GOSHEN — Diehard tractor pull fans know there are two words to remember at every event — “hearing protection.”
Ears up and down the track at the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds were plugged with foam or covered with muffs Thursday as tricked-out tractors pulling weighted sleds burned fuel and elevated the decibels.
“It’s a whole lot of horsepower on a set of rails and big tires,” said driver Steve Kier of Missouri as he used a dusting brush in the infield to put the final shine on his limited pro stock tractor, The Midnight Screamer. Kier and fellow drivers Jeff Lance and Rod Schottel made the trip to the fair together, hauling their tractors in a semi rig. It was Kier’s first visit to the local fair.
“It looks like it’s even bigger than the Missouri State Fair,” Kier said.
Across the infield, driver Steve Bunnage was relaxing near his massive, four-engine unlimited super modified tractor, which didn’t look like anything that could plow a field. The Takes A Lickin machine is powered by four V-8 custom-made Hemi engines that produce 10,000 horsepower, according to crew member Jerry Jones.
Bunnage runs the machine on the Lucas Oil Pro Pullers League tour. He currently sits in second place. After his runs Thursday night at the fair the crew was set to pack up and drive to Evansville for a pulling event there today.
“It’s about like a family on the road,” Bunnage said of the pullers league. “Every puller will help you get on the track. Nobody wants to beat you unless you’re on the track.”
Bunnage has been pulling for about 20 years and learned the sport watching and helping his father, who was involved in the sport for about 40 years. So he has visited the local fair many times.
“There’s a lot more people here,” Bunnage said, in comparison with some of the other venues to which he travels.
He also appreciates all the work that goes into converting the harness-racing track — which is kept soft for the horses — into a more firm surface for the massive, tire-churning rigs that need to grip the dirt to win.
That reconstruction effort began at the end of the Hunter Hayes concert Wednesday night, according to Cork Wagner, the chairman of the fair’s tractor pull committee. The work was to continue after the pull as the racetrack dirt is replaced before everyone goes home.
Wagner was watching the event unfold from the grandstands stage, and without hearing protection.
“That’s what your fingers are for,” he said with a big laugh.
A volunteer crew of dozens worked overnight to remove the surface from the horse track and compact the ground to make it ready for the tractors, according to Wagner. And as the sun rose over the infield Thursday, Wagner arrived. But four fans had beaten him to the track and were seated in the grandstands.
By the 8 a.m. race time, the grandstands were nearly filled. The popularity of the event is a sea change that Wagner said has occurred during his 40 years of connection to the event.
“Over the years we went from one of the worst days of the Elkhart County Fair to one of the best at the Elkhart County Fair,” Wagner said.
That popularity extends way beyond the few thousands who packed the local stands. Wagner said the event may be broadcast at a later date on CBS. Drivers said the event will also appear on the cable channel MAV TV.
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