SHELBY, N.C. --- Pat Reithoffer is on a rant. He's talking politics, and like most carnival owners, it's his opinion that government regulation is slowly killing the carnival industry.
Trucking restrictions are a prime example, said the co-owner of Reithoffer Shows during its annual run at the Cleveland County Fair here. Newer DOT laws interpret trucks running idle during teardown as time on the road, and eight hours of stacking equipment counts against commercial drivers' log time before they're required to stop and seek relief. For a show carrying a combined 120 rides, it's counter-productive, Reithoffer said.
"We've got so much equipment now and it's getting too hard to carry it over the road," he said. "To get a CDL now, it almost takes a written pardon by the President of the Uni
ted States. They want to put automated machines in the truck to match the ride logs. It's getting to be [like] Russia. The system is set up for you to lose."
Apart from increased regulations, Reithoffer sees fairs falling back into some bad habits with duplication of rides, essentially diluting the quality of midway attractions.
"We put up 40 different rides, not 40 rides with 20 of them duplicates," he said. "One fair may have four glass houses, three merry-go-rounds and three bumper cars, all just to fill up space so it looks like a fuller midway. It's not a good thing."
Cleveland County is among the exceptions, he said. Under manager Bobby Jenks, a food concessionaire for almost 40 years, the fair books a variety of free entertainment, including a circus, demolition derby, a hypnotist, juggler and a chainsaw artist.
Make no mistake, though, the midway carries the fair. Reithoffer's lineup featured a refurbished Central Park antique car ride, an original Majestic piece rebuilt by the show's Tom Popovich. It had been "parked" for while at winter quarters in Florida until Popovich got the motors humming again, Reithoffer said. In addition, a Luna Park kiddie carousel made its debut in Shelby.
The bright colors tied to the carnival's guest services and wristband station stood out on the midway. It's also been upgraded in recent years. The new Galaxy coaster was set up with brother Rick Reithoffer's unit at the Georgia National Fair in Perry. Rick's unit will play the Panhandle South Plains Fair in Lubbock, Texas, a new spot for the carnival.
"The rest of the stuff, you just keep what you own and keep it going," Pat Reithoffer said. "It's a job in itself getting the equipment on the road with all the DOT regulations, driving these highways that beat you to death. That's another thing, the infrastructure is breaking down with no solutions on how to fix it."
Reithoffer has been through his share of hurricane-related weather during his more than 50 years in the carnival business. It's a matter of routine now for him now to tear everything down at a moment's notice and lay it on the ground during periods of extremely high winds.
At the Cleveland County Fair, the remnants of Hurricane Matthew did not warrant the stripping of rides but it did wipe out a good portion of the fair's final weekend. Earlier in the season, the show caught rain in 23 days over a 30-day stretch in Virginia and Maryland. As a result, most spots were down, he said. Extreme heat was also a factor with 90-degree temperatures.
There were some bright spots. In between the rain drops, Reithoffer Shows "got a whole spot in" at Brunswick N.J. in the third week of June, Reithoffer said. The Great Schaghticoke (N.Y.) Fair, Aug. 30-Sept. 4, was the best ever in Reithoffer's more than 40 years of playing the event, he said.
On the labor front, the feds "dragged their feet" on the delivery of international workers through the H2B Visa program, similar to what other shows experienced this year, according to Reithoffer. The carnival employs up to 40 Mexican nationals, some of whom have been working for the show for the past seven years.
"They're good workers, they speak English, they're good with customers and they don't do drugs," he said.
Former fair manager David Grimm, hired in early 2016 as Reithoffer's new Director of Business Development and Marketing, has provided a boost to the show with his new ideas and promotions. Grimm's experience includes heading the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction, Vt.
Nick Alberts, the show's manager, has been with Reithoffer for 48 years. Three of Reithoffer's children, Ryan, Patrick and Susie, work for the carnival.
"They all learned to work together,which is key," Pat said.
Pat Reithoffer turned 69 over the summer and he sees retirement in the near future to spend more time with his young grandson. He won't put a date on it but knows he's a lucky man to last this long in the business. A bad truck accident in 1969, the result of a flywheel disintegrating, almost killed him.
"If I can just make it a little longer, but I don't want to jinx myself," he said.