Monster tractors pull in a different kind of fan

Event: Instead of farmers, Carroll's annual contest is drawing more devotees of big trucks.

April 26, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The annual tractor pull used to haul in enough people to clear $10,000 for the Carroll County Agricultural Center.

Farmers and mechanics from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania would attend on the last Sunday in April to see how much weight it took to make a restored Farmall come to a wheel-spinning stop on the red-dirt track.

Now, organizers feel lucky to raise half that much. The tractor pull is no longer the only show in town, and its target audience has changed from farmers to motorheads. The lure for many is not the clanking John Deere, but tractors on steroids.

That's what Erin Dawson, 23, was waiting for yesterday morning at the nonprofit Agricultural Center on Smith Avenue in Westminster, respectfully watching antique tractors from the 1950s and 1960s compete in the traditional events.

"My favorite would be the big trucks," said Dawson, a printing company worker who lives outside Westminster, waiting for the afternoon events -- when the quaint nostalgia of the old John Deere was to give way to the explosive sound of jet-propelled monster tractors spewing columns of thick, black smoke.

The evolution of the tractor pull -- which now has as much to do with farming as the Indy 500 does with car pools -- is an example of how Carroll County is perched on a fence between country and suburb.

The contest's competition ranges from the new chain restaurants proliferating on Route 140 to the Orioles and other metro-area diversions only a 45-minute drive away.

Plenty of grass was showing yesterday, where in the past spectators would cover the green slopes on either side of the track, toting coolers with enough beer to last from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The antique pull is the morning warm-up act -- normal workhorse tractors that farmers use to plow and plant. But most of the crowd did not show up until noon, when the monster competition was to begin.

Proud owners

Rather than watch the antique tractors, Grady Barr of Street in Harford County tended to his equipment -- the machine he calls Penny Pincher, for all the pennies it cost him to build. It has the vague profile of a tractor, but is dominated by three helicopter turbine engines bought for $8,000 each at a government salvage sale.

"They're right out of a helicopter," said Barr, wiping it to a shiny gloss with window cleaner and talking with a passer-by who stopped to gawk. "Just like the helicopter Rambo flew.

"They don't do much for me," he said of the antique tractors, with horsepower of 80 to 100 that is dwarfed by the 3,000 horsepower of the machine he built from scratch at an estimated cost of $35,000 -- or, as he painted on the vehicle, "3 million 5 hundred thousand pennies."

Others have put as much as $200,000 into their tractors, much of it underwritten by sponsors.

This sport can't be separated completely from its farm roots, though, and many an attendee looking at one of the antiques could be overheard remembering how it looked just like grandpa's.

The tractor pull is a relatively new sport. It was cheaper for a farmer to get into than stock car racing, which would cost thousands of dollars more, said Allan Muller, a Hampstead welder and one-time farmer whose wife and two sons attend tractor pulls with him.

"You can take a tractor right off the field and compete with it," Muller said.

"I have plowed with this tractor," he said of the family's 1952 Super M Farmall that son Carl, 15, drove yesterday in the antique class.

Muller proudly noted the tractor was made the year he was born. Its red paint restored to a glossy sheen, the vehicle is transported on a trailer bed pulled by the Mullers' pickup truck.

Muller bought the used tractor for about $850, and put $3,000 into it. He couldn't get to the starting gate of a NASCAR race for that little.

How the pull began

The sport grew from the competition and bragging rights inherent in farming, said Paul S. Stull, a Republican state delegate from Frederick County and retired agriculture teacher and school principal. Stull owns the "sled" -- the weight unit that the tractors pull in contests all over the region -- and is one of the founders of tractor-pulling in Maryland.

"It started out 35 years ago out in Ohio and Illinois where there are a lot of tractors and a lot of farmers," Stull said. "They wanted to see which tractor, whether it was a green tractor or a red tractor or an orange tractor, had the most power."

The color of a tractor is a code word for the brand: green is John Deere, red is International and orange is Allis Chalmers. Like Chevys and Fords, each has its devotees.

The first tractor pulls resembled a mechanical arm-wrestling match or tug-of-war: Two tractors would back up to each other and chain their drawbars together. The drawbar is what a farmer might hook to a plow or harrow to do work. The drivers would then start their engines and see which one could pull the other across a center line.

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