle and sports car cruising, popular in the early 2000s, has given way to pickup truck cruising over the last eight to 10 years, Blaser said.
It's come with a mixed response from the public, including some Milton Avenue businesses.
Blaser said police have worked with businesses in the last two years to dissuade cruisers from leaving their pickups or cars parked for hours in private lots while they car-hop around and cruise in other vehicles.
He said police and some businesses make it clear through signs that tying up parking in a business's lot without patronizing that business is considered trespassing.
Along with issuing tickets for speeding and other violations, police have focused more heavily on ticketing Milton Avenue cruisers who violate parking rules, Blaser said.
"The majority of the kids we see out there are well aware of the rule. When a squad car pulls into a lot, they all usually take off running and getting in their vehicle to drive away," he told the Janesville Gazette .
In some cases, cruising can be a side activity to loitering in the lots at gas stations, fast-food restaurants and other businesses. He said police seek to prevent such loitering because it has resulted in bad behavior, including fights and intimidation of customers outside businesses.
Blaser said some city officials have broached the idea of a cruising ban on Milton Avenue, but such a policy has never gotten traction.
In Bidlack and Brandl's pickups, it took about 12 minutes to complete a circuit north and south on Milton Avenue. That included a parking lot pit stop to connect with another cruiser and a layover to locate a hair tie for one of the three females riding in the bed of Bidlack's truck.
As for the "cruise" itself: It was a series of short, rapid, loud bursts of pickup truck acceleration between stoplights along the strip, followed by braking for more stoplights, waiting for lights to change, and another dose of quicksilver acceleration.
Bidlack at one point trimmed his speed to a flat 40 mph. He gave a vague gesture toward the other side of the street.
"Unmarked cop. Second time I've seen him," he said.
On one southbound lap while stopped at red light near the Janesville Mall, Bidlack drew a steely glance and a half-nod from a stocky, bearded man in his mid-30s who pulled up alongside in a newer Ford Mustang.
If the older man's head nod was an unspoken challenge, Bidlack gave it no acknowledgement — at least not until the stoplight changed.
At the green light, both Bidlack and the Mustang's driver accelerated hard. Bidlack's speedometer lunged to 50 mph as his pickup and the Mustang throttled ahead side by side, both clearly outpacing the general flow of traffic.
Just as quickly, another traffic light up ahead on Milton Avenue winked from yellow to red. Bidlack and the Mustang's driver eased up and slowed to another stop.
Whatever you would call the encounter — a drag race or a momentary test of throttles and brakes between two closely timed traffic lights — it ended almost before it began.
Bidlack offered no explanation of his run-in with the Mustang, but his truck did some talking of its own. Its automatic transmission thumped and bucked through one of the low gears, and the air smelled of hot transmission fluid.
On the east sidelines in a parking lot between the street and the Topper's Pizza, a gallery of teens and young adults hung out amid a throng of parked motorcycles and pickups. Some sat on lawn chairs along the sidewalk and terrace, while others sat on truck tailgates.
Many of the groups sat and ate orders of pizza they bought at Topper's. It's one business along the strip that doesn't seem to mind cruisers who stop and park — as long as they come in and buy pizza, some of the cruisers said.
"We make sure if we're going to be here, we're supporting the businesses next to the parking lot," Brett Bunnell said.
Bunnell, 19, a Roscoe, Illinois, native, was with three friends from Roscoe.
The group had a shiny, black 2005 GMC pickup with dual rear wheels and a long bed. Bunnell said he and a group of about 20 friends from Roscoe and the Rockford area come to Janesville for weekend cruising because others that cruise Milton Avenue seem friendly. Bunnell said his friends feel safer cruising Milton Avenue than tooling around some parts of Rockford at night.
One carload of young women called to Bunnell from the street, asking if he wanted to play "Ransom" — a competitive game of hide-and-seek that involves carloads of people locating friends their competitors have "kidnapped" and dropped off at random locations around town.
Bunnell declined the game. He had to get up early.
"I always say I'll only be out an hour, and then I end up cruising for at least three or four hours," he said.
Some, like Afton resident Amanda Homerding, prefer a ringside seat facing Milton Avenue. She favors a spot west of Festival Foods, where a peanut gallery of car and truck buffs sometimes park and sit along the terrace, playing spectator and offering incisive, running commentary as cruisers in fancy trucks and cars roar past on the strip.
That night, some onlookers buzzed with rumors someone earlier had spotted a wraith-like, imported Toyota Supra street-racing car — one with the steering wheel on the right-hand side. Another group hopped up and down, excited to glimpse a huge, heavily modified white Chevy pickup they said they'd previously only seen on a ballyhooed truck enthusiast's Instagram account.
Homerding shared a laugh with a friend as a spotless, late-1980s white Ford Bronco sped past along Milton Avenue, its windows halfway down.
Somebody along the sidewalk yelled, "Look! It's O.J. Simpson!"
Homerding said she and her circle of friends are in their mid-20s, and have been gadflies of the cruising strip for the last five or six summers.
They all grew up hearing stories of their parents cruising the downtown Janesville circuit. Their own years of heavy teen cruising on Milton Avenue seem a distant era: the earlier 2010s, when Festival Foods didn't yet exist. They hung in the same parking lot, but back then, it was home to a defunct K-Mart.
Changes come, but Homerding said there's something that draws her back to watch a new crop of kids ply the strip. It's true the kids are probably going too fast, probably staying out too late. Everyone's loitering, at least a little bit.
But, she said, they're probably having a time on Milton Avenue that they'll remember their whole lives.
"I like that it's here, the cruising," Homerding said. "I like that it's something Janesville is known for by a lot of people, probably more people than you'd think. People say there's not a lot to do here, but this always was something fun.
"If I think about it, almost every person I met who is now a lifelong friend, I met them out here."
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette.