They packed the grandstands July 17, just as they always do for the grand finale of the Cass County Fair. After five days of carnival rides, livestock contests and rodeo, fairgoers come back one more night for a rush of high-horsepower, smoke-belching entertainment.
The fair in Pleasant Hill always ends with the truck and tractor pull, and on this sweltering night a total of 62 tractors and souped-up pickup trucks put on an ear-splitting show pulling thousands of pounds as far as they could.
It’s the muscle and noise that keeps spectators and competitors alike coming back for more.
“It’s the horsepower and the way they take off … the RPMs and the noise,” said Jason Gudde, president of the Missouri State Tractor Pullers Association. “Sometimes a tractor will get a little bit wild and swerve down the track. Everybody’s always looking for an explosion or something wild to happen, that’s a pretty big deal too.”
Gudde’s association oversees 19 events (or “pulls”) in three states. The rules are simple: hook your tractor or truck up to the sled and see how far you can pull it. Prize-winning pulls, in most classes, are usually around 300 feet.
The sled – which looks like a flatbed trailer with a tractor cab and engine on its back – weighs 30,000 pounds and has a transfer weight box on the flatbed carrying bricks weighing a ton each. The pull is over when the transfer box goes from the back of the sled to the front.
There are seven classes for tractors and four for pickups, all with varying degrees of horsepower and modifications. Light pro field tractors generally have to have factory rear ends and are limited to 3,000 RPMs at full throttle.
And the pickup trucks, which create some of the most deafening noise, are powered by engines a touch more powerful than the ones that rolled off the assembly line.
“Some of them are pushing 1,200 (horsepower),” Gudde said. “A thousand is pretty common.”
But the biggest and baddest machine of the night belonged to Scott Bracken of Pleasant Hill. Bracken’s 7,400-pound Outlaw - which competes in the modifieds class and resembles a big dragster more than a farm implement – sports two Chrysler Hemi engines that crank out a combined 5,000 horsepower.
“My dad started out with two engines back in the day and we’ve always ran two engines,” Bracken said. “This winter I built him a tractor for himself with a single engine. So he’s back to pulling with a single engine and I’ve stuck with a twin.”
Bracken’s father, Jim Bracken, first started pulling in 1976, the year Scott Bracken was born. Like many in this sport, the pulling bug was handed down from father to son.
“When I graduated high school me and my brother got his old tractor out and started pulling again,” Bracken said. “Then my brother got smart and quit, and I got smart and then started again.”
Bracken could have hooked up a third engine to the Outlaw, but that would mean traveling farther to find competition. The week before he was in Minnesota for a pull; this time got to compete just six minutes from home. He’s been a regular at the Cass County Fair since 2003.
“You can have 10 bad runs in a row and all it takes is one good run and you’re ready to spend more money and go again,” Bracken said. “That’s the way it works.”
Pulling has been a family tradition for Mike Koehler of Harrisonville, too. Koehler first started pulling when he was 16 – 50 years ago.
“Everybody’s got a hobby or something they’re really interested in,” Koehler said. “There were several around home that pulled that were older than I was and they’d take me along show me the ropes.”
Koehler was competing in the 9500 Pro Field division on Reborn Red, which he built on a chassis he bought in Tennessee 10 years ago. Over that time he’s built and rebuilt the engine to keep up with the competition.
Koehler will tell you Reborn Red maxes out at the 3,500 RPM limit for his class. But don’t ask him just how much power he has.
“Oh, nobody wants to tell what their horsepower is, but it’s easily 10 times what it was out of the factory,” Koehler said. “And factory was 120 horses, so that gives you an idea.”
The smoke and the noise have always appealed to Koehler, too. But there’s something else that keeps him traveling to events in Missouri, Iowa and Kansas – the camaraderie of his fellow competitors.
“You get to running with a group of guys and good competition makes you better,” Koehler said. “Other guys have a better mousetrap than you do, so you try to get yours to catch up. And then if you do they try to get theirs caught up. A lot of these guys I pull with it’s getting close to being 20 years.”
While the Cass County Fair event brings in a good crowd and a good number of entries, Gudde said support for tractor pulls can be spotty. Participation did slack off for a time, but he’s seen the interest starting to grow again.
“My hometown pull in Holden, we’ve had a big surge in crowds the last two years,” Gudde said. “The crowds have been outstanding.”
And that should keep Koehler, and everyone else hooked on the sound and fury of their mighty machines, in pursuit of places to pull.
“I don’t have a boat or go to the lake,” Koehler said. “I don’t play golf. So this is kind of my recreation.”