The rumble of the engines, the belching black smoke and the undeniable power of pulling competitions make them a staple of many fairs and events through the summer and fall months. Diesel fuel powers the machines but it is the spirit of competition that fuels the events, said Joe Singer, president of the Darke County Tractor Pullers Association.
“It’s like a drug. Once you get that in your system to be a competitor, you are going to do it — ‘black smoke ‘til I’m broke.’ It’s an addiction, within reason. I’m not saying that it is bad, but you can get hooked on it. When I pulled a little, we took four antique and farm stock tractors. All four tractors won the championship of their classes two years in a row. It was all about the competition. That’s what makes the world go ‘round,” Singer said. “When you start talking about the national level competitions, it is the same bunch of people that run the circuit. You run into them at each national event, and even some regional events over and over again. A lot of the good competitors travel all over the country to compete against each other. Some even share trailers and they may be the best of friends off the track but they try to beat each other on the track at every event. They loan parts off of their vehicles to help a fellow competitor out, but they are still focused on competing. That is just the way it is. It is a good bunch of people.”
Of course, the trucks, tractors and drivers get all of the attention at the pulls, but the excitement would not be possible without the sleds. Singer is the owner of Singer Sled Rental in Darke County and has a fairly unique perspective on pulling competitions in the region after a lifetime around tractor pulls and decades of working behind the scenes.
“I never really did a lot of pulling but I have always had an interest since I was really little. My dad always made sure we’d go watch. He never pulled but he liked to spectate and help put the event on,” Singer said. “We were putting on an event and a sled operator came in and asked if I knew anyone who wanted to purchase a sled. I made him an offer and it went from there and before long I owned a worn out, older pulling sled. That was in 2000 and it allowed me to get started. We have since rebuilt and purchased other sleds. That first one cost $30,000, but today if you buy one they are $300,000 for a new one and that doesn’t include weights, the truck to pull it, scales or any of that.”
Singer farms full time with his brother and spends his winters hauling grain and scheduling events. The majority of his summers are spent on the road at pulls in Ohio, Indiana and surrounding states.
“We have 108 events booked for this year. Scheduling is tough because we do all that from December through April. You have to not only book the dates but you have to see if you can physically make it from one event to the next one and back to another one. Some events I can get there, but I can’t get back in time,” he said. “It gets tough in the spring because of planting season. Scheduling events in May and the first of June is always hectic, but you need to schedule events then to make the business work. In July we have a lot of pulls during the week because it is prime time fair season. My son runs a sled too. He drives truck for a living and works for a very understanding company. They allow him to take a large number of days off work so that he can be running a sled. I have four other people, with full-time jobs too, that help run the machines as well. I can’t do it alone, I’m too busy. Last year I went 10 miles outside of Wheeling, to the suburbs of Chicago, then to a few miles outside of Tennessee, and finally to Bowling Green, Ohio. I appreciate everyone that helps both on and behind the scenes.”
In addition to the logistics of simply getting from place to place, Singer also must constantly monitor the details required for maintaining the sleds and hauling heavy loads over many miles.
“Most places we take one sled, but there are some venues that take two sleds. Sometimes we take a sled and someone else brings others,” Singer said. “You have to look stuff over after the shows so you are ready to go the next time. Sometimes things break, you can’t help it. You just buckle down, be prepared to fix things and do it all over again the very next day.”
The sleds hook up like a detachable gooseneck trailer.
“I’ve got several semis for this and I use them for the farm work also. A sled weighs 32,000 pounds empty and every weight weighs 2,000 pounds. We carry eight to 11 weights while we are traveling to an event,” Singer said. “An unlimited modified tractor or super semi takes 13 or 14 weights to get them stopped. We can’t carry enough weight legally to stop some of this stuff. Normally if you’re at an event with that type of vehicle, there are two sleds there so you can borrow weights back and forth.”
Though the appeal of pulling has always been the power and competition, there have been changing trends through the years.
“Pickup trucks are very popular. The kids today didn’t grow up on John Deere 4020s and International 806s like we did, but they can relate to that pickup truck. Every kid, boy or girl, in rural America drives a pickup truck to school or wants one. They relate to trucks,” Singer said. “Personally, I like the tractors the best, but that is what I grew up with. Even the kids on farms that plant beans with a four-wheel drive tractor don’t relate that to a pulling tractor going down the track. But they relate to that pickup truck they drove home with. That is the trend of the future — trucks.”
The agricultural economy also has a significant influence on the popularity of pulls.
“There is a lot of agriculture involved with pulling. When agriculture is good, pulling is very good. When prices are lower, like now, numbers fall off,” he said. “Events, competitors, and audiences change from year to year and you just have to adapt.”
The high dollar game of pulling competitions also depends on the success of the events that hold them.
“For fairs, it can be tough to draw spectators during the week and it takes spectators to pay the bills. Fairs need to make as much money as possible to pay the bills, and the way they do that is by getting people through the gate,” Singer said. “There are sponsorships, which are great and are helpful, but they do not cover everything.”
And while the crowd is cheering the pullers on the track, Singer enjoys the satisfaction of seeing his sleds perform the way they should night after night.
“I love the speed and the competition and trying to get the machines set so the fans, pullers, and promoters get the results they want. It’s a delicate balance. If it is a 300-foot track I need to get them stopped in that range. You don’t want them stopping at 180 feet or 400 feet, so you have to know how to set your machine for each class that’s pulling. We have standard settings that we use and then we go from there changing the gears, changing the drop on the pan, adding a weight or taking a weight out,” he said. “That is what my job is to get that desired result for the track.”
And once the smoke clears and the dust settles Singer loves to be a part of pulling because of the people.
“It is in my blood. My son was born going to pulls right away. My wife goes to some events and helps and thinks it is fun,” he said. “There are so many family and friends that help out along the way I couldn’t do it without them, from late night mechanical work, to the laser measurers who can’t move all day, and the numerous secretarial duties, everyone is greatly needed and appreciated. My best friends are in the pulling community, whether they are officials or competitors. These are people I know, people I like and this is where my family and friends are.”