These are not your granddaddy's tractors. Well, they may be, but they've been worked on some.
Chrome stacks, bored-out motors and gleaming paint jobs featuring hot-rod flames and screaming eagles were the order of the day Friday at the 35th annual Kiwanis tractor pull in Burlington Junction.
The yearly event draws a couple of thousand people from all over the four-state region to the tiny west-county town. A large parking lot's worth of flatbed trailers and cargo trucks bring in dozens of modified tractors, lovingly souped up by farmers, mechanics and hobbyists, all of whom think their machine is the baddest thing on dirt.
And it's all for love, not money. Professional tractor pulling exists, but not in Burlington Junction. And it's not a poor man's hobby. Many competitors spend hundreds of dollars on gasoline alone just getting to the pull. And that doesn't include the expense and time of rebuilding motors and lovingly maintaining machines that will never plow a single foot of black dirt.
Instead, most of the money raised at the pull goes back into the community: Boys State delegates, youth nutrition programs, the city park and the Hoof & Horn Saddle Club all benefit.
Tractor pulls have been around since the late 1920s, but didn't really become an established motorsport until the 1950s. In those days at county fairs and summer festivals all over the country farmers would literally drive their tractors in from the field and hook them up to a big sledge.
As the tractor pulled the sledge down an improvised dirt track, overalls-clad men would jump aboard what amounted to a wagon without wheels. The tractor that pulled the sledge furthest won.
That's pretty much the way it was still done when the Burlington Junction Kiwanis Club member Bobby Hagey put together the first BJ tractor pull in 1978.
But over the years, the competition has grown into a sanctioned event with an official 300-foot track, down which tractors pull a contraption called a weight transfer sled. This is essentially a big trailer rigged with a huge iron plate. As the tractor progresses, the plate slides forward from above the rear axle, gradually adding resistance.
Like all motorsports, the attraction comes from an almost mystical fusion of man and machine. Just having the biggest motor isn't enough.
While powering down the track, the driver has to achieve just the right combination of gearing and acceleration to drag sled the maximum distance possible. Victory is often determined by fractions of inches.
For the Hagey family, which farms about 5,000 acres, the thrill and skill of operating big machinery is a legacy. Bobby is retired from pulling, but his son Ron competes, as does his son Dylon and nephew Deryk.
But Bobby is the legend, and gets due recognition from the announcer when the family's entry "Son of a Buck," a modified John Deere 7810, comes to the line.
Page 2 of 2 - "It gets in your blood," he says, looking on from a trackside lawn chair. "You need something to do in the summer, so you go to the tractor pull. We used to use them (tractors) in the field and then pull at night, but now you have to have one to farm with and one to pull."