By Tony Rehagen ~ Southeast Missourian
The word "rodeo" usually stimulates images of roping calves and bucking broncos. But at Thursday's 4-H/FFA Tractor Rodeo at the SEMO District Fair, the object was wrangling a 451 Massey Ferguson utility tractor around an obstacle course without committing too many fouls.
Twenty-one 4-H and FFA members from Ste. Genevieve to Fredericktown competed in this year's event. Three members, all of whom must still be in junior high or high school, from each club or chapter were allowed to compete.
"It's a test of driving safely and backing a tractor with an implement," said Larry Rausch, sponsor of the Perryville FFA chapter. He's been involved with the District Fair rodeo for the past 17 years.
The contestants must navigate a tractor pulling an implement through a series of gates. The tractor is driven through two gates, then it must back up through two other gates as part of a figure-eight maneuver. Drivers then must back the rig into the box from which they started, stopping with the implement within two inches of the back bar.
The scores reward clean driving more than fast times, making deductions for hitting gates, changing direction before necessary and riding the clutch. Drivers are disqualified for any unsafe driving, such as going too fast, spinning tires and being reckless. A perfect score with no penalties is a zero. Times are kept, but are only used in case of a tie-breaker.
"Everybody drives the same tractor," Rausch said. "Everybody faces the same challenges."
This year the contestants saw their biggest challenge when the tractor was brought out hitched to a horse trailer.
"The problem with a horse trailer is you can't see over it and you can't see the back of it when you're backing up," said Kurt Kiefer of the Perryville FFA.
Kiefer, 17, is in his fourth year at this rodeo. But like many of the contestants, he has been driving a tractor on his family's farm since he was 7 years old. He said he's here because he likes doing farm activities and he's good at it. But as experienced and good as he may be, he's never placed in the competition.
"They got me for riding the clutch last year," Kiefer said as he examined the tractor being backed into starting position by one of the judges. "I was just using the clutch.
"Look at him. He's using the clutch," Kiefer jokingly yells so the judge can hear him. "If he deducts me for it, I'm going to remind him about it."
But the judge did not penalize Kiefer for riding the clutch this year. In fact, after a slue of times exceeding four and five minutes, Kiefer backed up his earlier confidence by winding through the course penalty free for a perfect zero score in a minute and 24 seconds.
The rides and scores of veterans contrasted with those of the rookies. Many newcomers knocked down gates, rode the clutch or backed into the bar.
Rookie Josh Royer of Fredericktown had trouble getting the right angle as he backed through the course, forcing him to change direction a number of times. The difficulty resulted in a score of 645 after a five-minute run. But he wasn't making excuses.
"I've never pulled a horse trailer, but I've pulled stock trailers before. That wasn't the problem," Royer said. "I just kept having to change direction."
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