NTPA National Tractor Pulling Championship

Location: Bowling Green, OH | Date: 8/19 - 8/21

Pulling Their Weight In Competition

Written by: Rex Roy

Tractor pulls are a literal turbocharged extension of State Fair and 4H events. Farmers are no less competitive than any of us, and tractor pulls are nothing if not competitive. And you might be surprised at some of the rigs pulling this past weekend; their quality is evident in the images and video that accompany this story.

But before we get to the weekend’s competition, a little history: As the tractor replaced the horse across the farm fields of North America, Europe, and Australia, tractor pulls (also called power pulling) developed into a rural pastime.

Pulling has deep roots in small-town America. The concept of harnessing modern horsepower to move a giant, weighted sled down a track continues to attract significant audiences both in person and on television.

The host for this past weekend’s event was the Northwestern Ohio Tractor Pullers Association, whose “Blue Shirts”—220-plus club members along with executives and board members—put on an excellent show for an estimated 80,000 fans over the weekend. The crowds helped celebrate the event’s 54th anniversary and were treated to some great action as competitors chased down their share of the weekend’s $250,000 in purse money and contingency prizes. Attending these pulls in person is a tradition that’s easy to understand, given how friendly everybody in the segment is. The sanctioning body overseeing the event was the National Tractor Pullers Association (NTPA), an organization that manages dozens of events East of the Colorado River every year. Gregg Randall, the NTPA executive director, told PRI, “Pulling is a historic sport that predates the piston engine.”

Randall continued, “In modern times, the sport has become a fan favorite, and there are a couple of secrets to our success. One of them is the engineering marvel of multi-engine tractors and combinations—two, three, four, five engines together—that has proven to hold a very popular appeal. Second, I think our accessibility to fans is key. Our fans can roam the pit area freely and see the equipment and drivers up close. Our drivers are very engaging, and that’s a refreshing thing for fans.”

If you’ve never seen an event, here’s how the competition goes down: tractors (and trucks which were added to the competition in the 1970s) in their respective classes pull a set weight loaded onto the drag or sled. Class weight can range from 2,050 lbs. (Modified Mini) to 20,000 lbs. (Super Semi). Distinct divisions are established according vehicle and engine configurations (e.g., Two-Wheel-Drive Trucks, twin-engine Light Unlimiteds). This weekend, competitors worked to pull the sled as far as possible along the 350-foot track, but with a twist: the load gets “heavier” as the puller makes progress because the weight is transferred from the rear of the drag forward, forcing the sled pan into the ground. The winner pulls the load the farthest.

Just like other forms of motorsports, the top-class rigs are impressive. Super Stock tractors can run diesel or alcohol and multiple turbochargers on big-block engines. The Modified class ups the ante considerably by allowing up to four supercharged V8 automotive engines to propel a single tractor. But competitors also employ industrial or aircraft powerplants; this weekend’s examples included a pair of 12-cylinder Allisons and a trio of turbines. It’s wild!

Looking through the photos and video that accompany this story, use the theater of the mind to imagine a cornucopia of noise, vibration, harshness, soot, dirt, corn dogs, and the occasionally launched piston—a perfect way to spend a weekend.

Going into the weekend, the NTPA was set to recognize three Grand National (GN) champions from among the 13 divisions. In the 20,000-lb. Super Semi division, the top four contenders were each looking for their first GN title. In recent years, the division has been dominated by Dean Holicky, whose “Mother Trucker” Peterbilt won five of the last six titles through 2019. That truck, now owned by the Eilen family, is called “Keep on Truckin’,” and sat fifth in the current standings behind leader Ryan DeBroux (New Franken, Wisconsin; “Playin’ with Fire” Kenworth), Brian Elithorpe (Bridport, Vermont; “Nikki’s Nightmare” Kenworth), Craig Braun (Hampton, Minnesota; “Executioner” Peterbilt), and Pat Eilen (Hampton, Minnesota; “Just Passin’ Thru in Class” Peterbilt).

Elithorpe retained the momentum of his win two weeks before in Morley, Michigan, and scored a first and a second in the big rigs’ two contested appearances. That performance earned him his first NTPA GN title and the Bowling Green championship ring (in a tiebreaker, by only 4.5 inches!) over fellow session-winner Fred Sanders’ “Silver Bullet II” Mack.

In the 6,000-lb. twin-engine Light Unlimited Modified division, it was a two-hook showdown between two former champions. 2018’s champ Steve Bollinger and “Money Pit” (Taylorville, Illinois) led by two points after he posted a win this past weekend in Salem, Illinois. That came after current challenger Keith Wayson Sr. and “Super Bee” (Harwood, Maryland), the 2015 champ, won in Mt. Sterling, Illinois, on Friday to knot the race, at which moment both Bollinger and Wayson had the same number of points, firsts, and seconds. They were even once more after Thursday night’s session, with Wayson having won to erase Bollinger’s lead. But “Money Pit” ralled on Friday afternoon to claim the season championship even as “Super Bee” clinched the ring.

The 8,000-lb. Unlimited division was dominated by Chuck Knapp driving “Screamin’ D,” a quad-engine unlimited tractor. His pull of 336 was nearly 20 feet farther than Joe Eder’s pull in “Polar Air.”

 The 8,000-lb. Super Stock Open division was clinched by the steady performance of Bob Gansemer (Platteville, Wisconsin) and his four-turbo, methanol-fueled “Ruttin’ Deere.” Gansemer ultimately held on with a pair of fifth-place finishes. But in the interim between the Friday and Saturday sessions, the Ross family’s “Triple Bypass” diesel had taken over the standings lead before retiring due to breakage. The BG jewelry was awarded to John Strickland for his third and first aboard Earl Wells’ “Get a Load of That II” AGCO.

While the crowds especially loved seeing the huge rigs in action, there was plenty of excitement outside of the classes. The Blue Shirts know how to put on a great show, and one schtick is the “Wheel of Fortune.” The spinning wheel has six classes on it, and the class that stops on the pin gets $10,000 added to their first-place winner’s prize. This year, the Modified Mini’s received the extra cash. Just three feet separated winner Abbey Leischner driving “Bobcat Jr.” from Bryan McDonald running “Very Lil’ Sanity,” resulting in a great payday for Leischner, who swept the division’s two appearances in the weekend’s most dominant performance.

Exceptional competition and hospitality were just two highlights of the PRI Road Tour’s experience with a sport that absolutely deserves inclusion into the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) family. The event is just the latest stop on the PRI Road Tour’s docket that reveals our industry to be a varied and complex matrix of businesses that support diverse communities across the nation.

To help ensure that motorsports competitions like tractor pulls continue to thrive in the US, become a member of PRI. Check out PRI’s new membership options for individuals and businesses here. Plan to attend the 2021 PRI Trade Show in Indianapolis on December 9–11 to catch up with the latest products and services. To register as an attendee for the 2021 PRI Trade Show, visit here.

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