“It’s the ultimate contest between the proverbial immovable object and the irresistible force.”
That’s how Gregg Randall, office general manager with the National Tractor Pullers Association (NTPA), describes tractor pulls–a sport in which a competitor driving a modified tractor tries to pull a weight (called a sled) down a dirt track.
The goal is a “full pull,” muscling the sled 300 feet to the end of hear them even before you see them. From the almost hushed silence at the start of a pull to the thunderous cheers as the competitor roars down the track, the crowd is as enthusiastically engaged as the competitors, such as David Burnett of Brandenburg.
“It takes somebody crazy to do it,” jokes Burnett. “I drive for hours for a pull that lasts 10-15 seconds and then drive back home, but it’s a big adrenaline rush.”
On this Saturday night at the Meade County Fair Grand National Pull, Burnett finishes second in the LTD Light Super Stock Tractor class. The finish is worthy of bragging rights Monday morning as he re-enters the work world as owner of Burnett’s Heating and Cooling. Tonight, however, all that matters is his candy-apple red competition tractor.
Like many of his fellow competitors, Burnett built the tractor himself, starting only with a manufactured rear end and a transmission. The rest he constructed from scratch, piece by piece. Each year, he tries to improve it. Last year, for example, he overhauled the motor.
In a typical year, Burnett will compete in about 20 tractor pulls within 300 miles of his home. He has been competing for 10 years.
The sport itself goes back much farther, to the early part of the 20th century when folks got together for draft horse pulling. The first recorded motorized pulling events took place in 1929, one in Vaughnsville, Ohio, and one in Bowling Green, Missouri.
“As agriculture expanded with the advent of the gasoline and diesel engines becoming the norm, a challenge was oftentimes laid down between neighboring farmers,” says NTPA’s Randall. “Who had the strongest tractor in the township, in the county, in the state, in America? Not much has changed except for the technology and financial obligations teams earmark toward their competition vehicles and towing rigs.”
Tractor pulls are still agriculturally rooted, with 85 percent of events taking place at county fairs. The technology and money have changed a great deal, though.
Results of the competitions are measured by lasers, which record distance down to one-hundredth of a foot. The track is groomed between each pull with a roller and leveler.
And calling the vehicles tractors almost seems disrespectful of the mammoth machines, most with the intricate paint jobs of professional race cars and memorable names such as Flameboyant, Green Attitude, Dragon Slayer, the Humiliator, Willie Make It, Cat Daddy, and Under the Influence. You won’t see any of these tractors plowing a field the next day.
The competitors all speak proudly about specific modifications they have made to their tractors, most often to give the machines more horsepower. But the competitors also have to include safety equipment, such as rollover cages. To date, there have been no deaths in NTPA-sanctioned events, and the association’s safety board intends to keep it that way.
None of the competitors will own up to precisely what they have invested in their tractors, however, typically avoiding the question by kidding that they wouldn’t want their wives to know.
The wives wouldn’t be at all shocked to hear that many of the tractors cost upward of $75,000 to $100,000. In fact, $50,000 is about as little as you can hope to spend to get into the sport with your own tractor. Still, the wives might not protest too much because this most manly of endeavors is actually very much a family sport, and one in which more women are choosing to compete, including teenager Nicole Snyder of Hudsonville, Michigan, who has been featured in the New York Times and on Good Morning America.
“It’s addicting,” says Melissa Allen of Brandenburg, whose husband, Neal, participated in the 4×4 Pro Stock division, and son Kole, 5, got into the action by competing with his Big Foot truck in an event for kids. Melissa has tried her hand at competing as well.
“The best people in the world are at these pulls,” says Melissa. “Ninety-nine percent of the drivers would take something off their truck if another person needed it to compete.”
Jerry Sipes of Flaherty says his entire family–wife Mary Jean and children Jeff, Bernie, Billy, Angie, and Chad–enjoys the pulls. Sipes has been pulling for 40 years, starting “straight off the farm” at age 16.
“I talked my dad into it,” he recalls. “I had always wanted to be in a competition.” As the announcer calls Sipes’ name, a roar comes from the crowd. “Jerry always has a fan club,” acknowledges announcer Butch Krieger, who has been behind the mike for 30 years, almost as long as Sipes has been competing.
The event tonight is also a long-running affair. David Pace, president of the Meade County Fair Board and an employee of Meade County RECC, says this is the 27th year they have had a tractor pull. In 2006, the Meade County event was voted as the NTPA Grand National Pull of the Year.
There were seven NTPA sanctioned events in Kentucky in 2007, drawing crowds from 3,000 to 8,000 per session. Overall, NTPA held 191 events (more than 260 sessions) of pulling nationwide.
Kentucky holds other distinctions as well. In 2007, the NTPA Grand National champions in the TWD Truck class were Donnie and Dannie Sullivan of Warsaw. Out of the top 14 Grand National point runners, seven were from Kentucky.
“The sport is on solid ground,” concludes Randall, “and as long as there are fairs looking for entertainment that will draw the folks and make a profit, pulling will continue to be a staple in the fabric of Americana.”
Come see for yourself
The oldest indoor tractor pull in America is in Freedom Hall at the Kentucky Exposition Center, held this year on February 13-16. The National Farm Machinery Show and Championship Tractor Pull includes a championship truck and tractor pull, booths displaying all the latest farm equipment and services, hands-on demonstrations of the latest technology advancements, and free seminars.
There is also an indoor pit area where spectators can see the vehicles that will be competing each night.
The tractor pull is an invitation-only event with some of the nation’s best drivers, who compete at 7:30 each evening and at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The event has 15 classes, including Pro Stocks, Super Stocks, Modified, Super Farm, and Alcohol Tractors, as well as Two-Wheel and Four-Wheel Drive Trucks. The winners in each class return for the finals on Saturday night.
For more information, go to www.farmmachineryshow.org.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: WANT TO PULL TRACTORS?
To find out what you need to compete in the various classes and how to get a guide for pulling tractors, go to tractor pull.