On Monday, I got a phone call that I’d been dreading for years.
Kevin Masterson was on the other end; sadly, I knew what he was about to tell me.
He said, “Dad passed away last night around midnight.”
We talked for a few minutes about what had happened, I offered my condolences and thanked him for letting me know, and we signed off.
I’d taken the call in the conference room at the office since it was quiet. I’m glad I did, too, because it gave me a place where I could take a few minutes to reflect a little, and try to wrap my head around what had just happened.
We’ve lost Don Masterson. Tractor pulling has lost an icon.
That phone call changed the direction of this week’s Interesting Iron. Massey’s 200 Series tractors can wait. Today, we’re going to talk about who Don was and why he was so special – to the sport, his competitors, and lastly – why he was so special to me.
If you’ve ever followed tractor pulling – even casually – you probably knew the Masterson family name. If you didn’t, you’d probably recognize the names of the tractors; the River Rat and the Tinker Toy. Both have been staples in the Pro Stock class since the late 70s/early 80s.
Don Masterson was a southern Indiana farmer who made his living farming the Ohio River bottom ground with his son, Kevin. Tractor pulling bit Don early in the 70s, and it didn’t take long before they began turning up the wick. By the late 70s when the Pro Stock class began to emerge, the 6030 became known as the River Rat. Don had a lot of success with the Rat, and learned a lot, too. For the 1985 season, the River Rat would be joined by the Tinker Toy. Don campaigned both tractors until Kevin was old enough to compete. Together, with Kevin on the River Rat and Don on the Tinker Toy, they would go on to become one of the most successful Pro Stock teams to ever hitch to a sled.
(The Pro Pulling League just published a more comprehensive overview of Don’s career, and it’s a great read.)
That having been said, there’s one place where Don drove the Tinker Toy into the record books more than anywhere else.
There are a few phenomenons that seem to happen at the National Farm Machinery Show pulls every year. For instance, there’s usually one night where the girls beat up on the boys pretty good. There’s almost never any traction on the right-hand side of the track, and the left-hand side will pull you out of bounds if you’re not careful.
Well, there’s one more.
There’s something about Masterson tractors, Freedom Hall, and Saturday night.
Over his career, Don pulled off 11 Farm Show wins in the Pro Stock class – 4 more than anybody else in his class. He’s also the only one in the class to have pulled off back to back wins (2018 & 2019). I was fortunate enough to be there to witness both of them. His 2018 win was great, because it was the 50th Anniversary show.
2019, on the other hand, that was a whole ‘nother animal.
2019 was a uniquely tough year for the Farm Show.
Hours before the tractor pull’s opening session was to start, John Mumma (a veteran 2WD competitor) was lost in a tragic accident on the way to the show. It was very tough for everybody, because we all knew John. He was part of our pulling family. There were many tears shed that weekend, and our emotions were shot.
Furthermore, Don had undergone brain surgery in December of 2018. And while recovery had gone well, at age 79, you don’t just bounce back from that, y’know? He was fine to compete, but I’m certain his was under stress the likes of which he’d never dealt with before.
As we got to Saturday night, it was lifting a little, but you could still feel heaviness in the air – and the crowd could, too. We needed to go out on a high note. Some kind of triumph that the crowd could rally around.
As it turned out, the Pro Stock finals delivered. There were a number of young guns and first-timers who’d made the finals, and they put on a heck of a show. At the end of the class, there were three in the pulloff – Jack Wischmeier, Russ Yoder, and Don. I’ll never forget the way announcers Butch Krieger and Dave Bennett framed it for the crowd as it happened, too; it was the young’uns versus the veteran. The electricity started to build as each made their pass.
I could see Don in his tractor in the staging area, watching and not saying much as his competition both made good passes.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the track, Jack and Russ and their crew are watching Don get hooked to the sled. Jack leans over to a guy on Yoder’s crew and says, “We’re ’bout to get our butts kicked by a 79-year old man who’s recovering from brain surgery.” (Or something like that…potentially with a little more color.)
And that’s exactly what happened.
As Don started to let out the clutch, Butch and Dave brought the crowd to their feet like a slow-motion wave. By about half track, the roar of the crowd nearly drowned out the motor as they realized that Don was once again, doing what Don does. He parked the tractor in the sand at the end of the track while the crowd chanted, “Don! Don! Don!”
It was the loudest I think I’ve ever heard it in Freedom Hall. At age 79, recovering from brain surgery, Don went back-to-back as Farm Show champion. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Here’s what it looked like on video, courtesy of his granddaughter Emma.
As it turned out, 2019 would be Don Masterson’s last time standing on top at the Farm Show. He competed in 2020 and made the finals, but came up a little short. A few months later, he would suffer a career-ending injury in a farming accident. The road to recovery was long, but Don never gave up. I know that there were multiple occasions where he tried to will his body to its feet so he could climb into the seat of the Tinker Toy in the shop. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Still, he was able to attend a few close pulls. Every time he made an appearance, fans and competitors alike waited in a long line just to say hello.
To this day, nobody’s ever figured out what made Don so successful in that building. I asked Kevin on the phone this morning, and he couldn’t tell me. If Don had something figured out, he kept it a pretty darn good secret.
I like to call it Masterson Magic, and leave it at that.
Career accomplishments aside, though, there was a lot more to Don Masterson.
On Monday night, I asked a few pullers and friends within the sport, “Who was Don Masterson to you? Tell me your story.”
The responses came from all over the country. While each one was different, they all hit the same points.
He was kind, he was competitive, and he had forever earned their respect.
They told me stories of when they were little kids sitting with grandma at the end of the track, waiting for the Tinker Toy to stage, knowing that there was a good chance that Don would go screaming by the leader cone. Another told me stories of his generosity and his knack for taking rookies under his wing, offering advice and parts support, even if it meant that there wasn’t a backup plan in case something went wrong with his tractor!
That’s not to say that he didn’t have every intention of beating you on the track, though. Don, even after the brain surgery, was as competitive as ever, and he knocked down at least one win in the 2019 season (Scheid Diesel Extravaganza in Terre Haute, IN). On and off the track, he was a driver who commanded the utmost respect. Every single Pro Stock driver I’ve ever met knew that Don spoke softly, but carried a very big stick.
There are literally dozens of stories that I’ve heard from his competitors that I could share, but I think you get the point.
I want to talk about who Don Masterson was to me.
The first time I ever saw Don and Kevin Masterson was at the Allegan County Fair in Allegan, MI in either 2000 or 2001 (I think). Growing up in West Michigan, we had plenty of tractor pulling, but most of it was local (i.e. smaller) classes. Hot farms and stuff like that. If I wanted to see big stuff, I had to drive at least an hour or more. Furthermore, since Mom & Dad had control of the keys, I didn’t get to do that very often. In college, though, I had a little more autonomy. I didn’t venture halfway across the country to go pulling like I sometimes do now, but I could justify a couple of hours.
I don’t remember where either of them finished that night. However, I remember thinking to myself, “Those things are awesome!” The tractors were beautiful and they must have put on a good show, because their names stuck with me. As it turned out, I wouldn’t see them in person again for another 14 years. I moved to Iowa, got married, and we started a life together – one that didn’t include much tractor pulling.
In 2014, I did get to see them make passes in Mound City, MO at The Rumble By The Refuge – one of my favorite events to attend yet to this day. At the time, I was very new to the sport (and photography in general). I didn’t know anybody other than the names of tractors, and I was pretty much lost. I had a camera, though, and as long as I promised not to get myself run over, Chris Waegele (the guy in charge) told me I could go wherever I wanted.
The one place that I should’ve gone to…I didn’t. I should’ve gone and introduced myself to Don and Kevin, but I psyched myself out. I mean, they’re super-big-time rock stars! Why on earth would they want to meet me – a nobody with a camera who really didn’t know what to do with it?
I’m ashamed to say that I convinced myself that Don and Kevin were too busy for literally four years.
(Spoiler alert: I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I kick myself for it every single day.)
2018 was the year that I finally met my heroes. I’d been continuing to take photos, and I actually caught a couple of half-decent shots at the Farm Show. One of them was a neat candid of Kevin.
Astonishingly, the Mastersons, the guys who I thought walked on water…they were just regular dudes. Shocking, huh?
They shook my hand, thanked me for what I did, and we spent the next fifteen minutes talking. Not just pulling, either; we talked farming, family, the whole nine yards. From that day forward, I’d make an opportunity to stop and see Don and Kevin, and I continue to do that today. Every time I did, Don was never too busy to stop and say hello for a few minutes. I was treated like an old friend who he’d known since wheels were square, not some guy who took pictures and occasionally got in the way.
Over the years, the crew changed a little when Don was no longer able to pull, but the way they treat their fans and competitors hasn’t. Just like Don, they’re never too busy either. It’s been fun to get to know Joe, Rob, Pat, and Darryl; those guys are as good as it gets, in my book. (Rob’s even a Tractor Zoom auctioneer partner!)
Y’know, “they” say that you should never meet your heroes, because they’ll inevitably disappoint you. Except that sometimes, “they” don’t know what they’re talking about. In Don’s (and Kevin’s) case, they were so much more. Those heroes became lifelong friends.
Sometime on Monday evening, something dawned on me. Had it not been for Don and Kevin, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here at this desk writing this article. I know that sounds ridiculous, but stick with me for a minute. The River Rat and the Tinker Toy were two of the three tractors that got me hooked on this motorsport. Had it not been for them, I’d probably have been a casual fan and gone to maybe one or two pulls a year. I’d have never bothered to try taking photos, and ultimately, I’d have never been able to capitalize on those opportunities. One thing leads to another, y’know?
One of the reasons that I came aboard with Tractor Zoom back in 2019 was because I knew that my connections with tractor pulling could be an opportunity to help our small company grow. Had I never come aboard, I’d have never started this whole Interesting Iron thing.
Don Masterson cast an incredibly tall shadow in the sport of tractor pulling – his fingerprints are all over our sport, and they’ll be there forever. What’s more, his legacy will live on for future generations.
Don, if you’re reading this, thank you for all of the memories and all that you’ve done for this sport, and for being such a great human. You’ll never be forgotten.
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