UW–Madison Smart Restart: For information about fall semester instruction and campus operations, please visit For COVID-19 news updates, see

During this time, please contact us at

Serious Fun

(See also: “Competing for an Education”)

An intercollegiate contest that culminates in a tractor pull? OK, it’s a little outrageous.

It’s also a lot of work, a lot of fun, and, not surprisingly, a big hit with students. Which makes sense, because a couple of students dreamed up the idea.

Neil and Kelly Detra came up with the idea in 1998 when they were UW-Madison graduate students ? Neil in agricultural engineering, Kelly in mechanical engineering with an agricultural technology focus.

Their inspiration was an off-road-vehicle design contest sponsored by professional automotive engineers. The Detras were looking for something similar to help student agricultural engineers connect with professionals in their field.

“Great idea. Why don”t you organize it?”
They pitched their idea — a contest to design a quarter-scale pulling tractor — to the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and were warmly received:

As in, “Why don’t you organize it?”

They scrambled to put together the first contest, which drew 17 teams, most with two or three members. The Detras, now husband and wife and well established in their field, are still key players in an event that has expanded rapidly in both size and geographic scope. The 2001 contest drew 350 students (not counting team members who couldn?t attend) on 32 teams from as far away as Malaysia.

Participation from industry at the event, held in Moline, Ill., is equally impressive.

“We have an amazing number of high-level industry people helping out,” says Kelly. “In 2001 we had 80 volunteers drive in from all over the Midwest. They love doing it.”

It’s easy to see why both students and industry take to this event, says Neil.

“It gives a forum for the students to hone the skills they’re going to use in the industry — not just design skills, but things like communication, networking and working as a team,” he says.

“It also helps the industry network with the students. In some cases, they’re going out and hiring the team leaders right from the event.

“It’s one thing for a student to do well in school. It’s another thing for a student to do well in school and also be able to take on a project like this one.

The team with the best tractor might not win
“It’s not just about designing the best tractor,” Neil emphasizes. “This is about the project as a whole — time management, project management, benchmarking — all of the things needed for a team to successfully complete a project.

“A lot of designs that look good on paper don’t work in real life because they can?t be manufactured, or they’re too expensive. This is a hard lesson to learn. With the quarter-scale contest, you can learn these things before you go into industry, so you go into your first job with confidence.”