The race goes to the slowest

Contest: Victors in the slow tractor competition this weekend in Westminster will look as if they're hardly moving.

September 07, 2001|By Jamie Manfuso | Jamie Manfuso,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This weekend, Bruce Rhoten Sr. will fire up his 1952 Allis Chalmers farm tractor, ease his left foot off the clutch and chug toward a finish line more than 50 feet away.

If things go as he hopes, he'll finish dead last.

Rhoten will be one of the participants in the slow tractor "races" this weekend at the Mason-Dixon Historical Society's 39th annual Steam & Gas Roundup beginning today at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster.

In Rhoten's race, participants drive antique tractors as slowly as possible without stopping or stalling. Press the clutch, tap the brakes or zigzag, and you're immediately disqualified.

"The little tractor of mine wouldn't do 15 miles an hour in third gear, and it only has three gears," said Rhoten, 50, who lives in Hampstead.

Competing in the garden tractor or farm tractor category, pairs of drivers "race" in an elimination tournament that offers the victors nothing more than bragging rights.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a tractor is moving. Driving a John Deere garden tractor at the roundup a few years ago, Rhoten's son is reputed to have gone two feet in 15 minutes.

For that, he won the garden tractor category.

While it might not rank as the most exciting spectator sport, the slow tractor race tests the tractor's ability to do the slow work common on a working farm, such as harvesting crops or bundling hay.

Right in tune

"When you've got it idled down that low, you've got a good engine and you've got it tuned right," said Bob Frederick, a volunteer at the farm museum and one of the event's organizers.

Aside from hundreds of antique tractors, the event will feature steam engines, gas engines, farm machinery and sawmill and horse equipment. Last year's event drew between 20,000 and 25,000 people over three days, according to farm museum estimates.

Enthusiasts of antique farm machinery might compare themselves to baseball card collectors or vintage car owners, but theirs is a peculiar obsession.

While few baseball card collectors would prefer a tattered Cal Ripken rookie card over one in mint condition, many tractor lovers prefer a machine with dirt, dents and scratches - signs that a tractor has been put to work. Some of the machines are still used in farming.

These antique machines inspire curious passions.

Frederick, 72, a retired firefighter from Cockeysville, has named his last three dogs (all Chihuahuas) in reference to steam engines - Steam, Smokey and Taylor Joe.

The last was named after the 1875 Taylor portable steam engine that Frederick and his grandson, Joe Rogers, 22, have been restoring at the farm museum during the past several years.

It's got to be green

Tractor owners get emotional about the colors of their tractors. Rauland Roop, 75, a farmer from New Windsor, said any tractor that isn't green (i.e., John Deere) is an SOB - Some Other Brand. SOBs include red (Case International), white (New Holland) and orange (Allis Chalmers) tractors, each of which has its devotees.

Roop, who will show several John Deere tractors this weekend, has converted his 13-year-old grandson to the green tractors. "His bedroom is green and yellow from the ceiling clear down to the floor," said Roop. Not to mention the John Deere sheets, bedspreads and curtains.

Whatever their color preference, all tractor collectors have one thing in common: Few could bear to let an old tractor rust in a field or ditch.

Rhoten reluctantly left farming in the late 1970s, when his family sold its 65-acre farm in Parkton. But he uses the 1952 Allis Chalmers, which he bought for $800 as a teen, each year to plow his half-acre garden in Hampstead.

"That little tractor has done a lot of work for us," Rhoten said. "I wouldn't let it go if I had to."

The slow tractor races will be held at noon tomorrow and Sunday. The roundup is from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. today through Sunday at the Carroll County Farm Museum, 500 S. Center St. in Westminster.

Other events both days include parades of antique farm equipment, shingle making, grain threshing and straw baling.

Admission is free.

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