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Tractor pulling event proves to be a family affair at SummerFest

LAKEFIELD -- Tyler Tschampel, 8, of Merrill, Iowa, revved the June Bug's engine Saturday in Sparks Park, preparing to entertain the crowd with his tractor-pulling expertise for SummerFest 2008.

The June Bug began as a Cub Cadet lawn tractor with a 16 horsepower engine, but after extensive modifications to the tractor and the engine, it was ready to pull the 950 pound load with Tschampel at the helm.

"This is actually my first year," Tschampel said. "My dad was doing it. I kind of watched him for eight years. My mom started pulling, and when she had my baby sister, I took over."

Tschampel is one of the approximately 50 members of the Northwest Iowa Tractor Pullers, a group of men, women and children who roam the northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota region competing to pull the biggest load the farthest using lawn tractors.

Tractor pulling might seem like an unusual hobby, but to Tschampel, it gives him a chance to hang out with his parents and friends.

It also provides a challenge. The tractors are usually weighted down to 950 or 1,050 pounds, and then a weight transfer sled is hitched behind them. Though the weight never changes, a box moving down the length of the sled gradually creates more and more pressure, forcing the tractor and the puller to work harder to move it.

On his first run with the June Bug Saturday, Tschampel struggled to stay in bounds, leaning to one side, but eventually went out anyway. It was the second competition of the season.

"I'm doing pretty good," Tschampel said.

Northwest Iowa Tractor Pullers is a league-like organization. Participants pull for points and do not receive money, although they do win plaques at the end of the season.

Tschampel hopes to avoid one of the plaques this year -- the one given to the puller who goes out of bounds the most.

Faith Witt of Ocheyedan, Iowa, pulls in the four-cylinder mini-rod automotive division. Her husband, Brian, pulls in the eight-cylinder mini-rod division. Her youngest daughter, Megan, runs a stock tractor, and her oldest daughter, Kristen, a stock altered tractor. Megan's tractor, Bubbles, is purple and pink -- her favorite colors.

"It's something our whole family can do. It keeps us together as a family, and we get to meet new people," Faith explained.

It isn't unusual for women and even young girls to participate.

Kids must be at least 8 years of age in order to pull, and they must wear helmets. Many of the tractors are also equipped with safety cages, just in case.

Pulling is often a family thing, literally and figuratively. The pullers spend so much time together that they become close, and even though they are technically competing against each other, they help each other constantly.

"If somebody's (vehicle) breaks down, everybody's there to help them," Faith said.

Many of the tractor pullers focus on improving rather than competition.

"That's the big thing, improve on yourself and see if you can get a little bit further than you did before," proclaimed announcer Barb Galles.

Everyone seemed to have fun at the tractor pull, from the pullers to the audience that filled the bleachers.

"It's pretty cool," said Tami Steffen of Lakefield, who was crowned Miss Lakefield earlier in the week and wore her crown to the tractor pull. "My cousins are putting it on."