Exhaust hangs thick below the lights in the arena at the Boone County Fairgrounds as two John Deere tractors groom the arena’s dirt track.
Roger McKinney, Jr., 33, paces the sidelines of the 200-foot track, weaving between the hundreds of people that are waiting for the next competitor. Some wear earplugs, but most don’t.
It’s late in the pro stock heats of the National Quarter Scale Pulling Series 2003 National Championship and McKinney knows his turn is near.
With the help of his nine-year-old daughter Tyler and his father Roger Sr., Roger Jr. pushes his garden tractor up on the scale for a weigh-in. The “Dirt Track Cadillac,” as it was named by Roger Sr. years ago, is just under the 1,050 pound limit.
The sky blue “Cadillac” is one of three sleds the McKinney’s towed to Missouri to vie for the average $500 top prizes in three of the event’s five classes. The souped up garden tractor features a 60 horsepower engine that burns pure methanol, and is valued at over $10,000.
Once the tractor is weighed, the family gets to work, making precise adjustments minutes before the pull. Roger Jr. extends the weight bar and fine tunes the hitch height, Tyler hands her dad tools and Roger Sr. fires the machine up using a starter cart.
“At this level of competition, you gotta have all your ducks in a row,” Roger Jr. says. “It’s a matter of inches out there.” McKinney and his family drove 20 hours, 1,040 miles, from their home state of Pennsylvania for a chance to compete with some of the best pullers in the nation.
All three generations of McKinney’s competed at the weekend-long event but Roger Sr. and Tyler were both eliminated in the earlier rounds.
That doesn’t bother Roger Sr. though. “It’s still better than working,” he says. “I just like being here.”
Roger Jr. concurs. In fact, his passion for pulling brings him to over 20 events a year – the six national circuit events, including this year’s stop in Columbia – and multiple local events in Pennsylvania.
“This is my hobby,” he says. “This is how I spend my golf weekends or these are the horses I ride.”
Moments before this afternoon’s ride, however, Roger Jr. is all business. He pulls his fire retardant suit over his head, straps on his helmet and mounts “Dirt Track Cadillac.” His eyes stare ahead as he revs his engine. The sound is deafening.
His foot buries the throttle pedal and he jumps off the line as his tractor’s oversized tires dig into the dirt. His tractor increases in speed as the weights on the transfer sled behind him slide forward, adding resistance to every foot he travels.
As the weight begins to win the war, Roger Jr.’s tractor slows and then stalls, bringing it to a sudden stop. His 162 foot 10 inch pull is not enough to move him into the finals.
“It’s disappointing,” Roger Jr. says as he loads his tractors into his trailer in the parking lot. “But this just means that we’ll get started for home a little earlier.”