J.R. Collins | 2018


J.R. Collins | 2018

For our next Pulling Hall of Fame inductee, a 33-year pulling career spent entirely in one division, two trucks, and three cabs was motivated by this: He wanted to show what the machines he had loved since childhood could do.

“All my life, since I was a kid, I wanted to drive truck.”

And with a $3,800 loan from his parents’ savings---“$100 payment a month, no interest, no questions”---J.R. Collins went to work. “We started hauling wood bark mulch in ‘72. I’d have 40 ton on it. I had a radar detector. I had a scanner. All I did was listen on that CB.”
Well, as J.R. might say, you can’t beat this irony with a gosh-darn club: His pulling obsession started with a cop.

“I was at the county fair, and a sheriff’s deputy walks up to me and says, ‘Where were you at last night? They had a truck pull up in Troy.’

“‘You give me a call next time,’ I told him, ‘and I’ll go to the pull.’”

That next time happened to be in Randolph, Ohio, and J.R.’s 1982 Mack with “the engine nobody wanted”---an E9 V8---whipped 16 other rigs at the Portage County Fair. One of them was the “Lady Butterfly” of J.R.’s contemporary, whom he still holds in high regard. “John A. Mann was just as much of a promoter as I was. He worked just as hard as I did.”

That Randolph pull was a qualifier for the 1983 Indy Super Pull, which Collins won in a pull-off. The snowstorm-slowed journey accounted for some of the earliest of that faithful truck’s eventual 3 million miles---and counting.

Upon his triumphant return to hometown Painesville, Ohio, he strode into the office of the proprietor of the massive R.W. Sidley Mack dealership. “‘How did we do?’, asked Sidley.

“‘Well, my road truck ain’t going to be able to keep up.’

“And Bob looked out the window at all that he owned and said, ‘There’s bound to be something that we can put together.’” That something was a dedicated pulling shop, carved from Sidley’s 18-bay garage, that serviced Collins’ dirt-track truck for over 30 years.

But locating the Mack originally known as “Killer” would be, well, murder. “I always had to have the fanciest one, the fastest one, and the strongest one.”
Sidley’s salesman Rodney Morris called a while later. “I found your truck”---1984 Superliner, V8, 12-speed---“it’s in Oakland, California.” “Why not China?”, Collins asked. But he flew a friend to the Golden State to retrieve his prize, which saw on that trip home its only road miles, ever. Well, touching the ground, anyway.

“Ed Hart hired me to go to all the Grand Nationals. We went to Texas; Louisiana; Des Moines, Iowa; New England; South Carolina; Florida. They liked the truck.”

Indeed they did. As The Puller magazine reported, “‘Killer Mack,’ a fire-breathing, smoke-belching rig, pulled the weighted sled while doing a ‘wheelie,’ and Collins had the fans open-mouthed in amazement.”

There was a trick to that wheelstand, of course. Collins’ rigged hitch shortened the 15’ chain length to 6’ for exhibition performances. “Ran nitrous oxide on it for a while. That truck would jump right off the ground, like having two more motors in it.” Sled operators got in on the act, too. “I was at Richmond, Virginia one night at a racetrack. I told Dave Hager, ‘We ought to try something,’ and he says, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ So we were going down the blacktop track.”

Toward making Semis a competition division, he found one receptive ear at the NTPA. “Dave Grimm was very instrumental. I was going through him trying to get the class started. He was the Indy Super Pull announcer. There were two of us in the pull-off. I got backed up to the sled, and the thing quit. They had pulled my kill switch. Meanwhile, they’d told the guy running the big fan for the exhaust that we were done. And Grimm starts talking, ‘Oh, this might have been a mistake.’ I filled that place full of smoke, and I went right out the door.”

Collins’ class was adopted into the NTPA rulebook in 1991. By that time, Collins had won three championships with Rick Feicht’s Full Pull Productions, proving that for his “Killer Mack,” with its backlit bumper and propane flame, the “go” was even more important than the “show.”

“When you run against guys like Larry Carey and Greg Hibbitts and Ray Carpenter’s “Bounty Hunter” and the Metzgers’ ‘Liberty Belle,’ those guys were serious about winning. And I beat them, but it took me a couple of years.”

Indeed, Collins struggled initially against competitors like the above, Tom Lindsey, and Gary “Tiger” Ries. But he hung in, and in 1994, wins in Albert Lea, Minnesota and Ionia and Cassopolis, Michigan led to his first NTPA title.

His next challenge would be more personal: Major heart surgery followed by a slight attack. After 13 years spent criscrossing the country, now with four championships, did he ever consider calling it a career?

“Hell, no! The only thing I could think about was getting healthy so I could get back at it. No way!”

And back he came to defend his title in 1995, with a sweep at Tomah and wins at Pittsfield and New Castle, Pennsylvania. But further funding the operation with Mack’s sponsorship would require a new identity. “We are not going to sponsor a truck called ‘Killer,’” executives sternly warned. So corporate asked for 20 potential names.

The magazine revealed the source of the winning entry in a 2005 feature. “Linda figured since they live in Ohio that ‘Buckeye’ was appropriate, and that the Mack symbol is a bulldog, why not ‘Buckeye Bulldog’?”

“1988, when I met her, she worked at the county office,” J.R. recalled. A blind date arranged by a mutual friend was followed by another over ice cream, which won her over.

“The year we went to Vegas for the banquet, we went over to the county seat, got a license, walked across the street and got married, then came back and went gambling.”

In addition to her original duties helping to keep the “Bulldog” immaculate in pit areas and dealer lots, Collins’ devoted partner took charge of the Mack’s merchandising. Linda won the 2003 Crew Chief Award at Tomah 15 years after her very first pull. And like every good dog owner, she kept up with the paperwork.

“She was always at 300’, and if somebody went past that, that’s where she sat. She wrote down every distance.”

That feature also described a scene from the Bulldog Roundup truck show in Hagerstown, Maryland, which found the eyes of every Mack employee fixed on screens displaying Collins’ truck doing its thing. J.R. said to Linda, “I have achieved what I wanted to do.”

“The reason I said that,” J.R. reflected, “was because I was doing it in front of all those guys at Mack that helped me.” One of those guys was head engineer Terry Earley, who kept Collins supplied with rejected Mack products to keep the “Bulldog” barking. Another was the late Jerry Breeden: “He’d go in on Saturday and get the stuff all gathered up for me and help me load it on the trailer. And he was at all the pulls I’d go to at that time: Winchester, Virginia; Hagerstown;  the Buck.”

But sometimes, help came from unexpected places. “I’m sitting next to the truck in Tomah with the hood open, and a gray-haired guy walks by.

“‘I can make you four chargers that go on that truck and make it work.’

“‘OK wise guy, you’ve got the job.’”

“Come to find out, it was one of my best friends, Max Simpson. He was the genius behind it.”

Years of sporadic wins but no titles extended from the mid-’90s into the early 2000s, but still the “Bulldog”’s pedigree preceded it. “People would come from all over to ‘watch the dog for a while.’”

Fans at one event didn’t have to travel far, and neither did Collins. Painesville’s Lake County Fair Pull was regularly enhanced by the spectacle of Collins’ fellow Super Semis. One of the “Bulldog”’s performances in its home yard came with a surprising guest driver. In 2003, Hibbitts, then the two-time defending class champion, took the controls with Collins sidelined by chest pains. It said volumes about the rivals’ mutual respect. “A guy I’ll never forget. I had a tough time with Greg. I didn’t think I’d win another [championship] if Greg Hibbitts stuck around.”

But there was greater anxiety about J.R. sticking around. He fell ill during “Bulldog”’s visit to the European Superpull in 2006 and sat out that entire season with coronary disease. The outlook was not positive. “I’ll tell you this, God had me with my knees on the ground. I was ready to go.
“By golly, the next year I was in Tomah.”

That year, 2007, the Puller of the Year Award became the Comeback Award when Collins claimed it over the champion, Gary Rairigh. But perhaps, after the red Mack claimed three wins, Collins’ competitors could foresee a return to glory.

“One reason for the comeback was Dale Francis and Francis Engineering. He made it a number-one truck.” Indeed, it all came together in 2008, as Collins clinched his first NTPA title in 13 years in Sandwich, Illinois after winning four times: Montgomery City, Missouri; Mount Vernon and Bowling Green, Ohio; and Essex Junction, Vermont.

No sooner did J.R. return to the pinnacle than he sought a radical fix to a problem that had long plagued his big Mack. “That same deputy sheriff buddy ran the truck scales right before he retired. I asked him, ‘How about weighing my pulling truck?’ The front axle weighed 7,740 lbs. The cab weighed 1,400 lbs., and the [fiberglass] one I put on it weighed 75. And the hood that came off the truck was about 450, and the new one weighed 60. That plus my suspension; it made a big difference.”

The result? Seven wins in 2009 and a nine-point winning margin over Mark Haselby. A third title, by just two points over an up-and-coming Jack Kielmeyer, came in 2010, a season that featured four victories and Collins’ second Bowling Green ring.

In 2011, just making it to BG seemed impossible. “I messed a crank up in Morley, Michigan. And I called Dale. We got it home, and I went to the dealership. We went to work about 7 o’clock. At 11:30, the motor was in Dale Francis’ yard. By 4:30, the block was in the wash tank. Ripped that sucker all apart, put another crank in it, put it back together, and we were sitting in Bowling Green Tuesday night. The man dropped everything and had five guys working on that one motor.”

The wily veteran got three wins to clinch an unprecedented fourth straight championship by fending off a new group of contenders that included two trucks from the Walkers---dad Jerry and son Jeremy---who would go on to claim the next two titles. Gradually, J.R. began to cede the driving chores to right-hand man Ted Ellis, who scored a big win in New Hampton, Iowa in 2012. A fan of J.R.’s since childhood, Ellis commuted to Painesville from Jamestown, New York to be an integral part of his road crew.

“When I sold [Bulldog], Ted drove two-and-a-half hours to start it and back it out of the garage, to help me get it ready.”

Small wonder that given its significance, Collins chose Bowling Green in 2014 to make his final pass in his beloved Mack, which made its way westward to Minnesota and the Fehn family the next year.

“Everybody says, ‘It’s only a truck.’ OK, but guess what: It was my truck. The feeling of going down the track at Bowling Green the last time---that was one of the highlights of my life.

“But getting in the truck was a sonofab---h.”

The key to Collins lasting for so many hooks through so many seasons over so many miles? “I ran it conservatively. I didn’t win them all, but I was at every one of them.

All of which serves to prove the point that got him started. “People don’t realize: Trucks are very strong. Put yourself in the position of a concrete mixer, stuck in the mud up to the fenders, and this guy’s up in front in first gear, pounding the hell out of you. And you make it.”

Well, J.R., guess what: You made it.

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