Jim, Ellie, and Dennis Wilson | 2015
Jim, Ellie, and Dennis Wilson | 2015
For our first Hall of Fame inductees, there were lots of good pulling-related days on and off the track. But for the Wilsons—Jim, Ellie, and son Dennis—there were none better than February 5, 1977. As recounted in The Puller magazine of March 1977:
“Halfway through the 5 Modified class the crowd saw a barn-burner pull by Dennis Wilson on ‘The Little American’ Ford machine that held for the rest of the class for a first place. What a finish for Wilson who went home with a second here last year. Last puller of the class just missed Wilson by a foot.... Wilson also went home this year with the Best-Appearing Pit award. A memorable weekend for the Wilson family!”
The Wilson family of Greenville, Ohio had just gotten the attention of the pulling world with Dennis’ 184’9” victory in the Saturday afternoon session of the fourth Indy Super Pull. But the seeds of this triumph were sown years before, when Dennis started helping other pullers and asking them questions at age 14.
By 1974, Jim had let Dennis drive in the 7,000-lb. Modified class, “with enough front-end weight, just to give me seat time,” Dennis recalls. That year, he was voted the Ohio State Tractor Pullers Association’s Rookie of the Year, and by 1975, the junior partner had assumed the driving chores entirely. Columnist Nancy Obermeyer contended that Dennis was the Association’s youngest puller and “the first son.... to start driving for his father on the National Circuit.” When interviewed in 1976, Dennis sounded like a veteran: “When I see guys like Ralph Chamberlin Jr. and Don Walter pulling with their dads, it’s like seeing Dad and me all over again.
“The sport is a lot more complicated now, but the father-son thing is still the same.... Now Dad and I discuss each run together, dividing the responsibilities—he checks out the track, I take care of the tractor—and we exchange advice.”
Ellie shared her feelings about Dennis’ pulling in 1975: “I hope he has respect for himself, the crowd, and safety.” If those words sound remarkably circumspect, even for a pulling wife and mom, understand that Ellie’s involvement in the motorsport far preceded Dennis’ first turn in the seat. After witnessing a substandard pull, Ellie began attending local club meetings to make her dissatisfaction known. Soon, she had not only become the club’s secretary and treasurer but was also serving as the secretary of the OSTPA in addition to her responsibilities as bookkeeper of the family livestock business and as mom to Dennis and daughter Lynne.
In ensuing years, Ellie Wilson could be counted on to provide an authoritative voice and organizational help, serving in capacities as diverse as sponsor queen, Executive Secretary, and Easter egg hunt organizer. Of a fledgling pull close to home, Ellie said, “They have very nice facilities and the park itself is only two years old. I think eventually [Fort Recovery] will be one of the nicer places to pull.”
In 1980, Ellie founded the OSTPA’s newsletter, “Roarin’ Times,” which lives on to this day. And for the Pulling Foundation, formed “to support the growth of tractor and truck pulling,” Ellie served as both secretary and Puller Spouse representative on the Board of Trustees.
In 1976, the NTPA recognized Ellie with the Lyle Bishman Memorial Award, for “contributing the most to improving and promoting tractor pulling across the United States.” And in 1995, Jim and Ellie were inducted into the OSTPA’s Hall of Fame. Ellie was lost to Jim, Lynne, Dennis, and her many friends in the pulling world in May 2013 at the age of 79.
By 1970, husband Jim had moved on from farm stock pulling: first to a Farmall H with a truck engine, and then to a 427 Ford in a Cockshutt Co-Op E4 chassis that competed in the 5,000- and 7,000-lb. Modified classes. Our first record of his NTPA career is a 1971 win in Jackson, Michigan and a third-place finish in national points, both in the 5 MOD.
Jim saw more national success in ensuing years, with another third place in the 5 MOD in 1972, a fifth in the 7 MOD in 1972, and a fifth in the 5 MOD in 1973. But after Indy in 1974, it was time to rebuild to stay competitive, and Jim Wilson asked his friend Ron Barga for advice. Born of the collaboration with Barga, welder Ron Bickel, and machinist Norm Smith was an all-new “Little American” with the driveline of a Cockshutt 40—but not its cast housing, saving about 250 valuable pounds—resting between homemade frame rails.
New rail designs were tried in the years that followed, as were advancements in engines: A standard wedge-head in 1974, fuel injection in 1975, and finally in 1976 what would become “The Little American”’s iconic powerplant: A single-overhead-cam, supercharged, Bob Nichols-prepared 427 Ford racing engine.
The “cammer Ford,” as it became known, was irrepressible, regularly outperforming twin-engine tractors in the 7 MOD through the end of the decade and capturing that statement 5 MOD win at the 1977 Super Pull. The immaculate red, white, and blue dragster chassis was The Puller’s cover shot in May 1977.
But just as “The Little American” was on the rise, the Wilsons made a shocking announcement: The tractor was for sale, as the family said publicly it had to devote more time to business but privately was dealing with friction between parents and, well, a 21-year-old son. Indeed, in the June 1977 classifieds under “Tractors” was “The Little American” Cockshutt 40 and 427 SOHC blown Ford, “ready to run.” Now there’s an understatement.
By now you know the tractor wasn’t sold, and Barga and Smith stepped in to drive. By season’s end, “The Little American” had captured the 7,000-lb. Grand National Modified championship and took second in the 5. But would Jim’s boy return to the seat? There’s a story there, too.
That summer, Dennis received a letter from a young fan hospitalized in Columbus who required heart surgery and requested an autographed photo. Following a visit with the child and his family, Dennis found himself “blown away” at the prospect of being someone’s role model and, in his words, “grew up a lot” in order to act like one.
To begin a very productive 1978, Smith took the wheel for the Super Pull and scored a runner-up finish in the 5 MOD, while Dennis’ next win came on a return trip to Indianapolis at the World Championships in June in the 7.
More wins followed, as the newly disciplined Dennis “went right after it”: In the 5 at the Buck spring pull in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and at Tomah. In the 7 at Circleville, Ohio, at the Ohio State Fair, and at Wolcott, Indiana. A first and second at the New York State Fair. A second and first at the fall pull at the Buck. And in a year when a single vehicle could compete for both Grand and Regional National points, “The Little American” took second in the Grand National 5 MOD and fifth in the 7, third in the Region I 5 MOD and second in the 7, and third in the Region II 5 MOD and first in the 7.
The wins became less frequent starting in 1979 as twin-engine configurations were becoming commonplace even in the light class. But the diminutive tractor with the patriotic paint scheme still had spunk. One 1980 victory in Elkhorn, Wisconsin in the 5,000-lb. class—by 20 feet—came on seven cylinders. “The Little American” won its last season title in that year, the Region II 7,000-lb. Modified crown.
After catastrophic breakage in the Indy Super Pull in 1982, no more national wins were to come. Okay, one: The Wilsons won the 1983 “Best-Appearing Pit” Award at the Indy Super Pull. Again.
“It was really Mom’s thing,” said Dennis of the emphasis on pit area decoration that evolved from Ellie’s early experiences showing livestock. With displays that included crushed stone, carpeting, fencing, and lighted posts, Ellie always wanted everything to be just right in case the judges came strolling by.
Today, Jim resides in Okeechobee, Florida but still makes the occasional trip north to competitively bass fish in Canada. In addition to son Michael, who pulls a four-wheel-drive street truck, Dennis has a daughter Kristy and three grandchildren.
The 390 Ford, stock-chassis edition of “The Little American” has been restored by Dave Roediger and is expected to be part of Bowling Green’s 50th anniversary exhibit of Legends tractors. The last frame-rail edition is in Marion, Indiana, still winning classes and championships.
On their sign in the pits at that 1976 Super Pull—the one preceding Dennis’ big win—was printed “Families Pulling Together.” We are proud to induct into the Pulling Hall of Fame the Wilson family, who before, during, and after their remarkable on-track success exemplified the dedication of a pulling family to the motorsport, to its people, and to each other.