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A smokin' legacy

Robert Richwine of Brownsburg, Ind., blows a plume of fire out of his "Mean Machine" during the 2008 Smokin' Iron Tractor Pull.

The Smokin' Iron Tractor Pull has been something of a hidden treasure the last seven years, an event which is tucked away in the small and quaint village of Ottertail -- an unlikely destination for one of the best pulls in the nation.

But that treasure lost one of its gems with the passing of Bill Ferrell this past February.

Ferrell's influence on Smokin' Iron has been felt nationwide and his passing has left a void, one which will be felt in its full effect this weekend when the Region 3's best track and pull kicks off Friday and runs through Saturday evening.

Ferrell was one of the integral components of the pulling event, bringing it to heights which usually takes 10 to 20 years to reach in the tractor pulling world -- including winning the Region 3 Pull of the Year four of the last six years.

"Bill carried a lot of weight with the pullers," said Smokin' Iron president Terry Wagenman, who along with a group including Ferrell spearheaded the effort to bring the pulling event to Ottertail. "I'm going to miss my friend. We worked hard together and raised hell together.

"It's safe to say this will impact me much. I will really miss him."

An empty field and blossoming idea

There were several things that could always be counted on when the Smokin' Iron Tractor Pull was held in Ottertail -- the smell of diesel, spinning tires and Bill Ferrell mingling with the pullers wearing a Smokin' Iron t-shirt.

In fact, it could be counted on like taxes and a cold Minnesota winter that you would see Ferrell wearing a Smokin' Iron t-shirt anywhere he and his wife -- Ginger -- would go.

"Bill took a lot of pride in his Smokin' Iron," Ginger said. "Everywhere we went, Bill could start a conversation with anyone and he would always bring up Ottertail and Smokin' Iron."

It was a common sight to see Ferrell in a Smokin' Iron t-shirt and that wasn't missed by his family, who buried Bill with one on.

It was that deep down love for Smokin' Iron and dedication by Ferrell which opened Ottertail's doors to the tractor pulling nation.

His networking with pullers was a main source of turning Smokin' Iron from a small-town weekend event into a national weekend series.

"Bill and Ginger went to many of the Grand National Pulling events and to the Super National pulling (show) in Tomah, Wisc., and he really got to know a lot of the pullers," Wagenman said. "There are just no words to describe how important that was."

During a cold, wintery January afternoon in 2003, Smokin' Iron was born.

It was conceived by a group of local men, including Cliff Christensen of Battle Lake, who "drug" Ferrell and Wagenman to a Red River Pulling event.

After several connections were made with the National Tractor Pulling Association, president David Schreier made a trip to Ottertail to take a look at the potential track site of Smokin' Iron.

"(Schreier) said it could work in a couple of years, but we said, 'No, we want to do it this coming year,'" Wagenman said.

With Ferrell being the lone retired committee member on the newly formed Smokin' Iron event, he jumped into the project feet first.

His non-stop promotion and ambition started to get noticed by the pullers, including one of the nation's best mini-rod pullers -- Larry Koester of the Pennzoil Pulling Team, based out of St. Wendel, Ind.

The Koester family is well known in the pulling community after 22 years of experience with his vehicle "Foot Loose." As a pulling veteran, Koester has won many titles, including three Grand National titles.

Koester and his family -- including son Adam, who won his first national championship in Ottertail two years ago and was named 2005 Rookie of the Year -- have trekked the 900 miles north to Smokin' Iron the last four years.

And according to Koester, it was Ferrell who directed his attention to the event in a small Minnesota hideaway.

"The people involved in (pulling events) make a huge difference if you go or not," Larry Koester said. "We first came up there because of Bill. It's an event run by people who care about you and about your comfort. They treat the pullers so well.

"Bill will go down in the history books and he will be deeply missed by everyone."

But it wasn't just the hospitality that kept bringing back the pullers, the well-constructed track also had a say in it.

The developers of the track incorporated a touch of the best tracks in the nation into the one in Ottertail.

The committee from Smokin' Iron took a dirt sample from each top-rated track and had a soil analysis done on it. They then took a combination from that for the makeup for the Smokin' Iron track.

"It is one of the best, or if not the best tracks for pulling," Koester included of Smokin' Iron.

A passing of a legend will be felt, but not forgotten

It was no coincidence Smokin' Iron was a part of Bill Ferrell's last months.

He proudly accepted the Region 3 Pull of the Year award for Smokin' Iron at the NTPA National Convention last December.

Sadly, the 70-year-old Ferrell passed away suddenly four days before he and Ginger's 50th wedding anniversary -- a shock not just felt by the family, but by the entire pulling community.

"Whatever Bill did, he always took pride in everything he did," Ginger said. "And Bill never did it for the recognition. Everyone involved deserves credit."

Smokin' Iron isn't just a family outing for the spectators (up to 6,000 fans pack the stands annually), Ferrell made it a family affair for his own, as well.

His daughter, Tammy, has been working at Bill's side in the VIP Tent since the start.

It was the VIP Tent where Bill could be found talking with pullers and making their stay as hospitable as can be.

Now, it will be Tammy who will have to take over for her father in the VIP area.

"Dad was very dedicated to the VIP area," Tammy said. "If you were to find him during (the Smokin' Iron) weekend, you would find him there.

"It's going to be tough on everybody this weekend. It's going to be tough on the pullers not seeing those blue eyes and great smile and that pat on the back from dad. We'll all have to find his strength this weekend."

After last year's rain delay, which was brought on by a big storm and forced all the pullers and spectators to a storm shelter in Ottertail, there is hope this year's Smokin' Iron isn't interrupted by weather.

"We're hoping with the bad luck we've had with the weather the last several years, that God owes us a nice weekend," said Michelle (Ferrell) Beck, Bill's granddaughter. "Now that grandpa is up there, hopefully he'll have some pull for us this weekend."

As everyone knows after getting to know the sociable Ferrell, the show must go on -- and everyone involved is looking to do just that, exactly what Bill would have wanted them to do.

"I put everyone in the family to work," Tammy said with a laugh. "My dad trained me well, I learned from the best."

The VIP tent and area will be dedicated in Ferrell's memory, with a short ceremony taking place this weekend.

By making Smokin' Iron a national attraction in just seven years, the future is bright for the pulling competition which was helped forged by the work of Ferrell.

"It was Bill's lifelong dream to make Smokin' Iron a Grand National Pull like in Tomah," Koester said. "He helped make Ottertail feel like home for us. If the people keep working on it like Bill did, (Smokin' Iron) will become a Grand National Pull."

There will be an important missing face this coming weekend for the seventh Smokin' Iron Tractor Pull.

But the memories live strong of Bill Ferrell and his legacy of what is becoming a nationally acclaimed professional tractor pull.

As the many people who have gotten to know Ferrell and his kind words know, there could be no better four words during this year's Smokin' Iron in his memory than these...

"See you in Ottertail."