Tom Ross: Is there no end to obscure cult sports?
Greetings from the Haddam Neck Junior Lawn and Garden Tractor Pull
Many of America’s newspaper columnists spent the first week in September at home relaxing while sifting through their notes and reminiscing about the recently concluded Summer Olympic Games in Athens. Not I. When the call came from the editor asking whether I could be on the next plane to Connecticut, I leapt at the opportunity. I had just received my dream assignment — my editor had chosen moi to cover the junior division of the lawn and garden tractor pull at the Haddam Neck Fair. OK, it wasn’t really an assignment. I was actually on vacation. But I can’t help myself. I have this compulsion about interviewing strangers. So, here we go. Haddam Neck is a small rural community on an oddly shaped peninsula of land on the east bank of the Connecticut River near the confluence with Pocotopaug Creek. It is fewer than 15 miles from Long Island Sound. It’s an area of dense hardwood forests bisected with old stone fences that were built before the Revolutionary War by guys wearing tri-corner hats.
This is also lawn and garden tractor country. I don’t mean to say that I traveled 2,500 miles because I wanted to observe how people in this part of the Nutmeg State rely on garden tractors to get their chores done. However, they certainly do just that, because the typical lawn in this part of Connecticut seems to average 3 acres in size (Who needs such a big lawn?) Instead, I’m referring to the growing American subculture comprising people whose hobby it is to find and restore period garden tractors. Once they’ve souped up these old draft horses, they test them in competition by seeing who can pull a half-ton of dead weight the farthest across the fairgrounds. I had grown intrigued with the notion that a humble lawn and garden tractor could be elevated to the stature usually reserved in our society for monster trucks and nitro fueled funny cars. And so it was, on Sept. 4 that I drove my rented Pontiac up to the entrance at the Haddom Neck Fairgrounds and flashed my Colorado press badge. The lady who stood in the middle of the road wearing a change apron gave me a blank look. “Excuse me, ma’am, could you direct me to the press parking lot and the working media tent?” I asked politely.
She giggled at me and said, “Admission is $7.” There went my per diem. Indignant, I drove off to park in a muddy field. But soon, all that was forgotten as I thrilled at the sight of the dairy goat showmanship competition, and a little later, at the jumping frog exhibition. It was then that I recognized the throaty roar of a vintage 14 hp Wheel Horse garden tractor straining against its burden somewhere on the other side of the fairgrounds.
I sprinted across the lawn just in time to seen the nose of Casey Noiseux’s vintage Wheel Horse come off the ground as it strained against the sled. After his run, I grabbed Casey, 9, for a quick interview. “How did you acquire such a powerful antique lawn and garden tractor?” I asked him.
“Last Christmas I wrote a letter to Santa Claus and asked him for a Cub Cadet, but I didn’t get it,” he replied. “Instead I got a Wheel Horse.” Bad Santa!
Indeed, yellow and white Cub Cadet tractors from the 1960s and 1970s dominated the competition. But Casey’s red and gray Wheel Horse was also a popular choice.
Both models of tractors are sought after by lawn and garden tractor pull aficionados because they are equipped with rugged Kohler engines (from Sheboygan, Wis., of course). The Kohler engines have a cast-iron engine block, which is favored over aluminum blocks. The lighter engine blocks can exhibit undesirable signs of torque under extreme pulling conditions and heat, which in turns robs them of compression and thus, power. There is a lot more to learn about lawn and garden tractor pulls. Steve McKinney patiently explained to me that modern tractors aren’t as desirable because they have so many plastic parts that just don’t stand up to the strain of competition.
John Amago of Portland Power Equipment told me that while competitors in the youth divisions cannot modify their tractors, those in the adult division have been known to experiment with exotic fuel mixtures and even mount modern snowmobile engines to their tractors. This made me wonder whether a Cub Cadet could be converted into a back country snowmobile. There seems to be no limit to the new sports Americans invent. I don’t know about you, but I find that curiosity and ingenuity a source of endless fascination.
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.
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