SPRING MILLS, Pa. — When someone says that they pull tractors, the common assumption is that they mean full-size farm tractors. But spend a Saturday evening in Centre County, Pa., and you’ll quickly learn that tractors of a different kind are the draw.
Garden tractors. Yes, these are the same kind of machine that everyday homeowners use to tend their lush green lawns. Take the mower deck off, make a few modifications, and that same tractor can pull 1,000 pounds or more.
Last Saturday, Aug. 17, Thunder Road Tractor Pulls hosted the second of its three summer events with dozens of tractors registered to pull.
Thunder Road is owned and operated by Kevin Stitzer and his parents, Nevin and Betsy. A tractor puller himself, Kevin saw a need for a track in his area, one that pullers loved, respected and wanted to attend.
After getting started in 2006, Thunder Road Tractor Pulls has achieved Kevin’s hopes.
“As the sun goes down, this track just gets better,” puller James Imes, Juniata County, Pa., said. “A lot of people don’t realize the work they (the Stitzers) put into it.”
All of Thunder Road’s events begin in the evening and can last till midnight or later. The later start time suits contestants for two main reasons. One, the pull doesn’t take up their entire Saturday. And two, without sun to contend with, the track remains firm and more suitable for pulling.
For pulls “that start at 10 a.m., the track just gets worse with the sun beating down on it,” Imes said.
Besides having to create their own track and the needed publicity to generate interest, the Stitzers bought and modified their own pulling sled. A sled is a metal apparatus that’s hooked to the tractor and pulled behind it. The sled holds thousands of pounds of weight and slides across the track until the tractor simply can’t pull it any further. Nevin rides on the sled and monitors the distance of the pull.
While some sleds are self-propelled — they can return to the starting line under their own power — the Thunder Road sled is not. Therefore, a pullback tractor is needed and a local Best Line dealership donates the machine.
The clay track, which is more than 250 feet long, was used for eight classes last Saturday — youth stock, pro stock, twins, 14 horsepower altered, 16 horsepower altered, 14 horsepower adult stock, 16 horsepower adult stock and three cylinder and/or diesel.
Before any tractor could set a wheel on the track, it had to be weighed and inspected. Each class has specific requirements, including the combined weight of the tractor, driver and his or her helmet; hitch height; RPM restrictions; horsepower; and more.
Kevin Stitzer’s Thunder Road website, www.ThunderRoadPulling.com, has detailed rules and regulations that he and other local pull organizers established.
With spectators ranging in age from just-born to great-grandparents, the youth class kicked the evening off just after 6 p.m. Ten-year-old Richard Markle from Spring Mills, Pa., drove the first tractor of the evening.
Like the first driver in any class — which is determined through a random drawing — Richard was the sled test driver. After hooking to the sled and pulling three different times, track officials felt that they finally had the correct weight and calibration for the class to continue. Richard returned last, after 12 other drivers, ages 8 to 15.
With most pullers reaching a distance of 120 feet or more, Richard came back last and won the class with a pull of 179 feet, 7 inches.
“I have a lot of fun. I like doing it. I want to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” Richard said after his win.
Between Richard’s first tractor pull last spring and now, he’s been working with his dad, Todd, on rebuilding a 14-horsepower tractor for pulling. Because that tractor isn’t ready to come out of the garage yet, Richard borrowed the 14-horse Cub Cadet of Brad Lear, Lewisburg, Pa.
Lear and his wife, Kathy, have been pulling garden tractors for six years.
“It’s an expensive hobby, but we’ve met a lot of great people,” Kathy said.
Brad explained that tractors like his, which is a single cylinder Kohler engine, aren’t capable of mowing the lawn anymore after they’ve been modified. The tractor Richard drove can handle upwards of 500 pulls, while pro stock — or the really “fancy” remolded tractors — can only take 75 pulls.
While the tractors look basically the same to the untrained eye, one easily detectable change is the seat. There is no cushy leather perch for most of these drivers, just a hard, flat piece of steel or thick plastic. The reason is that the pulling seats allow the drivers to scoot back further, thus distributing their body weight over the back tires and helping with the pulling power of the tractor, Brad Lear said.
After the youth class completed their pulls, the pro stock tractors blazed down the track. Though the pro stock tractors typically run last, the Stitzers changed the schedule to mix things up last Saturday to give them the chance to run before the late night hours.
While he may not have won the class, 72-year-old Claire Waltz, Linden, Pa., proved that even after heart surgery, he can still competitively pull garden tractors.
Even though the exact length of his time in the sport escapes him, Waltz does remember that when he started, pulling garden tractors wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today.
“I really don’t know why I started, other than I enjoy it,” he chuckled. “I’ll retire when I die.”
The tractor Waltz pulled in the pro stock class is named “Pap Pap’s Toy.” He said that he originally built the tractor for his autistic grandchild. He does all of the work on his machines.
Waltz and Markle are like most of the other pullers that were in attendance Saturday night, according to Stitzer’s cousin, Sam, who served as the announcer for the evening, “We’re like one giant family,” he said.
The winners of the tractor pull are as follows:
Thunder Road Tractor Pulls
Youth Stock 1050A
Richard Markle, 179.7 feet
Stock 15-20hp Twins 1050A
Brad Lear, 176.6 feet
14hp Modified Stock 1050A
Dustin Auman, 165.11 feet
Ethan Strouse, 219.11 feet
16hp Modified Stock 1050A
Brad Lear, 192.4 feet
14hp Adult Stock 1050A
Jason Imes, 167.9 feet
16hp Adult Stock 1050A
Todd Markle, 249.7 feet
3 Cylinder/Diesel 1050A
Todd Markle, 223.10 feet
Youth Stock 1050B
Richard Markle, 233.10 feet
Kevin Stitzer, 249.11 feet
Stock 15-20hp Twins 1050B
Brad Lear, 243.00 feet
14hp Modified Stock 1050B
Dustin Auman, 220.00 feet
16hp Modified Stock 1050B
Steve Conn, 256.5 feet
14hp Adult Stock 1050B
Harold Rudy, 188.9 feet
16hp Adult Stock 1050B
Kathy Lear, 259.9 feet
3 Cylinder/Diesel 1050B