SPARKS, NV - The Nugget Rib Cook-Off's biggest fan isn't being allowed to attend the festival this year. Big Willie, a 12-foot-tall inflatable armadillo, was deflated Wednesday because it posed a significant risk to public safety. Organizers think this gentle giant could become a horrible hazard.
The city of Sparks is enforcing a ban on inflatables. You'll recall last month an inflatable slide lifted off the ground and flew hundreds of feet in the air. If that happened at the rib cook-off, organizers worry Big Willy would cause big problems.
He usually sits right on top of the Armadillo Willy's booth. "His name is Willy. We call him Big Willy," said Tim Ford, Director of Operations at Armadillo Willy's.
Big Willy has been shuttered. Organizers decided he was too dangerous. "The fire chief came by and said there was a ban on inflatables and we had to take him down," said Ford.
That ban on inflatables has actually been city policy since January. The plan was to start enforcing it in 2015, but on July Fourth a dust devil hit Star Spangled Sparks, launching an inflatable slide hundreds of feet in the air.
"It went higher than a lot of the buildings and then just landed way over there," said Nicc Thompson, who saw the slide go airborne on the 4th of July.
No one was seriously injured, but Sparks doesn't want to take that risk with the armadillo.
"Ultimately for us, it is a significant public safety issue," said Adam Mayberry with the city of Sparks.
It's the city's policy, but ultimately it was the Nugget that asked Armadillo Willie's to remove its display.
"I think the crowds and everything will still probably be okay and I doubt that they will stay away, so we hope that it does not affect them much," said Randy Kennedy, spokesman for JA Nugget.
The armadillo has been such a draw in the past, the barbecue manager thought losing it would mean 20 grand in lost revenue. But sales appear to be keeping up.
"The weekend will be the tell. The place gets packed and we kinda stand out; you can see us from both ends when the Armadillo is up in the air. Now we are kinda mixed in the crowd," said Ford.
Armadillo Willy's says it has never had a problem with the inflatable, even in high winds. It's always tied down in several places. That was the same story for the inflatable slide on Fourth of July and that still managed to fly away.