Raindrops relieve fair-football gridlock

It was supposed to be the mother of all gridlocks.

But thanks to an uninvited guest - a gusty morning rain - traffic around the State Fair merging with USC football traffic Saturday afternoon was not so bad after all.

In fact, traffic was so unexpectedly light - which is to say, still pretty heavy a lot of the time - that some folks couldn't believe it.

"When I left my house, I thought, 'You idiot, you should have left earlier because of all the traffic,'" said Charles Swinehart, 68, who manages a condo football fan parking lot, Cocks Corner, across from the fairgrounds and just down the road from Williams-Brice Stadium.

Swinehart was one of tens of thousands Saturday who enjoyed an expectedly swift commute to what is for one day every year the Palmetto State's football-carnival epicenter, that rare day of days when cheerleader says hello to elephant ear.

Meanwhile, the fair-football phenomenon caused people to ponder other matters.

Like: Is it too much of a good thing to have the State Fair and a USC football game at one time in basically one place?

"Yes," said Ruple Harley III, 43, of Greenwood, standing under the Ferris wheel just off the Midway, fairgrounds zero.

"I really don't like the fair with football," he said, explaining he certainly loves each - in its own place, that is.

Harley, from Greenwood, had driven down to Columbia with his family to visit the fair in the afternoon and get to the game across the street by the 7 p.m. kickoff of USC against Vanderbilt.

But Harley's son, Ben, 9, and Ben's best friend, Alex Broome, 10, disagreed.

So much the better if you can do two things so wonderful all in the same day, the boys said.

"You don't have to go back and forth and drive such a long way if you can do it in one day," said Ben.

For others, fair-football day represented a clash of cultures that cannot be reconciled.

"They made us take our tent down," exclaimed Linda Segars, 51, who had driven from Florence with husband Kirk, also 51, to tailgate in the State Fair's enormous parking lot.

Normally, they can rig a tent, but on football-fair days, the rules prohibit tents, even for those, like the Segars, who have paid for reserved parking on USC Saturday home games.

Was she irked? "That's putting it mildly," she said.

But she managed to laugh it off as Billy Joel sang "Piano Man" from their Bose sound box, even inviting a reporter to help himself from the platters of fried chicken and ham sandwiches they'd brought.

Such a day was not without its serious side.

Gary Goodman, State Fair manager for 25 years, is a student of fair-football days.

Normally, he said, there are three waves of fairgoers on these special Saturdays:

- The early-morning crowd of families with young children, taking advantage of the two-rides-for-the-price-of-one morning promotion.

- The 2 p.m. crowd of football fans, who can enter the fair free by showing their football ticket.

- A late-afternoon crowd of families and young people.

Saturday's early rain severely depressed morning turnout, Goodman said.

Fair officials then let a huge line of football fans in a half-hour early. There weren't many people at the fair at that point, and "there wasn't any sense to have them keep standing there," Goodman said.

Normally, a lot of teens show up at the fair on Saturday night, but with many fairgrounds parking spaces taken by football fans, teens stay away in droves, Goodman said.

With four days of rain at the opening of this year's fair and today being the last day, attendance at the 12-day event isn't what officials were hoping for and may not reach last year's total of 425,000, Goodman said.

Officials were hoping for a big last Saturday, but the football game and the morning rain appeared to dash those hopes.

But, said Goodman in a telephone interview Saturday night, attendance did tick up late Saturday.

There was a bright side. "It could have rained all day," he said.

And there's always today. "Hopefully, we'll get a crowd in here after church," he said.

Forecasts call for no rain, and - mercifully for fair officials - no football.