Bill Berg | 2018
Bill Berg | 2018
For our first Pulling Hall of Fame inductee, one Grand National title turned out to be just “A-Nuff.” But even while he and his family managed a full-time construction business and a full-time farming operation, he was able to stay competitive at a championship level in tandem with his son and teammate for most of a decade. And that left a legacy---close to home and across the country---that the pulling world will “Never” forget.
Bill Berg’s pulling career began in 1973 on the tracks of his native Minnesota and neighboring Wisconsin with an International 856 and a nearly new 1468. By 1976, his experiment with the V8 was over, and he switched his efforts to a twin-turboed 1466 that he would campaign for the next five seasons in the Super Stock division.
By that time, the Bergs---Bill and his son Bret---had begun to make a name for themselves on the national scene. Moreover, they would each find names for their respective red rides: Bret’s defiant “Not-a-Nuff” transcended by Bill’s definitive “Never-a-Nuff.”
Bill’s first placing in national competition was in June of 1979 at the Minnesota Nationals at Owatonna, just an hour’s drive south of home. As pronounced by The Puller magazine, “The 12,000 lb. Super Stock class found Dave Schreier’s 4320 winning at 294’7” with John Burt’s ‘Bootlegger’ 966 a close second at 291’. The 1466 of Bill Berg came home third at 286’1” for the Rosemount, Minnesota puller.”
But the NTPA’s monthly journal had already heralded in late 1978 the impending arrival of “more left-hand power”---a familiar reference at the time to Hypermax-engineered performance upgrades---with Berg and Stockton, Iowa’s John Klug. Berg’s “Never-a-Nuff” and Klug’s “Red Baron” would be on-track rivals in pursuit of wins and titles in heavy Supers throughout the 1980s.
Two months later, a pair of seconds (to Randy Janke’s 966 in a four-way pull-off in the 12 and to Danny Dean’s “Rooster” in the 9) at Cedar Rapids’ Hawkeye Grand Nationals raised Bill’s profile even more. But two weeks after that, he experienced a thrill only a combination father-teammate could appreciate when 16-year-old Bret scored a stunning victory at Bowling Green, Ohio with his 1066 in the 7,000-lb. class.
As it happened, Bill would match that accomplishment at the heaviest weight break the very next season. “Bill Berg’s and Dickie Sullivan’s IHs left the rest of the 12,000-lb. Super Stocks in their wake,” recorded The Puller, “as the pair were 30’ ahead of the class with their full pulls. The ‘Never-a-Nuff’ 1466 of Berg nailed the win at 152’10”, with Sullivan’s ‘Duster II’ 1066 at 143’0”.”
The Bowling Green win was the highlight of Berg’s three in 1980 that spanned the eastern half of the circuit including Cayuga Speedway in Ontario and U.S. 131 Raceway in Martin, Michigan. As a result, he twice cracked the top-10 in Grand National standings that season, finishing seventh in the 95 and sixth in the 12.
The Bergs enjoyed participating at the top events. “The big shows were the best,” Bret says of the pulls of the time. “The competition was really good.” But when asked to identify the hardest part of chasing points, Bill once answered, “The mileage. It’s the riding that gets me. I can have all kinds of fun at the pull, but I hate the drive to and from.”
Three more victories for “Never-a-Nuff” came in 1981: at Tomah, Wisconsin with Bret in the seat in the 9 to complement “Not-a-Nuff”’s win in the 12; at Hamburg, New York in another six-ton showdown with Sullivan; and back close to home in Steele County. Along with a seventh-place finish in the Grand National 12,000-lb. standings, Bill claimed his first two Region III titles in the 9 and the 12. It must certainly have seemed that a career still not a decade in length had yet to reach its ceiling.
But just then, the roof caved in. A recession of the United States’ economy was deepened by mortgage interest rates approaching 20 percent in 1982, and the housing market collapsed. Though somewhat diversified by the farming he and Bret co-managed, his main business, Bill Berg Construction, was dependent upon demand for residential and commercial buildings. The downturn shrank his staff from a peak of 130 employees to just 30 full-timers, plus wife Darlene, daughter Pam, and Bret. While the Bergs never considered quitting, Bill took the year off to regroup. As he and Bret explained at the time, “The business must take priority.”
Two factors influenced Bill’s full-time return to competition in 1983. One, the construction market shook off the doldrums and returned to profitability. And two, International Harvester introduced a new model to begin the decade whose streamlined sheetmetal had begun to capture the pullers’ imagination: the 3688. A trip through the Atlas Tractor shop in Blaine, Minnesota outfitted Bill’s all-new “Never-a-Nuff” with lightened tinwork, a lowered front end, and a revamped gearbox.
Bill and Bret, who by this time had moved to an Atlas-prepared 1086, both began to enhance their aftermarket charger setups with designs of their own. Bill was back on track in 1983, reaching ninth in Grand National standings in the 9 and placing second to Klug in the 12. And in 1984, he was back on top in Region III after posting a victory in Corcoran.
In 1985, the Bergs decided to double-team the competition with double-eight models and doubled up at Davenport, Iowa, sweeping the top two in the 7 while Bill won the 9. The magazine reported that the tractors were “nearly identical with slightly different turbocharger setups”---Bill’s with three chargers and Bret’s with four in a configuration he credited to his dad: “We’ve just got a good combination and it’s working.”
“Never-a-Nuff” was soon converted to the lower-compression, quad-charger scheme, and with Bill, Bret, or crew chief Billy Giberson at the controls, took second in the 7---to Bret---third in the 9, and second in the 12 in Region III. In early July, Bill himself captured Elkhorn, Wisconsin’s Badger Nationals’ 7,500-lb. class by 11’ in a pull-off over the “Red Line Fever” of Esdon Lehn.
A return to Dairyland in 1986 netted another Tomah win---this time in the 95---and an eighth and a fourth in the 75 and 12 that same weekend. But the season came and went with that lone win and a fifth and two eighths in the GN standings---”an OK year,” as Bret remembered it. What would it take to get over the hump and dethrone top-tier performers Klug, Dean, and Lehn for a title at the sport’s premier level?
How about a brand new venue? 1987 brought a first-year event to the NTPA’s Grand National Circuit---Chapel Hill, Tennessee---and Bill’s maroon machine took right to the citrus-tinged track with triumphs in both the 7,000- and 9,000-lb. classes. The wins in the Volunteer State followed Bill’s invitational victory at that winter’s Indy Super Pull in the light class and a spring win in Eustis, Florida. Even better, the Tennessee two-fer preceded a sweep of the same two weight classes at Indianapolis’ State Fair.
Combined with another win at Elkhorn and only one finish out of the top five to that point that year in any appearance, “Never-a-Nuff”’s toughness drew the notice of The Puller, which offered this commentary in its September issue: “While most eyes have followed Tim Engler’s drive for an unprecedented four Modified championships, Bill and Bret Berg have quietly positioned themselves for a chance at the record books, too.” For at the time they trailed the Hulls’ M & M Team by nine points in the 7, led Klug’s “Red Baron” by five points and Dean’s “Rooster” by 10 in the 9, and held a six-point advantage over Dean at 11,200 lbs.
Both Bergs knew that nothing was won yet, with a grueling eight-hook August slate standing between them and any potential championships. Bill was complimentary of his competition, saying, “If Klug can hold his together, he’ll be the most consistent one out there.”
Recognizing the challenge to come, Bret had taken steps to keep his dad’s tractor on track, even carrying a spare short block along for the ride. “At Tomah, we replaced a sleeve and a piston. Those are the only parts we’ve put in it. We’ve been checking the bearings and the turbos, and they’re doing real good.”
The magazine concluded, “The father-son team has a legitimate shot at three Super Stock titles.” In response, Bill said simply, “We’ll keep it going one way or another. We’re really happy with the way it’s been running.”
It continued running well through a late-August victory at Fort Recovery in the 75. But when the series moved on to Minneapolis, Berg’s hopes of clinching all three titles were dashed. Entering the State Fair tied with Dean in the 11, he took sixth behind the “Rooster”’s fourth to lose by a scant two points. A third at 9,500 lbs. salvaged the weekend but tightened that race; headed to the finale in Lincoln, Nebraska, Berg and Klug were tied in the standings with Dean a single marker behind. Meanwhile, Lyle Hull’s win in the 75 coupled with Bill’s fourth appeared to wrap up that battle; with just the Cornhuskers’ State Fair to go, the Minnie-Mo’s lead was a massive 10 points.
With a strong chance at the middleweight title but prospects for the light championship fading, Bret hauled the two 3688s out to Nebraska, leaving Bill to wait by the receiver for word. The 95 did not go as well as intended, as “Never-a-Nuff” finished second to Klug by 3.5’ in the pull-off. But in the 75, a surprise was in store. Quoting the October 1987 issue:
“Hull hit Nebraska with a 10-point lead in the class. But when he took an early hook to a mark of 259.1’, what once seemed like a security run for second place became a legitimate shot at a championship for the Farmington father-son squadron. A few hooks later, Bret Berg powered his father’s IH 3688 to the only full pull. More importantly, tractor after tractor trampled Hull’s pull to chip another point off his lead. By the time the last of the 22 entries had hooked, a 10-point block transformed into a five-point deficit and the first Grand National title of the Bergs’ career.”
Somebody find a dime. Bret was ready to dial.
“When I called home and [my dad] got on the phone, I said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a national champion.’ He said, ‘You’re kidding.’ Then he yelled, ‘Oh my God, we won!’”
After taking his second straight Super Pull victory in 1988, Bill retired to concentrate on the Bergs’ Double-B Farms and trucking operation. In the years since, he has spent much of his time at his gravel pit towing a scraper for his aggregate business. Bill counts himself blessed “that my family has always been a driving force behind everything I did.” That family has recently expanded to include in-laws and a new great-granddaughter, Lillian.
But Berg-engineered Super Stocks were not done winning Grand National titles by a long shot. The 1988 and 1989 7,500-lb. champion “Work Horse” of Rob Russell was built by Bret and Giberson to Berg specifications. The Case IH Magnum Bret constructed in ‘88, campaigned in ‘89, and consigned in ‘90 went to Randy Hinton and Adam Vaske. Renamed “Red Rascal,” it promptly took the 9,500-lb. title. And the tractor Bill himself sold became Tom Dickerson’s “20 Mule Team” and won the combined 75-95 championship in 1994.
Now a three-time Grand National champ in his own right in the Modified division, Bret to this day recalls the sound of Bill’s tractors winding up. “He always said that you will never turn more RPMs than you can at the starting line.” He claimed his best pulling advice came from his dad: “Pull your own tractor and don’t get nervous. Forget about what the others are doing.”
The Hall of Fame, however, is all about remembering. And about celebrating the diligence that got men like Bill Berg to the pinnacle of the motorsport.