What is Tractor Pulling?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Tractor pulling is a competitive motor sport in which modified farm tractors drag a metal sled along a prescribed course. The sled contains a heavy load of metal plates that are mechanically winched forward as the sled progresses along the course. Tractors pulling this ever-increasing load eventually lose forward momentum and torque, although a rare few might indeed reach the end of the course. The distance from start to finish is measured in hundredths of an inch (a few millimeters), and the tractor that pulls the sled the farthest distance is declared the winner. If more than one tractor reaches the end of the course, a run-off is held using heavier weights or a greater distance.

Modified farm tractors drag a metal sled along a course during the competitive motor sport known as tractor pulling.
Modified farm tractors drag a metal sled along a course during the competitive motor sport known as tractor pulling.

Powerful Engines

Competition-level tractors might look like standard-issue farm equipment, but the similarities stop at the basic body and tires. Tractor pulling is a sport based on horsepower and torque, which means that the engine must be modified to generate as much power as possible. The tractors in many competitions generate 2,000-3,000 horsepower, and elite competitions might feature tractors capable of 10,000 horsepower or more. Some tractor pull enthusiasts have even been known to modify semi-trailer trucks for high-end competitions.

During a tractor pull, the driver must keep his or her tractor within marked boundaries.
During a tractor pull, the driver must keep his or her tractor within marked boundaries.

Engines in competition tractors are often modified with parts intended for drag racing and other motor sports. Designers must be careful to balance power with safety, because these engines are intended to run until complete failure. Drivers must follow strict rules in organized tractor pulls, including the use of a roll bar and engine kill switches. If a driver should fall off the tractor, the engine and fuel delivery system must automatically shut down immediately.

Rules of Competition

During a tractor pull, the driver must keep his or her tractor within marked boundaries. Touching either boundary line results in disqualification. This is an important safety feature, because spectators might be seated in temporary bleachers near the course. There are national and international tractor pulling associations that set guidelines for competitions and oversee local and regional chapters.

Loud and Potentially Dangerous

Some spectators find tractor pulling to be challenging to watch. Numerous classifications of tractors must race throughout the day, and the winning efforts are not always apparent to those in the stands because the differences in distances might be very small. Competition tractor engines also can be extremely loud, so hearing protection is recommended for every spectator, especially young children. Occasionally, an engine under extreme pressure will explode, sending dangerous shrapnel in all directions. No one except trained professionals should stand near these tractors during competitions.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - Even though it might be dangerous in theory, in reality people are only injured very rarely. They check out the tractors to make sure that they aren't going to explode and the spectators are expected to keep well away from them while they are in motion.

The interesting thing is that this basically came from people doing the same thing with horses, making stock horses pull around a barn door weighed down so they could determine the strongest horse.

I think it's strange that they don't use speed at any point to determine a winner (for example when there is a tie) but I suppose they don't actually want people to rush at all.


@KoiwiGal - The problem with this kind of competition though is that it can be very dangerous. Not so much with the competitions where something has to work without human intervention, but in a tractor pulling competition, if a tractor is modified the wrong way and explodes the person riding it could be seriously injured or killed.

With that said, it is an extremely cool event, even if it sounds like it wouldn't be, as the tractors look like something out of science fiction and there's usually a good crowd and other things to watch aside from the tractor pulling teams.


I've never heard of this kind of competition before, but it sounds like a really awesome idea. I wonder how many advancements have been made in engineering because of someone tinkering with their tractor for a race like this.

I love this kind of competitions. Like the ones where you have to modify your own catapult or the ones where you have to build your own robot. I understand that the military held a similar one for robots that had to go out into a field and retrieve a manikin without any help from people.

These sorts of competitions really encourage people to innovate and pit them against each other in intelligence and skill, rather than just athleticism and I think that's something worth fostering.

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