Lyman Russell: Table-top racers pull their own weight

Written by David Green.


Lyman Russell remembers the very day it all began. He was a 10-year-old student at Sand Creek when he saw a poster on the wall advertising a tractor pull.

The local FFA group organized the event but it wasn’t for big tractors. Motorized farm toys would do the pulling in this contest.

“I told my dad, ‘You like tractor pulls. We can do this cheap!’”

mini1 Father and son did get together on the project and it continued for several years. The pair built tractors and competed until Lyman graduated from high school, but eventually, bigger motors caught his attention. He turned to souping up garden tractors and building dune buggies, leaving the Tonka truck size models behind.

He didn’t leave them behind forever. A few months ago he started thinking small again. He’s come back to table-top racing, and he’s in deep. Lyman Russell is now the Michigan representative for the National Micro-Mini Tractor Pulling Association.

The Wisconsin-based organization sets the standards for the miniature pullers and organizes competitions throughout the country. There are 67 sanctioned pulls scheduled this year, and the next one is Saturday afternoon in downtown Lyons.

How it’s done

“You start with a basic Ertl farm toy, 1/16 scale, and you go from there,” Lyman said.

But there are choices to make.

“Back in the day when I was doing it, we made everything,” Lyman recalls.

That’s not quite the approach he’s taking in his quest to attract a new, younger generation of pullers. It’s hard to compete with the instant gratification of the internet or even a ready-to-play radio-controlled vehicle, so he’s using some parts from the hobby store.

“I’m using stuff out of radio-controlled units because the kids can go out and buy it off the shelf.”

Still, it’s easy to drop $500 on a basic micro—one that’s going to do some serious pulling on the track. You’ll pay $30 to $50 for the toy tractor, then you’ll spend a couple hundred paying someone to do the machining work. Rails, gear box, motor mount—all of these are fabricated from a bar of aluminum. Lyman turns to the Constables on Elliott Highway or Dan Kovar in Lyons for his needs.

“The engine, gears and tires make up the balance,” Lyman said.

A basic nitro methane engine costs $45, but he also has an Italian model that sells for $600.

Tires start at around $40. The extra wide hot rod style costs about $100 and four-wheel drive truck models use tires that can cost twice as much.

“You can buy tractors for as little as $100 off the internet,” Lyman said, “but you’re limited with what you can do.”

The micro-mini tractors do their work on a 16-foot wooden track. The super stock and truck classes are faster and have a higher horsepower. A 24-foot track is used for those models.

Weights, gearing, drawbar height, clutch setup, carburetor—there are several variables that can determine a successful pull. It looks simple at first, Lyman says, but it’s not. A six-pound toy tractor can end up lugging 900 pounds down the track.

Attracting youngsters

Lyman Russell’s ambition is to get kids interested in building micro-minis.

Pulls were once popular among 4-H clubs and FFA groups. There were competitions in several area towns in the late 1970s and early 1980s—before the days of the personal computer. That was back when kids worked on cars, he said. Now they don’t even change the oil.

It just seems to Lyman that younger people today don’t have the experience that kids did 20 or 30 years ago.

“I think kids need some kind of skill,” he says. “Anybody can go to a hobby store and buy a radio controlled truck, but there’s a lot of skill that goes into building your own.”

In Lyman’s mind, his approach is going to make the endeavor attractive to youngsters.

“Somehow I want to make it easier for them to get started,” he said. “My goal is to build five tractors for kids to use. If they have fun with it and learn something, that’s great. Hopefully we can sell the idea to some skeptical parents.”

He’ll furnish the tractor and fuel. Maybe he can attract some business sponsors to help pay the way. It’s good to attract adults to the competition, Lyman said, but it’s even better to hook the kids. That’s where the future lies.

Of course he’s liberal with his definition of childhood. Many years have passed since he was a 10-year-old boy with a fascination for a toy tractor that could pull a heavy weight, but the allure is still there today.

“I tell everybody it’s for the kids, but we don’t put any age limit on how old the kids can be.”

National Organization 

The National Micro-Mini Tractor Pulling Association was founded in 1976 to serve as the sanctioning body for table-top pulls. State associations exist from New Jersey to California, plus Ontario, Canada.

mini-2 The June calendar of events includes pulls as far east as Pennsylvania and west into Iowa. Right in the center is Lyons, Ohio, where a pull gets underway Saturday at 3 p.m. The event is part of the Lyons’ celebration of Ohio’s bicentennial. Practice pulls are scheduled to begin at 2:30 on Adrian Street—shut off from traffic for the afternoon.

Lyman Russell of rural Sand Creek, head of the Southern Michigan Micro-Mini Tractor Pullers Club, expects representatives from all six of the NMMTPA sanctioned classes: three-pound and five-pound stock tractors; two-wheel drive road vehicles; super stock tractors; 4x4 trucks; open modified “hot rod” tractors, with no limit on engine size.

Pullers from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Missouri, Ohio and Ontario have registered for the event, Russell said, and he expects to see some from other Midwest states.

Although this is the only sanctioned pull in the area, club pulls are scheduled at the Lenawee and Fulton county fairs and at Harrison Lake, Ohio. Russell hopes to organize some indoor pulls this winter.

    - June 11, 2003 

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