Fairgoers Hog Wild for Races

8/9/2014 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

LEBANON, Pa. — Not all the swine at the Lebanon Area Fair were 4-H projects. The squealing of porkers across the fairgrounds from the livestock barns originated with pigs smaller — and faster — than the ones being paraded before the judges in the show ring.

These particular pigs are the property of Brent and Stephanie Cook, who run the Hogway Raceway attraction at the fair.

At a specially constructed track tucked in between displays of farm machinery and the back of the fairground’s grandstand, eager audiences got to make the acquaintance of hogs with names like Hammy Hamlin, Squealing Stewart, Oinkhart Jr., and “Pretty Boy” Piggy Gordon. These swine not only share their names with some of the current crop of NASCAR greats, they also have their own racetrack coated with wood shavings and an announcer who sounds like he just left the NASCAR broadcast booth. That spokesperson is Hogway Raceway owner, Brent Cook, a man with a pig pun for every eventuality.

During its three shows per day at the Lebanon Area Fair, the Raceway’s bleachers around the checkered-flag-decorated racetrack filled up with young and old alike. The crowd was eager to see little hogs hoofing it around the small-scale track to reach their prize at the finish line — a snack of cheese curls.

Stephanie Cook assisted her husband by escorting the racers to the starting gate, where Brent Cook trained spectators to summon the piglets to attention with loud cries of “Sue-Whee!” Shortly thereafter, the starter’s horn tones would sound and soon the oinkers would literally be “off to the races,” as enthusiastic fans cheered on their favorite.

Brent Cook met Stephanie, his wife of two and a half years, while squiring his swine racing show at a fair in North Carolina. Stephanie was working as a DJ in the nearby booth of a gospel radio station — and the rest is history. Though she was not raised on a farm like Brent was, Stephanie has taken to their life on the road, and the two of them are now joined by their 15-month-old son, Gideon, who took his first road trip with them at six weeks of age and has been a traveling companion ever since. Gideon takes it all in stride, watching each racing event placidly from the security of his well-shaded playpen in the track’s infield area.

The Cook family covers a lot of territory each year from March through November, when they follow the circuit of state and county fairs and festivals along the East Coast and from Wisconsin to Florida. While Brent and his family live on a 9-acre property in the western North Carolina foothills town of Newton — close to his parents’ 20-acre farm — during the months they’re on the road, home becomes the comfortable front half of a 47-foot cattle trailer-like carrier that houses their animal friends in the rear of the trailer. The trailer also carries the high-protein pig feed the hog racers eat to keep healthy while touring. As Brent explains, this racing operation is his family’s livelihood, so it only makes good sense to give the stars of the show the best of care.

Brent Cook has been traveling to fairs with his parents since middle school — “most of my life,” according to Brent — to operate hog racing entertainment. These days, the Cook family has three units that travel around to bring fairs live hog racing — Brent and Stephanie’s rig, one operated by Brent’s father, Dennis Cook, and a third overseen by Sharon Cook, Brent’s mother. His sister Courtney, an RN working on her master’s degree, assists as her schedule permits.

The Cooks raise all their own racing stock on their home farm. A steady supply is needed, since Hammy, Squealing, Oinkhart Jr. and Pretty Boy Piggy Gordon outgrow their racing roles in only a few months’ time. The Cooks have found that crossbred swine, such as mixes of Hampshires and Yorkshires, seem to make the best racers. These swine speedsters go into training when they reach six weeks of age and spend about two weeks being put onto a practice track once or twice per day to see which ones will scurry fastest for snack food rewards.

Each Hogway Raceway performance includes five heats. Two of them are run by the crossbred pigs, while another features Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. As for the remaining two heats, Brent said he “likes to mix it up” by giving two other species their chance at racing. The heat run with four pygmy billy goat kids is a fan favorite and a later waddle around the track by fast-paced Indian Runner ducks is also a hit with audiences.

Hogway Raceway attracts plenty of cheering in the stands thanks to Brent’s selecting one “pig rooter” per competitor to urge on their assigned racer. Not surprisingly, kids love being chosen for this honor — especially when the winning hog’s pig rooter gets a blue ribbon to take home from the track. But adults are also not immune to the charms of cheering on their favorite swine, so the last race of each event is left in the capable hands of grown-up pig rooters. Brent makes a point of reaching out to audience members with physical or mental challenges so they can also be part of the pig rooting fun.

Ask Brent what he likes best about his career choice and he says it’s traveling with his family, meeting nice people and getting to see the country. Of course, the flip side of that equation is missing friends, relatives and church family members back in North Carolina. Brent and Stephanie Cook are a Christian couple who see the Lord’s leading in their chosen path. Reaching out to those in spiritual need is a natural thing for Stephanie, whose father is a minister, as well as for Brent, who gained confidence as a child by singing in church in spite of being shy. One of their trackside signs prominently features the biblical words of John 3:16 and, while they don’t attempt to proselytize during their shows, they trust that living their faith will be a Christian example to others.

The Cooks, who get their bookings through trade conventions, fair shows, Facebook and word of mouth, came to the Lebanon Area Fair from a fair in Madison, Va. Their next stop was the Montgomery County Fair in Gaithersburg, Md. A mere four months from August they’ll wrap up the year’s labors on the road — just in time to disperse their family farm’s assortment of camels, donkeys and sheep to live Nativity shows around the countryside.

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