James Fischer knows what needs to be done as he sits in the driver’s seat and watches the dusty dirt road.
The pressure is on for Fischer, who is competing in an international tractor pulling competition where the machines are only 1/4 scale.
He gets the green flag from the official. It’s time to go.
He puts a heavy foot on the pedal and looks behind him at the sled.
The number one goal is to avoid shaking the chain connecting the tractor to the sled, which weighs over 1,100 pounds.
Goal two? Descend as far down the track as possible.
Fischer is the vice president of Torq’N Tigers, a group of agricultural students and other MU engineers who design and build tractors that compete for power, speed, and mobility.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the club meets in room 132 of the Agricultural Engineering building. The sole purpose of the organization is to design and build a tractor to compete with other collegiate teams.
The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers hosts the International Student Traction Event, which judges each tractor’s design, durability, handling, and performance.
Last year, 17 teams competed at Expo Gardens Fairgrounds in Peoria, Illinois, some from as far away as Canada and Israel. MU’s Torq’N Tigers placed seventh overall, but placed first in all four traction performance and a durability test that puts the tractor through a glove of curbs and sandboxes.
This year, the competition will take place from June 2 to 6, still in Peoria.
put it all together
The most important components of tractor traction are torque and wheel speed.
Competitors in the quarter-scale event use a tractor the size and shape of an everyday lawn mower – but make no mistake, the tractor packs a punch.
Under competition rules, tractors are capped at 31 horsepower, but on the tractor-pull circuit, machines can be tricked to the max with little or no limitations.
“As soon as you start you smash (the pedal) to the ground,” Fischer said.
Once the chain between the tractor and the sled is taut, drivers can use any means possible to pull the sled over the dirt, including shifting their weight and maneuvering the gears up and down.
“The tractor is so light that your weight affects its traction,” said club treasurer Tom Kabrick. “So if you lean to the left, that tire will bite more on the left side and follow.”
Drivers know the competition is over when the tractor wheels begin to spin in loose soil. All momentum is lost.
Even though the Torq’N Tigers won four draws in the 2021 competition, Fischer said there was always room for improvement.
“I know my draw should have gone further,” he said of the competition last year.
“I leaned to the left side and went too far to the right. If I had centered myself and stayed on the right part of the trail, I could have gone further.
A successful pull-up isn’t the only thing students need to worry about. The final grade takes into account the presentation of the team, the written design and the defense of the design. Teams must achieve high scores in all elements to claim first place.
How to Win: Design and Redesign
During their preparation, the students work with two tractors. Tractor X, called Tiger 16, is the one used in the previous year’s competition. For it to be eligible for competition this year, the team will have to modify 30% of the design.
A separate team is working on an entirely new tractor – Tractor A, called Tiger 17. It is to be built from scratch.
The introduction of independent front suspension on the Tiger 16 at last year’s competition helped the team win, but chairman Andrew Slater said a tractor can always be modified to give it an advantage.
“I’ve been working on a redesign using a tubular style, rather than sheet metal, which will hopefully be much lighter but still just as strong and durable,” Slater said.
At the Feb. 22 meeting, seven team members crowded into an office to work on tractor designs using SolidWorks, a computer modeling program. The drawings will be transformed into a physical copy with a 3D printer.
Members Evan Hunter and Ethan Gutz spent time discussing the Tiger 16’s suspension modifications. The pair stood on a game to test its flexibility and determine next steps. The suspension was too stiff, Gutz said, and work needs to be done to make the ride smoother.
“It makes the tractor more marketable because ultimately we’re trying to produce a tractor that we can market to our judges and sponsors,” he said.
The team relies on sponsors to finance the project. Students try their hand at marketing and networking by contacting potential business partners.
“(Financial management) is key because if it’s not done the team doesn’t get any money and we can’t function,” Fischer said.
In to earn it
Adjusting the design of the tractor is important for the traction team not only in competition, but for their future careers. The judges, often agricultural industry professionals, look for attention to detail, quality of design and good management skills. These are all qualities sought after by future employers, Hunter said.
“In engineering (course), you don’t get a lot of hands-on work. It’s a lot more theory, a lot more book work,” Hunter said. “You miss the technical aspect in your basic program.”
While learning from the book is important, Hunter said, learning to train with machine work is just as important. Fischer added that working on the tractor’s electrical wiring applies the skills he learned in his electrical course.
Slater said employers love seeing Torq’N Tigers on a potential employee’s resume because it shows a hard work ethic and a desire to learn.
“We make drawings of the parts, knowing that they will also be manufactured. We’re not going to design a crazy part that looks good on the computer screen, but you can’t actually build it in real life,” Slater said. “You’ll learn everything you need to know about the team, get your hands dirty and just put in the work.”