Attracting competitors and spectators from all across Europe, tractor pulling has turned into a serious business.
To find out more about the sport, James Rickard caught up with Team Whittingham Tractor Pulling as it competed in the North West Tractor Pulling Club’s August Bank Holiday extravaganza.
For most people, operating both a farm and a contracting business would normally be enough to occupy their time.
But for Forton-based father and son team Kevan and Josh Whittingham, the lure of a screaming V12 Griffon and the atmosphere of a capacity crowd is enough for them to make time for both work and their favourite motorsport – tractor pulling.
Consistently competing at a top level, Kevan’s bug for the sport began in 1979, one year after it originally came to the UK.
His first competition tractor was a 1975, N-reg, two-wheel drive, John Deere 3130.
Kevan says: “It was just a standard farm tractor which we used for our contracting business.
“Back then, a lot more conventional tractors used to compete in the sport.
“All we would do to modify it is put our New Holland combines’ tyres on it.”
As the sport evolved and the family’s passion grew, so did the power levels, with Kevan soon turning his hand to custom-built tractors, known in the sport as a Modified.
This included the team’s original ‘Snoopy’ tractor, bought from Mike Cushing. It was powered by a massive 40-litre, V12, Packard marine engine, producing 1,500hp.
Other tractors included the Hooker with a V12 Packard motor, the Martini powered by two Chrysler 383 V8s, Supertramp with four Rover V8s, and the Scorton Firefly and Scorton Scorcher, each featuring two V8 510 Perkins engines.
In the early 1990s, the family also ran Pro Stock tractors – a modified diesel tractor. This was in the form of the French Connection, based on a Renault tractor.
Today’s two-tractor team consists of Snoopy 3, driven by son Josh, and Snoopy 4, driven by Kevan.
Both tractors are powered by twin V12, Rolls Royce Griffon engines.
Kevan says: “Over the years, we have pulled in multiple Modified weight classes, and at one point ran three Modified and one Pro Stock tractor.
“We used to truck these around events in an artic and a sevenand- a-half-tonner, and still never missed the contracting work.”
TEAM Whittingham Tractor Pulling runs two tractors: Snoopy 3, producing in the region of 6,000 to 7,000hp; and Snoopy 4, pumping out between 8,000 and 10,000hp.
Both tractors run two, 36.7-litre, four-valve, V12, Rolls Royce, Mk58 Griffon engines.
Snoopy 3 runs on low lead octane 100LL aviation fuel, more commonly known as av-gas, while Snoopy 4 is an ‘alchy burner’, guzzling on M1 methanol, made up of 100 per cent alcohol.
Featuring a bore and stroke of 152mm (6in), the engines were originally developed in the 1940s and would have spent their working life in a Shackleton bomber.
“As standard, they would have produced 2,450hp and ran at about 2,750rpm all day long,” says Kevan.
“On a run, the sweet spot is about 3,600-4,000rpm. From start-up to shut-down, Snoopy 3 will use about 20 litres of av-gas in a run, while Snoopy 4 will use twice as much as that in methanol. The latter needs particular experience to manage, says Kevan.
“Snoopy 4 has no engine cooling, with all cooling provided by the fuel,” he says.
“It is a fine balancing act between a lean amount of fuel used and lots of power and high temperatures produced, versus a rich mixture which will keep the engine cool but not make as much power.
“Lean is definitely mean. If the tractor was to run out of fuel, it would actually melt itself.
“This is why my tank on Snoopy 4 has to be plenty big enough to get to track, do the run then shut down safely.”
IN its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, the sport attracted huge attention and has been regularly shown on major TV networks, such as Eurosport.
While the TV coverage may have dwindled, the crowds the sport’s events pull in have not. Far from it.
“It is not like most other motor sports, which you have to watch from a distance,” says Kevan.
“With tractor pulling you can get up close to the action. As a sporting spectacle, which you can see, hear and feel, it is hard to beat.
“Some of the large European events attract up to 20,000 people, which creates a real buzz when you are competing, although, it can also add to the nerves.
“Throw in a night-time pull and it gets even harder, with shadows making the track difficult to read.”
As well as outdoor pulls, some events are carried out in large covered arenas.
“These just add to the noise and create another type of atmosphere,” says Kevan.
But it is not just about the competition.
“We have made great friends, which makes the effort worthwhile.”
FUEL is not injected, just pumped straight into the engines via large bore nozzles.
A ‘power grid’ is then used to manually alter timing, which sees timing taken away to start, and increased for a run.
Kevan says: “This has worked very well for us over the years. It is tried and tested.
“The next step would be to switch to electronic fuel injection. We think this technology is now viable for tractor pulling.
“It would give us much greater control over the engines, and allow customised maps to be created to make more power while better looking after the engine.
“It would also make managing two engines much easier.”
Engines are linked via a ‘cross-box’, with power delivered to the gearbox via a five-plate centrifugal clutch. This works a bit like a giant ATV clutch, and needs rpm to bite – you can still hold it off using a foot pedal, but it takes some pressing, says Kevan.
The transmission is simple – just one forward gear and one reverse. Gears are straight cut, with gearing done through the rear axle ratio.
For steering on-track, independent brakes are used, just like a normal tractor. Finally, holding it all together, is a custom-built chassis.
THE time invested in the design and construction of a puller can be significant, says Kevan.
“When starting from scratch, we used to spend every night and all day Sunday in the workshop.
“Now, with two established tractors, most of our work is maintenance and modifications, usually taking up about two to three nights per week and every other Sunday.”
The biggest challenge of building a puller is keeping the weight down, explains Kevan.
“While you are trying to make everything as strong and as reliable as possible, weight has to be kept down to stay within the rules of the class.”
Many of the engine’s components come from either Holland or California, and are often sent back there to be repaired.
“Nothing is ‘off the shelf’. We have one spare ‘short’ motor and I think I have enough spare parts to last about 100 years,” says Kevan.
“Compared to V8 engines which have been heavily developed over the years for the likes of drag racing, V12 technology is getting a bit old, which makes it a challenge to keep up.
“However, as we have found over the years, there is no replacement for displacement.
“And when a V12 is on song, it will keep up with anything.”
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to test a tractor puller away from an event.
“You can dyno them, but this in itself can potentially bring problems, as the stress of the dyno procedure can do damage to the tractor,” Kevan adds.
SUCH is the draw of the sport, the team travels all over Europe competing.
“A typical Euro Cup season will have about 10 rounds in it,” says Kevan.
“At each event, we normally pull a maximum of two times – three times if we are test puller.”
“There is some top completion in the Euro Cup, with usually about eight to 10 pullers in the Heavy Modified class per event. And any of the top six could win. Within the Heavy Modified class, tractors vary dramatically with huge differences in engine choice.
“There’s allsorts used; V8 Chevies, V8 Hemis, V12 Allisons, and also turbines taken out of helicopters,” Kevan says.
Throughout the season, the tractor’s set-up will remain pretty similar.
“We can tweak ballast and tyre pressures, but it is the layout of the tractor during the build process which really determines the overall performance,” he says.
“We’ll only move around the tractor up to 50kg. Any more than that, then there is something wrong with the design of the tractor.”
“A perfect run will see the tractor lift its nose by about 6-12in. This means you have got the balance right.
“It should run straight and true. The last thing you want to do is give a dab of the brakes as this kills metres.”
TRACTOR pulling competitions take place on a 100-metre track and involve the tractors pulling a weight transfer sledge.
Essentially, a weight transfer sledge gets heavier to pull as it is pulled down the track. This is achieved by increasing the weight on the pan of the sledge by moving the weight box from the rear to the front of the sledge as the sledge is pulled forward.
The winner of the competition is the machine that can pull the sledge the furthest.
If more than one competitor completes the track with the sledge (a full pull), then the sledge is made harder to pull and the competitors who made a full pull go again until a winner is obtained.
“It is a sport we can get involved with and do well,” says Kevan.
However, you do not need to be a top flight team and have lots of money to get involved, he adds.
There are tractor pulling clubs all around the country, such as the North West Tractor Pulling Club (NWTPC), which are always after members to help out, whether it is IT, stewarding, track maintenance, or driving the ‘tow back’ tractor, for example.
If you want to sample the sport, Kevan suggests getting along to an event, such as the NWTPC’s August Bank Holiday spectacle at Great Eccleston, which will also see the European Finals return to the venue in 2021.
COMPETING at this level requires a large team of people to make it happen.
As well as all the duties back at base and in the pits preparing the tractors for an event, each person within the core team has specific roles to carry out during a run:
■ Kevan (right) and Josh Whittingham (left): drivers
■ Paul Nixon: directs the tractor to the line – a very important job as the drivers cannot see behind them when hooking up to the sledge. It also needs to be spot on to get the best start
■ Richard Robinson: spotter – keeping an eye on the tractor’s performance and health as it flies down the track
■ James Squire: end of run checks and starting (if required)
■ Gary Johnson: truck driver and filming
■ Finally, a multitude of friends and family to keep the team going.