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INTERESTING IRON

Midwest Winter Nationals: The Single Charger Super Bowl

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Ryan Roossinck

January 18, 2024

midwest winter nationals

Y’know, if you don’t count Phoenix Auction Week where they sell all the classic hot rods, the month of January is typically pretty sleepy as far as auctions go.

So, since my indoor tractor pulling season just kicked off last week at the Midwest Winter Nationals in Shipshewana, IN, let’s talk about pulling! It was a great show; maybe the best one ever! Great competition, a great crowd (despite some weather challenges), and we raised a ton of money for cancer research!

The stories of the Midwest Winter Nationals could fill hours and hours, but I’ll try to hit some of the high points of how we got here, and then cover a little of what happened this weekend.

Indoor pulling for county fair classes…

The concept of tractor pulling indoors isn’t new. The National Farm Machinery Show held the first one in 1969, and it continues to be the granddaddy of ’em all today. Since then, though, lots of promoters have dipped their toes into the indoor waters – some more successfully than others. During the 80s and into the 90s, it was a pretty big deal, especially when the USHRA paired it up with monster trucks. However, when the monster trucks split off into their own thing, popularity went down and most of the shows kind of fizzled out. Almost all of ’em except for the Farm Show, the Indy Super Pull, and the Dekalb Super Pull in Ohio.

Those events all have one thing in common; they were all geared towards the top echelon classes. Mods, Super Stocks, Pro Stocks, stuff like that. There weren’t any events for the smaller classes. The fact of the matter was that if you were a Hot Farm guy, you parked the tractor in September and didn’t pull it back out again until after planting. There was nowhere to play.

That is, until my friend Klint Tucker showed up.

Whatssmokin Promotions & the Midwest Winter Nationals

Klint is a southern Illinois farmer and puller, and so are most of his buddies – and they all wanted somewhere to play during the winter. So, after a few conversations with the guys running the Dekalb Super Pull, Klint pitched an idea to the boys one night over beers in the shop. Let’s start a company, and let’s put on a pull for us.

After much discussion, they decided to give it a shot. Thus, Whatssmokin Promotions and the Midwest Winter Nationals were born.

The pull would be geared towards the smaller classes; Farm Stock, Hot Farm, and the like. Since then, it’s expanded quite a bit as far as classes go, but the bread and butter has always been the hot farm type stuff.

The first one was held in Cloverdale, Indiana back in 2004. To hear Klint talk about it today, it was something of a disaster. Fumes and ventilation were a constant battle. However, he and the team believed in the idea, so they stuck with it.

The Gordyville Years…

Midwest Winter Nationals 2016 - Rodney Knott/Knotty Boyz 4.1 Limited Prostock
The 4.1 Limited Pro Stock class became a very big deal in the early 2010s, and Rodney Knott was usually somewhere near the top of the leaderboard when it was all said and done. Here he is making a pass in 2016, the first year I went to Gordyville. (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

For 2005, the Midwest Winter Nationals found a new home at Gordyville USA in Rantoul, IL. Some of you reading this have probably showed cattle there!

As far as pulling venues go, it’s a tight squeeze. It’s got a small area for staging tractors, and a tiny arena for competition. Still, Klint thought it could work, so they booked a date in early February of 2005. It wasn’t easy to pull it all together, but they got that first year done.

Midwest Winter Nationals staging area 2016
Staging tractors inside the back part of Gordyville took some pretty serious skill. These tractors are stacked in REALLY tight. (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

Over the next few years, the Whatssmokin crew built that pulling track into an absolute monster. I’ve never seen an indoor track that was meaner than that one. Y’know how they say that power finds weakness? That track hooked so hard it wasn’t even funny, and claimed many victims over the years.

It didn’t take long before word got around that the Midwest Winter Nationals was a top notch pull with a really good track. When that happened, the competitors started flocking to it – and they brought the fans (and the party) with them.

Midwest Winter Nationals crowd (2016)
The Midwest Winter Nationals developed a bit of a reputation for being a barn party where a tractor pull broke out. I think that as an event, its grown out of rowdy phase of its life. However, there were a few years where the vendors sold more beer at Gordyville than they did at the beer tent at the Illinois State Fair – and that was open for ten full days! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

Becoming a destination pull…

During the 2010s, the pull grew at a very fast pace. If you were a puller who didn’t get an invite to pull in Louisville, this was where you went to see where you stacked up nationally. Before long, Klint got overwhelmed with competitors who wanted to pull, but their didn’t quite fit the rules for one class or another. So, rather than add every class under the sun, he did something quite brilliant.

With some help from a few very good sled operators and engine builders, Klint figured out how to combine similar classes so they could run together. He’d adjust weights, RPMs, and drawbar heights to make it fair for everybody. I don’t have the foggiest idea how he got it all fine-tuned the way he did, but he’s got a system that works – and works really well!

Gordyville 2020 - Josh Steuck
I’m not sure what class Josh Steuck was running in 2020 when he made this pass, but I can nearly guarantee you that there was somebody else in the class that had a completely different setup, and I’ll bet they finished super close at the end of the day. (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

The fact that the system works means tight competition, and tight competition brings fans. It was no different with this event. There have been plenty of sessions where we were absolutely at capacity with standing room only! I started going to the Midwest Winter Nationals in 2016, and in the years I’ve been going, I think I’ve met pulling fans from at least 15 states, 3 different countries, and from 3 different continents!

Outgrowing the livestock barn…

By 2021, Whatssmokin had really outgrown what Gordyville could feasibly handle. So, Klint made the decision to move to the Michiana Event Center (“the MEC”) in Shipshewana, Indiana. It was definitely an upgrade as far as facilities go, with a full 300-foot track, twice the pit space, and a lot more comfortable surroundings. It added a few hours to my trip, but at the end of the day I think it was a good move. (Plus, they have the greatest soft pretzels known to man, and that’s a fact.)

That brings us to this year, which was the best Midwest Winter Nationals I’ve ever been a part of.

The 2024 Midwest Winter Nationals recap…

Midwest Winter Nationals 2024 - Darren Bommer BW
This is probably one of my favorite shots from this year’s Winter Nationals. Darren Bommer’s 1206 Hot Farm is a stunner in person! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

The week leading up to the event was difficult. Three competitors passed away; two rather unexpectedly. Tim Pugliese was a puller from Pennsylvania who I never had the chance to meet, and Steve Larue was a mini-rod puller from Ohio. From what I understand, pulling at the Midwest Winter Nationals was a bucket list thing for Tim, and he was really excited to check it off the list. Steve was super-nervous, and his buddy Monte from way out in the Canadian plains came down to surprise him and be his pit crew for the weekend.

We also lost Trevor Zaenkert after a six year battle with osteo-sarcoma. He was just 22 years old. I’d had the opportunity to get to know Trevor and his family a little bit over the past year or two, and they’re everything that’s great about the sport I love. Tremendous competitors with great big hearts. Furthermore, Trevor was a heck of a driver. He’d won his class in 2023, and we all hoped he’d be back to defend the title. Sadly, that didn’t happen.

However, we knew that the best way we could pay our respects to Trevor, Tim, and Steve was to have a dynamite, upbeat show. That’s what they loved, and that’s why they were planning to be there. Monte stayed too. His eyes welled up with tears when he said, “Ryan, I have to be here among my pulling family. It’s the only thing that’ll help me grieve.”

So, we did just that. The crew hit their stride immediately, and we were off.

Competition: A-game or nothing.

Davin Wright 6250 LLSS
One of the cool things about the Midwest Winter Nationals is that you’ll see some color in the classes. Davin Wright was one of the drivers wavin’ the blue flag! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

From the top to the bottom, the competition was strong. Everybody was on their A-game. Travis Hostetler, who works for the MEC, worked with Klint’s crew to build the toughest track I’ve ever seen at Shipshewana. Brandon Bungart, one of the top sled drivers on the planet, had the sled set perfect for every session. We never reset the sled. Ever. Not even once. I’ve never seen that at a multi-day event in 15 years of involvement in the sport. From an efficiency perspective, we were turning hooks in well under three minutes. That’s really fast!

JR Quandt John Deere 4455 track-scraper
This is one of the reasons that the show ran as quickly as it did. JR Quandt built this track-scraping apparatus to keep the starting line nice and even. It worked like a charm. For those of you who go to pulls in Illinois during the summer, don’t be surprised if you see this 4455 with a roller on the back. (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

The class that everybody was looking forward to was the Hot Farm class. We had nearly 80 competitors sign up from eight or nine different states! It was so big that Klint had to split the group into four different flights of competition! They came to win, too. It was impressive to watch!

Ellie Bartling 9000 SF
There was even a little sibling rivalry in the Limited Pro class this year! Ellie Bartling darn near put her big brother Esdon on the trailer on Saturday! I won’t be surprised if she does it a few times come summertime! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

I won’t cover every class because I’d probably be writing until next Tuesday, but here’s a few good ones that I captured throughout the weekend. (You can check the results here.)

(Insert exciting pulling photos here…)

Bob Evans 2024 LLSS Spicy Allis
Bob Evans’ alky-burning Allis 190XT got a little spicy on Friday afternoon. No major damage, just a blown fuel line. It looked pretty gnarly, though! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)
Zach Jasper 2024 SB Blown Mini
Zach Jasper’s blown small-block Thunderstruck mini-rod would be a handful for most of us. He makes it look pretty easy though, just like his dad! Those things sure look like a fun ride! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)
Mason Elsing 2024 4.1
Mason Elsing, who you might’ve seen on the family’s YouTube channel (New Age Custom Farming) danced with the chalk line on Saturday night to take the 4.1 Limited Pro Stock win! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)
Brent Shupert 2024 LLSS
Can your planting tractor do this? Brent Shupert’s can! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)
Rich Johnson - Shagnasty 540 Light Prostock
I took a photo of this tractor 16 years ago at the very first pull I ever shot at the Dallas County Fair in Adel, IA! The exterior hasn’t changed much at all, but under the hood, Rich Johnson has tripled the horsepower! This 540 Light Pro Stock absolutely screams! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)
Brian Shew 2024 3.0
If I ever built a pulling vehicle, this design would be among the finalists. I’ve always loved the WWII bomber look, and Brian Shew’s 3.0 Diesel 4×4 is one of the reasons why! (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

This last photo was one of the hardest for me to take. This is Trevor Zaenkert’s tractor. His dad took it down the track in his honor on Saturday, and made it into the finals! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t blink back some tears during this pass. I’m so thankful that the Zaenkert family brought their tractors out to compete. They needed to be with their pulling family as a way to grieve – and honor one of Trevor’s final requests; go to Shipshewana with or without me.

Fred Zaenkert 2024 Classic Mod
I’ve never heard a 410 small block sound better than the time that Fred Zaenkert whacked the throttle in Trevor’s memory. (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

So that’s the quasi-concise wrapup of the 2024 Midwest Winter Nationals.

Except that it’s not. There’s one more thing I want to talk about.

Giving back…

Midwest Winter Nationals Raffle Tractor 2024
My buddy Justin Stuckenschneider has built a tractor to raffle away to raise money for lots of different worthy causes. This year, the cause was cancer research, which has touched all of us. (Photo: Justin Stuckenschneider)

Y’know, farmers and pullers have great big hearts, and the Whatssmokin crew is no different. Justin Stuckenschneider is an extraordinarily talented model builder, and every year since 2007 he’s built a custom pulling tractor replica to raffle. Stor-Loc, the toolbox company, has donated some very nice toolboxes that we’ve sold at auction. Others have donated t-shirts, hats, and all sorts of other pulling memorabilia too.

Proceeds from all of that have been donated to everything from breast cancer to the Wounded Warriors. They’ve also donated to pulling families who are going through hardships of their own with cancer and other kinds of loss. It’s something they’re very passionate about.

We try to keep the mood light when we do this, too. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun to get the crowd into a charity auction, and to give away a really cool collector-grade pulling tractor replica.

So what was 2024’s cause?

Cancer research

This year’s cause was cancer research. It’s been a hard year for tractor pulling; we’ve lost some wonderful people over the last year to cancer. Ryan Anderson, the driver of the Check’n Out Super Farm, lost his dad about six weeks after last year’s event, so this year Justin chose Ryan’s tractor as the raffle toy.

Cancer has touched every one of us. You, me, and everybody we know. We’ve all suffered loss because of it. I’m thankful to say that I survived a battle with cancer fifteen years ago, but there are so many who haven’t. This year, the fundraising was in the memory of Ryan’s dad, Trevor Zaenkert, and all the others who we’ve lost.

This was where I got very involved…mainly because I made a bet with a tractor puller’s wife a few years ago.

The backstory…

So the backstory on this is that late one night at the Midwest Winter Nationals a few years ago, a puller’s wife yanked on my beard. She said, “I hate this beard, and I know that Kara hates it too. What’s it gonna take to get you to shave it off right here, right now?”

I thought about it for a second, and said, “If you can raise $5,000 for the cause by 9PM tomorrow night, I’ll shave it trackside.”

Everybody in the group had a good laugh, and eventually we all called it quits for the night. What they didn’t realize, though, was that I was serious.

The next morning, though, just before we kicked off the afternoon session, one of the announcers who was there the night before asked me, “Were you serious about that, or just messing with her? If you’re serious, we’ll start announcing it right now.”

I told him I was, but if I’m really being honest, I figured I was safe. There was no way we’d raise enough money to make it to the goal. Boy, was I wrong.

We raised over $13K in just over 9 hours, and I happily went home with a very cold chin in 2021!

Bald for Bucks

This year, I was ready to do it again.

I knew that we could raise money because a) the Midwest Winter Nationals crowd has a great big collective heart, and b) I look utterly ridiculous without a beard. Plus, we’d done it back in 2021.

So, Charles Poosch (the show’s main announcer, and one of my best friends) and I cooked up a plan to up the ante for this year. If we could raise $10K as an organization, he’d get a mohawk. If we raised $20K, I’d shave my beard again.

Honestly, it was a big number, and I wasn’t sure if we could do it or not. I remember telling Klint, “I don’t know if it’s gonna happen this year, bud.” He chuckled a little, and said, “Don’t worry big fella…you’re gonna go home with a naked chin.” I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not, but we kept hammering at the donation link on social media and to the crowd in the stands.

It took us a while to build some steam, but the floodgates began opening on Friday night. Once they did, they really opened big. We didn’t hit the number until Saturday night, but Klint was right. We ended up blowing the number out of the water, in fact!

The Aftermath: Mohawks and Moustaches

As soon as we hit the $10K number, the “Shipshewana Barber Shop” opened for business. Charles handed the clippers to Trever Zaenkert’s sister Olivia, and asked her to do the honors. As you can see below, she very much enjoyed that haircut.

The Barber Shop Charles
Olivia Zaenkert, Trevor’s little sister, gave Charles a pretty killer mohawk right there in front of the crowd on Saturday night! He even announced while she was doing it! (Photo: Cody Vanderholm/Vanderholm Media)

A little later when we hit $20K, it was time to shave my beard. Olivia asked, “I can do anything I want, right? Do you trust me?” I told her that I did, within reason. She said, “Good, because I’m gonna give you a fu manchu just like my dad’s.”

The Barber Shop 2024
I really thought Olivia Zaenkert was kidding when she said that she was going to give me a fu manchu. She wasn’t. (Photo: Cody Vanderholm/Vanderholm Media)
Fred Ryan
After it was all said and done, I’d say Olivia did a pretty darn good job on making me look like her dad! (Photo: Olivia Zaenkert)

Giving in real time…

Y’know, it’s both humbling and amazing to watch selfless giving happen in real time. Random people in the crowd kicked in huge. A donation bucket was passed and raised over $1500. Watch parties at Wisconsin bars donated. Pullers donated their winnings and challenged their competitors to do the same. Even little kids opened up their change purses and gave what they had, asking, “Is this enough?” (I nearly cried when I watched that happen…)

Like I said before…cancer affects us all.

When it was all said and done, we raised over $32,000 for the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY. 

So at the end of the day, while I miss my beard (terribly – it’s cold outside!), I’d absolutely do it again in a heartbeat for that kind of money. Here’s the thing; with research grants and private equity donors, Roswell Park can turn every dollar donated into $23. So if all goes well, our $32,000 can be turned into nearly $750,000 for research and treatment! 

For cancer patients, that could literally be life-changing money. It could be life-saving money.

Wrapping it all up…

Midwest Winter Nationals crew 2018
This will forever be one of my favorite photos of any Midwest Winter Nationals. Every year on Saturday night, the crew stops what they’re doing, assembles for a photo, and then brings kids out on to the track for the national anthem. It’s one of our favorite traditions. (Photo: Ryan Roossinck)

While the Midwest Winter Nationals is definitely the Super Bowl of single charger tractor pulling, it’s so much more than that. It’s where we go to celebrate life, remember those who we’ve lost, have a rip-roarin’ good time, reconnect with our friends and loved ones, and flex a great big collective heart with the fans in the stands.

I’m not sure what Klint’s got in mind for the dates next year, but consider yourself invited to be part of one of the best indoor tractor pulls ever. Come out for a session and join in the fun!

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