Originally published Sept. 5, 2013.
Mike and Joe Schoenemann, a father and son truck and tractor pulling duo from Roanoke, have 46 combined years of experience in their sport.
And while they've performed well in competitions across the United States, there's one event that neither of them can ever seem to win: the truck and tractor pull in Roanoke.
"Your hometown pull is probably the hardest pull to win all year long," admits Mike, the father. "For some reason, if you ever have bad luck, it's always at your hometown pull."
"You will never win your hometown pull," adds Joe.
Between the two, Mike has the lion's share of experience, with 36 years of tractor pulling under his belt. He competes in the National Tractor Pullers Association's (NTPA) three-engine modified tractor division on the grand national level, which requires trips to states such as Wisconsin and Missouri, among others.
Joe participates in the NTPA's super modified truck class at the regional national level, which stays in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
Joe got into the sport in 2003, due in no small part to watching his father growing up.
"When he was about 14 or 15, I guess he was getting sassy - ‘You know, dad, you should've did this or you should've done that,'" Mike says. "And finally I just told him, ‘When you turn 16, you can drive, and I'm going to sit and watch you!'
"So, for his Christmas present when he turned 16 years old, I bought him an NTPA license so he could drive and he's drove ever since he was 16. Started with a tractor and then he bought his own truck and drove that."
The Schoenemanns agree that one of the most challenging aspects of pulling is the schedule it demands, especially with both of them working full-time jobs.
They have a special name for one week in July.
"We call it ‘Hell Week in July,'" Joe notes. "We have 13 pulls in 14 days."
The schedule is a necessity, though.
"It's a commitment," Mike states. "If you're going to run, like we do, to win championships at the end of the year, for three months, you're pretty much, every weekend, you're going to go tractor pulling.
"Because you cannot miss one pull - it'll just knock you way out of the points system. You'll go from the top to the bottom."
Being on top in tractor pulling, Mike says, is not something that happens just by buying the best equipment.
"The biggest thing is, you've got to read the track for what you think your tractor's going to do and then get it weighted properly for that track that day," he says.
"The person that really does that superb is usually the guy that does the winning.
"In this sport, just because you have the biggest, baddest tractor doesn't mean you're going to go out there and annihilate and kick everybody's butt. It just doesn't work that way."
Servicing their vehicles after each pull is no small feat. Getting Mike's tractor, Joe's truck and another tractor that Mike drives for a friend, Phil Mason, tuned up for another pull takes approximately 15 hours, Joe says.
This is why both Schoenemanns are glad their racing team consists of more than just them.
"I'm going to be the first to say you couldn't do this without your wife," says Mike, referring to his spouse, Janet, as well as Joe's wife, Kelly. "A lot of times they will go enter the tractors, pay the entry fees, or while we're loading they'll go collect the prize money checks.
"This is basically a family sport. It's not a one-on-one."
Those prize money checks are made possible by the spectators, and the Schoenemanns agree that the people in the stands are one of their favorite aspects of the sport.
"One of the other things that's amazing is the fans that come to the pulls," Mike says. "Through the years they kind of get to know you. Whatever place you go, they'll look you up and say ‘Hi.'"
"It's just like another big family," Joe muses.
One of the younger Schoenemann's fondest tractor pulling memories involves seeing the crowd at Freedom Hall, in Louisville, KY, during the National Farm Machinery Show in February 2009.
"When you come down the tunnel and look up and there's 13,000 people looking at you, it's like, ‘Yup, we're here,'' he says.
"That's like the Super Bowl of tractor pulling," adds Kelly Schoenemann, "because you have to be invited to go. It is the best of the best, all around the whole United States."
One of Joe's other fond memories is being invited to the Enderle Pull-Off during his first year of competition. Started by fuel injector mogul Kent Enderle in 1987 as a way to thank pullers for using his parts, the event is by invitation only.
"He wants the top of everything," says Mike of Enderle. "So, they take five vehicles out of every class that come from all over the United States, and you've got to be one of the top five to even get in it."
It's an honor that the elder Schoenemann finally achieved this year.
"For us, after 36 years and we finally get there, it's like, overwhelming," he says.
Schoenemann qualified for it driving Mason's tractor and was the third of the five invitees. The event is slated for Sept. 14 at the Champaign County Fairgrounds in Urbana, OH.
Before the Enderle Pull-Off, though, comes Roanoke's truck and tractor pull, which is set for Friday, Sept. 6, at the pull field behind Roanoke Park at 7 p.m, as part of the 60th annual Roanoke Fall Festival.
Will this finally be the Schoenemanns' year?
"We say the ‘Pulling Gods' have just never been nice to us at our hometown pull," explains Kelly. "If you break something, nine times out of 10, it's going to be severe and it's always at your hometown pull."
But the family is hopeful this year will be different.
"We're not going to break anything this year," vows Joe.
And whether they're at Roanoke or another event, Mike says their approach to pulling remains the same.
"When you back up and hook on the sled, you have one thing in your mind, no matter whose vehicle it is: You're heading down the track to win."