Backstory: The Texas gear leaders

A team of small-town girls who didn't know a flywheel from a pinwheel restores a tractor in national competition.

A girl? Working on a 71-year-old tractor? Wearing a cheerleader outfit? Kayla White and her teammates, bubbling with know-how and nerve, turned the tables on a five-man panel of judges with a tale that raised a series of seemingly absurd rhetorical questions.

"I bet y'all never seen anything like that," challenged Kayla, a high school senior.

No, judging from the awkward laughter, they hadn't. And that was the thing: In the short history of the Chevron Delo Tractor Restoration Competition, a contest open to mechanically inclined high school students from across the country, no one had ever seen a team quite like the one from tiny Cotton Center, Texas.

A year ago, the team of seven girls started at the very beginning. Of the seven seniors, only Ashley Swoap had even an elementary knowledge of basic tools, while others struggled with the simple maxim, "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey." Last week during the finals, which were held in conjunction with the 79th annual National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, the Cotton Center group sounded like a bunch of bona fide gearheads. During the question-and-answer portion of their PowerPoint presentation, the girls fielded questions about the properties of magnetos, proper flywheel placement, and acid baths for carburetors.

"Very impressive," confided a contest official. "Those were some tough questions. I couldn't believe how well they handled them."

However, unlike many of the other nine finalists, the girls were unable to bring the 1935 McCormick-Deering Farmall F-20 completely back from the dead and finished out of the running. "We just ran out of time, that's all," grumbled David Howell, the Cotton Center group's adviser. "Another eight hours, and we'd have this thing running."

Pretty confident for the guy who was once convinced the only way that tractor would ever leave his garage would be if it were carried out in a box. Like a funeral. And just as expensive.

Students spend thousands of hours and dollars on their projects. The object of the competition, which has both an individual and team division, is to restore an antique tractor to mint condition. The entire project is budgeted, bankrolled, and documented by the contestants, who submit detailed accounts to a board that whittles the entrants to 10 finalists.

***

Cotton Center, 30 minutes north of Lubbock, fields a six-man football team but is known for its prowess with a wrench. Since the competition began in 1995, Mr. Howell has guided seven teams to the finals and won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005. Last year a victory celebration drew 150 people from the town of about 174. There are 45 students in high school there, and 13 in the class of 2007.

Because of Cotton Center's size, the seven girls had little choice but to take Howell's ag-science course, which revolves around a tractor restoration project. "We weren't trying to make any kind of political statement, that's just the way the cards fell," he says. "But I've got to be honest, when we first started this, my whole deal was trying not to go insane."

Howell taught them safety, how to use the right tools for the job, and then slowly unlocked the mysteries of the crusty tractor that had been donated by a Cotton Center resident. The girls' confidence grew with their knowledge. Eventually, they even became a little cocky, calling themselves "Howell's Angels" to the chagrin of their adviser. "I think all of that just pushed him over the edge," says team member Randi Cates.

Howell, though, found a way to get his revenge.

"One day he told us he was taking us to [JC] Penney's to buy new clothes because so many of us had ruined ours working on the tractor," says Ashley. "We thought we were buying jeans. Instead, he took us to a store where we got these big ol' spacesuit-looking things to paint in."

In the past, when it came to engines and grime, if there was a girl to be found in the garage, she was usually wearing a bikini and holding a quart of motor oil on a glossy calendar that hung from the wall. That image, though, is history. In 2003, Tabetha Salsbury, from Pueblo, Colo., became the first girl to win the individual tractor-restoration competition, and, in 2004, the first individual to win two years in a row. Her story garnered significant media attention, helped her win a college scholarship, and procured a pending made-for-TV movie. Last year, the first all-girls team to compete, a group from Decatur, Texas, took second place.

In an age of "Pimp My Ride" and "Trick My Truck" TV shows, "Restore My Tractor" might not conjure the same cachet, but interest in antique farm implements is at an all-time high.

"The hobby has experienced phenomenal growth," says Dave Mowitz, an editor at Successful Farming magazine and past judge at the restoration competition. "Not only are the vast majority of the people involved nonfarmers, the hobby is attracting people who don't have anything to do with farming at all."

Mr. Mowitz has been involved with the hobby since 1991, when his magazine began running a standing feature called Ageless Iron, which is dedicated to covering tractor collecting and restoration. (According to Mowitz, several dozen magazines and newsletters cover the hobby.) He recalled in 1995 predicting the plateau of antique tractor restoration, but since then he's seen the number of tractor restoration shows jump from the "hundreds to the thousands." On any given weekend anywhere in the United States, he says, there's a show going on somewhere near you.

"It's a larger metaphor for kinder, gentler times," he explains. "Go to a show, talk with the people involved, and you'll be hooked. It's one of the few places you can take your kids to and turn them loose without being concerned. The only thing you need to be worried about are the surrogate grandmothers who'll treat your kids like their own and stuff them with too many cookies and pies."

***

After working together and fighting together, the girls from Cotton Center began to feel like a family, too. There were times when it wasn't easy, but that was part of the learning curve.

"There was a point when everyone wanted to do everything by themselves," says Sasha Castilleja, team member and reigning homecoming queen. "But there was so much to do that we had to learn to trust others to help get the job done. We're all about to graduate, so that was a good lesson for when we get out in the real world."

All of the girls plan some kind of postsecondary education. None wants to be a mechanic, but if nothing else they had a great time – especially needling their adviser.

"Mr. Howell quit about a million times," teases Kayla. "At least twice a day," concurs Randi, piling it on with an impression.

And Howell? What did he learn? "Their version of the truth and mine isn't the same."

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