Truck and Tractor Pull brings thousands to Greene County
Story by Lynn Hobbs, photos by Leigh Lofgren
About five thousand people flock to Middle Georgia’s Lake Country on one select weekend every year.
They hail from far away as Canada, as well as Wisconsin, New York, Indiana, Texas, Nevada, and many other states. Their destination – the small city of White Plains in Greene County.
Lookin’ for adventure
They’ll be back the first weekend in November for Diesels in Dark Corners XIII. Don’t make the mistake of thinking DIDC is just a bunch of big trucks. It’s actually a weekend overflowing with family-friendly fun, laughter, and stiff competition with impressive payouts. The kind of event that earns almost nothing but 5-star reviews on Google. The reviews include phrases such as “first time experiencing a truck and tractor pull, won’t be my last,” “great competitors and a very friendly atmosphere that made the long trip down worth it,” and “good old-fashioned family fun out in the country.”
A reviewer named Lee Williamson provided much more detail -- “Family friendly, down home, good ole time,” Lee wrote. “Lots of great pulling action – anything from your Granddaddy’s barn-fresh John Deere to your crazy Uncle’s souped-up, hotrod, fire-breathing monster and everything in between. Events for kids, mix and mingle with lots of good folks. Food trucks and the local church on premises to handle all your food and beverage cravings. Have great fun and make many memories. The announcer is a trip and adds a whole dimension of fun to the experience. Recommended for a good time.”
Life is a highway
Although this is the 13th annual Diesels in Dark Corners, the event’s history goes back twice that long. DIDC is one of six competitions held each year by Liberty Truck and Tractor Pull, owned and operated by members of the Merritt family in White Plains. Ryan Merritt, his cousin Hank Carlton, and brother-in-law Dennis Hargrove own and organize all of the events and work year-round to prepare for DDIC, the biggest one.
Ryan said in the early 90s, his father and uncles, Jeffery Merritt, Darrell Merritt, and Ray Foster, would travel every Saturday to compete in antique tractor pulls. After several years of doing that, “they decided they could build a sled, which is what you pull, on their own and start one themselves. It took them a year to get everything ready and they had their first pull in ’97.”
The truck and tractor pulls grew to five single-day events a year, April through September. Ryan, Hank and Dennis refer to those as “regular pulls,” and said they average attendance of 800 to 1,200. The competitors come from Georgia and neighboring states. Similar to DIDC, these regular pulls start out with antique tractor pulls, followed by a pedal tractor race for kids, and then gas and diesel trucks, and modern, hot and pro farm tractors.
They held their first two-day big event, DIDC, in 2010. Its beginning is almost the same as the regular pulls. “Our families always farmed and tractor pulling has always been one of those hobbies farmers do,” Hank said. “Then we started getting into trucks and diesel trucks got big, so we were traveling all over the southeast. And we said we’ve got a track, we’ve got the facility at home, let’s see if we can raise some money and put on our own event. The first couple of years, it was slow, and then it grew and grew and now it’s pretty large.”
In 2019, the patriarchs retired and Ryan, Hank and Dennis took over the steering wheel.
It’s in my blood
Ryan, Hank, and Dennis all have tractors and compete in tractor pulls. Ryan has been tractor pulling competitively since he was 11 years old, and his son competes in the regular pulls. “We’ve got antique tractors which have slow gears, so my son is 10 years old and he’s old enough to pull by himself,” he explained.
They also have a truck they compete with – a 1997 Dodge Ram 2500 named “Sue.” Hank is the truck pulling competitor. He said Sue was pieced together from spare parts of other trucks they owned. “It doesn’t look pretty but the motor is top notch, so we named it after the song ‘A Boy Named Sue’ but we call it ‘A Truck Named Sue,’” he explained with a laugh.
“Hank is very, very good; he won the biggest diesel event of the year last year (in Indiana) and qualified first in this year’s but had a mechanical failure and couldn’t finish,” Ryan said.
Hank shook his head, “I’m not good, we just have good equipment.” Thanks to the help of Cody Patrick in Madison who built the chastity, and a guy in Kentucky who built the engine, Sue has a highly modified 6.7 liter Cummins Diesel Motor that puts out about 1,200 horsepower.
Get your motor runnin’
The three men praised their wives for the sacrifices and help they provide for the events. Preparing for DIDC involves getting sponsors, food and automotive vendors, portable restrooms, ambulance service, parking attendants, volunteers, renting a Professional Level 8 sled that weighs 45,000 pounds, and preparing the red clay track. “There’s a science to it,” the guys explained. “We spend eight hours a day plowing it up, adding water, continuing to plow and mix water in, then pack it down where it’s a good, hard surface but has moisture in it as well. People like to come down here and pull on this red clay because it’s different from anywhere else. Up there (north), they have black dirt, rich soil.”
During the competition, participants draw a number out of a hat to determine their pulling order. When it’s their turn, hook up their pulling vehicle, wait for the flagman to give the green flag, and then go down the track. “And as you’re pulling that big sled, it’s 40-foot long and the weight box goes gradually…pushes on that pan and it’s digging down in the dirt,” Ryan explained, saying the big sled starts working like a plow. “So these vehicles in the Diesel event are anywhere from 1,000 horsepower to over 3,000 horsepower. And we’ve got some pulling semis (semi-truck) that’re even more impressive.”
The winner is whoever pulls the farthest down the track, not the fastest, Ryan said, but noted that speed contributes to the momentum to go farther.
You’re the only one
Truck and Tractor Pulls were popular and abundant all over Georgia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Ryan said, “and then it kind of died out in the ‘90s and we’re trying to bring it back.”
According to Ryan, right now there are only two certified competitions in Georgia, one in South Georgia, which involves bigger trucks, and Liberty’s which includes a variety of vehicles. “There’s a pop up every now and again,” he added. “That organization in South Georgia, we try to go down there and support them and they come up here to support us because we’re basically all that’s left in the state.”
Pulls are common north of Georgia, however. Ninety percent of the pullers are farmers who own big farms up north and they frequent county fairs and competition series and pull a lot of points, Hank said. “I don’t know, it’s just a lot more common up there, it’s different,” he added.
They all come to Georgia for DIDC, he said. Most of them have purpose-built trucks that have living quarters in them so they can stay on sight. “These guys are serious about this, they go somewhere every weekend pulling,” Hank commented. “It’s a niche hobby and it’s an expensive one.” Others stay in nearby hotels. “This year is going to be tough because it’s a home Georgia game and the Lodge is booked,” Ryan said.
The competitors have been pulling all summer, so they treat the September Liberty regular pull and DIDC as their vacation and stay the entire week enjoying all the lake has to offer. “They say they like the Southern hospitality,” Hank smiled.
-- Subtitles are taken from lyrics of country songs East Bound and Down, Take Me Home, On the Road Again, Life is a Highway, Born to be Wild, You’re the Only One.
If you go:
Diesels in Dark Corners is at Liberty Truck and Tractor Pull
4230 Liberty Church Road, White Plains, GA 30642
**Do NOT go down any dirt roads that GPS tell you to, go past them and let it recalculate.
Dates – Nov. 3-4
Friday gates open 3 p.m., pull starts 6 p.m.
Saturday gates open 10 a.m., pull starts 5 p.m.
Show and Shine is Saturday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Kids Pedal Tractor Race is Saturday 4 p.m.
Friday admission is cash only, $10 per person, $5 with military ID, free for 10 and under.
Saturday admission is cash only, $20 per person, $10 with military ID, free for kids 10 and under.
**Ear plugs are recommended for first-timers. The pulls are loud.
For more information, visit https://libertytruckandtractorpull.com/
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This story appeared in Lakelife magazine, Volume 17, Issue 5 and is the property of Smith Communications, Inc.