Seldom-told tale of how Owensboro farmers revolutionized tractor pulls

May 14, 2024 | 12:10 am

Updated May 15, 2024 | 8:35 am

Photo from the National Farm Machinery Show Archives

The National Farm Machinery Show Tractor Pull in Louisville holds the prestigious title of the oldest indoor tractor pull in the world. This remarkable event, launched in 1969 by five Daviess County natives and a friend from Hopkins County, has since grown to unprecedented popularity. The crew made numerous contributions to revolutionizing tractor pulls.

Folks familiar with the sport called the six guys “The Owensboro Gang.” They were Jerry Baird, Joe England, Donnie Bittel, Carl Mercer, Walter Harder Jr., and Billy Joe Miles. Bittel is the last survivor of the group and vividly recalls the experience. 

“We were all farmers around the same age, and we knew each other,” Bittel said. “We had a friend who worked in management at the state fairgrounds. He approached us about hosting a pull to attract more attendees to the machinery show. It didn’t take long for us to say we would give it a try.”

The group traced its experiences back to 1965 when it partnered with the Daviess County Lions Club to host a pull at the County Fair. That was an outdoor pull, though. Hosting one inside Freedom Hall presented a whole new set of challenges. 

Bittel said the most significant obstacle was the exhaust. 

“There was so much smoke in the colosseum,” he said. “I remember one lady sitting in a box seat with a mink coat and how black it was by the time she walked out of there. We tried to move the exhaust out of the ceiling, but that didn’t work. We had to have a way to collect it.”

After 4-5 years of experimenting, they had an epiphany. The men came together on Miles’ farm to develop a smoke tube to capture the exhaust and force it out of the arena. That invention changed the game. 

Bittel said they expected only a few thousand to attend the show, so they were shocked to see more than 13,000 attendees at each session. They worked long hours in preparation, during, and after the event to host three classes of competitions across two nights. 

“We were well-organized and put on a good show,” he said. “We hosted some of the finest pullers from across the state and the country. It was very exhausting, but it was well worth it.”

The competition soon grew to six sessions, with “bigger and badder” machines quickly replacing the standard farm stock tractors from the time. By 1975, Gene Wilkerson and James “Drag” Burns joined the crew to form Truck and Tractor Pulls, commonly referred to by its acronym, TNT. 

Wilkerson recalled the growing need for safety measures and the team’s swift response. 

“Those machines didn’t have any safety features on them at all, and people were looking to us for solutions,” Wilkerson said. “We added a kill switch on the sleds for when they thought they would get out of hand. We also added wheelie bars on the back and safety cages to protect the driver.”

They also mandated that the drivers wear fire suits and helmets, among other safety protocols.

“The Owensboro Gang” also introduced technology to the motorsport through a laser measurement system. Like the smoke tube, this innovation was transformative for the sport and pivotal in the company’s growth. 

“(The tractors) got so powerful; you wouldn’t believe the power they could put in those things,” he said. “We pushed the owners to continually update their machines and make them look nice with new paint jobs. They spent a lot of time on them and got to where they were proud of their machines.”

The boys from Owensboro owned TNT with Don Johnson, the former manager of the fairgrounds. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, they were selling out domes and arenas across the county, including the Houston Astrodome in 1982, when the event drew a record 47,000 attendees. 

That’s right: a few farmers from Owensboro launched a full-scale tractor-pull company that sold out the Astrodome. 

“That was the biggest one we ever did – it was full,” Wilkerson said. “We had the entire place full. People were looking for power. Advertising was the key, and Don could put people in the seats. It wasn’t like anything we had ever seen.”

After nearly four decades of exponential success, they sold TNT in 1990, continuing with the Farm Machinery Show for one more year. 

“The Owensboro Gang” laid the foundation for the Farm Machinery Show Pull, which continues to prosper and annually draws over 300,000 visitors to Louisville. They even use the same Kentucky red clay the crew hand-selected in 1969.

“It worked out great for us,” Bittel said. “Our families often traveled with us and became close. We did it for 47 years before passing the torch and had a lot of fun doing it.”

Tractor Pull

May 14, 2024 | 12:10 am

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