Larry Shope | 2017
Larry Shope | 2017
Our first Pulling Hall of Fame inductee was well known for his mechanical aptitude and sense of humor within the community of Pro Stock pullers that he and his wife called their larger family for most of two decades. But never far from the surface was a competitive spirit backed by a work ethic that earned six Grand National championships in a span of seven years. As he was fond of saying, “It never gets old, being the winner.”
Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, Larry Shope served with the U.S. Army in Germany during the Vietnam War where his responsibilities centered around demolitions. Upon his return home, he settled in Bellville and began a 35-year career with the Richland County Highway Maintenance Department, which put his natural mechanical aptitude to work. But in his off hours, Larry sought a way to mix his skills and creativity with the thrill of competition, and he pursued go-kart racing and garden tractor pulling. He transitioned from the pint-sized machines to full-size farm tractors and found his niche. And soon thereafter, his partner: His wife Sue.
As she recalls, “When I met him, he was pulling big [tractors] at close towns around here. I don’t know a whole lot of what he did before that. I know he always raced something.
“Then everyone thought he was good enough to go Grand National, so he went.”
That was in 1987 in the single-turbocharger Pro Stock class. The division had first appeared on the NTPA’s Grand National Circuit in 1981 at two weight classes: 10,000 and 12,000 lbs. Larry competed in both in his initial season of national competition. He would finish 12th in the heavy class, tied with Ed Eilenfeld, a fellow Richland County resident. Said Eilenfeld, “Larry was a tough competitor and one of my closest friends.”
Years later, Larry would state his appreciation for the challenge the class presented: “The fact that there is only one turbo makes it imperative that you get the high revs coming out. If you don’t, you will be in big trouble and probably bog down pretty quickly.”
Larry also ran with the Ohio State Tractor Pullers Association that first year, and when he finished third in the 10 and second in the 12 among that organization’s well established pullers, Larry was named Rookie of the Year. Larry’s sophomore campaign resulted in a seven-position improvement in the national 12,000-lb. class and a fourth-place finish in the 10 behind only John Wilkins, Bill Voreis, and Roland Barr.
But from 1989 through 1991, Pro Stocks competed with NTPA at only the Pro National level, and when the division returned to the Grand National ranks in 1992 and 1994 and once and for all starting in 1997, only the five-ton class survived. Larry’s name did not appear in NTPA results again until a year before the division’s permanent comeback, when he won Tomah, Wisconsin’s Dairyland Nationals his first time there in 1996.
Of that Wisconsin victory, Sue remembers, “He was excited. He always said, ‘Winning never gets old’.” And, as that triumph in retrospect marked the beginning of many years of championship contention, he was most proud of being able to improve his program by doing the work himself. “We just kept building it up, better and better,” explained Sue. “We just kept working at it.”
Larry was the OSTPA’s Pro Stock Puller of the Year in 1996, then came back with a sixth-place finish in the 1997 national standings. That year, Scott Snyder broke the Internationals’ stranglehold on the division that had dated to 1986, a span of five titles claimed by five different champions. No Deere had won the 10 since 1983. But Pro Stock was about to see a new kind of streak.
In 1998, Larry Shope’s “Iron Dragon” won eight times in 20 hooks to take its first Grand National title. The tractor’s name, of course, had come from Larry’s highway department career of “draggin’ iron” up and down county roads in the middle of Ohio. Now, he found himself hauling his 4430 from Pennsylvania to Iowa because, as Sue reflects, that’s just what it took.
“You’ve got to work all night, or drive all night, you do that. When he’d have to work all night, he’d get in the back of the semi and lay down and I’d drive.”
Eilenfeld also recounted the multitude of miles. “We pulled all over the country together, from Maine to Des Moines.” The teammates pulled near-twin Deeres, which came in handy on one occasion when Shope left one shield at home in the shop. “He went down the track at the Buck with ‘Iron Dragon’ on one side and ‘Nameless’ on the other.”
He nabbed three more victories in 1999 en route to a second straight championship in a two-point squeaker over Larry Kline. That was a mere foretaste of the 2000 season, which brought four more wins and a third straight title—this time by five points over Tim Cain.
“His tractor was always prepared to its maximum,” noted Cain. “When he was in his prime, his tractor seemed to be tuned better than anyone else’s. He was meticulous. His tractor rarely broke. He was one fierce competitor.” Cain wasn’t the only one to notice: Larry was named both the Pro Stock Puller of the Year and NTPA Hard Charger at the end of a season that also saw him win the ultimate prize for a Buckeye State competitor: a National Tractor Pulling Championships ring.
“We both liked Bowling Green, and we both liked Tomah,” said Sue. “And of course Louisville. Those three were really important to us. He got invited [to Louisville] every year. Pretty proud of it.”
Though he was reportedly unaware of it at the time, Larry was on the verge of matching the Pro Stocks’ most impressive record to date: The four straight titles won by Mike and John Linder from 1983 to 1986 that came in the 12,000-lb. class. But uncharacteristic driveline breakage knocked Shope out of contention in 2001 and down to sixth place in the standings. In a case of pulling’s cruel irony, it was those very Linder Brothers who came out on top.
So that fourth title would have to wait, but not for very long. “We started out in the lead, winning the first pull in Tomah,” Larry reported in his champion’s interview of 2002. “But then we ran into some mechanical problems...I didn’t get back to the lead until Bowling Green when I got a second place.” It was another three-win season for Shope and a nine-point margin.
2003 would bring a fifth title to the Shope household, which included sons Darrin, Todd, and Chad as well as his most important helper. “My wife Sue is a big part of my pulling and she deserves a lot of the credit,” explained Larry. “She spots the sled and tells me the line I should try. You win or lose coming out of the hole.” Though the season featured only two wins by the “Dragon,” its consistency overwhelmed its competitors and resulted in a 23-point gap back to second place.
Larry’s sixth and final championship came at the end of a second three-year stretch and with a third straight Puller of the Year trophy. And though 2004 marked his last appearance on the banquet stage, Larry was not yet done winning: He claimed his second and third Bowling Green rings in 2005 and 2006 and a fourth class victory at the National Farm Machinery Show in 2010. His last Grand National class win had come the season before, in Monticello, Iowa.
After that, said Sue, “We just kind of gradually got out. It changed so much...They all went to that new frame and stuff, and he was just tired of doing it, I think.
“Larry went to a lot of pulls after he quit. He enjoyed watching them. He’d ride along with Ed or somebody.” Sue disclosed that he also pursued other interests: “He liked golfing.” And he knew how to win there too, scoring a hole-in-one at Little Apple, his home county’s golf course. “He was competitive about everything: Darts, whatever he plays. He’s there to win.”
Sue and the rest of the pulling world lost Larry suddenly in June 2015. “It was a great life we had. Wouldn’t change a thing. Just was too short.”
“In ’87, we went to the banquet, and that’s when he got Rookie of the Year, and I’ve been with him pretty much ever since. He’s so competitive; I guess that’s what I liked.
“And he likes to win. He’s nice, but he just likes to win.”