BY ANDREW BAILEY
BG Independent Press Correspondent
The first time I heard of the National Tractor Pulling Championships – or any pulling tractor – was during my sophomore winter vacation while working at Wendy’s in Dublin, Ohio.
An older couple walked in and while I was taking their order the woman started chatting with me about where I was going to school. I told him BGSU, and both of their faces lit up.
“Have you been pulling the tractor?” “
I hadn’t, so the husband pulled out a small Polaroid photo from his wallet. It was him standing next to his rig. I couldn’t make heads or tails of all the machines; I didn’t know if it was even a tractor.
They were so excited to talk about it. But my vacant eyes of confusion was a signal that I came from a very different part of Ohio, a rapidly growing city of about 50,000 people where our biggest events are the Memorial Golf Tournament and the Dublin Irish Festival, and my only exposure to rural life is visiting my mother’s family in Vevay, Indiana.
I attended my first draw Thursday and Friday after meeting dozens of Blue Shirts and seeing their work behind the scenes. After a few discussions with them, I realized that I would be getting into a sport unlike anything I had ever seen before.
One of the first things I noticed was the money behind the tractors. Mike Erford, president of the Northwest Ohio Tractor Pullers Association, told me it was “a rich man’s sport”.
“I would do it myself if I could afford it,” he said.
He told me that most tractors have multiple engines of around $ 100,000 each, as well as multiple backups. And that’s just one part of the tractor. For each individual pull, the engines seemed to explode as the tractor pulled the sled as far as it could, which makes six figures for a five second pull during an event.
The wealth gap between competitors and the public is comparable to most other sports, but the major differences lie in two places: the individuality of the shooters and the simplicity of the action.
Unlike football or basketball, tractors do not incorporate multiple sponsors into their designs and do not belong to 30 stakeholders. Shooters don’t have to work under the restrictions of a company that owns them, just shooters’ rules. And they use their own money to build and maintain their rigs. It’s a sport that truly lives in free market capitalism (an apt description I owe to one of my editors, David Dupont).
And the sport itself – where a tractor attaches its rear end to a weighted sled, pulls it and pulls it as far as it can on a straight track – gives traction a low barrier of entry for fans. They just need to understand which division they’re looking at and be able to see the trail.
Most other American sports are complicated, and you have to learn the rules and the history of the teams to enjoy them in the traditional sense. Tractor pull-ups do not have offside, penalty benches, or 10 different positions.
Sport is simple, and that puts the focus on tractors and their extractors. This means that extractors must have an impact to be recognized. Whether it’s a memorable design, a distinct engine sound, or something else to set it apart, the tractors are the star of the show.
While last year’s attraction was sadly canceled due to COVID, it was this year despite the soaring Delta variant. Erford said it happened this year because they were too far into the planning to consider alternatives.
After a year without having the biggest draw in the world, the energy of the crowd was palpable.
And the contempt for the safety of COVID was blatant. I spent about three or four hours at the event over two days, and was able to count the number of masks I saw on both hands.
But it was not a complete crisis in the face of health and safety guidelines. There was a vaccination clinic available. But it will be interesting to compare the number of cases in Wood County before and after the draw.
I was masked at the event and a few people came over and said general anti-mask slogans – “Just build your immune system; “” You’re outside, so take it off; “I can’t hear you with that thing on your face.”
As I walked around the stands, the stands on the south side were mostly event driven and didn’t pay much attention to me, despite my mask making me stand out. But the stalls on the north side of Friday night, known as the “zoo,” were quite different. As I walked up and down the stairs, I could make out several rowdy hecklers screaming drunkenly about my mask, and I got a lot of uncomfortable stares.
As a subculture made up of many like-minded politicians, the attraction was less conservative in appearance than I expected. Despite the anti-mask sentiments, it was a surprisingly political-free area. I only saw a few people wearing political clothes, but nothing other than that.
Overall the event was an experience well worth my time. It was interesting to see, especially since I had never heard of it, although I have been attending BGSU since 2017. I doubt this is something I will ever return to, mainly because of the roars of the engine piercing ears, but it was a brief glimpse into a sport with a fiercely dedicated fan base, and I’m glad fans were able to enjoy the annual attraction after missing it last year.