In 1969, Art Nordstrom built a one-of-a-kind Ford 8N tractor used to push-start sprint cars. It was a staple around Garretson, S.D.-area racetracks from 1969 until the last Cheater’s Days race at the Sioux Empire Fair Racetrack in the early 1990s. Art also was an official at Huset’s Speedway and Interlakes Speedway and the tractor was his way to get to the wrecks fast. During races, Art would fly down the back stretch or front stretch, putting on a show for the crowds. With his wife and kids, he spent every summer weekend at the track. His daughter, Yvette, recalls how a modified Ford charmed kids and race crowds.
The snow is gone and spring is finally here. Growing up, I just couldn’t wait for the first big day to run outside, barefoot, without those big ol’ clumsy snowboots. Springtime was a busy time on the farm. Dad was eating, drinking and sleeping dirt during corn planting time, going like mad to get the corn in the ground.
Dad always wanted to be done planting corn at about the time the plum and crabapple trees bloomed. He’d pry open the machine shed doors like he was opening King Tut’s tomb; he was waking up the tools of spring from hibernation. The corn planter was checked and the boxes filled with seed. The kernels of corn looked like purple jewels, covered with all the right chemicals to give them a boost. Dad would get the disc hooked up and ready to break into the prairie, ready to come alive after its winter blanket melted away.
But at the Nordstrom farm, spring didn’t just mean planting time and calving. It was also the start of the racing season. It wouldn’t be long before we’d hear “Hey, hey, race fans”: Denny Oviet’s voice bellowing among big motors and loud pipes screaming for the checkered flag at Huset’s Speedway.
It was a Nordstrom summer ritual: every weekend, hitting the local tracks with Dad’s special tractor. We’d be playing in the yard, watching the parade of machinery from the machine shed. Then we’d hear a rumble from the back. What once was a normal Ford 8N garden tractor had been turned into a Jekyll-and-Hyde creation, and my dad was the mad scientist.
In the darkness of the back shed lurked a monster: A 1951 stock Ford 8N tractor retrofitted with a 1968 Ford Mustang GT V8 power plant tucked neatly under the factory 8N hood. This 401-cubic-inch mechanical wonder kicking out 400-plus hp was capable of doing zero to 100 mph in less than a city block. Totally tricked out and not for plowing anymore. For a bunch of little motorheads, this was better than Christmas. Dad had the Ford tractor out!
Before we could turn around we’d see a flash of plaid shirt, a cloud of dust and a buck-toothed smile. We’d cheer him on every pass down the gravel road, going faster and faster every time. Dad said he was getting the carbon to get ready to push those sprint cars.
We followed the dust and watched him fly south and turn around by the bridge. We heard him rev it up, come flying over the hill and hit the brakes by the silo so he didn’t slide through the dead end. Dad’s cousin, Keith, would come home and Dad would get out the tractor. He would even dare to take a wild ride, standing on the three-point and hanging on for dear life.
Flying down the track
Friday came and Mom packed a goodie bag for the races. The Ford 8N was loaded and waiting for Dad to get done milking cows. He’d take a quick bath, put on his whites and we all loaded into the pickup to head to the races. I loved to sit in the middle and wait for the chance to get to shift.
I loved going to the races. We’d be watching the race when all of a sudden we’d see Dad tearing across the front straight-away or the back stretch like a banshee. The crowd would cheer with delight at the agricultural wonder. We’d puff up and make sure everyone knew that was OUR dad. We’d judge the pushes he gave racecars and once in a while they couldn’t even get away from him. He had more power than the sprint cars. Dad had a red flashing light on the back. When one of those sprint cars took a wild ride, Dad would flip it on and beat everybody to the accident. That tractor had power to spare. Before Dad had a trailer he drove the tractor to the local track. Mom said one time he drug a Corvette from a red light and won!
We took the Nordstrom Special to racetracks all over the Midwest with Huset’s Speedway crew. Dad was active in tractor pulls and it wasn’t unusual to see him and the Ford tractor flying down the track, wheels spinning and cowboy hat rolling behind in a wave of dirt.
Conversion with attitude
After the races, I loved going to the pits. I made sure to touch that shiny, hot dirt on the track. It was so steep walking down through the gate of Corner 1. I loved the noise, smell and excitement and wanted to drive. We’d pick up the used tear-offs from the helmets, clean them up and put elastic on them, and wear them when we rode our bikes. We had races every day of the summer around the pump house, flags and all.
When Dad loaded the Ford on the trailer, he always had an audience. People loved that tractor. Those old farmers would stand in awe and try to figure out how Dad got that big motor in a stock Ford 8N. There used to be Funk V8 conversions, but this one had those beat hands-down. It was a conversion with attitude. Us kids would pile in the pickup for the drive home. I loved to sit in the middle, look out the windshield at the stars and listen to Dad talk about the accidents and who was illegal as I drifted off to sleep. Next thing I knew, we’d be home. I’d wake up when Dad shut off the pickup and put the Ford away. I’d walk to the house, carrying my racing programs and tear-offs. Practically in a coma, I’d climb into bed, where I’d dream about the next weekend’s races.
I took the Ford to Prairie Village last year for the Ford show there. I was just as proud towing it up there as I was when I was a kid. I so wanted to rev it up and open those pipes and let it roar, but Dad has the Ford tractor specially treated in a chemical trance for now. After a long day, I think back and would love to be sitting in the middle of the pickup, when my biggest worry was picking up all those tear-offs and making chains from beer tabs I found under the bleachers
Norstrom Special Specs
• 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 bored 0.060 to 401c.i.
• 12:1 compression
• Radical hydraulic camshaft
• Brass valve guides
• Notched pistons
• Balanced engine
• Aluminum flywheel, light weight pressure plate
• Dual float 550 Holly carburetor
• 450-plus hp at 8,000 rpm with 5.55 gears will scare the dickens out of even the best driver in a little over a city block.
• Tach set for 8,000 rpm redline
• Stock 4-speed Ford transmission with a Sherman 2-speed OD
• A rubber strap holds it in 4th overdrive when going all out
• Approximately 5.55:1 ratio, stock Ford
• Every part painted black is homemade
• Snowmobile chrome shocks
• Fiberglass racing seat from the 1970s
• Racing steering wheel features Art’s wife’s ¼-cup measuring cup in the center
• Farm wagon wheel front rims
• F-20 radiator FC
For more information: Yvette VanDerBrink, who did some racing of her own with Enduros at area tracks, is the owner of VanDerBrink Auctions. Contact her at (605) 201-7005.
Art Nordstrom was inducted into Huset’s Hall of Fame in 2010 for his work with the Street Stock Class and racing and promotion of racing in the Midwest. The Nordstrom kids had the tractor retrieved from the shed and surprised their Dad with it at the racetrack. Watch video of Art Nordstrom's Ford conversion at www.FarmCollector.com/art-nordstrom.