LOUISVILLE, Ohio – The application came in September.
Danny and Kevin Schmucker wracked their brains, reliving the season’s highlights and listing placings from tractor pulls all summer long.
The men filled in their tractor’s name, tire size, driver’s jacket size, listed who would be part of their pit crew if they were chosen to pull in Louisville.
They mailed the paperwork, crossed their fingers, and went back to their farmwork.
The application fell into a pool with about 600 others. Only the best of the best from across the U.S. would get the coveted invitation to pull at the championship tractor pull in February. Two of every three tractors and trucks whose owners applied would never make the trip.
At the end of October, both Schmuckers started watching their mailbox along Lynnhaven Avenue like hawks.
They knew what time the mailman would pull up and flip the lid of the mailbox with the John Deere tractor on top. Whoever was closest to the house would rush to the box, hoping for news on their application.
Their wait ended in early November. Danny called Kevin, who was combining corn nearby, while he tore into the envelope.
The Schmuckers’ invitation to Louisville had arrived.
* * *
The madness started on a pedal tractor.
Ever since he was 3 – that’s been 19 years now – Danny Schmucker has been right alongside his father, Kevin, at the granddaddy of tractor pulls.
The Schmuckers turned the trip to Louisville into the family’s vacation, one where mom Debbie and sister Kellie could shop in the city while the boys tinkered with tractors and looked around the National Farm Machinery Show.
Kevin took his pro-stock, Rampage. Danny took his pedal tractor, its side emblazoned with the same decal as Dad’s.
Danny drove his tractor into the hearts of those in the pits. Almost every person there – pullers, their families, their crews, even some fans – met the tyke as he made his rounds, Debbie recalls.
They watched him wrench on his tractor, took snapshots that are still stowed inside pulling trailers and toolboxes, watched him grow.
And every year at the pull, when Kevin went to the line for his run down the track, the announcer would go talk to Danny.
His perennial question: “When’s it gonna to be your turn to drive?”
* * *
At 16, Kevin Schmucker started drag racing with another dairy farmer friend, Mark Thomas.
Thomas stuck with it, winning world championships in the International Hot Rod Association. Schmucker, though, decided drag racing wasn’t a good fit. He took his dad’s John Deere 4020 and became a tractor puller instead.
“I was always turning and hopping that thing up at home. We’d change tires on it and go to a pull on Saturday, and have to have it back and ready to mow hay on Monday,” he reminisces.
In 1981, Kevin and brother Larry bought a JD 4430, their first tractor strictly for pulling. That same week, Kevin bought an engagement ring for Debbie.
By the time Danny came along in 1984, the brothers were running the cross-county circuit with the machine they called Rampage.
The tractor went on to win the Louisville championship pull in 2002. The family got two more pulling seasons out of it, selling it right after Louisville in 2004. They turned around and built a brand new Rampage.
At its first pull, in Tiffin, the JD 7920 won right out of the box. The Schmuckers knew they had something good.
* * *
Snow was coming.
Danny and Kevin rushed to finish the job that began two weeks earlier, stowing more tools, spare parts, fuel and clothes into compartments and pushing their pickup truck into the tractor trailer.
It was only Monday; the pull didn’t start until Wednesday. But no one knew what the six-hour drive from Louisville, Ohio, to Louisville, Ky., might bring.
Reports came of freezing rain above Cincinnati. Forecasters started calling this storm the ’07 Valentine’s Day blizzard. Already treacherous roads were worsening. But they had to go, had to hold their spot in the pull.
Kevin and Danny pulled the rig out of the driveway at 5:30 p.m. and headed south.
* * *
This year is Danny’s turn: He’ll take his first shot at pulling in Kentucky, his first time pulling indoors on a short track.
All sorts of advice and worry fly through his mind.
He thinks back to his dad’s run three years ago. Same place, same tractor, wrong gear. The results were horrendous. He’ll never forget that one.
Just making the Saturday night finals is the goal, Danny remembers. Placing there is icing on the cake.
He thinks back to something Dad said two weeks ago, one night at home in the shop while the two were getting everything ready for the trip to Louisville.
“Let’s repeat last year,” Kevin said.
“Yeah, right,” Danny had muttered.
* * *
Danny’s first-place finish in the Friday prelims put him in the Saturday night finals, the big show, with the big boys.
But then he drew the No. 12 spot. The last spot. He wasn’t happy; the track’s condition typically goes downhill during a pull, gets dug up and soft.
The 10,200-pound pro-stocks are the last in line to pull in the finals. Before Danny’s pass, 71 other tractors had been down the track.
He had legitimate concerns.
* * *
In front of 20,000 roaring fans from around the globe packed inside Broadbent Arena, Danny slipped into his fireproof suit and strapped into Rampage’s driver’s seat.
It was 11:30 p.m. Saturday. He was buzzing on adrenaline, that antsy feeling 20-something guys get when they’re surrounded by raw horsepower.
He sat alone, the vibrations from the tractor’s rumbling idle shaking his joints. Waiting, watching for signs from his pit man, his father.
His other helper – the exhaust stack on top of the tractor in front of him – would be no use. To protect the bystanders, indoor pulling rigs have to blow their exhaust into a black pipe that hangs above the tractor. Watching the color and intensity of the smoke bellowing from the stack couldn’t offer clues this time.
He’d have to rely completely on the tachometer, the gauges, the beating of his heart and that innate feeling of timing, to tell him when to throw the throttle into full speed, get off that clutch and race down the track.
“You may never get this opportunity ever again. Stand on this thing!” Kevin shouted.
The green flag waved. Schmucker’s foot slid from the clutch. The front end of the tractor lifted and torqued and he propelled forward. The box flew up the sled. The sand pile stop got closer and closer.
Eleven seconds later, the red flag waved.
Just like a pro.
* * *
In the 15 years 10,200-pound pro-stock tractors have been running the track at the Louisville championships, no tractor has ever posted back-to-back wins. Until this year.
Kevin Schmucker in 2006. Danny Schmucker in 2007.
After his Saturday night full pull, Danny and two other pullers went back for a pull off. He topped them the second time around, too, besting second place by 11 feet.
Kevin went 10 years before even winning a class in Louisville. His son’s story is completely different. Danny Schmucker surprised a lot of people with his win his first time around.
That guy who had posted on an online message board that Rampage was invited to Louisville with an inexperienced driver? He posted again soon after the pull was over, taking back his words.
He was wrong, big time, Danny says. A lot of people were wrong about what might have happened.
Rampage and the Schmuckers went to Louisville with one thing in mind. And they came home with the crystal trophy and cash prize as their reward.
* * *
Neither Schmucker is letting the tractor sit untouched.
Just because the machine has never been beaten in the Super Bowl of tractor pulls doesn’t mean it’s perfect, that it won’t be beaten by another rookie at some other pull in the middle of the Corn Belt this season.
“We can’t stop moving forward or we’ll fall behind,” Kevin says.
So the duo is right back at it, getting ready for the summer pull circuit, tweaking the engine and doing the little routine maintenance things that keep Rampage moving full-speed ahead.
It’s a lot of work for an 11-second ride down the track.
But it’s all for fun … and oh, one other thing: That 2008 invitation to Louisville.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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