Whatever the sport, if you accumulate a record of accomp1ishments, recognition soon follows in your footsteps.
That explains the reasoning behind this year's choice for the NTPA Pulling Hall of Fame - Wheeler Rittinger, inducted at the NTPA Annual Awards Banquet, in Williamsburg, VA last month.
At banquet time, we sat down with Wheeler and his wife, Jean, to talk about his pulling career, which spanned more than 30 years, from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s. That career included time spent as a puller, a sled operator – the old Landoll sled - and as a director of Ohio State Tractor Pullers Association for 10 years.
Wheeler said when he started in 1951, he pulled a sled loaded with cement blocks and drove an F-30 Farmall. The sled and the tractor were both a far cry from what fans see today. It was an old horse-pulling sled and that old F-30 was a stock tractor capable of 30 horsepower, max.
That first pull was in his hometown of Circleville, OH, one week following the first pull he ever saw in nearby Mechanicsburg. That Mechanicsburg pull enticed him to give pulling a try. He caught the bug and stayed for three decades.
A year later found him on his dad's M Farmall. By 1953 Wheeler had his own M, and went pulling with it. Wheeler stuck with his M up until 1966, making small changes here and there, including bigger pistons and a turbocharger.
In 1966, a new tractor appeared in his stable. It was an F-12 Farmall, powered by a 430 cid Lincoln, As soon as he added that Lincoln engine, the F-12 ceased being a Super Stock tractor and Wheeler joined the Modified ranks, from which he never strayed.
He kept that F-12 until 1973, when he bought another M. But even though he sold his F-12, he didn't sell the Lincoln. That same 430 appeared in his M.
He ran that M for five years. It was good to him, winning back-to-back Grand National point crowns in the 5000 lb. Modified class in 1973 and 1974. Wheeler remembers 1974 for another reason. That year he was chosen Puller of the Year. Golden Harvest Seeds sponsored the award and along with the honor came a trip to the Bahamas. Wheeler ended up giving it to his son Steve and wife, Sandra.
Wheeler's decision to jump to the Modified division, instead of staying in the Super Stock division, was based on a couple of things. When the speed pulls came about (i.e., the elimination of the pace tractor), he figured he could get more rpm with automotive engines. Also, he went with a Lincoln because it had more torque and was cheaper to run than cast-iron Chevys.
By 1975, he was a Modified puller to the core, He built his first tractor, using an IH 650 chassis, and called it Outcast. There was one thing unusual about it. It was powered by a blown alcohol Donovan 417. Wheeler believes it was the first Donovan to appear in tractor pulling competition, although they debuted in drag racing in 1972.
Why the Donovan (the first aluminum aftermarket engine, patterned after the Chrysler 396) and where did he get it? Wheeler wanted something different: "Everybody had Chevys." He got it from Herm Petersen, at the time one of the top guns in Top Fuel racing. Wheeler picked up the engine from Herm during the NHRA Springnationals that year.
With Outcast he ran the 7000 lb. and 9000 lb. classes and did well enough to qualify for the Indy Super Pull in 1979, 1980, and 1981, where he took a win in the 7 class in 1980, and a top five finish in each year in the 9 class against the likes of Pulling Hall of Famers Bruce Hutcherson and Don Harness.
In 1981, fans saw a new tractor. It was Outcast II and it ran not one, but two Donovans. They did not see the normal configuration either, with the engines hooked crank-to-crank. Instead they were side by side, with separate transmissions and rearends. The tractor was built by the Sage Brothers, owners of SCS Gearbox in Bellevue, OH.
The design of Outcast II put a throttle stick between his legs where he could gun one engine or the other instead of using brakes to control the direction of the tractor. Driving the tractor took some getting use to. Pushing the throttle straight forward activated both cables to the barrel valves and injector butterflies. Pushing the stick to the side took the tension off one side, closing the throttle to that engine, while the remaining engine remained at full throttle. To turn right he pushed the stick to the right, which slowed the right wheel, while the left wheel remained at speed.
It was an unusual set-up, to say the least. Did it work better than it looked? "It worked fairly well, but I blew up an engine or two," Wheeler admitted, probably due to his style of driving, which he characterized as hammer-down.
With that tractor, Wheeler ran the 5, 7, 9, and 12 Open class. To compete in the 12 Open, he had to swing 7,000 pounds of weight, which he dutifully carried all Summer.
During his career, he pulled all over, including Florida, where he went for the first time in 1972. Did Florida's unique tracks ever give him trouble? He said on his first hook in Florida he buried the tractor at the starting line. He gave it a little too much throttle, and the sandy track couldn't hold the horsepower. After that he got familiar with them, and went to Florida every year since.
Wheeler remembered one particular pull in the Sunshine State. He was down there just after he got Outcast II built. It was at Ocala and he was driving in the 5 class. At 200 feet, the left tire came loose from the wheel, but that didn't stop the tractor. Outcast didn't quit running until it hit the 256 foot mark. That was good enough to win the class.
As pulling entered the 1980s, more and more engines started to appear. Bruce Hutcherson had his quad-engine Makin' Bacon, powered by Rodecks, and the Banter brothers were running neck-and-neck with Hutcherson with their ever-reliable Chevys. But Wheeler told us that he never went beyond the two-engine set-up. He just couldn't afford to. "We weren't going to lose the farm over tractor pulling," Jean said. So, in the mid-1980s Wheeler called it quits with NTPA pulling and went pulling with other organizations that had two-engine limits in a 5800 lb. class.
What are his lasting feelings about his pulling experience. "I wouldn't do it again at my age, but I wouldn't take anything for the experience. I miss the travel and I miss the competition."
Maybe that's why Wheeler is still pulling, only now it's with antique tractors. And one of the tractors he uses is that old M he drove in the '50s. We guess the old adage about once it gets in your blood may hold true in Wheeler's case. Only two years ago, he pulled at the Louisville Farm Show, taking a runnerup. And what tractor did he drive? Outcast II, which he still has and takes loving care of.
"I drove it two more times in '91 after the Farm Show and won both times. I retired the tractor and put it away a winner.”
Just like our latest Hall of Fame recipient.