ESPN won't be at this event, the culmination of the Pennzoil Cup. Corporate advertisers won't waste their time on the 60,000 people who will converge on the Wood County Fairgrounds this weekend. While you can sell national audiences the speed of NASCAR and the death-defying stunts of dirt bikers, it's not easy televising a farm tractor pulling a sled at 20 miles per hour. First-place winners are happy to take home $1,000.
But ask any farm boy here, and he'll get damn near poetic on you. "Some people will never like it, never understand it," says Marshall Thompson, whose parents started bringing him here from the family's nearby farm when he was a baby. "You use [a tractor] every day, and you want to see what they can do on the extreme end."
That would be Dave Snyder. His tractor, the "Space Invader," packs 11,000 horsepower, generated by three turbine engines taken off military-surplus helicopters. He built the frame from logging skids and parts taken from semi trucks. It looks like a cross between a dragster and a locomotive engine.
"This sport is the world's most powerful motor sport," says Snyder, a surly guy walking around in a crash helmet.
Snyder's a living legend, or as much as you can be in a sport only talked about in one-stoplight towns. Your worth here is judged in horsepower and cubic inches, and Snyder brings more than anybody else. But that power can be dangerous. In a tent by the elephant-ear stand, a television replays one of his infamous crashes, when a fuel line burst, engulfing him in flames. "Things do go wrong," he says.
Now Snyder's 17-year-old daughter, Nicole -- a bubbly, down-home blonde -- is carrying on the family tradition. Last year she started racing her dad's other tractor, "The Legend," a slightly toned-down version of the Space Invader (it only has two jet engines). For a teenage girl, she talks about the experience with as much soul as the old-timers.
"It's me and the tractor," Nicole says of the 12 seconds it takes to complete a pull. "It's, like, my time to prove myself, my time to make it down that track and maybe beat a few guys."
Tonight Snyder and daughter will tow their tractors to the track, hook them up to a sled weighing over 62,000 pounds, and flare up the afterburners, shooting flames 30 feet in the air. After that, it's pretty much a crapshoot. All you can do is try to get the front tires off the ground and stay as straight as possible. As you move down the track, a weight on the sled moves forward, causing heavy blades to dig into the dirt, eventually stopping the tractor. The point is to make it all the way to the end of the 310-foot track, a feat known as a "full pull."
Talk to any driver, and they'll tell you about the first time they sat underneath that roll cage, with so much horsepower rattling around them it felt like being stuffed in a paint-shaker. For Mark Shepherd, a bear-size man in sleeveless shirt, that day was last week. "I wanted to do this since I was 10 years old," he says over the roar of his John Deere. Now, 46 years later, he's finally going for it. "You can't take it with you." Minutes later he's popping a wheelie down the track, blowing smoke so thick you could hold it with a spoon.
Of course, there's more to the pull than the wistful musings of gearheads. Promoters had the foresight years ago to split the fairgrounds in half. There's the north side, where the families go. And then there's the south side, where the ground is covered with empty Jell-O-shot containers and beer cans.
"I got a turkey on my head," says a guy with a plastic turkey lawn ornament on his head, Mardi Gras beads around his neck, and a sticker that reads "I [heart] Hooters." Asked what he loves about the pull, the man prefers to pantomime. "Whoo, whoo, whoo," he coos, lifting up his shirt. "What happens at Bowling Green stays at Bowling Green."
To the chagrin of many fans, the cops have cracked down on the once wild parties that raged here. "I remember when women used to write 'Full Pull' on their tits," fan Nick Miller recalls sadly. But not to worry, he says. "You'll experience a lot of stuff here tonight."
One of the long-standing traditions here is the "Boob-O-Meter." While it's slightly less sophisticated than the machinery on the track, a group of middle-aged men from upstate New York are no less proud of their garage invention, a brightly colored piece of plywood bored with different sized holes and signed lovingly by the lucky ladies who have filled those holes. "We got a pair of little ones last night," says an old man with gray hair and knee-high socks.
If things go well tonight, they may even find a willing candidate for the "Beaver-Meter," located, not surprisingly, just below the Boob-O-Meter. Beavers, explains one man with a '70s porn mustache, are not measured, just admired. "Shaved, nonshaved -- any beaver's a good beaver," he says matter-of-factly.
Just then, the men look up in excitement as a group of girls walks by. "Hey, come on over and get measured!" invites one of the men. The girls giggle, but keep walking. Maybe it's still too early, suggests one man. But, hell, they've got cold beer, a hot grill, and souped-up tractors.
This is already paradise.