Monday, June 27, 2011

Hold the throttle! Hold the throttle!

This email arrived Saturday morning from David:


Just finished the BMW adventure bike enduro skills program. It's an introduction to off road riding. I'm trying to get out of bed and while I can move everything there is a little pain involved.

Excellent course. Six students, two instructors and one or two guys ready to repair and adjust the bikes. You really can learn to maneuver those big BMW bikes in very tight places. Needless to say it's all about weight distribution along with clutch and throttle control.

Both my hands and forearms are really sore.

I rode the F800, one of the smaller students rode the G650 and the other four guys rode 1200’s.

One guy dropped out after the first day, think he re-injured his shoulder, another guy hurt his hamstring but he soldiered through. Seemed strange that while I was the oldest student I was probably in the best shape.

Got to try everything except water crossings. Braking exercises, ruts, washboards, gravel, hill and rock climbs, sand pit, high speed dirt circuit and even some time on the automobile course at pretty good speeds. Needless to say we all got a lot of practice lifting the bikes up.


Meanwhile, down on the farm...

The old Farmall Super H was relegated to pumping irrigation water, but a 7-year-old boy thought it could win a prize at the tractor pull.

While David was recovering from his two-day BMW off-road training course in South Carolina, I was in Nebraska preparing for a more rustic mechanical adventure -- an antique tractor pull, the featured Saturday event at this year's Bertrand Fair and Rodeo.

Harrison's persistent; eventually, he talked his dad into entering the old tractor in the pull.

Our 7-year-old nephew Harrison talked Jim, his dad, into entering great-granddad's 1952 International Harvester Farmall Super H. The fun began on Saturday, when we took the beast up to the scales at the co-op. It weighed in at 4,740 pounds, or 240 more than the 4,500-class limit. Jim figured there was no way we could compete with the 5,000-pounders, so we set out to lighten ship and make the weight.

First thing to go was the big pulley and pulley drive on the gear box -- about 80 pounds. Unfortunately, removing the drive left a 6-by-13-inch hole in the top of the gear box. Cutting a piece of sheet aluminum to fit was easy, but figuring out where to drill eight holes for the bolts to secure it was tougher. Jim came up with the idea of putting the bolts in their holes, leveling them up, adding a dab of grease to the bolt heads and carefully setting the aluminum on the bolts. When we lifted the plate off, a grease spot located each hole. A quick trip to the drill press and our "racing cover" was ready to fit, with the help of a round file.

Jim, center, conferred with pull organizer Kevin and decided to lighten the Super H by 240 pounds to qualify for the 4,500-pound stock class. That pulley would have to come off.

We were still 160 pounds over our goal. Jim's next targets were the big, donut-shaped, cast iron wheel weights on the back wheels, which we figured weighed about 100 pounds apiece. Unfortunately, they were bolted to the inside of the huge wheels and it looked like we'd have to remove the wheels to get to the axle-circling weights.

Getting the old Farmall into the tractor pull made Harrison very happy.

Jim solved the problem: He'd cut the weights in half with a gasoline-powered chop saw -- sort of a chain saw but with a circular blade. That took some doing -- mostly because the motor on the saw wouldn't start. Eventually, we pulled and cleaned the plug and sparks started to fly!

Of course, the bolts holding the weights to the wheels were rusted, but Jim cut the bolt heads off with an acetylene torch. With the weights off, he added two gallons of the aviation gasoline from the co-op's crop duster, I got a quick tractor-driving lesson and we were off to drop off the Super H at the fairgrounds, me on the tractor following Jim and Harrison in a pickup. "Just put it in fifth and open it up all the way," Jim said. "By the time you get to town, you'll know everything you need to know about driving a tractor."

After lunch, we were ready to rumble and Jim entered both himself and me as drivers. Kevin told me to sign the papers. "Just watch Jim," he said. "And then do the opposite."

We walked around to size up the competition and then let some air out of our tires, dropping the pressure to 10 pounds per square inch. Soft tires have a bigger contact patch and more traction.

Our Super H tractor pull team. Notice the big pulley is now missing from below my right hand.

A tractor pull works like this: The competitors pull a skid, to which is attached a trailer. On top of the trailer is a large tank of water mounted on rails connected to the trailer at one end and the skid at the other. At the start, the weight of the water tank is carried by the trailer but, as the tractor pulls forward, a cable geared to a trailer wheel gradually pulls the water tank up the rails onto the skid, increasing the load. The amount of water is adjusted for each weight class. Ideally, none of the competitors complete the 100-yard run over leveled and packed soil -- if more than one does, they add weight and there's a pull-off. The tractor that goes furthest before losing traction or power wins the class and a t-shirt for the driver.

In turn, the tractors were chained to the skid, took up the slack, revved their engines and slipped their clutches. Many did wheelies. If the front wheels lifted, the expert drivers steered with left and right rear brakes -- the rest of us just tried to get back on track when the wheels came down.

Jim went before I did. One driver had already done a complete run and his cousin's son Riley had set a good second-place distance that Jim wanted to beat. He had a good start but the old Super H ran out of power and stalled about 20 feet short of Riley's mark.

We consulted Gary Metzger, a tractor-pull veteran who runs a shiny, modified International Super M in the 5,000-pound open class. Gary asked about our tire pressure. "You can take 'em down to 7 -- 6 even," he said. Then he whipped out a pair of pliers and adjusted the carburetor to boost the flow of "av gas."

I was ready to go. The announcer blared: "He's from Honolulu, Hawaii. Jim said it's maybe his second time on a tractor and they tinkered with the carburetor a little bit ... we'll find out here in a second. OK, everybody, cheer on the Hawaii boy -- see what he's made of!"

I'm off and running. The big yellow tank of water on the right will gradually move up the rails making the load on the skid heavier and heavier until the tractor stalls or looses traction.

I blew the start. I slipped the clutch, the tractor roared, bucked against the load, bounced, started moving and stalled. On a Super H, the spring-loaded throttle lever clips into a row of teeth that hold it open. The bouncing tractor knocked the throttle loose and shut me down.

The loudspeaker shouted: "Jim, didn't she tell him that the throttle slips if you don't hold onto her?"

The event organizer was Kevin, Riley's dad, who is married to Sarah, who is Mary's and Jim's cousin -- small town, eh? He made a quick decision: "He didn't go 50 feet -- he can be restarted."

The announcer agreed: "I think if he came that far, we should give him the opportunity to re-hook. Let's re-hook him."

Since I was a crowd favorite -- a rank beginner from Hawaii -- and since I'd only gone about 20 feet, I could go again. Kevin probably figured, too, that I was unlikely to snatch second away from son Riley.

"Hold that throttle open -- don't let it go," Kevin ordered, and I was off again. The crowd was with me and there was even a little cheering as I roared up the course with Jim yelling, "Hold the throttle. Hold the throttle!"

I proudly display my antique tractor pull t-shirt trophy, awarded for showing up, not for performance.

I passed Jim's mark and just a couple of yards short of Riley's the big wheels started to slip, grab, slip some more, and finally let go. It was the second time I'd driven a real tractor -- the first was that morning -- and I came in third in class in a tractor pull. Sarah gave me a t-shirt for "coming the furthest."

That evening, I drove the Super H back to the farm. It flew down the blacktop -- easily three miles per hour faster than our ride to town.

I owe all my success to Gary and his pliers.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Flanman:

    It's your old wing man, Art Howe. The guy took to Cuba in 1976.

    Looks like you are having a blast in life. Congrats.

    So, John, it's time we go back to Cuba. I have an idea. Contact me at

    Look forward to hearing from you.