This story is part one of two in the story of Bill VanDe Creek.
A good place to learn about Bill VanDe Creek is his 15-year-old garage. Inside, which can fit two pick-up trucks with some room to spare, are the parts, tools and remnants of VanDe Creek’s craft: building machines to pull weights, big and small.
Throughout the garage are pieces and parts to make a quality pedal tractor. Along the left wall are VanDe Creek’s machines and tools: a couple workbenches carrying his current project, a mill, a lathe near the corner on the back wall. Quarter-inch aluminum sits against the back wall. In front of the aluminum is a well-used recliner and a fold-up chair. Boxes and pieces of John Deere pedal tractors lay on the ground and on various tables. A few steering wheels hanging from the back wall next to a line of shelves. Full and empty cardboard boxes are piled throughout the garage. From the ceiling hang relics of the past; a set of pistons, old pedal tractors and other parts. To the right of the entryway, above a sink, is a picture of a young VanDe Creek riding a mini hot rod pulling a weight sled in Wamego, Kansas.
Building a mini rod
The Abilene native’s career in building competitive pulling machines began when he was in his 20s. He and a friend decided to build a hot rod for pulling in the 1,500 and 1,700 pound weight classes. After four years, the two split their partnership, but VanDe Creek decided to build his own mini rod from scratch. He paid for the rod by building boat trailers and rigging boats on the weekends and evenings.
“The engine was built myself, and it was a learning curve there because a 350 block was not big enough to do what I wanted,” VanDe Creek said. “It didn’t have enough power. So I went to a 400 block and went to burning methanol alcohol.”
The engine used a 12 1/2 to one alcohol ratio. That ratio is needed because alcohol does not like to burn until it is compressed. When compressed, the alcohol becomes, “violent and hot,” VanDe Creek said.
“Gasoline you can throw on the floor and it’ll (light),” VanDe Creek said. “Alcohol you could put on the floor and throw a match in it… probably not even light. It’s more like diesel fuel. It’s lazy.”
One of the downsides to buying alcohol is that the tractor’s oil needs to be changed often, VanDe Creek said. He had to change the oil every two competitions.
“Unburnt alcohol going down there into the oil makes it look like pus,” he said. “Just real slimy s***.”
The tires were puller specials, the same tires drag racers use. The tread of the tires are hard rubber, with the side walls two-ply, thin and flexible. The tires were filled with six to seven pounds of air to prevent the mini rod from wobbling side-to-side.
Ronnie Reed, from Longford, Kansas, and National Tractor Pull Association Hall of Fame inductee, helped VanDe Creek get an injection system with a specialty camshaft.
Bill crafted the spindles from one inch stainless steel.
“Everybody was afraid of that frame except for me,” VanDe Creek said. “I built it. I was the one sitting in there.”
He had the torque converter built by someone who lived in Wichita at the time. VanDe Creek sent the converter to him because he claim he could build it to never completely lock up until the engine reached 1,700 rpm.
“All I did was put that torque converter in, and I went from third and fourth place to first and second place so fast, it wasn’t funny,” he said. “All I changed was the torque converter and everybody thought, ‘he did something to his engine,’ or did this or did that. I never did tell anybody all it was, was the torque converter.”
Learning Every Pull
“Every time you went out with that thing, damn near every time went out, you could pick something up you needed to be doing different,” VanDe Creek said.
One source of constant adjustment were the tracks. Each track was unique. Some were mixed with dirt and sand. Others were mixed with dirt and clay.
One of his biggest regrets was installing a locking rear end, which locked the rear tires in place. What he thought the lock would do is keep the mini rod running straight. What ended up happening was the lock forced his mini rod to move side-to-side on the inconsistent surfaces of dirt. He used the locking rear end for four competitions before removing them.
“(Locking the tires) don’t work when you got a track that’s tight, bites and loose… Every time I went out, the announcer was a little ornery. He’d say ‘here’s VanDe Creek. He’s going to use the whole track.’ Well, yeah, I used the whole track. Then he’d say, ‘you know, if you’d learn how to run straight down, you could go twice as far.’”
Returning to a normal rear end, VanDe Creek still had trouble keeping his mini rod ride straight. Most pullers could throw their weight whichever way to help correct the direction of their tractor. VanDe Creek couldn’t because he installed sides on either side of his seat, preventing him from shifting his weight. He could use his brake to somewhat help, but that would reduce the horsepower and shorten his pull.
“Ronnie Reed said, ‘why don’t you try this one time. When they say go and they drop that flag, you shove that (throttle) wide open and hang on.’” he said. “I did, and by God I got to winning more pulls. He was right. Dump it wide open and hang on and hope to hell it went straight.”
VanDe Creek competed in 10 to 12 pulls annually in his first couple of years. By the end of his seven-year tractor pulling career, he was competing in about 15 to 18. He competed from 1979 to 1986.
His first national competition was in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1972. The competition was the highest it could be. About 30 people attended the pull, and about 20 of them had blowers on their mini rods. VanDe Creek prepared though. He’d watched plenty of pulls at the same track in Lincoln. The track was a horse track that had a pull area built in, and the pull area had the same sand and dirt mixture for its track as the horse track.
“When you water it down and pack it to make the track, it’s pretty damn hard,” he said. “So I spent all week sharpening the tires on that (mini rod) so the leading each of that tire was sharp and would bite (into the dirt), because I knew what was up there.”
His decision succeeded, as he won first place in the 1,550 class and second place in the 1,750 class. With some of the money, him and his family took a vacation to Nashville, Tennessee, for a long weekend.
“… (The other competitors) were pissed,” he said. “They tried to come through with some kind of a ruling to get me out of there so I wouldn’t get that money. Ronny Reed was on the national board and he said, ‘hey, rules are rules. The guy’s entitled to it.’”
So went VanDe Creek’s one and only national tractor pull.
Kansas Tractor Pull President
VanDe Creek became the president of the Kansas Truck and Tractor Pull Association, “somehow,” he said. He joined about four years after the association was founded while VanDe Creek was still competing. A major problem he dealt with while president was determining prize money pools.
When he first became president, the association did not have prize money or regulated competitions. Each year though, competitors wanted prize money. So the association became regulating and gathering prize pools. For weight classes, the association decided on 1,750 lbs and 1,950 lbs. The national weight classes were 1,550 and 1,750. Building a tractor to weight 1,750 and 1,950 I much easier then building one to weight lighter at 1,550 and 1,750. For example, the first prize pools were $350 split between first, second and sometimes third place for the 1,750 weight class.
“Wasn’t much money, but back then, it was enough gas money to get you home and maybe to buy something for your mini rod so you can make it better,” VanDe Creek said.
As the prize pools got bigger, competitors made better vehicles, which led to them to ask for more prize money. The standard for prize pools got high enough that fairs and festivals had to stop hosting pulls because they couldn’t support the higher prize pools. As a result, the number of pulls in Kansas annually receded.
“It got to where nobody could come up with $5,000, $6,000, $7,000, $10,000 to bring their stuff in,” he said. “Back then, it took $8,000 to $10,000 to bring in something to look at. The big (competitors) would just go some place else. If you had $8,000 here for prize money, the big boys would go to where there’s $10,000.”
Nowadays, one engine for a tractor pulling in a NGA completion today costs about $100,000.
VanDe Creek said he wishes he had the money to host a modern-day tractor pull.
“As long as I can build a pedal tractor once in a while, I’ll be happy,” he said.
Part two will tell Bill VanDe Creek’s story in tractor pedal pulls
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.