Victory on wheels

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I really am proof that the Lord do giveth, even when he taketh away.” –Larry Koester, champion driver, National Tractor Pull Association (NTPA)

You can’t help but be inspired by someone like Larry Koester.

Outgoing and personable (with a crushing handshake, I might add), Koester is living proof that tragedy not only can be overcome, but also sometimes opens the door to experiences and opportunities that might never have existed if fate hadn’t taken it’s cruel twist.

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I met Koester (at right, with fellow racer and son Adam) several weeks ago during the 28th annual Shell Rotella SuperRigs competition at the LEE HI Travel Plaza outside of Lexington, VA. A onetime trucker and farmer, Koester lost both his legs at the knee in a freak farm tractor accident in 1986 – and isn’t bashful in the slightest in terms of talking about it.

“One minute I’m on the tractor, the next minute its six weeks later and I’m coming out of a coma with no legs,” he told me matter-of-factly.

It must have been a personal catastrophe of untold magnitude. How could it not, to go from walking to wheelchair in what probably seemed a blink of an eye?

Yet far from crippling his life, that accident opened a new chapter in Koester’s life – that of a champion driver in the National Tractor Pull Association (NTPA).

What started as a hobby to help him recover from his injuries turned into a full-fledged career in 1998 when Pennzoil Lubricants offered him a full-time racing sponsorship. Larry had to modify the throttle and braking mechanisms, of course, to compensate for his lost legs, but it sure didn’t affect his ability to find the winner’s circle.

Over the last 12 years since Larry’s been racing, he’s been a repeat NTPA champion in the “mini-modified” racing tractor division – behind the wheel of “Footloose,” as his machine is called.

[Here’s a look at how these “mini-mods” perform, from video shot at a truck and tractor pull event at The Danville Pittsylvania County Fair Grounds.]

In 2001, Larry captured his first Grand National Points Championship, later nabbing championships in 2006 and 2008. He bagged runner-up placements in 1992, 2002, 2005, and 2007 and was also (unsurprisingly) named “Mini Modified Puller of the Year” in 1992, 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2008.

Larry is also involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Northwest Ohio through his tractor-pulling career, acting as the group’s spokesman for more than 10 years running. I can only imagine what the kids think when Larry shows off his racing machine, telling him how much power it cranks out.

Because driving these racing tractors is no mean feat, even for drivers that still have two legs. The super-charged engines powering these mini-mods – fueled on methanol – crank out 2,700 horsepower, turning the rear wheels at 160 miles per hour. All the power is necessary, as these tractors need to try and pull 16,000 pound sleds as far and as fast as they can to sew up a win.

[Below you can watch Larry give a “tour” of his unique mini-mod racing machine.]

The best part of Koester’s story is that tractor racing is now a true family affair, with his son Adam Koester piloting “Double Play” on the same team as his father. Adam himself is a champion, having gained the winner’s circle in 2007 while placing second in 2006 and 2008.

Today, Shell Rotella now sponsors the Koester father-and-son racing team, with their mini-mods and trailer now revamped with Shell Rotella paint schemes, “Larry and Adam are two of the hardest working pullers out there, and it is an honor for us to ‘energize’ them in the 2010 season,” noted Mark Reed, global brand manager for Shell Rotella.

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The 2010 season marks Larry Koester’s 24th year of tractor pulling in the mini-modified division and he hopes to come out and add another title to his ever-growing list – unsatisfied with anything but the top slot unless he falls second to son Adam, as he did in 2007.

Adam is entering his sixth year of tractor pulling in the mini-modified division and is a champion in his own right – not a shock, since the now 24-year-old grew up in the sport and is a “natural puller,” according to Larry.

Adam clinched Rookie of the Year honors in 2005, then placed second in points to his father in 2006 before beating him in a close finish in 2007 to win the championship. Dad was not to be out-pulled, however, reclaiming the championship in 2008.

Mechanical difficulties kept both Larry and Adam out of the winner’s circle last year, but they expect great things of themselves in 2010. For those so inclined, their racing schedule is below – and they’ve still got a lot more events to go in the current season:

May 14-15 Pinetops, NC

June 25- 27 Tomah, WI

July 9- 10 Arcola, IN

July 17- 18 New Hampton, IA

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July 23- 24 Chapel Hill, TN

July 30- 31 Fort Recovery, OH

August 13- 14 Saluda, SC

August 17 Armada, MI

August 20- 22 Bowling Green, OH

August 24 Greenville, OH

September 3 Wauseon , OH

September 4 Findlay, OH

September 9 Wauseon, OH

September 18 Urbana, OH

October 15- 17 Raleigh, NC

Yet Larry is more than aware that he’s already claimed the greatest victory possible – a life reborn out of the ashes of split-second tragedy. “I really am proof that the Lord do giveth, even when he taketh away,” he told me.

Amen to that.

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