A History of Sunshine State Tractor Pulling
Almost 40 years ago, five men from Eustis, Florida, each involved in agriculture and each tractor enthusiasts, piled into a late 60’s model Oldsmobile and headed to Macon, Georgia. For 3 of the 5, it would be the first time they had ever seen a competitive tractor pull.
Frank Paulhamus and his brother Gene farmed about a section of land north of Eustis. Having moved to the area in 1959 from Pennsylvania, Frank and Gene already knew tractor pulling and were enthusiastically recruiting the other three to help bring pulling to Florida…for the first time ever.
Frank and Gene first spoke about the idea to Stan Bainter, then the agency manager for Lake County Farm Bureau. Stan was certainly a tractor enthusiast having restored several antique tractors of his own. More importantly, Stan had experience organizing several events in the community and knew at least some of what it would take, and who it would take, to make it work.
Frank, Gene and Stan first went to Charlie Norris. Charlie owned a local trucking company and eventually would open Fort Mason Tractor company, an Oliver (and later White) dealership. As importantly, Charlie was the President of the local fair association, giving the group a well known and ready made site for putting on the event.
Next, the trio went to see Buck Igou. Igou owned W.M. Igou, Inc., a farm and home store that also served as the area’s Allis-Chalmers dealership. But, Buck brought something else that was very, very important to the effort. Buck served on the Board of Directors of the local Bank.
The Macon Tractor pull was quite a spectacle for the group. It featured stock farm tractors and super modified’s. An indoor tractor pull, it also offered a few other unique experiences. “I’ll never forget that first really big diesel headed down the track,” Bainter recalled. “It was so loud it was blowing ceiling tiles loose and they were floating down onto the crowd. I was hooked from that moment on.”
The group met with Ed Hart, executive director of the National Tractor Pullers Association (NTPA) and came up with a plan to include the Sunshine State Tractor Pull in Eustis, FL for the 1971 NTPA winter tour.
There were a lot of anxious days and weeks leading up to the February pull. The group worked feverishly to get sponsors, recruit pullers, prepare the track and facilities, sell tickets and any number of other details. What would the weather be like? Would the big machines show up? What would central Florida spectators think? How were they going to pay the bills?
But then, on that cool, clear February morning, when the NTPA drivers began flowing into Eustis with machines that the local spectators had never even imagined, confidence began to grow. It was really happening. And it seemed like it was going to work.
Being a first time ever event also meant much of the planning and facilities had not been tested. For example, while the group had built what they thought was the “perfect” track, they had no way of knowing how it would perform. It turned out the track, comprised of local clay, was much too wet and sticky and pullers just weren’t able to get very far down the track.
Undaunted, the group was determined to make sure the next day would be better. Charlie Norris literally sprang into action, hauling in loads of limerock that was mixed with the clay and repacked. And it worked!
With a lot of work and community support the first annual Sunshine State Tractor Pull proved quite successful. The pullers were happy to be in the Florida sunshine in the dead of winter, the crowd was good, and the group of five hadn’t lost too much money.
So in 1972, the Florida Tractor Pullers Association (FTPA) had its 2nd annual Sunshine State Tractor Pull in Eustis and again entertained a sold out crowd for 3 days. Frank, Gene, Charlie, Buck and Stan were having so much fun in Eustis that they decided to add the Rodeo Arena in Kissimmee as well as the 3rd annual Sunshine State Tractor Pull in Eustis to NTPA’s 1973 winter tour.
Legend has it that it was at the 1973 Kissimmee pull that a couple of local cowboys asked if they could hook their 4 X 4 trucks to the sled, just to see what they could do. According to the legend, there was a debate among the organizers whether or not their insurance covered trucks pulling the sled, after all, it was a “tractor” pull. Apparently, while the debate was ongoing, the gentlemen had their pull and with that, 4 x4 truck pulling was born…in Kissimmee, Florida!
Frank and Gene Paulhamus would go on from there to participate in almost weekly sanctioned NTPA pulls and both also became Directors of the Association as well as accomplished pullers, Frank pulling a John Deere 4000 that he said pulled best in “road gear”, and Gene becoming a NATIONAL Points Champion in 5000lb 4 x 4 pickups.
Today, Frank Paulhamus serves as the Florida Antique Tractor Club (FATC) treasurer and occasionally pulls or has his grandson pull his antique John Deeres.