Dennis Horst | 2023
Dennis Horst | 2023
Our next Hall-of-Fame competitor came of age as the sport was becoming a phenomenon and won six championships across the next two decades. But whether on top or getting there, he adhered to a creed: If you can't out-horse them, then you'd better out-fox them.
"I love [pulling], but it isn't the most important thing in my life. I've known pullers who have taken out [second] mortgages on their homes. I'd never do that.
"I'd like it to stay a hobby for me."
Such was the tenor of the conversation Dennis Horst had with The Puller magazine after his first pulling triumphs: Winning the 1984 Grand National 1,750-lb. Modified Mini championship and both the 1,550-lb. and 1,750-lb. breaks at the 1985 Indy Super Pull. Horst had just stepped up from a fuel-injected 350-cube Chevrolet to a supercharged 454 bored out to 468.
"It was at last year's Super Pull that I [decided] how I wanted to build the tractor I won with today," he said in the afterglow of his Indy sweep.
"I don't believe it can be any better than this."
The Chambersburg, Pennsylvania native was never one to take success for granted. A decade earlier, after witnessing his first pull at a local fair, he hooked the first piece of equipment he could set up: His father's garden tractor.
"My dad hasn't always been supportive of my pulling."
But Dad came around after Denny's exuberance matured into a measured approach. He built his first Mini using that 350 Chevy and joined the NTPA in 1979 with his brother Jan and friend Phil Benedict as his crew and fellow competitor Brad Shively as his mentor.
"I like the Minis. They fit my style."
To provide for wife Tina and kids Keith, Kelly, and Khris, Denny helped his father operate Horst Hybrid Seed. The Horsts also worked 200 acres that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture eventually designated as a Bicentennial Farm. Denny ran his own repair service, and it was in that shop that he completed all of his pulling builds and rebuilds, the latter of which he tried to minimize.
"Pushing your equipment will cause more breakdowns than wins," Denny reasoned. "Wrenching all the time can get old."
The mix of persistence and discipline would serve him well through two multi-year championship droughts. After being on top of the Mini world in Indianapolis, Horst slipped to fifth in the 1,550 and eighth in the 1,750 in 1985. And in '86, he was seventh in the 15 and out of the top 10 in the 17. In between, he re-fitted his "Red Fox"'s aluminum truss frame with a 514 Rodeck. Once it was dialed in, the combination responded with fifths in the first two years of the 1,800 and seconds in the only two years of the 1,600---1987 and 1988---as Glynn Guenther's "Tuff-E-Nuff" become the one to beat.
The class was temporarily demoted to Pro National for 1989, and the outcome was a two-point loss to Richard Peters' "Buckeye Special." And then Horst finished 21 back of Johnny Mello's last hurrah in 1990 with "Super Fly."
But 1991 would be different, as Denny's sly "Fox" swiped all but one egg in the coop. Sweep in Tomah, Wisconsin. Sweep in Hamburg, New York. Sweep in Syracuse, New York. And a third at the Minis' first-ever appearance at Fort Recovery, Ohio for a 14-point margin over Dave Campbell's "Sky King" and Denny's first title in seven years.
In the sequel, Campbell's "King" reigned at Tomah; Scribner, Nebraska; and Hamburg to outstrip Horst's victories in Canfield, Ohio and the Nebraska Motorplex. But an inconsistent Campbell fell to fifth in the standings behind "Red Fox"'s repeat as GN rookie Larry Koester and "Footloose" surged to second.
In 1993, Horst got unseated by a puller whose meteoric rise resembled his own. Roger Wysong and "The Sting" launched with wins at Tomah and Scribner and held on all summer. Relegated to third, "Red Fox" would soon confront an even more toxic combination. Phillip and John Fairbanks and "Rat Poison" came out of the gate with a win in Wisconsin. Peters and Robert Lenzini's "Mack Attack" split the remaining hooks across Tomah and the Fort while Horst fell to seventh by year's end. "Red Fox" opened '95 with the lone full pull in Recreation Park on Friday night, but the Fairbanks team answered on Sunday and finished off their second title two months later, knocking "Fox" to second.
Denny's 1996 championship chase short-circuited when he skipped Urbana, Ohio that spring after the birth of his youngest, and "Rat Poison" cruised to its third straight despite Horst's double in Dairyland. One consolation: "Red Fox" still qualified for the Enderle Pull-Off, held concurrently with the Fort's August event, and Horst converted the invitation into his first big check from Kent after four seconds.
As 1997 dawned, it had been five years since Horst had hoisted a trophy. The chrome-moly tube frame that had supported "Fox"'s Keith Black Oldsmobile since 1994 had yet to pay championship dividends. And besides the dominant Fairbanks squad and the ever-dangerous Guenther, Koester, and Peters, new threats like Bruce Slagh, Dean Dowling, Todd Bultman, Larry Anderson, and Sonny Delmatto were emergent. Did Denny's "don't out-power 'em, out-fox 'em" gambit still fit the times?
That summer held the answer. "Rat Poison" threw the first combination: Wins in Urbana and Tomah Session One. "Red Fox" had the rejoinder: A win in Session Four. The pair split St. Hyacinthe, Quebec with Horst winning by 40 feet on night two. At the Fort, a win by Dowling and a second by Fairbanks imperiled the comeback, but a second Enderle victory infused Denny with momentum and hope. And in Wauseon, a second for "Fox" behind Slagh's "Show No Mercy" clinched Horst's fourth championship.
What was a one-on-one match in '97 became a battle royale in '98, as five rivals had wins ahead of the stretch run: Slagh and Lenzini at Tomah, Dowling and Koester in St. Hyacinthe, and Slagh in Bowling Green. But three wins, six seconds, and two thirds made "Red Fox"'s lead insurmountable entering the Princeton, Indiana Labor Day finale, and it was 24 over "Buckeye Special" by the time The Puller went to press.
With the wind at his back entering 1999, Horst and his "Fox" attacked the 10-hook schedule with an opening win in Hartford, Michigan, a second and first at Tomah, and two runner-ups to his old rival "Rat Poison" in St. Hy. Then in BG, disaster: A Friday fifth followed by a sub-200-foot run on Saturday that spent the entire lead he'd banked over Fairbanks. Fortunes reversed on Sunday, when it was the "Fox" back on top and "Poison" six markers behind. On to the Fort, where "Poison" chipped one point off that lead just after Denny's third top Enderle prize. And in Wauseon, a repeat runner-up finish to Fairbanks and a three-peat for Horst's sixth title. His fellow competitors acknowledged the effort expended, both acutely in Wood County and generally, by voting him Mechanic of the Year.
"Our persistence paid off," said Denny in his champion profile. "I think maybe this season was my hardest. Don't ever let up. When things look grim, don't give in because it's not the end.
"Experience doesn't hurt, either."
And benefitting from that experience was Keith, who had begun his own pulling journey with a stock Ford and a built-up International. In 2000, the Horsts exhumed the old "Fox" chassis from the basement and relabeled it "Another Red Fox" as father and son entered the fray. Keith scored two top 10s in Tomah and a season-best seventh in Wauseon, while the elder Horst picked up two wins and a ring in Bowling Green and led entering the season's final day in Sandwich, Illinois.
Over the ensuing eight seasons, both "Fox"es finished in the top 10 den four times, as Keith posted big wins in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec; Connersville, Indiana; and dependable Tomah. But as the next decade approached, Denny settled for a part-time schedule, and Keith's interests shifted to big-tire Modifieds. Notably, the wily veteran continued to offer his wealth of knowledge and perspective in service to the Minis' Divisional Committee, just as he had back in the early 1990s before joining the NTPA Board, initially as its Vice President and later as its Secretary.
Horst's 1998 title came just in time for his selection to the NTPA's 30-Year All-Star Team. As one fan wrote of Denny in his nomination letter, "A long-time puller [who is] always friendly, ... a strong competitor [that] Involves family in the sport, [and one who is] changing constantly in order to remain competitive ... [These] are the kind of qualities I think must exist in an All-Star. Never giving up, charging forward always. Giving one's best at whatever endeavor they undertake."
Persistence and discipline: These are indeed qualities that propel one to greatness, from a brief experiment with Dad's riding mower to a Modified Mini championship resume written in three distinct chapters that would not be matched for over 20 years.
Said Denny himself in that last champ interview, "Once you think you are on the top, someone will come along with something better. You can never relax. If you want something bad enough, ... you can make it happen."
And that includes what happened on a December evening in 2023, his induction into the Pulling Hall of Fame.