Michael Hoff stood beside his metallic blue, chrome-dazzling, 1,800-horsepower tractor, and explained the only thing keeping his sport from prime-time exposure and big-league bucks.
"It doesn't have enough blood-and-guts appeal," conceded the 33-year-old Hoff, who spent this weekend with two dozen other professional tractor pullers, yanking a 56,000-pound sled down a dirt runway at the Virginia State Fair in Richmond. "Whether people will admit it or not, they go to car races hoping to see a good crash."
High-speed crashes and hairpin turns are about the only things this sport has not tried in its effort to cash in on the money America lavishes on professional sports. The down-home county fair contest, which began as a test of four-legged horsepower, has souped up its machines with everything from Chrysler turbochargers to helicopter turbines. Overalls and farm caps have been shed for crash helmets and jet fuel.
For the last 10 years the sport has been pruning away its hayseed image, and a lot of farmers have been cleared away in the process.
"There aren't but two people in the state in my class that are farmers," said Oscar Owen, of Wakefield, Va., who helped organize the Old Dominion Tractor Pulling Association a decade ago. "When I started out I had a junked automobile and maybe $200. Now it will cost you from $10,000 to $15,000 to get a competitive tractor."
Not everyone has welcomed the growth of tractor pulling into a nationally organized sport, with$50,000 machines competing for prizes on a circuit that can cover a dozen states over an eight-month season. Many of the pullers say they came to this sport after being priced out of other, increasingly expensive automotive sports like stock car and drag racing. Now they see costly competitors threatening their last refuge.
"You are looking at some mighty high money out there," said Jim Kendle, a 40-year-old maintenance man for a concrete block company in Hagerstown, Md., who sees little irony in his own helicopter turbine-powered tractor bearing an advertisement for Stroh's beer.
"I can understand why some of the pullers are upset: This has always been a real down-home event," says Hoff, who is considered one of the top two builders of tractor-pulling engines in the country. "But from the sport's point of view the change is not a bad thing. Big tractors are what the spectator wants to see and the spectator pays for all of this."
On Saturday, a few thousand people paid $3.50 each to watch mini, modified and stock tractors pull sleds down a 100-yard track. For two hours the fairgoers forsook the world's only Woman Pin Cushion, the Elephant Skin Boy, Black Jack the Super Steer (10,000 Hamburgers on the Hoof) and other midway attractions to witness an ear-shattering struggle between internal combustion and inertia.
Even the best of the breeds fishtailed and bucked up on knobby back wheels as they pulled their weight from start to finish down the wet dirt track. A few stopped dead after a flash of spark or the grinding sound of an expensive engine pulling apart.
One class in each of the weekend's four shows was reserved for standard, straight-off-the-farm tractors. Most of the machines had never seen a row of corn. Built for pulling power, even the smallest models seemed capable of dragging an oak tree through a pine forest.
"I'm not crazy about speed, but I do like power," said Dennis Shenk, 26, who runs a printing press in Luray, Va., during the week. On weekends he pulls on a helmet that identifies him as a "Grape Ape," climbs on top of a twin-engined lavender machine that looks as much like a tractor as a biplane does a Lear jet, and takes a ride that he cannot get anywhere else.
The price paid by pullers for that ride varies. Owen, whose minitractor resembles a hot rod dragster with tractor wheels, claims he has not put a wrench to his "Bumer" in the last five years. The other extreme is the Peanut Queen, owned by B. H. Goodrich, a 42-year-old Wakefield farmer who reportedly paid $40,000 for his black beauty, sporting 2,500 horsepower in a pair of aluminum Rodeck engines that burn five gallons of methanol fuel in 15 seconds.
"There's no limit to what you can do if you have the money," says J.J. Hall, a 19-year-old high school senior from Harrisonburg, Va., whose father was a stock car mechanic. Hall brought two minitractors to the competition, the "Boss Hogg" and the "Fat Rat", with enough horsepower in each to pull a fleet of school buses.
Prizes offered to the top finishers in each of 12 divisions added up to $12,500, but that money was spread so thin the first place finishers received a maximum of $250 each.
"If you win every event you might make gas money," said Owen, raising his voice and covering his ears as another tractor fired off the starting line in a cloud of dirt clods and a motorized scream.
"I done learned a long time ago," he said, "to put my fingers in my ears."