Grassroot racing

A weekend with the french tractor pulling scene

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Despite a total absence of media coverage, tractor pulling is getting increasingly popular within rural communities that are struggling harder every day. Welcome to a world of mud and fury.

Words and photos : Max Rosenfeld

The idea behind tractor pulling is a rather simple one : a tractor has to pull a trailer (weighed down by a ballast) along a 100 m dirt track. Over that distance, the ballast in the trailer is winched up until it sits right above the anchor, digging it into the ground. The deeper it goes, the harder it is for the tractor to make progress. The winner is therefore the one who pulls the most weight over the long distance, without stopping of course.

During the last weekend of august, a crowd of serious agricultural machinery enthusiasts gathered in a field for the challenging Championnat du Loiret event. It was unbearably hot, the music was of dubious taste, but no one seemed to be too bothered : they were there to see men and women fight for the title.

Everything you see here is of course custom made machinery, built for the purpose by the driver and a bunch of his farmer friends. There is very little finesse on display, encouraging your eyes to feast on some rather brutal craftsmanship instead. Let me introduce you to the “Wolverine”, which is fitted with a 500 horsepower straight-eight Rolls-Royce engine mated to a John Deere differential ; the “Mack” can make up to a 1000 horsepower thanks to it’s 14 litre engine and a massive Garrett turbocharger ; and how about this unlikely V6 powered Nissan Gloria Cima imported from Japan and fitted with the gearings of a post-WWII Ford tractor. It’s all about recycling, skilled DIY and keeping racing cheap.

One could be tempted to see these tractors dragging their heavy burdens as a metaphor of the psychological and financial difficulties many farmers have to cope with, but that’s probably going a step too far. To be honest, after a few hours spent observing, it just looks like a rather unique hobby, and a great way to let off some steam on the weekend.

Jimmy Dameme, today’s winner, runs a John Deere and participates with his family. He tells us about his day :

How does a tractor pulling victory feel ?
It feels great ! After a year of hard work spent on competing and preparing the machines… All the little details, the bodywork, it kept us pretty occupied. We go the tractor finished just in time and it ran well !

Is there any personal preparation involved ?
Not really. You need to know your machine, weather conditions can have a lot of influence… I’ve been doing this for thirty years now, so I know how works : weather, tire pressure, speed… You don’t just get in and go. There are quite a few parameters that come into play, such as the height of the towing bar. There’s a limit to how high it can be, but it depends on the gearing. Depending on the type of ground, tire pressure can be really important too. Then it’s all about the knowledge you have of your machine, getting the gearing right for the terrain and the load you’re hauling.

What do you do for a living ?
I’m a project manager for an engineering office. I design specialised machinery for the weapon and the aeronautic industry.

Is your goal to compete at a higher level or do you intend to stay a hobbyist?
It’s a hobby and it’s my choice for it to stay so. I tried competing in some european level events held in France, it always ended up being about money. Some drivers will buy a fully built machine abroad, pay mechanics to keep it running… So all the guys are capable of, is turning the key and going, but they’re not even all that good at it. So I decided to stay where I am and have a good time.

What tips would give to a newcomer in tractor pulling?
We build everything from A to Z. We pick an engine, a transmission and a front axle from something else, and we put it all together with the rest. The chassis is homemade, so are the brackets for the transmission and the engine. They have to be. My job involves mechanics, and it’s the same for my father, but it’s not the case for everyone. People come from various backgrounds, and clubs such as the Association Sportive de Traction Agricole are really great support. The community is always willing to help and will even provide parts if it helps a beginner to get started. And remember, there is no age limit to be a beginner!