“Do you want a water?” asked sixth-grader Lizzy Vajnar, of Antonino, who showed up Saturday morning at the Ellis County Fairgrounds to help clean up from Tuesday night’s storm damage.
A member of the Good Hope 4-H Club, Vajnar was offering cold bottles of water to the couple dozen volunteers who answered the Ellis County Fair Board’s call for help.
“I did the goat pins, and the cattle barns,” said Vajnar. “I winded up a hose over there and I picked up trash.”
The wind was blowing Saturday morning, but nothing like it was Tuesday when it tore up the county fairgrounds at 1344 Fairground Road northwest of town. Straight-line winds bent steel oilfield pipe corrals and livestock fences, blew holes with hail stones through the racetrack’s concession-stand siding, sent anchored aluminum bleachers sailing 150 feet across the rodeo grounds, snapped 85-foot light poles like toothpicks, destroyed metal and wood buildings, and shifted the racetrack’s massive steel grandstand nearly a foot.
Yet some things remained untouched, like the Schenk, Unrein and Deutschefest Hall buildings.
“Old ladies aren’t much help at stuff like this,” said Edna Hansen, a member of the fair board, as she surveyed the damage. “My building was spared. I still don’t understand how this one little row of buildings was spared, when the rest was trashed.”
Next Saturday’s scheduled race at Rolling Plains Motor Speedway at the fairgrounds has been canceled, which is extra disappointing to fans due to the scheduled appearance of NASCAR driving legend Kenny Schrader. With Schrader’s busy schedule, it can’t be rebooked, said Glenn Unrein, president of the nonprofit RPM Speedway organization.
“We had to cancel it all,” said Unrein, part of the volunteer clean up crew Saturday morning. “S&W Supply, it’s their 85th anniversary, and they were bringing him in. We just had to cancel it. It would have been a real good thing for the community.”
The oval dirt racetrack and grandstands draw fans from March through October, with gate receipts running $4,000 to $6,000 a race, said Unrein. Each race averages 80 to 100 race cars, with five to 10 people in the pit following each car.
“That’s all lost revenue,” he said.
“Canceling races, that’s going to affect the community,” said Jill Pfannenstiel, president of the Ellis County Fair Board, who was also working Saturday with her children. “All those people book hotel rooms, eat in town, shop in town.”
It’s doubtful the race after that, in September, will be held either, said Unrein.
“I don’t believe it’s going to happen,” he said. “We hope and pray we’re going to be able to race for Fall Nationals. There’s a lot of hope in this.”
Fall Nationals, the culminating event of the season, is held the first weekend in October. The three-day event normally draws about 200 cars and their drivers and crews. Last year’s racers came from 14 states and Canada, Unrein said.
Built by the county in partnership with RPM, the racetrack is contract leased each year by the organization, which is now in its 12th season.
After the county’s insurance adjuster assesses the damage, clean up will require a lot of heavy equipment, Unrein said, including for the fair’s S Bar W Arena rodeo grounds.
Saturday’s volunteers at the arena were pulling $15,000 in sound equipment from the damaged two-story crow's nest that serves as the announcer’s booth. Used recently for the Ellis County Fair, there are no more events scheduled until next year, said Jerry Sontag, a member of the fair board who oversees the rodeo grounds.
“They say we had 80-mile straight winds,” said Sontag, who farms east of Hays. “I think it was a little bit more than that to do all this.”
Zach Albrecht, of Hays, was among the volunteers.
“We come out every year for the fair,” said Albrecht. “I used to be in 4-H when I was younger, and I just came out to help out the community and try to get this cleaned up as fast as possible. It looks worse than the pictures, that’s for sure.”
While flying through the air Tuesday night, without touching the ground, the aluminum bleachers broke four of the arena’s eight 60-foot light poles into pieces before slamming into the crow's nest and landing atop the bucking shoots.
“All the chutes and corrals,” Sontag said, “everything is bent, broken, twisted. All the gates are designed to slide together when you’ve got cattle and horses back there. If they don’t slide right, they’ll have to be replaced.”
Elsewhere on the fairgrounds, some wooden trusses were broken off inside the big green storage building that also holds the fair offices and a new conference room.
In the pit area for the races on Saturday morning, the metal and wood concession stand was nothing but a big pile of trash awaiting county dump trucks to haul it to the dump, as was the scale house, which used to be the operations center for the races, said Pfannenstiel.
Anything not covered by insurance, the fair board may have to hold fundraisers to replace, she said.
“We’ve had damage out here before,” she said, ”but nothing like this.”