Engines roared and tires spun in the dirt as the tractor slammed forward.
Pulling thousands of pounds behind it, the machine started fast, straining as the weight behind it increased.
Thousands of cheering fans jumped up and down on the grandstands, drowned out until the tractor came to a stop at the end of its pull.
For John Lancaster, this was his life for more than 30 years.
The Trafalgar resident was a yearly competitor on the national tractor-pulling circuit, yearning for more speed, more power and more success.
Now, he’s considered one of the sport’s best.
Lancaster has been inducted into the National Tractor Pullers Association Hall of Fame, honored for his innovative turbocharging tractors. In the tractor-pulling arms race, his contributions help propel the sport into a souped-up new era during the 1970s.
He and two other Hoosiers — Whiteland native Norm Green and Indianapolis’ Al Koch — were voted into the Hall of Fame together, joining the elite of the tractor pulling world.
“It was my 15 minutes of fame. And it’s still surprising that people remember you so much,” Lancaster said. “We still go places, and people line up to see you, get autographs.”
The goal of tractor pulling is to get modified farm tractors to pull a metal sled along a course. The driver who pulls the most weight the farthest wins.
Like racecars compared to the automobiles you drive everyday, these tractors have been tinkered with to increase horsepower and torque. Mechanics are always trying to one up each other to gain an edge.
They looked for additional horsepower wherever they could get it.
Lancaster, Koch and Green worked to build beyond the dual turbocharger that was the standard of the time, skipping right to four, said Greg Randall, general manager for the National Tractor Pullers Association.
Using three pressure chambers to flow air into the engine, it was the most powerful machine on the tractor-pulling circuit.
“Every sport has pioneers. In this regard, that trio was the first to expand the technology on a diesel-style agricultural engine and take it to four turbochargers,” Randall said. “And they made it work. Right out the box, they got down the track.”
“As a group, we were the first ones to put that on a tractor,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster started tractor pulling in 1965. His family owned a dealership, Trafalgar Hardware, which sold the Allis Chalmers machines he ended up racing on the weekends.
He remembers persuading his parents to get up to the Johnson County fairgrounds early before a pull, so he could be one of the volunteers to help increase weight during the competitions.
“As a kid, I was always around tractors, and by the time I was a teenager, they were doing pulls at the fairgrounds every weekend,” he said.
The first time he drove a tractor was when he was 15. For a few years, he focused on weekend pulls in Johnson County. But as he became more versed in tractor pulling, he eventually started competing around the Midwest.
By 1970, as a 20 year old, he had his first real success at the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Ky., one of the prestigious pulls in the country. He finished second.
“I had fixed up one of my dad’s tractors. That was quite an accomplishment for a kid pulling against the best in the country,” Lancaster said.
He still remembers his first victory at the 1977 National Farm Machinery Show. As the last puller to go, Lancaster made his adjustments on the tractor, adding some weight to the front end to prevent it from raising up and marring the pull.
As he hit the gas, his tractor shot out straight. Lancaster cruised down the track, passing the previous leader with ease.
“As I went by, 17,000-plus people went crazy. I could see the crowd jump up like it was a last-second shot to win the game,” he said.
Not that the sport didn’t have its dangers.
During a pull at the National Farm Machinery Show, he watched as a competitor flipped his tractor over on a run. Lancaster and the other pullers sprinted down the run, lifting up the hulking machine and pulling their colleague out from underneath.
Once the accident was cleaned up, it was Lancaster’s turn to go.
“You talk about being nervous. It didn’t bother me most of the time, having done it so much. But I was nervous that time,” he said.
Koch got involved after Lancaster brought him to a pull one weekend. Green was a neighbor of Koch’s, who got involved in the early 1970s.
With a desire to experiment with more power, they decided to team up and share information on design.
Their four-turbo innovation was first completed on an Allis Chalmers tractor, the pulling model of choice for Lancaster, Green and Koch.
A mishap late in the pulling season opened the door to their innovation. Green’s tractor broke down toward the end of the year, and with plans to go on a fishing vacation in Minnesota, he was planning to retire his tractor for the rest of the year.
While he was gone, Lancaster and Koch made the adjustments and installed the four-turbocharger system.
The tractor debuted in a pull in Terre Haute in 1977, delighting crowds with its roar.
Though the four-turbo modifications were the impetus for his hall of fame induction, Lancaster enjoyed considerable success on the track as well.
He had more than 30 victories in National Tractor Pullers Association events. He was also a national champion in 1976, compiling the most points for victories over the course of the entire tractor-pulling season.
He pulled every weekend that year, sometimes even competing during the week.
After some early-season success, Lancaster vowed to attend every pull as long as he was leading the points total. The commitment meant some late nights and long drives to make it to each competition.
“One time, we were in the southwest corner of Tennessee and had to be in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania the next afternoon,” he said. “We had everything fueled, ready to go, laid out. As soon as we got off the track in Tennessee, I tied it down and we got out of there before it was even over.”
Those types of memories are what truly stands out about his tractor-pulling career, Lancaster said. The victories are nice, and being inducted into the Hall of Fame is special.
But the reason he stuck with tractor pulling for so long was the people.
“Tractor pulling has sure changed over the years. But the people, the ones who are in the sport, it’s more like a family,” Lancaster said. “There are good people involved in it. That hasn’t changed.”