Pulling to victory



>by Hope Smith

Some might find it difficult to pack more than $25,000 worth of equipment into a 6-by-2 foot area, but a team on campus has been succeeding at this every year for more than a decade.

The UK Wildcat Pulling Team designs a new one-fourth scale tractor every year from the ground up to compete in the ¼ Scale Tractor Student Design Competition in Peoria, Ill. The tractors, which can be described as “lawn tractors on steroids,” by team members combine smart design with real utility to create a small machine that can do big things.

“We are given an engine, a set of wheels and a rule book,” Josh Jackson, graduate adviser and 1/4 scale tractor pit crewmen, said. “Conceptually, the rest is left up to us.”

Over the years, the team has been comprised of six to 20 UK students from a variety of majors. While many are agriculture or engineering majors, economics and business majors also get hooked on the thrill of creating a powerful machine and testing its limits. The UK team took its first tractor to Peoria in 1999, at the competition’s second annual event.

Since then, each year has brought more success. UK has placed in the top five of more than 30 schools since 2003, making it one of the “powerhouses” of tractor-building in this part of the country, Jackson said.

“Illinois, Kansas and Purdue (universities) are our main competition,” Jackson said. “Ohio State is good, too; they’re like our buddy team … we got each other’s backs, help each other out.”

A huge chunk of the planning process is dedicated to nailing down the exact plans it takes to build such a machine. With so many diverse individuals, it’s often difficult to decide on what would work best. That’s when the older, more experienced advisers step in, to settle planning disputes and offer feasible alternatives.

“The advisers keep us rational and make us stick to hashing out what we want to do,” Jackson said.

With only a few simple items to start with, ¼ scale tractors can become almost anything. The main goal is to design something that will pull a steadily increasing weight in a consistent way during competition alongside other tractors, but other aspects of the tractors are under scrutiny too.

Safety, ergonomics, affordability, braking, craftsmanship and appearance matter too. These areas leave much to be strategically considered in the weekly meetings held by UK’s team.

“One year we had already arrived at the competition and realized we had gone over the weight limit, so we had to saw these big holes in the sides of the tractor,” Jackson said. “But no one knew that wasn’t part of our design. Another school copied it the next year … they thought it looked great.”

With a new set of rules every year, the competition can get pretty interesting. Sometimes teams are permitted to use multiple engines, and sometimes they have to use one. One year’s weight limit might exceed 800 pounds, while the next might be more restricted. But UK’s team is all about bending the rules for the chance of a good win.

“We like to call them ‘UK rules,’ but they’re really just rules that were made because of a loophole we found,” Jackson jokingly said. “I remember one year we painted our engine UK blue, and the very next year one of the rules was that you couldn’t paint your engines.”

Jackson became enticed with the art of building ¼ scale tractors when he joined his older brother at a meeting in 2005, and now, as an older member, he has passed on this interest to his younger brother, a senior at UK. He said most people who commit to building a tractor get hooked and find themselves competing the following year.

Throughout the year, the UK team works to raise money for the building and transport of the new ¼ scale tractor. Tractors cost about $25,000 to build, test and transport to Peoria. Team members man a corn booth at the Kentucky State fair, valet cars during football games and run a lawn mower clinic, where members tune up mowers in the spring.

“I would say the mower clinic raises a lot of money because we usually get over 400 mowers,” Jackson said. “We do things like change spark plugs, replace air filters and sharpen blades for a reasonable fee.”

The team also receives funds from various sponsors. With most of the work done on campus by team members and other volunteers, a little money is saved. The team could save more money if it reused the tractors from former years, but Jackson said members don’t like to “cannibalize” the tractors. Instead, the old tractors are kept for new members to learn from and compete with in later years.

The team grows into a sort of family, which can be proved by the many inside jokes and famous quotes the team has, Jackson said. Jackson stressed the necessity of females to the group, in particular, because a skilled, light driver is always needed.

“We tried a female driver one year because of a weight restraint, but she did such a great job that we kept her as our driver for other competitions,” Jackson said.

UK Wildcat Pulling Team meetings are held every Wednesday at 5:15 p.m. in the Charles E. Barnhart Building, and anyone can attend.

“We’d like to invite anyone who is willing to get in there and help to get the job done,” Jackson said.