Some of the risks of the sport are suggested by the mandatory safety equipment on the stocks and mods. They are equipped with wheelie bars because, as they dig in for rear-wheel traction, groaning and heaving tractors have a tendency to rear up and do backward somersaults. All have engine-kill devices that operate automatically if the tractor breaks away from the weight transfer machine. This has happened now and then, resulting in the spectacle of an unhitched, revved-up tractor plunging off the end of the track and through the infield fences at 50 mph or so. The vital parts of the pulling machines are encased in shields of ?-inch-thick steel, because of the frequency and explosiveness with which engines disintegrate under full stress. Accidents occur even with the protective armor. Last summer some 15 spectators were injured when a clutch on a pulling tractor disintegrated, straightened out the shield and flew into the crowd at an Ohio pull.
Despite the small-town backgrounds and rural roots of the sport, there is nothing particularly pastoral about the tractor-pulling scene. In front of the grandstand the improbable machines—looking like dragsters crossed with brontosaurs—roar and groan down the track, spitting flames and belching clouds of blue smoke and gray dust—and occasionally spewing out bits of flywheel and engine block. The noise and stench levels are high, and visibility is not much better than that in Fairbanks, Alaska during an ice fog.
And this is only what is going on in the foreground. Behind the pulling strips are 20 acres of fairgrounds jammed with 1,000 or so competitors and their families, assistants and groupies. Most of these people are in one way or another in command of some lesser vehicle—a small tug tractor (many of the pulling machines have to be towed to the starting line), a pickup or a 4WD.
Still, once one learns to grope through and breathe shallowly in the carbonized air and to converse at a steady shout, there is a certain down-home quality to the scene. Most of the participants follow the Grand National circuit accompanied by their families or parts of them, often traveling between pulls in convoy—Dad in the pickup, trailering the tractor and motorbikes; Mom and little Peggy in the camper or the motor home with the fried chicken, beer cooler and golden retriever. At fairgrounds they set up with similarly equipped pulling friends with whom they spend the weekend eating, drinking, gossiping and kicking tires.
"Before we started pulling, we never got out of Vermillion County," says Charlene Harness of Dana, Ind., who attended about 50 pulls in the 1976 summer season, often with her two children and always with her husband, Don, whose Loud Mouth Lime was one of the most successful modified tractors on the circuit. "Now we go everywhere and I've got friends all over the country. Pulling has given us a real family interest. Like, if you spend the morning cleaning the kitchen, that's not going to mean much to a man, but if you do a super job painting his headers he thinks you are really doing something. Even in the winter after the circuit. Don would be in his shop working on the Lime and I'd just take my mending out there. We get a chance to talk and I'm there if he needs me to hold something or hand him something. Just the other night I asked him, 'What do you suppose we did before we got pulling?' "
Like dog exhibitors, antiquers, sailplaners and participants in many other itinerant sports, tractor pullers tend to brag about what good people they are. "You just cannot find a better class than pullers," boasted Wayne Patchett of Frankfort, Ind. Patchett figured in one of the circuit's major transactions this past year. Having won the Indy Super Pull with a self-designed modified that he put together himself, he sold the rig to a wealthy Colorado rancher who wanted to get into the sport, starting at the top. Thus, Patchett was a non-competitor but was at Bowling Green as a track official. "Whether I'm running or not, my wife and I wouldn't want to miss the nationals," he said. "We have so many friends here. There's not a puller I know I wouldn't trust with my wallet or even with my wife."
It is also a matter of pride with pullers that they are true-blue country boys and girls who leave the little old home-place now and then to go off and play around with machines. Certainly, the majority at least own a farm. But, protestations aside, they are not your get-up-with-the-chickens, slop-the-hogs and hoe-the-potatoes kind of farmer. They are modern agribusinessmen in leisure suits who may have a Jag parked alongside the Winnebago and the pulling tractor back home. When pressed, they usually confess that the little old homeplace has 1,000 or so acres of prime farmland and is staffed, like any other business, with regular employees who do most of the slopping and hoeing while the chief executive trucks around all summer on the Grand National circuit.
The homeplaces also are doing well enough for their proprietors to afford competitive tractor pulling, the costs of which can be comparable to those of yachting or keeping a string of racehorses. "We got a saying," says Merle Grimm, who along with farming 1,000 acres of corn and beans owns a snowmobile distributorship, "that the way you tell the men from the boys is by the cost of their toys." If Grimm's observation is true, tractor pulling should qualify as a fairly manly sport. One of the heavier super-stock models may cost $30,000, and it is not uncommon to put in another $10,000 or so in permissible adjustments and maintenance equipment. Modifieds are at first less expensive because they are put together bit by bit, but when they occasionally change hands, hot mods will sell for up to $20,000. All of this is purely a sporting investment, because competitive tractors cannot be used for real work. Somewhat like thoroughbreds, they have become too specialized, and at once too powerful and too fragile to be much good for doing anything as grubby as plowing a bean field. (As a kind of local talent sideshow, some fairs will put on an "old time" field class pull. Area men and boys will come in with the machines they run in the fields and give a little tug on a WTM, but they are no more competitive with the full-time pulling rigs than a cow pony would be at Churchill Downs.)
"Shucks, it used to be a man could get into this game for $1,000 and have some fun for himself, says Dickie Sullivan, a large, blond young puller in the heavyweight stock classes. "Now you can't stub your toe for a thousand."
Sullivan delivers himself of this opinion at the fairgrounds in Poplar Bluff. Mo., not far from where he farms along the Arkansas border. ("What kind of farming? Oh, just some row crops, that's all. How much? Oh, maybe all told 2,500 acres.") Sullivan is the only top-20 national puller from his area and even though the Poplar Bluff pull is nothing but a little bitty old C event, he shows to help give it some class. (Among other things, the Poplar Bluff Jaycees who are promoting the pull are selling Dickie Sullivan T shirts.)