Masterson Photo

From Grandview to Freedom Hall: The House(s) that Masterson Built

Published: February 16, 2024 Updated: February 17, 2024

If you’re a pulling fan, the name “Masterson” and the phrase “Pro Stock Legend” are not new to your vocabulary. Giving heart and meaning to that phrase was Don Masterson, who was a dominant player in the Pro Stock class across five decades. His presence at the National Farm Machinery Show Championship Tractor Pull was such that Freedom Hall would be called by many “The House that Masterson Built.”  His performances across the decades, most recently three Grand Champion wins that include a title at the 50th Annual Championship Tractor Pull, are engrained in the hearts and minds of fans and pullers alike. They witnessed the folksy, easy-going gentleman from Grandview, Indiana, in his element, demonstrating his competitive side at the helm of the “Tinker Toy” John Deere. Sadly, Don’s passing in May 2023 closed a chapter in the sport's history, but the memories remain. While the chapter ended, a page turned for a son, a team – a family – to carry Don’s spirit and legacy with them on and off the track. 

Don’s success is intertwined with the success of his son Kevin, driver of the 2023 Pro Stock Grand Champion “River Rat” John Deere. With 35 years of experience behind the wheel of a Pro Stock, Kevin is a student of the sport and cultivates that desire to learn and discover at another “house” that Masterson built -- a shop building just outside Grandview along the vast Ohio River bottom fields. It’s a place where horsepower is spoken language, and graphs displaying engine performance indicate what changes “make the grade” and those that don’t. 

Entering the shop, it’s important to note that it’s like many other shops in the Midwest, save for the fact that the equipment being repaired is a pair of National Champion pulling tractors instead of farm tractors. In the background, the sounds of classic rock from a local radio station pump out from a radio, providing a steady diet of hits from the seventies and eighties interspersed with a farm report at regular intervals. It’s the perfect spot to try new ideas, learn, and discover.

Kevin explains, “This was our farm shop at one time, and the older concrete pad was our original farm shop. We got tired of moving the pulling tractors around to get to other equipment. They were always in the way,” he jokingly mentioned. “We intended to just build on the original pad but the Amish builder we contracted to redo the shop found many of the poles rotted out.”

The result is a shop with an expanded footprint, where both tractors can be completely disassembled and re-assembled with ease; it’s instrumental in the heat of the outdoor pulling season, where breakage happens and a place to get a machine repaired and ready to go again is critical to success in a points race. At the shop's back wall sits a vital part of Don's success and Kevin's – the dynamometer. 

The hulking, massive, big block John Deere engine out of the “Tinker Toy” sat on the “dyno” for tuning in preparation for the Championship Tractor Pull. The dyno cell is a two-tiered area, with a massive 1,200-gallon tank mounted above the dyno on massive beams and filled with water to feed the twin water brakes that compose this particular dyno setup.

Water is fed into the brakes, and a load cell mounted to the brakes measures the torque necessary to move water through. Through a bit of math (Horsepower = Torque X Engine RPM /5252), engine performance is determined. This setup can measure engines up to 6,000 horsepower and 10,000 foot-pounds of torque.  

While the performance numbers coming through the dyno are essential, it is perhaps most important as a diagnostic tool. Monitoring factors like boost and exhaust gas temperature paint a picture of what’s working and not working inside the engine – it correlates to the performance numbers produced. “Big” horsepower is good; repeatable, durable horsepower is better.

As the conversation continued, we wanted to know what excited Kevin the most -- was it the actual ride down the track or discovering something in the dyno process? “Driving is amazing…finding something new on the dyno is fun too.”  

A few moments later, Kevin asked, “Do you want to see it make a dyno pull?”

After a short preparation to ready the engine and dyno for their dance with one another, the engine was fired up. The shop was filled with sounds that pulling fans have come to love. Having made a dyno pull earlier in the day, the engine required minimal time to reach operating temperature.   Teammate Patrick Gentry was there also to monitor and assist as needed. He set up his phone to video one side of the engine to watch for leaks or other issues on one side, while Kevin filmed from the other.

The team, which also includes Darryl Folz and Joe Harris, exchanges videos back and forth to share the progress of changes made to engines.

What occurred next was a symphony to the ears and eyes. A gradual change in rpm, provided at Kevin’s urging, made the engine transition from the familiar “whomp-whomp” of an idling Pro Stock into a momentary fury of sonic joy. That, combined with watching the horsepower escalate on the dyno control center as the load increased, opened a world that few see and even fewer have the opportunity to control. The vital instruments of power - turbocharger, injection pump, and engine - that had been leading the dance found the moment where the dyno would not allow them to lead any further. Peak horsepower, at least for this moment and set up, had been reached.

Following a cool down and shutting the dyno and its support systems off, a survey of the numbers began. At the heart of this pass and the one before it in the day was finding the “sweet spot” for the fuel injectors in preparation to mount and test a brand-new turbocharger (ironically, the turbocharger awarded to the Championship Tractor Pull Pro Stock Grand Champion by Wimer Fuel Injection and Turbo).

Demonstrating the joy of discovery that comes to Masterson with the dyno process, he offered with a subtle grin, “We normally see our best number on the first dyno pull of the day. This pass was better. Heat kills power.”

Masterson is quick to credit Jed Pettus with helping him set up the dyno. Pettus and his teammate Russell Counce have a dyno in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and serve a host of pullers. Over time, Kevin has gained customers for dyno time, and following harvest, there’s a steady stream of engines coming in and out of the shop, with their owners looking for power and diagnosis of problems. While Kevin is humble about his ability as a tuner, from the engine and into the chassis and driveline, Gentry confided, “I’ve been helping (the Mastersons) since 2019…it’s been an eye-opening experience what I’ve learned from Kevin in that time.”

In the end, a 13-second pass down the track is the result of long hours spent studying, learning, and discovering in a shop in Southern Indiana. Those long hours have translated into not only the 2023 Grand Champion Title but also top honors on the Pro Pulling League Champions Tour.

It's a continuation of a legacy in the House(s) that Don Masterson built, with the intention in Kevin's and team's hearts to expand on it.