Larry Koester | 2019
Larry Koester | 2019
Our next inductee had enough wins, losses, opinions, and experiences to relate to anyone in any walk of life. Before a grandstand full of fans, in a boardroom full of executives, around a pit area full of pullers, or under a tent full of children, Larry Koester was always at home.
“It was just a good day,” said the man from Wadesville, Indiana on the occasion of his NTPA Winter Nationals victory on January 20, 2017. “We got Donald Trump as President, and I won that pull. So I guess it was a good day for old guys ... one billionaire and a guy that’s spent close to that much tractor pulling in the last 30 years.”
In that quote that followed the closest Association win of his career to his southwestern Indiana hometown, the patriarch of Koester Racing alluded to one 2016 campaign that claimed a most improbable victory.
But let’s talk about another one. For the previous spring, the Modified Mini brainchild of Larry, son Adam, and builder Todd Bultman first went from the drawing board to the pulling track in Benson, North Carolina. By the time the dust had settled and the distances were sorted Saturday night, Adam had charted the Johnny Cash-inspired “Walk the Line” in second and fourth. Larry’s own “Footloose,” with a third and a second, trailed only Ken Veney for the division lead.
2016 took another upward turn when Larry held off Adam Bauer in a Hutchinson, Minnesota pull-off. Then, in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, he took a second-round win over the veteran Veney. But more significantly, the Koesters’ rookie ride was third, and when it won the next night, “Walk the Line” started its title run.
Points victories for Adam followed in Fort Recovery, Sandusky, and Bowling Green, Ohio around a second in Napoleon. And both father and son qualified for BG’s Super Sunday ring round, where Adam claimed the historic hardware in a 9” nailbiter over the Bobcat Team.
The Koesters weren’t done with the Buckeye State yet. In Greenville, Adam was victorious with “Beast of Burden” on Tuesday and with “Walk the Line” on Wednesday, ahead of Larry in second and “Beast” in third.
That win-place-show in Darke County was the culmination of a season-long goal that ultimately placed the Koester coasters as champion, runner-up, and fifth when the series wound down in Wauseon, Ohio and Sandwich, Illinois.
It was a delicious coincidence. The Minis had crowned their champions at the Tri-State Showdown every year since Larry and Adam went one-two in 2008 to earn the elder his third title and the team its third straight. But that roll began in 2006, when Larry feasted on the Sandwich track at both lunch and suppertime to edge Adam for his second title. The youngster returned the favor in 2007 by sweeping the Super Pull of the South for his only victories but topping his pop by seven points for his first championship.
A July 2008 feature in The Puller defined the Koesters’ complementary roles: “Larry takes care of what he likes to call the ‘dirty work’ such as grinding tires and making gearing and mechanical decisions. Adam builds the motors and works on assembly. ‘Adam is meticulous because he is a machinist,’ said Larry. ‘What I think is good isn’t good enough for Adam. We both have a specialty.’”
As it turns out, so does everyone on the team, including trusted crewmen Riley Smith and Ron Tobin. The latter was with Larry for each of his championship to elevate his game—among other things: “How many crew chiefs actually carry their driver to and from the tractor?”, joked Larry.
For both of those Illinois clinchers, Larry and his team were also boosted by a friend. Kurt Bonner had met Larry in Bowling Green and asked his parents to take him to northern Illinois to nudge his hero over the top. Afterward, Kurt went from pushing to pulling by towing “Footloose” past the grandstand with his motorized wheelchair. Incredibly, the experience became twice-in-a-lifetime when he duplicated it with “Double Play.”
Those title-touting tugs weren’t the only impact Kurt and thousands of other Make-A-Wish kids had on Larry’s benevolent heart. At that time, it had been 12 years since Pulltown’s Blue Shirts asked Larry to become the ambassador for their chosen charity. It was a match that made the Wood County Fairgrounds a heaven on earth for the recipients of innumerable high-fives and ATV rides.
It was bliss as well for their deliverer, who had found his calling as the face of the organization that granted life-changing experiences to children with life-threatening illnesses. “Just giving those little people a ride gives them a thrill. To watch them smile makes you want to smile.”
In 2001, in fact, Koester credited the cause he championed for, well, causing his championship. “The kids have helped me to be a winner. I’ve always said that if you help those kids, somewhere, you will be paid back. And I think this [first title] is part of my payback.”
Larry’s payment forward began in the Modified Mini division in 1987. The class appealed to the onetime college baseball star who boasted a fastball too wild to catch. “The Mini is the best ride in pulling. It’s something that is out of control with a small vehicle and huge power,” Larry explained. “A wheelspeed of 150 miles per hour makes for some pretty exciting stuff.”
After learning the craft with underpowered machines, Larry stepped up to a national-caliber engine-chassis combination with the encouragement of Bob Kerney, a longtime friend and sponsor. The first rocketship to bear the “Footloose” name debuted in Biloxi, Mississippi with a supercharged big block Chevy and a pair of top-five finishes.
A Glynn Guenther frame, Fred Freeman-prepared 572 Chevy, and unique braking system engineered by friend Jeff Emge marked the second edition. Soon afterward, version 2.1, sporting a Tim Engler-built Arias with a 14-71 blower, made it into the hauler in time for an all-night drive to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in 1992.
The Puller reported the result: “Three made it past the 300’ mark, guaranteeing a pull-off. Kevin Stouffer took third; taking second was ‘91 champion Dennis Horst. The winning distance was almost 23’ ahead of ‘Red Fox.’ ‘It took a lot of horsepower,’ said Koester. ‘I think [Tim] built it right.’”
Larry’s colleagues took note, and after he ended up a runner-up to the repeat champion Horst, he was voted the Puller of the Year, an award he likewise won after each of his championship seasons to come. But the first of those took eight years to arrive, during which he persisted through two finishes in third, one in fourth, two in eighth, and three outside the top 10.
In an October 1998 feature in The Puller, he confessed that he considered calling it a career before reaching the summit. But after a pull in Florida, a man in his 70s put his arms around him and, teary-eyed, thanked him and told him to never quit. His mission renewed, Koester soon attained the corporate partnership of Pennzoil which evolved into a mutually, incalculably beneficial relationship with Shell Rotella that continues to set a gold standard for the sport.
The man with the common touch but an uncommon drive to overcome reflected, “When I think of the good things that have happened to me, my kids, my wife—that’s what it’s about.” Those kids are Adam, who was born at the junction of Larry’s old and new lives and on whom now rests the Koester Racing legacy, and Ashley, whose expression of unconditional love at age four was the thunderbolt that broke Larry free from of the throes of depression.
And the lady who took his name on 1981’s Fourth of July and who never left his side is Coral, known to all as Caesar. In that 1998 article, with the memory of the event that changed their trajectories as raw as it was the next morning, she was characteristically matter-of-fact: “You never know how much you can take until it happens. You never know what you’re made of until you go through it.” But through it they went, together, and showed what they were made of.
The 2013 Shell Rotella-produced biography, “Long Road Home,” closes with Larry’s monologue: “I want people to look back and say, ‘Damn. He had all this stuff happen, and he just never gave up. That’s all you gotta do. Just never, never give up.”
That’s Larry Koester. A one-in-a-billion personality who dedicated his final three decades—in our presence, in this world—to raising his family, to hoisting five trophies, to heightening his motorsport’s stature, and to lifting the spirits of countless children, parents, caretakers, and well-wishers.
That these years were spent as a survivor of third-degree burns, a grave head wound, a coma, and a double amputation after a horrific mowing accident we mention only to put those 33 years in perspective. They comprised a bonus life for Larry and a double blessing to Caesar, to Ashley and Craig and their daughters, to Adam and Jamilyn, and to everyone who ever saw that smile that makes you want to smile