At first glance, the signs of competition were everywhere Saturday morning at the Kansas Winter Nationals Antique Tractor Pull at the Kansas Pavilions: Air thick with dirt and exhaust, competitors straining in the seats of their classic tractors, palpable frustration when one of the huge, lumbering machines broke down.
Digging deeper, though, the tractor pulls are more than driver versus driver tugging weighted sleds down dirt tracks. They’re an eclectic fraternity of farm families celebrating agriculture’s past and modern technology’s present.
“Here, you get hugs. And they’re legal,” said Lynn Foust of Dover, Ohio, one of the few women who crawled into the tractor seat to haul the sleds across the dirt floor of the arena building.
There’s a definite competitive air to the event. The tractors tug a sled down a track, equipped with weight that moves forward on the sleds to provide increased drag on the tractor. The tractor pulling the sled the farthest wins.
Foust is a former national champion, as is her husband, John. But there are more facets to the tractor pull events than just the competition.
“It’s a social event,” Foust said. “We enjoy the people here, and then we pull the tractors. We know people from all over the country from all walks of life.”
It’s a bond, said Vicki Crum of Mexico, Mo., who runs a national championship and a qualifying event in Columbia, Mo.
“We had an instance 10 years ago where my husband was run over by a tractor that crushed his hip,” Crum said. “Andrew had more support from the pullers than anyone else. What goes on on the track is fun for us, but we enjoy getting together, too.”
One of the beauties of tractor pulling is its accessibility to any income and expertise level, organizers said – “the poor man’s NASCAR,” as Crum put it. Competitors ranged from old tractors recently pulled from tree rows to glimmering, fully restored and modified models with between $40,000 and $50,000 invested.
“A lot of us have a deep interest in antique tractors,” said event organizer Curtis Rink of Wichita. “This, really, is the competitive side of collecting, operating and storing antique tractors.”
There are a variety of competitive divisions, tailored to the checkbook of the driver. There are stock tractors that appear ready for the field, some that are slightly tweaked, some with gaudy paint jobs and modified engines and some that are hot rods masquerading as tractors, complete with cut tires to get a better grip on the dirt. And scattered across the pavilions were every brand of historic tractor imaginable: John Deere, Minneapolis Moline, Oliver, Ford, McCormick, Allis-Chalmers.
“It’s a poor man’s hobby,” said Lynn Willison of Buhler, who brought a modified Oliver to the pull. “You can bring a tractor out of a tree row and hook it up and have just as much fun as I’m having with this souped-up one.”
Fun, as defined by Willison, isn’t a whole lot different than driving a race car.
“You get on there and you get away from everything else and go,” he said. “You forget about everything else when you’re pulling.”
There’s also a heavy dose of tractor collecting tied to the pulls.
“I really like old tractors,” said Donald Friesen of Wichita, who just came to take pictures and reminisce. “My dad had a ’37 D (John Deere) that looks pretty similar to this one, starting with the flywheel and things like that.”
The old tractors evoked memories of summers working farm fields as a teenager, Friesen said.
“My parents both came from farm families, and growing up in high school we lived in a farming community, so I worked farms during the summers over by Whitewater and Elbing.”
In the end, though, the competition still mattered to some.
Justin Dodge of Waukee, Iowa, wore a scowl on his face Saturday morning, glaring at his 1958 souped-up Oliver after a transmission glitch sent him to the sidelines.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is about a 7,” he said. “I’m done for the day. Not expensive, just time consuming.”