Full Pull: On The Job and On The Track With Joe Eder

Joe Eder drives and builds pulling tractors while running two successful ag businesses. It’s safe to say it: Joe knows horsepower.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

White haze filters the bright light around Freedom Hall in Louisville on the first night of the National Farm Machinery Show. The smell of expired fuel is sharp and distinct, and the thousands of fans—either oblivious to the plumes and fumes, or delirious from them—shout approval as 12,000-HP monsters drag a weight-transfer sled down a 245-foot dirt track on the arena floor. The sled weighs 15 tons when the tractor driver hooks up to it. By the end of the run, it weighs triple that. The modified tractors pulling that sled are burning more than 20 gallons of alcohol fuel in the eight-second trip.

Joe Eder

Joe Eder

Drivers and crew members walk a few hundred yards through the mid-February cold between Freedom Hall and the convention facilities at the Kentucky Exposition Center, the staging area for the Wednesday night prelims of the 2015 National Farm Machinery Show (NFMS) Championship Tractor Pull. Lined up along the center of the convention floor are the modified tractors, each weighing around 7,500 pounds, each with four 3,000-HP engines. Each of those engines cost around 70 grand. The two dragster-sized rear tires cost $4,500 apiece. (For reference, the total purse for this entire event is around a quarter-million.)

Still, it’s “Louisville”—that’s how the competitors refer to this pull, simply “Louisville.” “Call it the Super Bowl, the World Series, whatever,” says the event’s announcer, Dave Bennett, a former puller who was also the parts department manager at Livingston Machinery, the AGCO dealership in Chickasha, Okla., for 25 years. “You get all sizes of tractors from all different pulling organizations,” he says. “It’s the only pull of its kind.” Eight classes of tractors compete over the four-day event, with preliminaries on the weeknights during NFMS and the finals on Saturday night.

“Everything’s different in Louisville,” says Barney Palmer, standing in the staging area in front of the GEICO 75th Edition, the modified tractor driven and built by four-time Louisville Grand Champion Joe Eder. Palmer says his official title on the Eder team is “Helper.” He makes adjustments, fuels the tractor and tests the engines, “whatever it takes,” he says. Those adjustments are critical here, since most pulling tracks are outdoors and at least 50 feet longer. “Louisville is the first pull of the season,” says Palmer, who adds they haven’t pulled as part of the Lucas Oil Champions Tour since last September, and won’t start the new tour until late May. “Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen.”

Eder, the boss man, wearing a bright green and blue GEICO tracksuit and a mask of stoicism, agrees. “Run what you brung,” says Eder, “and hope you brung enough.”

“Joe was 14 years old,” says Palmer, who met young Eder in 1987 when Palmer was running a single-engine tractor at a state-level tractor pull. Eder had written his name and phone number on the back of a torn-off piece of beer carton. “Joe said, ‘Mister, I want to go to the next pull with you.’”

Barney Palmer

Barney Palmer

The two have worked together ever since.

Eder was just shy of his 16th birthday when he first pulled competitively. Before long, Eder officially transitioned to driving, with Palmer working the pit. “I was totally obsessed; I just couldn’t get enough of it,” Eder says.

Eder’s first pulling tractor cost around $8,000. He bought the frame from one guy, the engine from another, and pieced the thing together. “A lot of our learning came from fault or error, or something literally burning up,” he says. After more than a decade of working through the kinks, pulling from the state level all the way up to the National Tractor Pulling Association, Eder branched out and built his first tractor for someone else, and he took over an existing business—Banter Brothers, legends in building pulling tractors—that evolved into Eder Motorsports.

The tractor he’s pulling this year is called “GEICO 75th Edition” because it was the 75th frame he built. Besides his own pulling prowess, Eder, now 43, is a renowned chassis builder. “We have 92 frames out there,” he says. His customers count among them 21 Grand National championships, and many more over the years on the state, regional and national pulling circuits. The most recent is Joe’s own championship: his fifth national title, this one with Lucas Oil Pro Pulling League, in 2016.

On the family farm in North Collins, N.Y., the welding and fabrication shop for Eder Motorsports sits across the road from great piles of steaming bark mulch, stripped from timber cut at a local sawmill that was once owned and run by Eder’s parents.

“We had sold the sawmill and my parents retired,” he says. “I was driving by one day and I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we do something with that byproduct?’”

Little Joe makes an appearance.

Little Joe makes an appearance.

He’s been “doing something” with it for 10 years now, starting his first year with 2,500 cubic yards of material, and currently producing 35,000 cubic yards of bark mulch a year. And, for the past 15 seasons, he has provided a turnkey harvesting service for dairies: “Mowing, merging, chopping. We truck it. We pack it. It’s complete.” It’s a family business too. His wife, Karla, loads mulch, runs the merging tractor and drives tractors between worksites. “She’s the backbone of the business,” he says.

No word, though, on when Eder finds time to sleep. He laughs when asked about it. “Hey, I’d say our success is about diversity.” Plus, the population on the farm just grew by one: He and Karla just welcomed their first child, Little Joe. (Barney Palmer says Little Joe waited to be born until the Lucas Oil tour was over last season, but just barely.) No word, either, on when Little Joe will make his first pull.

Through the growing farm businesses and tractor-building success, it’s the driving that gets Eder going. “These modifieds,” he says, gesturing to the GEICO 75th, “this is where it’s at. At any point something is gonna fly off or be on fire or go through the air.” He gives a sly smile. “So that’s pretty cool.”

The MF8727, pushing mulch.

The MF8727, pushing mulch.

On his first run in Louisville, that’s pretty much what happens, but not with the tractor. Eder hitches to the sled for his first prelim run and gets about 80 feet down the track before something feels wrong. On the pull before Eder, one of the chains that pulls the weight box up the rail on the sled broke. The back of the sled is manned by a driver, but the broken chain went unnoticed. Eder throttled, but the sled was too light. “I could feel the tractor coming out of the dirt. The driver on the sled, he has brakes, and I’m starting to lift off the throttle—we have to work together to land this thing,” he says, to avoid a disaster like a runaway sled.

After a long break in the action while a new sled was put into action, Eder hitched again and pulled it more than 241 feet—enough to qualify for the finals on Saturday night.

Back on the farm in North Collins, not long after Louisville, the GEICO 75th is back in the shop. Climbing into a new Massey Ferguson® 8727 to push bark into a custom mulch-processing facility—much of which he designed and built himself—Eder is already looking forward to the pulling season.

“I love going out in front of 10,000 people and when everything’s right—making a great pass, standing up and saluting the crowd,” he says, adding that he’s grateful for the sponsors and fans that make the whole thing possible.

“We got a third place at Louisville—very happy,” he says, but he already has designs on selling GEICO 75th. “As competitive as this tractor is right now, I don’t want to run against it. I’ll sell it overseas.”

He’ll build a new chassis, bring in his engine expert, Glen Veney—“he’s the guy that’s always on top” of the latest technology, Eder says. “We got ideas for a new one already. You can’t sit still.”

Run what you brung, as they say. Hope you brung enough.