There are 48 different rides at this year’s North Carolina Mountain State Fair, ongoing near Fletcher. They have names like Paratrooper, Pan’s Royal Palace of Fun, Starship 2000, Fireball, Tornado, Pharoah’s Fury, Freak Out, Supershot, Zero Gravity and Demon Loop.
They are made of metal and insulated wire, hydraulic shafts, gears, rubber wheels, cogs, nipples, nuts, circuit boards, grease and thousands of colored lights. They are designed to thrill and delight and, in some cases, induce fear and/or nausea. They are not designed to fall apart.
Granted, it’s human nature, or at least this human’s nature, to wonder at the sight of a patch of rust or bubbled paint when stepping onto a ride. Who, you might be inclined to ask yourself as you’re fastened into Pharoah’s Fury, inspects these things? The immediate hope is that it’s not the guy operating the ride, the one with a scale-length tattoo of a cobra writhing down one forearm and a skull-patterned kerchief tied to his head.
Rest easy, thrill-seeker. North Carolina reportedly has one of the most stringent ride-inspection programs in the country. And it’s a far sight better than those in Alabama, Kansas, Utah, the Dakotas and Montana, which have none.
The state’s corps of ride-inspectors arrived last Tuesday at the fair site and began their work. Two 13-hour workdays later, 44 of the 48 rides had been certified and pasted with a sticker saying as much. The rest would be done by opening day, insisted Jonathan Brooks, bureau chief for inspections with the North Carolina Department of Labor.
“We look at electrical, mechanical, hardware, passenger-carrying devices, restraints, pretty much everything from A to Z on a ride,” said Brooks. “We look at every aspect and make sure it’s in compliance with the ride’s specifications as well as the statutes for the state.”
In the case of the Super Shot, a 70-foot tower that fair attendees are reeled up and then dropped from in a metal cage, that work is best done with the ride resting on the on ground, before it’s pulled to an upright position. “It’s much easier to look it laid down, and go through all the connections, cables and everything,” said Brooks. “Then we stand it up and go through and check everything else.”
Fair amusements are provided by Playworld Unlimited, Inc., a family-run company located in Alma, Mich. The state contracted Playworld last year and apparently liked the job the company did, because it’s back this year. Owner Jeff Brady said his company is always seeking out new rides to thrill and delight, and several new rides are on-site this year, including Crazy Dance, Force 10, Circus Train and Sky Quest. A favorite with teenagers, whose notion of mortality is still poorly developed, is the Freak Out, which consists of a pendulum mounted to a giant steel support, which swings to and fro in giant arcs while a metal basket at its end, carrying a precious human cargo, spins relentlessly.
“That’s probably our most thrilling ride,” said Brady. Before arriving in Fletcher, Brady and his crew of 70 men and women had been in Midland, Mich. for another county fair. At the end of this week, they plan to decamp and move east, to Wilson, N.C.
Of course, the Midway and its rides, its games of skill and fried elephant ears, are but one part of the Mountain State Fair. Like most state and region fairs, this one celebrates agriculture in all its tassled and eared glory. Even with much of the state gripped by drought, it’s easy to feel envious of the tillers of the earth and groomers of the livestock here, which look so squeaky-clean, surrounded as they are by cushiony shavings. Even that surliest of farm animals, the Brahman bull, looks pretty damn contented at the Mountain State Fair.
But for more and more people, agriculture is simply a footnote at the fair. The rides are the draw, and if riders can be hurtled through space without their gondolas shearing off and tumbling to the ground at 60 miles per hour, so much the better.
Ride-inspector Brooks, ruddy from days spent in the sun examining the minute details of Demon Loop and Fireball, said he goes beyond mere stickers to give rides his approval. He actually tries them out. “I’ve ridden everything out there at least once,” he said.
Still, even a bureau chief like Brooks has his limits. “The older I get the less round and round I can do,” he said. “Now, I can ride just about anything but you put me on a merry-go-round and I make about two laps and I’m done. I’m finished.”
The North Carolina Mountain State Fair runs through Sunday, Sept.16, at the WNC Agricultural Center ( 1301 Fanning Bridge Rd., Fletcher). Tickets are $5 adults, $2 kids and seniors. Most events, such as the craft demonstrations and animal exhibits, are free to watch, but the special concerts and midway rides do have extra costs. For complete information and event schedules, visit www.NCAgr.com/markets/fairs/mtnfair or call 687-1414.