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Susquehanna Life

Tailgating: America’s Fastest Growing Community

Sep 06, 2017 05:19PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Some describe tailgating as the new American community. Courtesy of Penn State

By Jennifer Pencek
For Pete Kempf of State College, tailgating provides the opportunity to pass down tailgating traditions to the next generation.
“My first tailgate was quite a simple tailgate consisting of hoagies that my dad (Jim) and I picked up on the way to watch the 1985 PSU West Virginia game when I was 8 years old, said Kempf, 40.
“We traveled two hours from New Cumberland to Happy Valley,” he continued. It was my first trip to State College and my first taste of the PSU tailgating scene. I think that memory stayed with me and after that day I knew I wanted to attend PSU for college.”

A tradition begins

Courtesy of Penn State

Kempf, a civil engineer, now tailgates with his wife and two daughters—Kacie, 6, and Kate, 3. In the 1990s, Kempf and a group of his college friends tailgated and were officers of the Student Nittany Lion Club at its inception. They were given a box of 97,000 Nittany Lion Club window decals to distribute for the first game.
“Years and years later I still see the same decal on RVs,” he said. “My wife’s family had one on their RV that we gave them years before I met her. Twenty years later, I still tailgate with one of the original guys, Fenton Harpster, who now has 10 season tickets and often will entertain his clients at tailgates. We also include our families in the fun to keep these traditions alive.”
Kempf and his family are just a few of those who spend hours upon hours tailgating at sporting events and concerts each year. According to, 240 million people, or 80 percent of the U.S. population, will tailgate this year for everything from college football games to Jimmy Buffet concerts. Approximately 60 percent of tailgaters are between the ages of 25 and 44 and 46 percent tailgate six to 10 times each year, with 42 percent spending more than $500 a season on food and supplies.

What’s the appeal?

Keith Frederick sitting as he
tailgates on a cold day in
November 2014.

 “Tailgating is definitely a community,” said Keith Frederick, 37, of Altoona. “I don't think I have ever gone to a tailgate without talking to a total stranger in a friendly way. You talk to your neighbors, you talk to people walking past; you always try to talk to people from the visiting team and welcome them. I think a tailgate brings people together because you’re all there for one reason—to enjoy the day doing something with 100,000 of your friends.”
Frederick, who works in sales for Signature Door, Inc., began tailgating in 2010 when his uncle purchased an RV and the family began tailgating at Penn State football games. The family tailgate typically draws in 20 to 40 people.
“Our tailgate traditions start with a big breakfast cooked on the grill,” he said. “Omelets, pancakes, bacon and French toast, hot off the grill and tasting better than at any other time. We always play games and take a walk or two around the area. A great tailgate is one with a big group of friends and family, a huge variety of food and snacks, a great opponent with friendly visiting fans and a Penn State win!”

A major part of game day

Whether it is a Penn State sporting event or tailgating before the fireworks at Central PA 4thFest, Carl Bankert and Sally Keiser-Bankert love creating an atmosphere of conviviality. People flock to their tailgate to lounge in chairs and eat goodies grilled by Carl, treats prepared by Sally and food brought by their many friends and family members.
“It’s a special time to spend with family, friends and colleagues, chatting and unwinding,” said Sally, a first-grade instructor. “You enjoy getting together, analyzing the season and sharing in the camaraderie. On July 4, we celebrate our country’s independence with amazing fireworks and entertainment at Beaver Stadium.”
Sally and Carl have been tailgating since 1980 when Carl, now a civil engineer PE, was a student at Penn State. The couple has developed their own traditions over the years, including starting the day with a Bloody Mary and a made-to-order omelet, followed by appetizers, craft beer and grilled meat. Their favorite grill-meat is Lo Jo’s sausage from Altoona.
“We’re not surprised with the popularity of tailgating,” Sally said. “It has become a major part of game day with all the TV exposure.  ESPN is broadcasting at colleges all over the country, raising the bar to create your own theme or style. It's become a national competition—who has the best tailgate in college football on any given Saturday.”
Fun competition aside, Sally said she loves how tailgating is a whole-day affair.
“How nice to talk with others tailgating around you, hearing where they are from and their connection to Penn State,” she said. “For a day you become neighbors, borrowing a wine opener, gas bottles for your grill or some condiments—whatever you may need or have forgotten. We’ve become long time friends with some of those people we’ve parked beside for years. It's truly a fun and memorable time tailgating in Happy Valley.” 

Another perspective

Tailgating is not just for football games, anymore. Courtesy of Penn State


Imagine if tailgating was part of your job. Dennis Helsel of Harrisburg is a retired athletic director and has tailgated mainly at sporting events in Virginia, New York, Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“The meet and greet was a major portion of the job,” he said. “There is no place better than to do this over drinks and food. Tailgating is sort of a fairytale existence. We forget our ups, and especially our downs, and escape.”
He now escapes at tailgates with his wife Sue and friends. For a successful tailgate Sue, a retired registered nurse, said people should arrive at their tailgate spot early and plan food accordingly. If others are hosting, Sue said the hosts tell them what time to go to the field and what they are making for the main course. That way others can fill in with appetizers and side dishes.
“We love to do different dips and appetizers,” she said. “I like to bake so I usually bring cookies or brownies, or anything easy to handle that will keep well for the after-game tailgate.”
Sally Keiser-Bankert and Carl Bankert pose with their friend, Wayne Mabus, who is dressed as Colonel Sanders.

Along with gathering with old friends, Sue said, tailgating offers opportunities to meet new people and get ready for the big game, concert or sporting event.
“I think tailgating shows that people who support different sports programs or enjoy the same concerts enjoy being together also,” she said.
Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and programming coordinator of Penn State’s Center for Women Students.
Visit for Penn State Guide’s Top 10 Penn State Tailgating Tips.

A Tailgate Snack 

Here’s a recipe that will fit in perfectly with your next tailgate. For more recipes, visit

Taco Salad

1 head of lettuce, washed and torn into bite size pieces
15 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 red onion diced
2 can kidney beans (1 light and 1 dark) rinsed
1 1/4 ground beef, browned and lightly seasoned, with salt and pepper
4 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz. mixture of cheeses (labeled taco or Mexican cheese)
1 package of nacho cheese Dorito chips, crushed
1 jar Catalina dressing
Pete's hot sauce to taste
Mix ingredients (except lettuce and chips) into a large bowl. Add 
lettuce and toss.  Moisten with French dressing.  Crush the chips and 
sprinkle thorough salad.

-Courtesy Sally Keiser-Bankert
Susquehanna Life magazine has not tested this recipe and disclaims any responsibility for the outcome of their preparation.

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