Mourning the loss of a long ago State Fair tradition

Thousands packed the fairgrounds as the 12-day Minnesota State Fair got underway Thursday in Falcon Heights, Minn.

Editor’s Note: “Their Way” is a regular Sunday column that captures the personal style of the many public officials and other personalities and events covered by former Mesabi Daily News Executive Editor Bill Hanna during his more than 40 years of newspaper reporting, writing and editing.

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The Minnesota State Fair is a wonderful feast for the senses.

The sights, sounds, smells and tastes are truly summertime Minnesota.

Tens of thousands of people flock to the fairgrounds each day of the 12-day festival that serves as a great, big end-of-the summer and back-to-school pleasant reminder for everyone.

It draws an average of 2 million visitors each year.

Only the Texas State Fair (2.5 million) attracts more — of course everything is bigger in Texas — and exceeds the Gopher State. However, the Texas fair runs twice as long — once again not to be outdone — for 24 days.

So, if biggest is decided by dividing days into attendance, well then, when it comes to state fairs everything is bigger in Minnesota. Kind of nice to pick that nit.

Enter the fairgrounds in Falcon Heights and you walk the well-paved and street-signed pathways of its own small Minnesota community, complete with two large parking lots.

And your senses are feted well.

During the fair’s 12 days every late-August and early-September the community’s menu is filled with food on a stick and lots of deep fried delights, along with Minnesota forever staples of corn on the cob and Sweet Martha’s famous chocolate chip cookies. All tasty to the palate.

The happy wild sounds of youngsters and the young-at-heart being thrilled on Midway rides reach a crescendo daily while barkers can be heard enticing fairgoers to plop down a few more bucks to keep trying their luck to win a bigger prize.

The aromas from animal barns aren’t very pleasant. But after a few steps in any direction away from the cows, horses, sheep, chickens and other critters are quickly shut down by food, food and more food everywhere you look.

There is an entire building dedicated to nothing but food.

The fairgrounds have a decidedly different look in daylight than when nighttime arrives. During the day, the community looks like a crowded smalll town. Hours later, as daylight gives way to dark, it’s a well-lit city with a much quicker pace.

But one of the traditional sounds of the Minnesota State Fair was silenced after Sept. 2, 2002, when the last auto racing card took its final checkered flag.

The familiar and loud but comfortable sounds of a racetrack in action would roar out of the grandstand and through the grounds each day of the fair beginning about noon.

The racing vibrations were good ones, especially for rural Minnesotans whose weekly lives included the green flag waving at their town’s dirt track signaling drivers to “start your engines” on Saturday evenings in the summer.

The loss of that sound at the State Fair for many people is like an old friend missing at a reunion party. Yes, the party goes on, but it’s just not the same.

But not everyone is a racing enthusiast; so to some the racetrack was unnecessary sound clutter. But I prefer singer/songwriter Neil Diamond’s assessment of the sounds of the city — “It’s a beautiful noise, it’s the sound that I love; and it makes me feel good …” And the State Fair grounds are indeed a small temporary city for 12 days.

The ASA Racing Series, which is no more, had a national tour and the Minnesota State Fair was one of its stops. That event would serve as the feature race of the 12-day fair.

When the Sept. 2, 2002, race ended with Gary St. Amant the winner, fans had no idea they had just witnessed the end of a 100-year State Fair tradition.

The State Fair Board would determine the grandstand should be remodeled and the race track eliminated. A sparkling new venue for entertainers took priority over the grit and grease of auto racing. It was no way to treat a century-old friendship.

Racing fans had no chance for a proper farewell to a great tradition.

But before the race was run and won; before the last stock car would leave the fairgrounds; and before the sounds of racing went silent, fans had a chance to cheer a State Fair favorite who had one of the great names in all of sports history — Dick Trickle.

He would finish 24th in a 33-car field that day.

Trickle was a frequent winner and champion on the short dirt tracks of Wisconsin. He didn’t fare as well on the NASCAR circuit. But he was loved by fans and fellow racers.

Dick Trickle tragically ended his own life in 2013; 11 years after the Minnesota State Fair Board put an end to auto racing inside the fairgrounds.

Both sad losses, indeed.

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