A Family With Pull
After decades of tractor pulls, the Haneys have the sport in their blood. And their tractor is one bad dog.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
Louis and Leon Haney remember watching the froth-flecked Stephen King thriller Cujo back in the early 1980s. Leon, a master mechanic who works with his brother Louis at Haney Equipment Company in Athens, Ala., was already running a pulling tractor nicknamed Home Brew. But there was something about that rabid dog movie and its tagline, “Now there’s a new name for terror.”
It had bite.
Ask him about it, and Leon grins. It’s the playfully twisted smile a guy wears when he’s talking about a very big toy. “I thought to myself, ‘If I could build a tractor as mean as that dog …’” he says.
Well, mission accomplished.
Cujo, the Allis Chalmers D21 that is the namesake of the Haney family’s pulling team, is still a terror at tractor pulls across the South 3 decades later. The high point, brothers Louis and Leon agree, was “winning Louisville,” the showcase tractor pull at the National Farm Machinery Show, in 1995. “For a while there,” says Louis, “we were winning everything.”
Cujo is still a hometown favorite, in both its diesel version and Leon’s latest creation, an alcohol-fueled beast called Cujo Unleashed. In Tanner, Ala., just down the road from the Haneys’ Massey Ferguson® dealership, is an annual tractor pull that draws thousands from around the South each summer and helps raise big money for Tanner High School’s athletic program.
The Cujo Pulling Team is a staple of the event, and last year was no different. They even brought along a Massey Ferguson 8680 from the dealership to display and pull in the farm stock division. The whole family turns out to hang around in the pit and work to get the tractors ready for their turn on the pull track.
For the Haneys, all the work in Leon’s shop and the sweat in the pit are worth the effort, if only for the fun of it. But after 30-plus years of competition and a reincarnation of Cujo as an alcohol machine, would the bad dog bite again?
Preparation for pulling starts with some long nights in Leon Haney’s farm shop, just outside of Athens and not far from the dealership. “This shop just keeps getting bigger, and my house keeps getting smaller,” says Leon’s wife Ann, who is very much a part of the Cujo Pulling Team, along with son Clay and daughter Kimberly. Leon built the original diesel version of Cujo here decades ago, and has for the last two years been tweaking Cujo Unleashed.
Like the original diesel, the alcohol version is an Allis Chalmers D21. “We just liked the look of it,” Leon says. Sure enough, it looks exactly like the old D21 when it’s put together.
But it’s what’s inside that counts. Both versions run in the super stock pulling classes. Leon does all the work himself, which not only gives him an advantage on the track—being a driver and a mechanic—but also allows him to modify Cujo Unleashed to run in both the light super and heavy super pulling classes.
“The steering axle, brakes, calipers and final drives all come from an F Gleaner,” says Leon. “And we get rid of as much of the cast iron as we can to get the tractor lighter.” The economic load is a little lighter, too. Leon doesn’t just provide all the labor; the shelves around his shop and the machinery stored out back are also his best sources for parts. “I’m mostly building from stuff I had. I’m not going out and buying it,” he says.
Louis still pulls with the classic diesel version, but Leon says eventually they will phase it out and run only the alcohol machine. It makes good economic sense, especially when it comes to parts. The fuel system in a diesel tractor can run into the tens of thousands, while an alcohol fuel pump runs around 1,200 bucks. Leon pulls a rod from his stocked shelves. “Feel that,” he says. “These aluminum parts for the alcohol machine are light and cheap,” he says, adding that billet rods and pistons for the diesel engine cost four times as much.
The alcohol machine has its disadvantages, though. Fuel is a trade-off. The Haneys can run the diesel for three weekends on 5 gallons of fuel, while the alcohol version burns 5 or 6 gallons in one 15-second run. “We’ll take two 55-gallon drums of fuel on the road for a weekend with the alcohol version,” he says.
And the alcohol engines can be fickle. “We can be pretty sure the diesel is gonna run,” says Leon. “But we can wag this thing around all summer,” he winces, pointing to the alcohol version, “and you never know …”
Tiny Tanner isn’t even officially a town. It’s an unincorporated community in Limestone County, a spot in the road not far from Interstate 65 between Athens and Decatur. It does have a high school, and a football team—the Rattlers—that gets mean and strikes on fall Friday nights.
A football game here might draw several hundred; a thousand or more if a rival comes calling. Tonight, though, Tanner’s population is somewhere near 6,000, most of them packed into the bleachers. That makes Louis Haney smile. Over the years, the pull has raised more than $750,000 for the school’s athletic program. Haney Equipment helps sponsor the pull, and even feeds the pullers at a barbecue lunch the day of the event.
The pit area is between the small stadium and the high school campus, and spectators will occasionally wander back to take a gander at the machines. Leon’s class is first up tonight, so he’s already strapped into the harness and getting Cujo Unleashed in line. Pullers wear thick track suits and fire-resistant NOMEX hoods underneath their helmets. It’s July in Alabama, so the heat is intense, even at dusk. At trackside, it’s blistering.
So Leon is happy to be pulling first tonight. Clay helps Leon spy a good starting point on the track, and both Clay and Kimberly are trackside for the pull.
The first run for Cujo Unleashed doesn’t go too well. It shuts down about a third of the way down the track. Cujo Unleashed is towed behind the bleachers, where Leon quietly inspects it. An onboard computer has recorded data from the run, but that’s no help tonight. Leon does get the machine cranked for a second run, but the result is about the same.
Back in the shop a few months later, Leon still sounds downright disappointed, even though the summer pulling season is long since over. “The alcohol version let us down at Tanner,” says Leon. Louis had a good run late that night on the diesel, but it would take expert analysis from the computer data to assess the damage to Cujo Unleashed. A friend of Leon’s who modifies dragsters looked at the data, down to the millisecond. “He told me my big [turbo] charger was down on it,” says Leon. “I said, ‘No way, I’ve had that thing in my hands.’ But that’s what it was.”
“It’s a sick feeling to see those parts go flying, to see all that work get eaten up,” says Ann. But if anyone can fix it … “Leon is out here every night,” she says.
Besides the never-ending tweaks and repairs, the off-season gives Leon and Ann time to reflect on the realities of a life in the sport. Purses in the local and state pulls are light compared to the time and expense. Haney Equipment Company sponsors Cujo, but the bigger teams in the bigger pulls have high-dollar sponsors and more money to build and rebuild.
Leon and Ann talk about this, but not with regret. Pulling is a family thing. “The kids were born into it,” says Ann. “We’d go to pulls, and I’d have my foot on the stroller and holding a camera during a run.” Ann remembers that the kids, now both in college, were often given a choice between pulling and better cars, better vacations, a different life. “They chose pulling,” she says. “And I wouldn’t change anything,” Clay echoes.
Besides, pulling makes great advertising for Haney Equipment. And even though Cujo Unleashed had a rough weekend at Tanner, Haney Equipment had the last laugh. At the end of the night, Adam, Louis’ son, hooked the MF 8680 up to the sled and took it 6 inches short of a full pull. Leon ran it next, “as fast as it would go,” he laughs, and took it all the way.
Cujo might have been tame for that one night in Tanner, but his big red brother bared its fangs.
“We put a good whoopin’ on ’em,” he says. Too good, it turned out. Leon had pulled all the way to the barrels at track’s end and got a red flag. “First time I’ve ever been disqualified for pulling too far,” he says. “But they knew what Massey Ferguson was about down there.”