Norm Smith | 2015


Norm Smith | 2015

When our next Hall of Fame inductee was asked what led him to make his mark on Modified pulling despite never owning a competition vehicle, Norm Smith articulated his philosophy this way:

“If you realistically cannot afford to own a pulling vehicle, then do not put yourself into a financial situation that will hurt you,” he said. “Become involved otherwise.”

“Involved” is one way of describing what Norm became within the sport of tractor pulling in the decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But “dependable,” “versatile,” and “dominant” are other ways.

As Pulling Power Magazine summarized in a feature article in 1982, “Norm’s one of those rare breed of people who seems to be able to get more out of other people’s tractors than they can themselves.” And so he did, slipping from seat to seat on his way to 74 NTPA class victories.

Norm’s introduction to tractor pulling was partly personal and partly business. His part-time employment at a small machine shop near Dayton, Ohio provided him with the time to attend local drag races but not the money to advance beyond the spectator level.

A school friend, Doris Pohl, introduced Norm to her fiancé, a farmer from Ansonia, Ohio who was interested in obtaining some specialized, machined parts for a different kind of motorsport. Ron Barga and Norm quickly struck a partnership in a Modified that would compete in the 5,000-, 7,000-, and 9,000-lb. Modified classes in 1966.

“The Judge” featured a 409-cubic inch, 300-horsepower Chevrolet skillfully wedged into a cast-iron Cockshutt 40 chassis and enveloped by the tractor’s original sheet metal, now colored a bright orange to match the favored shade of its namesake muscle car.

In an era that pre-dated the mechanized weight transfer, Norm and Ron took turns at dead-weight sleds making 20-foot full pulls. But Norm particularly liked the challenge presented by the light class, stating years later, “You never know what’s going to happen in the 5 MOD.”

Though the on-track excitement appealed to Norm, he took a much more conservative approach to real life off the track. Now employed full-time as a tool and die maker at Toolcraft in Dayton (a business at which he would remain for over 40 years), and with the costs of remaining competitive growing too fast for his budget—Barga had already doubled his stable with the addition of “The Jury”—Norm informed Ron that he would have to bow out of the team.

Well, Norm might have declined an ownership stake in Barga’s pulling enterprise, but thanks to his prowess both in the driver’s seat and at the workbench, his involvement grew deeper than ever. “The Judge” was about to switch to Allison power, and Norm helped to couple the new, quad-carbed powerplant to the Massey-Harris 55 transmission and rearend.

Norm became an integral part of six Grand National Modified championships between 1975 and 1978. He won the 12,000 Unlimited class at the Indy Super Pull to begin 1977 and was voted the Association’s Modified Puller of the Year to end it.

Norm’s skill as a machinist would open other doors. When the Wilson family of nearby Greenville were ready to replace their V-8 powered Cockshutt with a new Mod, their friend Ron had just the guys for the job. “Judge” partner Ron Bickel would do the welding, and Norm would do the machine work which included the elimination of the Cockshutt transmission housing.

“The Little American” Modified, with one single-overhead-cam 427 Ford racing engine, would become a stalwart on the NTPA circuit for much of the next decade in the 5 and 7 MOD classes. And of course, Norm would occasionally drive when the Wilsons got busy with their livestock-marketing business; in addition to being expertly designed and immaculately dressed in its patriotic color scheme, “The Little American” conveniently fit on the hauler with other tractors.

In that 1982 Pulling Power interview, Norm stressed that he drove for friends, not employers. But a slowdown one winter at his regular job did put Norm squarely into the pulling business in a certain shop in Lafontaine, Indiana. Norm went to work helping Ralph Banter keep up with demand for parts and whole tractors.

Once the schedule resumed, of course Norm got his chance to drive Ralph and his brother Dave’s “Orange” and Wrangler/”Big Ben” tractors when one or both of the 1999 Pulling Hall of Famers were absent or declined. As Norm told The Puller, “The first time I drove those Banter supercharged motors, wow, what a thrill! Even starting that many engines is a thrill.”

And Norm wasn’t done making friends and improving machines in the pulling world. He had a hand in building and driving John Shaul’s triple-Arias “Northeast Raider” and also piloted Shaul’s Allison-powered “brown” and “red” Modifieds.

Pulling Power cites an instance, believed to be in 1981, in which Norm drove two Banter tractors and two Shaul tractors in the same class—and swept the top four. He had declined a request to drive a fifth tractor to help dial in its chassis.

It isn’t all automatic, Norm confessed: “I have to stop and think—which tractor is this and what weight class am I pulling in now so that I won’t pull the tractor in the wrong gear.” But instinct coupled with experience win out more often than not. As Norm explained, the secret was to “feel through the seat of your pants how the tractor was responding to the track condition and sled setting regardless of what motor was up front.

“The horsepower makes it all work. It is hard to tell someone how to drive a tractor. You have to feel the experience.” Shaul, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee, is quoted as saying of Norm, “He has that touch that makes him what he is—one of the best drivers of the sport.”

Explained Norm to Pulling Power: “I don’t mind playing hard, but when play becomes a full time job it isn’t play anymore, and I don’t want to work this hard at something that could be play.”

Well, during the heyday of the Banters, Norm certainly got plenty of play time. Each of the tractors he regularly steered competed in two or three classes, which necessitated the addition or subtraction of engines and cast iron ballast.

“That was a lot of motors to pull out and put in and weights to sling,” recalled Norm. And between Grand National, regional, and state-level opportunities, pulling consumed three to seven nights of a typical week. At Ralph’s insistence, Norm was paid a percentage of the purse the tractors earned. “How could it get any better than that,” Norm told The Puller, “when you got to do what you wanted to do and got paid for it?”

Pulling Power reported that Norm took turns driving Super Stocks and Minis, but it was the Modifieds that he got the most out of, with 74 Grand and Regional National wins over nine seasons. He had the most success at Kankakee, Illinois, with six wins, but following close behind was the Ohio State Fair Pull, where he had five.

Victories at Bowling Green, Ohio in 1976 and 1984 essentially bookended his career. But he told The Puller that one of the wins of which he was the most proud was one in muddy Ottawa, Ontario in 1977 when he drove a sputtering, underpowered “Jury”: “It did not spin the tires, but pulled the load. Surprisingly, it won.... It was always fun to do well with an underdog tractor.”

Another point of pride was an unexpected win in 1982 in Tomah, Wisconsin’s 12,200-lb. Unlimited class with Shaul’s “greatly out-horsepowered” twin-turbocharged, single-Allison entry.

Norm has an appreciation for the changes in the sport since the era when he rode so many saddles. “There is a lot of really nice work done in building today’s tractors,” he told The Puller. “Today’s tractors would be a fun ride as it’s a speed race rather than a pulling race,” and he would not turn down an opportunity to drive a modern Modified.
He was also thankful for the fans—”I am happy we have good spectators as [otherwise] there would be no sport”—but just as quickly admits that he himself is a poor spectator, able only to sit and watch a class of Mods or Unlimiteds before feeling compelled to walk around and visit with pullers. Or participate himself, as he did in 2013 by driving Gaylord Zechman’s twin-440 Dodge Modified in a National Tractor Pulling Legends exhibition.

As Pulling Power noted, “There are few in the sport that have the reputation of Norm Smith. He is quiet, friendly, and”—they lamented—”even a little unappreciated by most spectators.” Indeed, in our motorsport, humility and a helmet can collude to hide from the fans’ view and consciousness the most important contributor to a winning performance, the driver.

So let us as spectators, competitors, and custodians of our sport extend our appreciation to the indispensable Norm Smith, driver extraordinaire.

Call me back