Plenty of pull

Dec 2, 2009

The world of diesel performance has grown incredibly over the last few years, to where it’s not just for the street anymore. Accompanying that growth has been the development of a couple of diesel motorsports, including diesel sled pulls-a form of competition that naturally suits the diesel engine.

The basics of diesel sled competition are pretty simple: whoever pulls the most weight the furthest wins. Positioning your business to take advantage of this burgeoning market, however, requires a little morestrategy.

Sled Popularity

Though diesel drag racing seems to get most of the attention, according to many, diesel sled pulls are actually the most popular form of diesel motorsports. Part of that is due to the natural aptitude diesels have for pulling weight.

“Sled pulling is definitely the arena for diesel pickups,” says Peter Pyfer of South Bend Clutches in South Bend, Ind.

“Sled pulls are by far the most popular events,” adds Jonas Mitchell of High Tech Turbo in Midvale, Utah. “The majority of our high-performance business comes from sled pullers.”

A factor in that popularity, says Mitchell, is that sled pulls are held on a relatively short track. Therefore, there are far more venues that can handle such events, with an increasing number of pulls being held indoors.

And the popularity extends beyond the competitors themselves.

“While the number of trucks participating in these sled pulls is increasing, the number of fans in the stands who watch sled pulling is skyrocketing. I guess there is just something about a 1,000-hp truck pulling a few-thousand-pound sled through the mud that wakes up the kid in all of us,” says Max Wyman of DiabloSport in Delray Beach, Fla.

Commenting that sled pulls are “extremely” popular, Stephanie Spencer of FASS in Marthasville, Mo., adds, “The pulls are to the diesel enthusiast what NASCAR is to the gas-racing enthusiast.”

Joshua Stewart of Powerflow Diesel Exhaust and Stacks in Painesville, Ohio, agrees. “Depending on what part of the country you live in, there is usually a sled pull every weekend.”

Strong Regions

Pyfer says there are a few hot spots for diesel sled pulls around the country, including Kentucky, Ohio, southern Indiana, Pennsylvania, Washington, Utah and Texas.

Stewart says that often the competitions are held at county or state fairs.

“There are also many different pulling organizations that schedule a regular pulling season. As far as what areas of the country have a strong diesel sled market, I know that the East Coast has a huge market. I’ve seen sled pulls advertised all over Ohio and Pennsylvania. I also know there are a growing number of pulls heading west,” he says.

Spencer agrees. “They’re the strongest on the East Coast and in the Midwest, but the West Coast is quickly approaching (those levels of popularity).”

Wyman says diesel sled competitions are held at the same racetracks that host drag racing throughout the country. However, he adds, “sled pulling does not necessarily require a track, so locations are not limited to race tracks.”

Mitchell concurs. “They are held all over the country at fairs and at dedicated diesel events put on by organizations such as the NADM (National Association of Diesel Motorsports). The Midwest and South have the strongest diesel sled pulling markets.”

Demographics

The suppliers have some thoughts on who the customers are in the sled-pulling market.

Spencer offers an historical perspective. “The main participants in the pulls used to be the guys that owned light-duty diesel trucks-that is a truck that they used for work and home. The spectators were the family and friends that those competitors, who were mostly men, could convince to be part of it.”

Now she’s noticing more of an interest from women as well. “It’s not uncommon to see a couple who both participate in the events in some way. At this point, we are also starting to see the spectator demographic branch out to not just the diesel owner, but those who aspire to own diesels and participate in the events.”

Spencer says that young adults (16- to 25-years-old) are also getting more involved. “It’s the only time a teenager can put the pedal to the metal in their dad’s truck and get praise for it,” she notes.

Mitchell puts his demographic parameters for the most prevalent participants and fans at males ages 18 to 45. But, he sees many older competitors as well.

“The demographics can be big for this market, depending on which area you are going to focus on,” says Stewart. “Some states don’t even have organizations to put on events. As for participants, these events are open to almost anyone. As long as you have a diesel truck, and you can answer some simple questions about your truck, the officials will tell you which class to run in.”

Regardless of demographics, Pyfer says the range of competitors is increasing, “which is part of why they’re adding more classes.”

Know Your Class

The addition of more classes makes it easier for more people to participate in the sled-pull competitions. That means the upgrades purchased by competitors range from a few simple power-producing parts to purpose-built monsters that can pull a ton (or more, actually), but aren’t practical daily drivers.

“That’s kind of the hard part for companies such as mine,” says Pyfer. “It’s getting to a point where the competition is strong enough that you have to ask if they’re building the truck for strictly sled pulling, or if they building it for daily driving and once-in-a-while sled pulling. It’s a fine line between the two. If a guy goes into a shop and he wants to do some sled pulling, he’s got to decide what level he wants to compete at. Eventually, if you keep building your truck for sled pulling, it’s not very streetable. So, it’s a difficult situation for most, because they’re starting with a $40,000 truck. They have to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to drive it, or do I want to sled-pull with it?'”

Pyfer adds that most people want to do both, and, “that makes it very difficult for the garages and the companies selling parts. We make from mild to wild. We’ve got great street clutches to competition street clutches all the way to strictly sled-pulling competition clutches.”

Stewart concurs. “The upgrades they will need are based on which class they want to compete in. Each class has its own set of requirements that needs to be met. However, if you own a stock truck with little to no modifications, most pulling organizations have a stock class or street class. This is where a daily driver could compete.”

Once enthusiasts get a taste of competition, Mitchell says, “programmers, exhausts, intakes and turbos are the most common upgrades, but as horsepower and torque increases, enthusiasts need to make sure they get that power to the wheels, so driveline components need to be considered as well. Upgraded fuel pumps and injectors often find their way into the mix.”

Wyman says programmers and inline devices are among the first upgrades a truck owner should look into when modifying his or her truck for sled pulling.

“A programmer will allow a truck owner to maximize their torque/horsepower, and an inline device will remap the fuel delivery to yield maximum performance. We offer a stacking combo, and results can yield up to 200 hp and 400 foot-pounds of torque to the wheels right out of the box, which is a great start,” he says.

Pyfer adds that the key is to ask the right questions. “The owner of the vehicle has to know where they want to go so that they know what parts they’ll need. If they don’t know, the shop has to ask the correct questions to make sure the customer gets what they want. As for clutches, if they’re going to sled pull at all, they need to have a double-disc clutch, plain and simple, and there are a variety of them.”

When selling diesel upgrades, Spencer says it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of what you’re working with first.

“The sport is largely based off of this idea, because once you begin to add to your truck, it comes down to what you really know about the different combinations of increased horsepower, torque and timing,” says Spencer

Capitalizing On the Market

Every business is hunting for ways to increase revenues, and if there are a lot of diesel pickups in your shop’s region, then selling parts for sled pulls is a solid avenue to pursue.

Stewart says one of the best ways to start is by attending a few sled-pull events and meeting the drivers and the owners of the trucks.

“From my experience, they are happy to talk to you about things they would like to see available for their trucks. They are always looking for that edge to beat the competition. Once you know what they are looking for, it’s very easy to focus on offering or creating the product for them.”

In addition to becoming educated on the market, Spencer advises the use of advertising. “It’s a tight time for us all, but advertising to the public will make a big difference. It’s time to get creative as a market. When you look at the success trail of other markets, you begin to see the point where the diesel sled market is currently in, which is in the juvenile stage at best. At this point, it’s the people involved in increasing awareness of the market-advertising in some fashion-that are going to be the ones remembered 20 years from now as the foundation of the diesel (sled-pull) market.”

Aside from the obvious advice of making sure your shop carries the correct chips, turbos and other upgrades customers need, Mitchell says it is equally important to educate the customer on the benefits and drawbacks to each product.

“Since all these upgrades work together to increase power to the wheels, it is important that they are all matched correctly,” says Mitchell.

Other Considerations

Finally, there are some other considerations to take into account when considering pursuit of the diesel sled market. When choosing which products to carry, customer service is just as important as product quality, notes Mitchell.

“The majority of customers want their truck to pull double-duty since they can’t afford to buy a truck that is dedicated to sled pulling. Unfortunately, what is good for the track is not always good for the street. Compromise is usually the name of the game, and finding just the right combination of parts to fit a customer’s needs can be tricky,” says Mitchell.

He believes that having enough support and education from suppliers is critical to a retailer’s success and ultimately a happy customer base.

Stewart also reiterates that everyone should take the time to attend a sled pulling event. “It’s great fun for the entire family, and it is always action-packed. A lot of times these events are piggybacked with other types of pulling vehicles like tractors and gas-powered trucks. But beware, once you are bitten by the diesel bug to compete, you will be hooked!”

Diesel Pulls Make Gains

Tom McConnell, CEO of the Battle of the Bluegrass Pulling Series, has been involved in the sport of sled pulling since 1984, and began promoting events in 1991. From his vantage point, diesel trucks are taking the sport of pulling to new heights.

The following is a quick Q&A regarding McConnell’s thoughts on where diesels fit into the pulling scene.

In the realm of diesel motorsports, how popular are diesel sled pulls?

Tom: Diesel sled pulls are by far the most popular classes (in pulling). Diesels are used in trucks and tractors and the most loyal fans are diesel fans. When I owned the American Tractor Pullers Association, we did a major indoor pull in Ft. Wayne, Ind. We were able to track the ticket sales and the fans came to see the diesels.

What areas of the country have a strong diesel sled market?

Tom: Diesel pulls are held in every part of the U.S., Canada and Europe. In the U.S., the Midwest and the Upper South (Kentucky, Tennessee) are the largest areas for diesel competition. The Midwest has been mostly a tractor area with strong ties to pulling’s agricultural history, but with the advent of diesel trucks, diesel pulling is even stronger in those regions.

Proof of the growth of diesel pulling is seen in the fact that the traditional “big classes” (two-wheel and four-wheel drive alcohol trucks and multi-engine modifieds) are no longer growing. These classes are losing popularity among fans and among team owners.

Teams are not building these types of vehicles anymore. They are building diesels.

Super Farm Tractors (640-ci, 3-inch inlet size on turbo, 24-inch-wide tires, 9,300 pounds) is the fastest-growing tractor class and is now the largest tractor class in pulling. This class will continue to grow, as new vehicles are being built every day.

What are the demographics for this market, and who participates in the competitions?

Tom: The demographic is large. Most fans and teams are from rural areas, but more suburban people are involved because of the diesel trucks. Median fan age is between 18 and 35, mostly males, but there is a growing interest among women.

What’s happened to the sport with the advent of the diesel truck is huge. The traditional muscle cars of the past have been replaced by diesel trucks. No longer do 22-year-old males long for a Mustang-they long for a Power Stroke. The younger generation that grows up in a rural area wants a high-performance diesel truck, whereas the young in urban areas want an import.

Pulling has just entered its newest “Golden Age”-stars will be born and they will be using diesel for power.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Tom: What is going on now is my dream. Pulling is becoming a respected and recognizable motorsport. The reason for this is the diesel truck. Nothing has ever happened in this sport that will have a longer effect for growth than the diesel truck.

When the gas trucks were introduced to the sport in the mid 1970s, the sport grew to new heights. Those times will pale in comparison to what lies ahead.

I look for thousands of diesel vehicles to be built in the next five years, and I predict that about 75 percent of the new vehicles built will be diesel. The future has never been brighter for pulling.