CHAPEL HILL, Tennessee — Americans have a knack for turning even the simplest tasks into a competition. Tractor pulling, for example, has evolved from a barnyard contest to determine which farmer had the most powerful draft horses or tractor into a multi-million-dollar sport, to see which machine can drag a weighted sled the farthest.
One of the sport's top contests takes place in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, a quiet little southern town of just 1,200 people. However, for that single weekend in July, its population swells to more than 20,000 as pulling fans from across the United States arrive for the event called the "Pull of the South."
While spectators queue up at the admission gate, dozens of 18-wheelers rumble through the back entrance hauling millions of dollars worth of heavily customized trucks, tractors and other pulling machines. But most are trucks or tractors in name only. They generally look nothing like the equipment they’re named for. There’s even a class that’s descended from lawn tractors.
As the stands fill and the competition gets under way, the first class of trucks is towed to the starting line where their alcohol-burning engines are fired up.
In these contests, the truck or tractor is “hooked” to a sled that is loaded with weights up to 29,000 kilograms. As it slides down the surprisingly short 100-meter track, a system of pulleys shifts the weight from the back of the sled to the front, making it harder to pull with each passing meter. The driver in each class with the longest pull of the day wins.
As track officials wave their flags to start a pull, fans pop in earplugs or simply cover their ears with their hands. The sound of the straining engines is absolutely deafening.
As the smoke and dust clear away, fans talk about what they enjoy about tractor pulling competitions.
“The first time I came was last year, and I was pretty blown away," said one woman. "I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Another spectator summed it up this way: “We love to see the smoke roll up in the sky. It’s power. Every man in the country loves good, strong power.”
But for all their power, even a winning tractor takes home a surprisingly small cash prize. According to veterans of the sport, the real clout belongs to the team owners who spend huge sums to keep their crews competitive.
"These tractors here are upwards of $250,000 to $350,000 apiece," puller Jim Martell said. On any given night, the most that we can pull for is $2,000, so it’s not actually a money-making deal. It’s basically just trying to get your money back and stay even with it.”
Wealthy business owners, or farmers with large operations, underwrite most pulling teams, happy to get their names out in front of big audiences.
Martell says the pulling community is small and tightly knit.
“The camaraderie with the fans, and the other pullers, it’s one big family,” he said.
The pulling season comes to a climax in mid-August with the National Tractor Pulling Championship in Bowling Green, Ohio. Pulling, by the way, is growing in popularity outside the United States. The European championship is scheduled for September in Germany.