Mike Holden | 2016

Mike Holden

Mike Holden | 2016

Our next Pulling Hall of Fame inductee asked himself early on, “What can you do with something old, to still keep up with something new?” And the remainder of his pulling career was spent answering that question by imagining, designing, building, and competing with Allison aircraft engines for over two decades.

Mike Holden and his Dusty Diamond Pulling Team, which consisted at various points of single, twin, triple, and quad-engine machines, more importantly consisted of family, neighbors, and friends. “A lot of the work was done between 9 or 10 o’clock at night and 3 or 4 in the morning,” he explained, because that’s when the folks could come to his Marietta, Ohio shop to help.

Mike’s first venture into pulling followed a period spent racing late models in the 1960s. With two Oldsmobile 425s from his collection of racing parts, his name began appearing in 1975 in The Puller in results from home-state pulls in Lima and Burton and indoors at the Richfield Coliseum. But while pulling appealed to Mike, two problems surfaced. First, he was competing in an era in which names like Banter, Hileman, Arfons, and Harness were emerging as the sport’s superstars, and he knew his equipment “wasn’t going to cut it.” But second, running conventional engines didn’t satisfy his creative side. “I like to build,” reflects Mike, who admits that everything on which he was about to embark meant doing things “the hard way.”

Fellow puller Ron Barga had been successfully campaigning two tractors, the “Judge” and the “Jury,” with exotic powerplants from a World War II fighter plane, the P-38 Lightning. The only American fighter aircraft in production throughout the entirety of U.S. involvement, over 10,000 P-38s were built. And each one sported two V12, 1,710-cubic inch Allison engines set to counter-rotate on each wing lest the planes become uncontrollable. Replaced by jets, the now-planeless Allisons could be found in speed boats, drag cars—and junkyards, by the thousands. Stock horsepower: 1,000. Mike signed on.

In July 1978, The Puller reported on two new aircraft-powered Modifieds from southeastern Ohio under the prescient headline: “Revolutionizing Allisons.” Quoting: “Neil Wagner of Lowell and Mike Holden of Marietta ... may have set the tone and direction for Allison-powered machines for future years.” Mike’s was a single-engine entry with twin AiResearch turbochargers; Neil mounted twin supercharged engines in a stairstep configuration. Both were among the first tractors to employ planetaries as well as Mike’s signature contribution to the pulling industry outside of his work with Allisons: The Holden three-speed transmission. To date, Mike has built over 300 of them for applications in all types of pulling vehicles.

Mike opted for the turbo solution for both safety and performance reasons. Allisons’ centrifugal superchargers were known to explode when the engine experienced detonation from a lean fuel mixture. Mike reasoned that with turbochargers, “The plumbing will let go before anything else will happen.” And the “free” power of the turbo was more attractive than the “power parasite” supercharger. “I feel I have a safer, and once the bugs are worked out, a more reliable source of high horsepower and torque.”

Top-five finishes followed at Fort Recovery and Bowling Green, Ohio and at the Indiana and Ohio State Fairs in 1979, with the year’s highlight being a win in the 9 MOD at the Purdue Boilermaker pull. But changes were coming, as Mike bought Neil out at Christmastime in 1979 and went pulling in Florida that winter with both tractors. Now, the work schedule of an agricultural truck and diesel instructor at Washington County Career Center, to which Mike adhered for 31 1/2 years, was conducive to summertime pulling. But making the winter circuit required some understanding from his supervisor. Mike credits career center superintendent David Barrett with giving him the necessary leeway to pursue his passion. Wagner stayed close by as a valuable member of the team as well.

Oh, and about that trip to Florida: Wins with the twin now named the “Prospector” came at Tampa Bay Stadium in the 7 MOD, at Daytona International Raceway in the 12 Unlimited, and in Ocala in the 9 MOD. That summer, Mike reconstructed the machine with turbochargers and a lighter frame to go pulling in classes starting at 5,000 lbs. Mike also customized his pulling trailer with hoists for the addition and subtraction of the three-quarter-ton engines. The trailer was pulled by his 1970 Freightliner; he still owns both.

A win in the 9 at Fort Recovery was the bright spot of 1981, but a blurb in the September issue foretold the direction of Mike’s Dusty Diamond pulling venture: “There’s been strong rumor about a triple Allison. Holden also has a nice new reverser box, plus a new rearend setup in the works.” Well, the triple took another few years to come to fruition, but in its fourth-ever hook in Bowling Green in 1985, it got second place in the Unlimited. Said Hall-of-Famer Ralph Banter at the time, “He’s a true inventor. That new tractor will be a pain in our neck, but I’m glad to see it. It’s just what the class needs, new blood.”

That runner-up finish to the Banters, a victory at Fairmont, West Virginia the next year, plus Gardner Stone’s win at the Fort aboard his own turbocharged triple allayed fears that the venerable Allison was past its competitive prime. But just the same, it was time for a new challenge. And at a Thanksgiving party in 1986, Mike asked around the table who would be up for helping him turn his latest concept—the world’s first four-Allison Modified—into reality.

In time for the Indy Super Pull. In mid-January.

After mocking up the newest product of his imagination with three-by-12 pine boards on the shop floor, Holden and his neighbors did just that. Lots of help then and throughout his pulling days came from wife Janet. The two began dating when Mike was racing and were married in 1979. Her support of Mike’s pulling efforts came in the forms of attending pulls between shifts at the nearby DuPont Plant and cooking for the shop workers—paid and volunteer—late into the night. Mike reflected on their Sunday family days: first church, then chores at the house and farm, and finally time spent with Janet and sons Chuck and Joe in the shop, eating and fellowshipping while working on Mike’s next idea.

Speaking of which, back to that four-engine tractor. It competed in the 12 Unlimited in Indianapolis and earned fifth place against, literally, pulling’s heaviest hitters. As Mike explained, running four-decade-old technology against modern automotive engines and their made-to-order horsepower was “like taking a Model T and going to the Indy 500. You don’t have to win to make it a success.” Mike was not afraid to stoke the friendly rivalry with the automotive-engine pullers. In Cayuga, Ontario one year he happened to be parked between Gardner Stone and Bob Dabrowski and explained, “We call this the Allison camp, I like to think it’s the Allison guys against the big aluminum block guys,” he continued with·a smile. “That adds a little more to the sport.”

Mike struck a partnership with Ron Barga in 1990 and the two engineered and piloted the “Silver” and “Orange” tractors to seventh and ninth in the Grand National Modified standings that year. Mike still marvels at all the trips Ron made back and forth across Ohio from far-western Ansonia to southeastern Marietta to help in the shop and on the farm—and, in one particular instance, just to hear one engine fire. That was the one that Mike had equipped with a Mallory magneto, in the process solving the greatest issue Allison competitors had faced: unreliable ignition.

After a memorable pull-off run in Canfield—resulting in another second place to Dave Banter—Mike gave up driving entirely. “I always enjoyed watching stuff I built compete,” Mike recalled. “I didn’t enjoy the driving; I couldn’t see my stuff run. You can’t see anything from the seat.”

Of the two colorful tractors, Mike remembers that the four-engine “Silver” was the more powerful and that the three-engine “Orange” was the more operator-friendly. But to his great regret, his favorite tractor conceptually—designed and almost completely constructed in the offseason of 1990-91 with four engines double-stairstepped—never made it to the track. That winter, the NTPA reduced the maximum weight of the Unlimited class from 9,200 lbs. to 8,200, rendering Mike’s design unusable. “It was my dream,” Mike lamented.

Mike Holden is a man of dedication, from his service to the NTPA as chairman of the Modified Divisional committee to his all-in approach to the Allison. For years he kept two machinists busy in his shop fabricating engine parts to stay ahead of breakdowns. Along the way, he re-engineered their lubrication system and was the first to discover that Cummins truck engine cylinder liners could be used to get a few more runs. He bought Allison blocks by the semi load out of Michigan and out of barn basements in West Virginia and scrapyards in Kentucky and PT boats in Florida. And often from other pullers who had had enough and sold out, as Mike eventually did, too. He stopped competing in 1994 and sold the last of his stock in 2004. Mike says “The best thing about pulling was all the good people we met,” notably crewmen Jim Dayton and the late Jerry Bosner, the “behind-the-curtains guys.”

His own philosophy could best be summed up in an answer he supplied to The Puller’s Question of the Month in September 1987. “If you could be another puller, who would you be?” Said Mike, “I enjoy doing things on my own, and I don’t try to follow a path. I think everyone can see that.

“I’d just as soon be me.”

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