Farmers are usually quietly competitive. Going to church on Sunday with the family, a horse-powered farmer would probably check to see how straight his neighbor's furrows were. When hybrid corn was introduced, idle conversation at the café would get around to how big a yield each farmer had. Nothing was said, but it was silently noted who "won" these calm competitions.
But there is one agricultural competition that is anything but calm the tractor pulling contest.
As early as 1929, farmers began hitching their field tractors to weighted sleds and roared down a track to see who could pull it the farthest. Event organizers at Bowling Green, Missouri and Vaughansville, Ohio found out the noise and smoke drew spectators.
By 1950, county fairs across the country featured tractor pulls. What was fascinating was to see machines that would "Pull on Sunday, plow on Monday."
At first, the competitors pulled sleds that were loaded with a given weight as in the Rhode Island tractor pull photo at right. But as farmers began to modify their tractors, that didn't provide enough of a challenge and it was hard to distinguish the most powerful tractors.
So, organizers began to search for ways to progressively add weight as the tractor moved down the track. They took a direct approach. Spectators were recruited to jump on the sled as the tractor moved down the track. But, while that may have been a thrill for the spectators, it was a potential health hazard as well with tractors routinely rearing up under the strain of the pull.
Dan Stork (left) remembers tractor pulls at county fairs where the spectators became participants in ways that could have given new meaning to the term 'dead weight.' "[Now,] that would be too hazardous, to have people stand on a moving tractor and sled," Dan says. "In those days, there were a few modifications done, but not too many. They [the tractors] were basically out of the field."
In the late 60s, a weight-exchanging sled was invented. Basically, the sled is like a flatbed truck trailer with wheels at the back and a sled at the front. A moveable mass of up to 65,000 pounds (29,000 kilograms) starts at the back of the sled over the wheels. The sled starts out a pull with an effective weight of the sled plus zero. As the tractor begins its pull, the weight is moved forward at a set rate, pushing the front of the sled farther and farther into the ground, increasing the friction that the tractor is pulling against. The inventor of one of the earliest sleds named the contraption the "Heartbreaker."
In the 60s, most competitions divided the tractors into several weight limits 5,000 pound tractors competed against each other, with other classes of 9,500, and 14,000 pounds, for example.
Gradually, competitors began modifying their weekday tractors and some built machines for the competitions only. In the 60s, two Ohio brothers figured out a way to add a crossbox gear system to allow several engines to connect to a common driveshaft. Pretty soon, tractors with four engines were common and at least one machine got up to seven engines. Turbo-chargers were added to engines. The organizers had to split their divisions into "stock," "modified" and even "super-modified." A four-wheel drive division was added and proved popular. It wasn't long before competitors were adapting jet engines from helicopters to their tractor frames. Today, the only things that make some of the machines look like tractors are the tires and the operator position.
Recently, the "mini-modified" division has grown popular. In this division, garden lawn mowers are given supercharged V8 engines and go roaring down the track.
In 1969, the National Tractor Pullers Association was established to standardize the rules and various classes. They also began worrying about safety rules. Spectators were moved back and concrete barriers were put up. Drivers were required to wear helmets and, later, fireproof suits. Kill switches were added to the tractors and a neutral light was added to show when the tractor was actually out of gear and safe to hook up to the sled. Sled operators were given seat belts and a safer position on top. Scatter shields on flywheels, wheelie bars and a second draw bar help add to the margin of safety.
A sport that started with 50 horsepower machines driven by farmers directly from their fields to the pull off has now become big business with Super Stock Open class machines putting out over 5,000 horsepower. Prize purses and contingency prizes have reached over $150,000 and national cable networks regularly televise the events. Thousands more flock to watch the events in person.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.