I started watching plates back in '96. My friend Rod Remily and I would be in the car together and would spot a personalized plate on a passing car. We tried to figure out what the plate meant before the other guy did. There were additional bragging rights if you spotted a new vanity plate on the road first. To keep things fair, we had to start keeping track of who had seen which plates.
It seemed to strike a chord with some people. Once I pointed out to people that there was this world of interesting details all around them that they could watch while they were stuck in traffic, a whole new world opened up for them. People would drop by my office at work or send me emails about how they saw this or that plate. Sometimes they could figure out what they meant, Sometimes, we were all stumped.
Others just tried to see as many of them as they could. One industrious co-worker of mine had a pilot's clipboard Velcroed to his leg and a pair of binoculars whenever he went driving. He would email me a list of fifty new plates or more every week.
At its height, there were thirty or so people submitting newly-sighted plates with guesses about what they meant. I had to write a database to keep track of them all. After I switched jobs and got busy with other things, I stopped tracking them that way -- but the database had almost 10,000 vanity plates in it at that time. I've still got the database; I've been meaning to turn it into a web page that people could use to play the "game" again and compete with each other.
In the meantime, playing the game meant that I was watching every single plate that went by. It's easy to do; if you do any driving at all, there are hundreds of plates going by every day. If asked about a passing car, I can usually tell you what the plate was -- but not what type of car it was.
I started to notice things. The numbers always start with 100 or 1000. There aren't any plates that start with A. There aren't any plates that begin with BYx or BZx. There's a period of time in the Bxx plate series where the plates are very light, as though the ink faded in the sun. You get the idea.
It evolved into something sort of like birdwatching. It's a game to figure out all of the tiny variations that occur from plate to plate. It's a game to guess what the plates mean, where they were issued, and whether or not they actually belong on that car. I actually cringe sometimes when I see a mangled plate on a car that's met too many snowbanks. A perfectly good plate wasted. :)
People sometimes catch me taking a picture of their license plate while they're parked somewhere or while I'm behind them at the stoplight. Some of them ask, "Are you a cop?" Once I show people my clipboard and my photo sheet and start babbling about why their particular plate is cool and needs to be recorded, people realize that I'm just insane and seem to relax a bit.
I once saw a truck pull into the Carrs parking lot with "VET 100" on it. This was the first Veteran plate issued. As the couple walked into the store, I approached them, introduced myself, and asked if they knew the significance of the plate. The man did -- he was a relatively high-ranking military man and had been first in line to get one. I took a picture and promised to put it on the web site.
The next day, one of my co-workers came to my cube and says, "A total stranger at Carrs was really interested in my dad's license plates last night, and I said, 'You met Royce?!'" :)
The site was created in July 1998. It was just a small FAQ at first. I tend to obsess about details, and it sort of snowballed. Now, all of the national plate-collecting sites have links to my pages.
I'm currently in the process of reorganizing the site to adhere to modern standards; after seven years, most of the site has been showing its age. Currently moving to XHTML 1.0 Transitional.