Considering how much time we spend thinking about, talking about and watching games, we are not really very inventive when it comes to developing them. In the doing-what-comes-naturally sports like running, jumping, swimming, grappling and pummeling, we have been amusing ourselves in more or less the same ways for millennia. Now and then we come up with the butterfly stroke, the fiber glass vaulting pole or Gorgeous George, but nothing truly new, like, say, the 50-yard stumble, the endurance sink or organized biting has been added to the repertoire in a long time. We are also pretty much stuck in the mud in games that involve doing something to or with spheroids. All our currently popular ball games were thought up before this century began.
The best source of new sports and contests has not been play but work, activities that first were hard labor. Americans have been particularly good at converting work into games, and many of these entertainments are based on the use of working tools, for example the cutting horse and lariat. It was all but inevitable that our most useful and powerful tool, the combustion engine, would give rise to more contests than any other. And there is no indication that the age of motor-game invention has come to an end. A hot new sport, according to its fans and promoters, is now sweeping—or crawling—across the midlands of America. It is tractor pulling, which is touted by its devotees as "the world's heaviest sport."
Tractor pulling has been coming on for a long time, since 1929, in fact. The reason it didn't catch on faster was that the sport began suffering from a sort of technical obsolescence. Merle Grimm, a Bowling Green, Ohio farmer and a puller for nearly 30 years, explains some of the primitive conditions and problems of tractor pulling until the mid-'60s. "We used to pull against a long sled or stone-boat," he says. "We'd load her up with some rocks and scrap. Then, every 10 feet, we'd have two 200-pound men standing on opposite sides of the track. As the sled pulled past they'd jump on it. Men would keep climbing on all down the track until the tractor couldn't move the load. The driver who hauled farthest won, and that was about it.
"Sometimes people would fall off, especially if a little beer had been drunk. As the tractors began getting more powerful, it got so you might need 40 men to stop them. That got pretty complicated, lining up all those 200-pounders, making sure they weighed enough, arguing about cheating. If the pull lasted a while, somebody was sure to have to leave to do chores or get his wife or something, and then we'd have to find somebody else in the crowd. It wasn't a very good deal."
In the mid-'60s some Bowling Green sports decided to do something about their awkward game. Borrowing equipment and ideas here and there, and with Grimm as the chief designer and mechanic, they invented a contraption called a weight transfer machine. A WTM is a fairly massive and complicated device but about all you really need to know is that it packs some 50,000 pounds of weight in a box. Gears move the box forward and the rest is physics: there comes a point where the weight is so far forward that no tractor in the world can budge the critter. There are now about 20 WTMs, bearing such names as Heart-breaker and Eliminator, which are trailered around the country. The objective of tractor pulling is no longer to move a given weight, but to move a WTM set at a certain gear ratio. At most major pulls the tractors compete on a 300-foot straightaway track. How far they can tug the WTM before they spin out, blow up or are stopped determines their final rank. If more than one tractor makes a full pull of 300 feet, they are brought back for a pull-off, for which the gear ratio on the WTM is appropriately adjusted.
Among the original Bowling Green group that set out to revamp pulling was Ed Hart. He is a jovial man in his 30s who would qualify nicely as a weight man on a sled if such were ever needed again. Originally, Hart was a working Ohio farmer who pulled as a hobby. Now he describes himself as an agricultural promoter, and his home base is Ocala, Fla. Hart used to operate out of Lake Crystal, Minn., where he organized Farmfest '76, a mighty happening, which, in the one week of its existence last fall, attracted about 700,000 cash customers. They came, as Hart's promotional material stated, to "salute the American farmer," but also to listen to a lot of country-and-Western music, to be hustled by virtually every agricultural supplier in the civilized world and to watch tractor pulling.
Hart got into promotion in 1967 when he and his fellow enthusiasts decided to go big time and put on the National Tractor Pulling Championship. They offered what for them was a staggering purse—$12,000. Attracted by the money and excitement, pullers from all over the central Midwest trucked into the Bowling Green fairgrounds. Some 20,000 spectators also showed up and most of them got pretty hungry and thirsty before the long, dusty weekend was over. This, more or less, was where tractor pulling took off. After the first Bowling Green nationals, it occurred to a lot of county and state fair promoters that the sport was a good gate attraction and as good a pop, beer and hot-dog seller as demolition derbies or go-kart racing. All of a sudden there were a lot more pulls with much larger purses.
Larger entry lists stimulated competitive juices, and pullers began abandoning their working machines, jazzing up engines and creating bizarre new rigs that were not good for much else but that could pull a weight transfer machine like Billy Blue Jesus.
These days, the sport offers two main classes of rig. Super stocks are stock tractors jazzed up to 10 times their original horsepower by turbocharging and other practices conducted in darkest secrecy. The other class is modifieds, where anything goes, as long as the tractor is driven by the rear wheels and doesn't exceed 14 feet in length. It is possible for a competitor to buy a tractor off a showroom floor, and by the time he's through modifying it, the only original part left might be the rear axle. The rest is all dragster.
No one knows exactly what the figures were before 1967 but now, according to Ed Hart and others, about 3,000 pulls are sponsored each year. Some of these are on the Florida-Georgia "winter circuit" where a lot of Midwesterners show up to take a little sun and yank a few WTMs across the red clay. There are even four indoor pulls up North in the dead of winter. These are held in exposition arenas in Harrisburg, Pa., Denver, Louisville and Indianapolis where, in another Ed Hart creation, the tractor jockeys take part in the $70,000 Super Pull, the sport's richest event. Hart calculates the total purse money offered at all the pulls last year was in the neighborhood of $1.5 million and that the pulls drew about 1� million spectators and up to 4,000 drivers.