Four miniature pot belly pigs enter the first turn during the second race during the Hendrick’s Pig Racing Thursday at the Curry County Fair. The winning pig gets an Oreo. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
The employment ad, posted in a Kansas newspaper, was clever, and short. “Cabin Fever?,” it asked, “Go west.”
So Chris Yaverski did — go west — and east, and south, and north. He stood at the spot where patriots threw tea into Boston waters. He saw four presidents faces carved into Mount Rushmore. He heard the roar of Niagara Falls.
All because 10 years ago, the ad lured 30-year-old Yaverski into business with 12 curly-tailed animals.
In khaki shorts and a baseball cap, he looks nothing like the man who runs Hedrick’s pig races at the Curry County Fair, and elsewhere.
But every night during fair time, Yaverski, also the manager of Hedrick’s Petting Zoo, trades his casual attire for even more casual attire — overalls, a checkered shirt, a straw hat, and “if the weather allows,” he said, he “goes barefoot.”
“It’s the basic pig farmer stereotype,” the Nickerson, Kan. resident said of his get-up. And of his job: “I am what they call a country convert — someone pulled out of the city and put in a rural environment and I love it.”
In addition to cultivating a down-home attitude, aided by props and speakers blasting bluegrass, there are other Yaverski show essentials. One is pigs.
Housed in a gray trailer, the 2- to 4-month old animals, some barely bigger than a football, grunt and snort when Yaverski walks alongside their pens. He pulls out an Oreo cookie, and dangles it above their pink snouts. The cookie is usually placed at the end of the pig race track, shaped like a U, with the fastest pig in the nightly races, winning the delicacy.
Pigs, he says, are underestimated.
“Pigs are smarter than people realize,” Yaverski said. “They learn fast. They know that there is only one Oreo at the end of the race, so they know they have to be the first one there to get it, and they try really hard.”
The pigs, however, are only on the track for an about 10 seconds per race, and Yaverski spends about 20 minutes drawing in crowds for the race, he said. So another show essential is humor, his forte, Yaverski said.
He calls each pig by name. Current cast members include John-Claude Van Ham, Luke Sky Hogger, Oprah Swinefrey and Monica Sowinsky — “that one will go on for a while,” Yaverski said. But most of the names change with the times. As do Yaverski’s jokes.
“The pigs are little bitty — it’s amazing that they know where to go,” said one pig race viewer, Kelly Franklin, 15. But, he added, “the jokes are the best part. They’re pretty funny.”
Yaverski draws his material, mostly jabs at fellow Hedrick crew member Noel Scheffield, from current events and everyday conversations. “My mind’s working all the time. We try to keep the show fresh. There’s that hillbilly, backwoods approach but we still try to be witty.”
Sidekick Scheffield, 28, rounds up four pigs for each race while Yaverski builds a rapport with the audience. A Springfield, Miss., native, Scheffield is known only as Brother Elroy during the show, and husky Yaverski, as Brother Tiny.
“He (Yaverski) just comes up with stuff from the top of his head. He’ll throw stuff out there, sometimes the crowd catches on, sometimes they don’t,” said, Scheffield, who doesn’t mind being the brunt of Yaverski’s jokes — “I get may chance to (make fun of Yaverski) after work,” he said.
The bottom line on pig racing, said Yaverski, is simple.
“It doesn’t matter if people are laughing with us or at us, just as long as their laughing,” Yaverski said.
The last word on having pigs for co-workers: “The hardest thing about working with pigs,” a straight-faced Yaverski said, “is that they will,” he emphasized, “squeal on you.”