RINCON — The echoes of a sport that cranked up in Effingham County nearly five decades ago slowly faded into virtual silence. They are beginning to rumble again, however.
Mini tractor pulls, which feature modified lawn mowers dragging a heavy sled along a prescribed course, are returning to prominence.
“It started at Effingham County High School with the FFA boys,” longtime pulling enthusiast Greg Jaudon said. “It started with them in their class where they worked on small engines, Briggs motors and stuff. I was already out of school and gone when a group of guys got started with it (in the mid to late 1970s).
“They built a sled and would use weights out of the weight room to put on it.”
The weights were contained in a box that was mechanically winched forward as the sled progressed while pulled by a souped-up mower. The track they used was situated near what is now the Huddle House in Springfield.
“As time went on, (the sport) began to grow,” Jaudon said. “Baxley had a group (of pullers). Rochelle and Blackshear had tracks, too, so a club called Dixie Dirt Pullers was formed.”
Jaudon joined the club, which dominated his weekend activities. He was never enamored with college football or professional sports.
“My boys played a little bit of ball and stuff but I’ve been a mechanic all my life,” Jaudon said. “I never was big into stuff like that. I was always working on something, building a motor or doing something for somebody.”
Jaudon was a mechanic at the Savannah sugar refinery for 42 years.
Unfortunately, an economic downturn proved disastrous for mini pullers.
“People didn’t have the money to spend, you know, and get into it so we ended up closing the (Springfield) track down — and we never did get back into it,” Jaudon said.
Recently, however, the sport regained local momentum through an association with Honey Ridge Agricenter.
“When we heard that the Effingham County Board of Education bought (Honey Ridge Plantation), me and another guy, Ben Crosby — he was a Young Farmer here in Effingham — he got to talking with different ones and he got to talking with (Career, Technical and Agricultural Education Coordinator) Todd Wall and sort of helped build that track up there,” Jaudon said. “Ben basically did all the talking and I did all the work.”
Wall welcomed a track for mini tractor pullers at Honey Ridge because it paved a way for more educational opportunities for Effingham County students.
“I’d never heard of mini tractor pulls until I got to Effingham (in 2016),” he said with a laugh.
The benefits, however, are undeniable, the former Young Farmer advisor said.
“I had several Young Farmer members tell me how they used to do mini tractor pulls years ago,” Wall said. “... One of the reasons they liked to do it is because the students could bring in their lawn mowers with the small engines to the ag mechanic shop at the two high schools and actually work on them to get them ready to pull. One of the standards in ag mechanics is small engines — small engine repair, small engine building — so what better way to connect the curriculum of ag mechanics in the classroom to students building these lawn mowers and actually competing in mini tractor pulls?
“It was a big deal years ago when (former Young Farmers advisor) was here but it actually played out before he left (in 2014) because they didn’t have a track. I told (Crosby and Jaudon) I didn’t know anything about tractor pulling but we had 325 acres at Honey Ridge and we could find a place to put a track.”
In addition to Crosby and Jaudon, Wade and Fred Coursey, Gerald Kessler and others helped make the track happen.
“The people who used to be involved started to come out and donate different things, and the ag mechanic classes helped build the safety rails,” Wall said. “Before long, we had us a track out there so we try to have three or four pulls a year.”
The next Honey Ridge pull, sponsored by the Southeast Georgia Mini Tractor Pullers, is set Saturday at noon. The gates will open at 10 a.m.
“What I think is cool about it, in Effingham, I know, is that it is tied into the curriculum of ag mechanics with small engine repair,” Wall said. “Any time you can make that real-world connection with your students, man, you are hitting home runs. We have students who are participating and I would like to see that program grow and get more kids involved.
“So do the ones I mentioned earlier (Jaudon, Crosby, the Courseys and Kessler). They always welcome new students, parents and other people to get involved because it is a good community, family activity.”
Jaudon believes the strengthening of family bonds is one of the sport’s greatest assets.
“It gets parents involved — and that’s the main thing,” he said. “You get a connection between your parents and your kids. Other than sitting there playing on a phone or a computer, get them out of the house and get them involved in something else.”
Jaudon built another track at 267 Whitaker Road in Clyo for the Down South Mini Tractor Pullers. It hosted a few pulls this year and will start its 2022 slate April 16.
Honey Ridge has its Spring Fling Pull slated in March.
“(Jaudon) really loves it,” Wall said. “He’s retired so I can call on him anytime to get the (Honey Ridge) track prepped. He and some others gave advice about building a weigh-in area and they put lights up so we can have pulls at night if we need to or a pull runs late.
“It’s like a baseball field out there.”
Jaudon admitted that he loves every element involved in trying to pull the sled further than his competitors.
“It’s like (auto) racing when you go to different tracks on dirt,” he said. “... Each one is different so you set the race car up to where the tires will grip. You have to set your caster and your camber. You use different sized tires.
“... Those are combinations that you have to figure out to win and it’s the same way in tractor pulling. You have to figure things out if you want to be competitive.”