Tractor pull a surprising success after 41 years

Josh Shaffer
The News & Observer
In a May 19, 2017 photo, Jimmy Thigpen of Burgaw, N.C. pilots his modified mini ìSatisfactionî in the Pinetops 300 Tractor Pull  in Pinetops, N.C. This is the 41st year Pinetops has hosted the event that raises money for the fire department.

PINETOPS, N.C. (AP) - In 1976, the town of Pinetops had two aging vehicles in its volunteer fire department: a 1964 Ford pumper and a water wagon converted from an old gasoline truck. Even in a farming town of 1,700, the need felt dire.

Selling barbecue went nowhere. Brunswick stew raised few dollars. Then a handful of Jaycees hit on an idea: Hold a national tractor pull on a city street. Sell hot dogs. Rake in barrels of cash for the South Edgecombe Rural Fire Department.

"Even the fire chief was not for it," recalled Wayne Lewis, 69. "He said, '1,800 hot dogs? Who in hell is going to eat the other 1,798?' "

But the crowd poured in, scarfing so much food that organizers had to rush to Piggly Wiggly and buy its entire frankfurter stock, then scramble to find extra rolls. Fans in the bleachers that day numbered nearly twice the town's population, all eager to watch neighboring farmers perform on their souped-up Massey Fergusons.

In a May 19, 2017 photo, from left, Ashton Narron age 8, Landon Robbins, age 5, and Ayden Narron, age 5, watch the action during the Pinetops 300 Tractor Pull  in Pinetops, N.C. This is the 41st year Pinetops has hosted the event that raises money for the fire department.

And now, after 41 years, the Pinetops 300 still draws 8,000 fans to a town with a handful of stoplights, about 70 miles east of Raleigh. In its long history, this celebration of horsepower and dirt has generated an estimated $3 million, helping to buy six fire trucks and build a $600,000 station on N.C. 258. At one time, tractor pull money made up nearly half the fire department's budget, keeping its tax rate the lowest in the county.

On Friday night, May 19, fans roared their approval for David Lacey, 28, who hauled his mini modified to Pinetops all the way from his corn farm in Canada, and for Daniel McDonald of Red Springs, who just turned 16 but took first place in the superfarm class, and for Chip Street from Ohio, whose jet tractor Wildfire can shoot flames 30 feet in the air. When the competition continues on Saturday night, organizers expect the enthusiasm to boil over.

Held every third weekend in May, the Pinetops 300 so dominates the town that one corn farmer holds off on planting 5 acres so competitors can use part of his field for a pit area.

The track is situated between two baseball diamonds, and because there is no gate, a ticket booth is set up on streets in every direction. Neighbors have trouble reaching their houses by car on pull weekends, but as a consolation prize, they can watch from their rooftops.

"It's a heck of a show," said Lewis, the event's announcer since 1987. "Nowhere in America is a tractor pull held on a city street. We go from one lady's house to the other lady's house. Used to have a stop sign. The lady at the far end, she stayed the first year. But I think she goes to the beach and she takes her cats with her."

In a May 19, 2017 photo, announcer and event organizer Wayne Lewis kicks off the 41st annual Pinetops 300 Tractor Pull in Pinetops, N.C.This is the 41st year Pinetops has hosted the event that raises money for the fire department.

The sport of tractor pulling dates to the 1860s, a time when farmers would test the strength of their horses by having them drag barn doors across a field. The first motors emerged in 1929 around Missouri and Ohio, though rules varied between states and made competition confusing. Then in 1969, enthusiasts formed the National Tractor Pullers Association, lending the sport a new luster of officialdom.

In its early days, tractor pullers competed on standard farm vehicles, and their sport carried an agricultural motto: "Pull on Sunday, Plow on Monday." But as tractor pulling grew and evolved, it spawned vehicles that never set tobacco. Four engines. Turbochargers. Four-by-four trucks with pipes jutting out of the hood like tusks.

"It's not just Ford or Chevy," said Dale Burleson, 46, a puller from Albemarle. "It's, 'Wow, how'd he do that? That's an airplane engine!' "

A single engine might cost $125,000. A set of tires might run $10,000.

"I have never made money," said Allen Brown from Camden County, a 40-year Pinetops veteran waiting to drive Sweet Thang on Friday night. "A lot of people go fishing. This is my hobby. In fact, I worked until about 12 o'clock today trying to plant some beans."

In a May 19, 2017 photo, Tony Everett, in his Doerunner 4x4, lines up to compete in the four-wheel-drive division in the Pinetops 300 Tractor Pull in Pinetops, N.C. This is the 41st year Pinetops has hosted the event that raises money for the fire department.

It might surprise tractor pull rookies to see both black and white fans in the Pinetops crowd, and to see women driving, but both of these are stereotype-defying realities.

Lewis leads off with a prayer, a color guard from Southwest Edgecombe High School marches down the track, a concessionaire offers ear muffs for $10 and the action begins with a puff of black smoke.

As the tractors roar down the 300 feet of clay, pulling 30,000 pounds as far as they can, Lewis and his partner Bert Forbes keep up a constant patter.

"Here comes Daniel McDonald," Lewis shouts into his microphone. "He just turned 16. Had to get his parents' permission. I guarantee he's as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs!"

Then later, as a four-by-four truck begins to bounce down the track, Forbes tells the crowd, "He laid down what I call an oingy-boingy-boingy!"

From the crowd Friday night, Daniel Webb from the South Edgecombe fire department pointed out one of the newer trucks, which was rebuilt from a military chassis. Last October, it stood nearly up to its windows in floodwater from Hurricane Matthew, rescuing victims who were trapped.

Money that helped build it came from thousands of hot dogs eaten by thousands of fans in wooden bleachers, all of them shouting over the noise of giant engines.