The man you see hunkered over the steering wheel of that (literally) speeding Allis-Chalmers tractor is the legendary Ab Jenkins. In 1935 Jenkins drove that tractor to a terminal speed of just under 68mph to set the “land speed record” for a tractor. Jack Donohue has a modified 1948 Ford 8N to blow that number to smithereens. If you think I am making any of this up, I am not. History is on my side along with the historic photos and news clippings below. We were tipped off to the Donohue effort by Stuart Hall who was surprised that we had not mentioned it. The only reason we have not mentioned it is because we had no idea about it because trust us, if we knew this was happening we’d have been giving you hourly updates. So now…onto the story.
In the 1930s, it was uncommon for farmers to put rubber tires on their tractors. Steel wheels were far more prevalent at that time and tire companies were paying attention to this massive market that they wanted to break into. Previous efforts at convincing farmers that a switch to rubber tires would save them fuel and allow them to cruise at relatively high speeds down many of the newly paved country roads that they could not travel down in their steel cleated tractors. Allis-Chalmers led the way on this front as far as OEM builders and made rubber tires standard equipment on their machines in 1932. Firestone engineered a tire that would carry a relatively low air pressure and have a relatively flexible sidewall. The company was aggressively trying to promote this idea to farmers and wasn’t having a whole bunch of success. Remember, the Great Depression was on and money wasn’t exactly flying around the farm. Rubber tire tractors started winning plowing competitions and winning them by a pretty good swath. From that development came an idea (from the advertising department at Allis-Chalmers) to do some high speed running with the tractors. At a time when most tractors would run to about 10mph in their meager “road gear” this idea was nearly comical….but people listened.
Suddenly the engineering department developed a very tall drive ratio for the tractors. Unfortunately it has been lost to history how they actually derived this ratio. We presume it was a combo of a taller 4th gear in the transmission and a taller ring and pinion gear. These things were literally set up to go where no tractor had gone before…or since. The first demonstration of the racing tractor saw a race driver take it around a track at 35mph in front of a stunned crowd, the big Firestone tires polished up and gleaming in the sun. The company really stepped up the program and hired an aging but still legendary Barney Oldfield and he managed a speed over over 64mph on a measured course at a county fair. This became big news…and all of a sudden those tires didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Incidentally, Ab Jenkins was the second touring “racer” and he stole the record from Oldfield by topping 65mph with Harvey Firestone himself present to see the feat. These guys barnstormed HARD, covering seven states in a short span of weeks to spread the word.
While the schedule was not as aggressive in 1935, the company was still working the message and Ab Jenkins, who was already planning another series of speed trials on his beloved salt flats in the Mormon Meteor, dragged along a speedy Allis Chalmers to use as a bit of a warm up act before the main event. The result? He clocked a speed of nearly 68mph, resetting the mark he had made a year earlier during the Harvey Firestone attended adventure in Ohio. How did it go? Multiple reports claim that when asked how the tractor rode at speed, he described it as being atop a, “frightened bison.” There’s good reason the tractor speed attempts by Jenkins stopped then. The guy was smart enough to know that he didn’t want to survive all his other accomplishments only to meet his maker driving a tractor.
So…..to the present day!
The tractor that we’re hoping to see on the Ohio Mile someday has been constructed by one Jack Donohue and it is called 8N Incredible. There are photos of the machine online and we’ll show you a few below as well as direct you to the Jack Donohue Motorsports website for more. While we cannot see the whole machine we can tell you that it is powered by a flathead V8 much like an old Funk converted 8N would have been. We can tell you that the rear tires are aviation tires that came from a large jet and stand nearly six feet tall and we can tell you that there is some beautiful fabrication work done to this hopefully fastest tractor in the world.
Donohue builds race cars for a living and grew up around stock cars racing, even driving in NASCAR during his racing career. He’s a native of the Carolinas and still lives there, operating the aforementioned Jack Donohue Motorsports operation out of the town of Fletcher. Donohue was raised on a farm and can still remember the day when his dad rolled up in a gleaming new 1952 8N. That sparked a love affair that has lasted a lifetime. He’s been fixing and restoring the tractors on the side for as long as he can remember and dreaming about the chance to build a speedy one to take on Ab Jenkins longstanding record.
That’s about all we really know at this point. The whole thing is a bit of a glorious mystery. Stuart, who gave us the tip is passing along a number that we’ll call and harass Jack on to give you a more in-depth look at the project. Anyone who has ever driven a tractor “fast” (like 20) knows that things can get weird in the steering in a hurry. We have to guess that Jack’s race car building and racing experience have allowed him to work on that. We sure hope that it has. We’re going to share with you some photos from the Jack Donohue Motorsports website below and you can take it from there.
THIS IS SO AWESOME WE CAN HARDLY STAND IT!
CLICK HERE to read all about 8N Credible and see more photos