The biggest event of the year in the Antelope Valley starts with a heaping portion of good ol' Nashville country twang, adds the roar of auto racing and wraps the mixture in the atmosphere of a Southern California amusement park.
That and more gets under way Friday with the start of the 51st annual Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival at the fairgrounds in Lancaster, an event described locally as "an 11-day marathon of eating, drinking, exhibit-viewing, concert-going and people-watching."
This year's festival, as in previous years, includes concerts, carnival rides, rodeo events, stock-car and all-terrain vehicle racing, local favorites such as the Rural Olympics, and a long list of contests for crops, livestock and rural crafts and skills from alfalfa and pigeon raising to woodworking.
"This fair has been like the thing to go to here since it began," said Sheila Burnette, a spokeswoman for the event, which is organized by a nine-member board of community leaders. "It's like the only game in town."
Fair attendance peaked in 1987 at more than 300,000 but fell off last year to about 260,000 for reasons that fair officials are hard-pressed to explain. This year, they are hoping for good weather and crowds exceeding the record.
Festivities begin at 5:30 p.m. Friday with a milelong parade starting in downtown Lancaster and running east along Lancaster Boulevard to near the fairgrounds at 155 E. Ave. I. The parade, sponsored by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, is slated to have more than 140 entries.
The fair itself, which has a theme this year of "Through a Child's Eyes," formally opens at 6 p.m. and runs daily through Labor Day. Opening night features free concerts by Freddy Fender and the Blasters, figure-8 stock-car racing and a fireworks display scheduled to start about 10 p.m.
Fair hours are noon to midnight weekends, 3 to 11:30 p.m. Monday, 4 to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Aug. 31, 4 p.m. to midnight Sept. 1 and noon to 10 p.m. Labor Day.
Daily admission charges are $3.50 for adults, $2 for teen-agers, and $1 for children ages 6 to 12 and for senior citizens at least 65. Children younger than 6 and military personnel in uniform will be admitted free. Added charges include $2 for parking and the price of tickets to concerts and track events.
But Walt Troth, president of the fair board, said the charges are among the lowest in the state. The most expensive tickets are $6, $9 and $12 for next week's five headliner concerts, including Kenny Loggins on Monday and the Oak Ridge Boys on Tuesday.
The venue for all the ticketed events will be the fairground's Redman Grandstand, which holds 9,500 spectators for concerts and 5,500 for track events. Those will include three nights of rodeo, a 100-car demolition derby and a "Monster Madness Truck" show. Those tickets are $6 and $7.
A traditional favorite in the fast-growing valley, which retains its agricultural roots, is the Rural Olympics. The contests include tractor racing, hay bailing and driving a semitrailer truck backward through an obstacle course. The event, with tickets costing $6 and $7, is set for 2 p.m. Sept. 2.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and private security officers will patrol the fair, even though it has been relatively free from serious problems in recent years, said Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Shreves. The goal will be to escort out troublemakers rather than make arrests, he added.
That's not to say that the fair itself hasn't had problems. Earlier this year, the fair board fired its longtime manager, C. W. Adams, claiming that he allowed more than $50,000 in bills to go unpaid. The new manager, Jim Pacini, arrived on the job in mid-July.
An annual fair in the Antelope Valley dates back to the early 1900s, but organizers said it became formalized in 1938, when many local ranchers donated a ton of hay each. The hay was auctioned off to raise enough money to buy the 80-acre fairgrounds for about $2,800.
The event has progressed with the times. But curiously, the fair has no aerospace-related displays, even though the industry dominates the region, which is sometimes called Aerospace Valley.