Tim Shortridge loves to come to the Hartford Fair to compete in the Rough Truck contest. He loves the roar of the crowd, and the crowd loves SpongeBob SquarePants.

Tim Shortridge loves to come to the Hartford Fair to compete in the Rough Truck contest. He loves the roar of the crowd, and the crowd loves SpongeBob SquarePants.

The Pataskala resident became a local legend after his daughters painted the popular cartoon character on the side of the 1974 Plymouth Trailduster that Shortridge drives in the contest.

"The crowd loves it," he said. In fact, he said he met a family who drove to the fair from Cincinnati just to see his animated truck compete. Shortridge has completed the tough course all but one of the eight years he's participated.

The Hartford Fair's Rough Truck Contest is the biggest in the area at nearly 150 trucks, said Dick Fisher, fair board president. He said other similar area contests have at least 40 fewer trucks than the Hartford Fair, which Fisher attributes to Hartford's challenging course.

"I hurt just thinking about it," he said. "A year ago, there was a line of cars coming in at 9 a.m., all paying admission." The contest began at 7:30 p.m.

But that's just one of the fair's big attractions for 2010.

It's Fisher's hope that the school bus races, new to the fair this year, gain a similar following.

"We're looking for a pretty good turnout," he said. Fisher expects roughly 15 school buses to compete.

The fair board deliberately scheduled the races for 6 p.m. on Sunday - an hour and a half earlier than other grandstand events - to increase attendance, he said.

"Sunday nights were weak because the events started late," he said, explaining that most people aren't willing to stay late Sunday, then drag into work on Monday morning.

Fair board member Mark Donaldson said the fair "lucked out" in choosing Chuck Wicks and Justin Moore as the main musical acts this year. He said the board decided against hiring a seasoned act to appeal to a broader audience and took a chance on the double bill of "up and comers."

It paid off.

"We sold out of our original track seats," said Donaldson - a first for the fair. Bleacher seating was added to accommodate more people.

The risk in booking younger acts is that they are scheduled many months in advance of the fair and it's impossible to predict where their careers will be by August, Donaldson said. At the time of booking, he said, Wicks was the better known act.

"Justin just had a couple of songs then," he said. "We really took a chance." But hits like "Small Town USA" and "Backwoods" rocketed Moore to the top of the charts.

Donaldson said Wicks and Moore are attracting a younger crowd, some of whom are traveling from west of Columbus to enjoy the show.

"The new guys are super," he said. "Both of these guys were farm boys. That's how they got started."

Fisher said the tough economy caused a decline in the number of vehicles entering the demolition derby, but it remains a fan favorite. Otherwise, participation in the tractor pull is as strong as ever and there's still a "solid convoy of trailers" hauling in motorcycles for the motocross event.

"We have a good line-up every night," he said.

Fisher said he'd like to see the fairgrounds used for more activities in the off-season, but he's proud of the way the Hartford Fair has withstood the test of time.

"We feel good about what we're doing," he said. "We appreciate the people who support us."

Shortridge definitely appreciates his annual 15 minutes of fame in the SpongeBob truck. He claims a $50 distributor cap is all he's invested in it after enduring so many contests.

"If it'll start, I'll be there," he said.

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