Holsteins and horses may be at the heart of the Champlain Valley Fair, but it’s horsepower that delivers the defibrillation. During the Grand National Truck and Tractor Pull — the grand finale to the fair on Monday, September 3 — reigning champ Bill Voreis will rumble out American Thunder for the “unlimited modified” division. The midway monster snorts out 10,000 horsepower and has earned Voreis two national titles.
Most of the year, Voreis, 55, farms corn and soybeans on 5000 acres in Argos, Indiana. But from June through October, he travels around the country to show off his mean, $350,000 machine. As Voreis geared up for a likely third national title — in Vermont — Seven Days pulled him aside to talk tractors.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you get into tractor pulling?
Bill Voreis: Ah, geez. I’d like to blame it on bad drugs, but I can’t. Back in 1973, I went to the Louisville farm show and watched the tractor pull. I thought that was kind of neat, so I started pulling farm-stock stuff in ’74, and then, in ’77, I started doing sanctioned pulling and it just progressed to where I’m at now.
SD: Your class is “Unlimited Modified.” What does that mean?
BV: The only limit we have is weight. We can put anything on that tractor we want as long as we’re under 8000 pounds, and that’s including me. We can run anything except nitro-methane. I run methanol, on five motors, all a little over 2000 horsepower apiece.
SD: OK, so what exactly happens during tractor pulling?
BV: It starts with a very light load of weight, like equal to the weight of a tractor, and you go down a 300-foot track, and by the time we top it out and everything, we’re pulling 70,000 pounds on a piece of steel that has bars on it. My tractor, I’ll do 300 feet in seven or eight seconds, so we move pretty fast.
SD: How does it feel to be pulling that much and going that fast?
BV: Oh, it’s 10,000 horsepower in my right hand, so it’s quite a rush. And I have full control of everything. Part of driving is knowing when to get all the power. It takes a little skill; it’s not all horsepower.
SD: What kinds of skills does it take?
BV: You have to be able to feel when’s the best time to bring your power full on. And also you’ve got to keep it on a straight line. You get that much horsepower tied to something that doesn’t move, it wants to get out of control a little bit. You have to think ahead. If you wait for something to happen, it’s too late; you have to anticipate what’s going to happen.
SD: Yeah, mentally, it seems like there’s a lot going on.
BV: There is, for that 10-second period. In fact, it’s to the point now where people ask me, “Did you have to use the brakes?” and I can’t tell them. Once you take off, it’s just reactions. I can’t remember what I did during the run.
SD: Sounds like it’s similar to athletes being in “the zone.”
BV: Yeah, when I get all five motors started, then I’m kind of relaxed. That’s the most nervous thing, waiting for your turn and hoping everything starts, because when you’ve got that much mechanical stuff, something can always go wrong. When all five of them are started, I just tune everything out.
SD: I would imagine you have to be pretty strong, too? Do you do any sort of special training or drills?
BV: Well, I don’t know if it takes a lot of strength. There’s some pretty small ladies that drive pulling vehicles. It just takes good reactions. You gotta be in shape. It’s not good to be overweight. I walk a couple of miles a day.
SD: What does it feel like afterward, after you step down? Do you ever get sore?
BV: If it’s a good run, it’s just kind of a deep breath; you relax. But sometimes we have tire shake, where the tires shake violently; I’ve been knocked out by that before. I didn’t know where I was for a couple of minutes. Kind of like a football player getting his bell rung. Now they make us wear neck collars.
SD: What else do you wear?
BV: We have double-layered fire suits, fireproof socks and fireproof shoes. It’s like drag racing.
SD: So do flames shoot out and stuff?
BV: Well, we hope not. But when I back out, there’s a lot of raw fuel in the motors, and flames will come out of the exhaust and what not.
SD: Wow. After last year, you said you might just pull for fun this season, but it sounds like you’ve gone in the opposite direction.
BV: I found out there was only one other time anybody won three in a row, and it’s been 25 years, so I thought, well, I want to do that in what I call the modern era. I’ve got a big enough lead now that all I have to do is show up in Vermont and I’ve won. I’ve won 17 out of 19 pulls this year.
SD: How do you like competing here?
BV: Of course, there’s no place prettier than Vermont. There are some places that have better tracks, but you always have a good crowd; it’s never blistering hot, it’s just beautiful weather. This year I can really relax knowing I just have to get there. I’ll try to win; I’m a competitor, but the pressure’s off now.
SD: So you show up at Essex Junction, you win your three in a row — will you take a break next year?
BV: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I keep thinking, Well, four in a row . . . You think you’re going to quit, but there’s always that next goal.
SD: Like Lance Armstrong! What’s your nutritional approach like? That must be hard at the fair.
BV: I bring my own food along, a lot of fruits and vegetables, white meat, stuff like that. Because, if you eat fair food all summer, you may start out weighing 180 pounds and weigh 250 by the end of the summer.
SD: Where did you get the name American Thunder?
BV: Oh, you know, “Thunder” is from the noise it makes. And “American”? Well, only in America would we do something like this.