When the Chevron Delo Tractor Restoration Competition (TRC) crowned its 2021 national Grand Champion last fall, 12 talented contenders vied for top honors. Few would have put their money on the rookie – a self-taught young woman in her first individual competition – but the rookie closed out the night as the new champion.
Meet Annika Ernstrom from San Luis Obispo, California. She’ll humbly inform you that her mechanical knowledge was self-taught, and limited at best, prior to entry into the tractor restoration world. She also confesses to being “that quiet introvert in the back of the classroom.”
Ag mechanics wasn’t on her radar until she was inspired by friends who had completed restoration projects for local competitions. “I’ve always liked knowing how things work,” she says. “I watched two of my friends go through the competition, so I teamed up with my best friend and we sat down and said, ‘okay, we can do this.'”
That best friend was Elyse Evers. Together, the two restored a 1954 Ford 600. They found the Ford at a local yard where old tractors had been donated. “You sign a contract with them committing to finishing on time and abiding by the rules,” Annika explains. “And if you do, you get to keep the tractor.”
“A very large learning curve”
The girls set their sights on the 2020 Delo competition. Sponsored by Chevron, the Delo TRC has recognized the mechanical aptitude of high school students since 1995. Participants are accepted on an individual or team basis, and the guidelines and expectations are nothing short of demanding. Workbooks detailing the entire restoration from start to finish are submitted for review by a panel of judges. Only the top 12 finalists advance to the final round.
“It was my junior year in high school and we were just going for it,” Annika says. “I was on the FFA Farm Power Team and it was definitely something where I was learning as I went. The only thing the Ford needed was a valve job to keep the compression and some basic electrical stuff, and that was about it. We definitely didn’t tear into the whole tractor. Everything else that was external, like power steering and hydraulics, we got into that a little bit. It was definitely a very large learning curve; we’ll put it at that.”
The finished tractor was impressive enough to secure their spot among the finalists but the duo failed to place in the top three. They did, however, take home the award for best photo. “The first year, when the judges started asking questions, I flat out looked at them and said, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t, I’ll be honest,'” Annika says. “And they laughed and said ‘Come back next year and we’ll see how much you’ve learned.'”
Allis WC presented the ultimate challenge
With a taste for tractor restoration and a desire for redemption, Annika found herself back at the tractor yard in 2021 scanning options for a potential winner. “This year, I wanted a challenge,” she says. “I wanted to see what I could do.” She spotted a 1948 Allis-Chalmers Model WC that had long since seen better days. “It had just been worked to death,” she says.
Armed with very few tools, Annika set up a makeshift tent in the backyard of her family’s home where she would work to bring the old Allis-Chalmers back to life. “I had no power tools, nothing like that,” she says. “This past year, I invested in a few power tools and a cherry picker.”
The WC was in pretty bad shape and the engine was stuck. Water had gotten in through the exhaust valve and caused multiple problems. It went from having an engine block cracked in three places to also needing a completely new set of differential gears. “Every single piece and part on that tractor has been touched, rebuilt, fixed and cleaned up,” Annika says. “I found a challenge, that’s for sure.”
The project was so complex that she struggled to keep track of her time. “It was such a hard project that I was just constantly putting in hours,” she says. “I had 15-plus-hour days for three weeks straight at the end. That was the only way I made it. That and having some of the best friends I could ever ask for. They came and pulled those really long days with me.”
Building on confidence
Not only did Annika pick a tractor with a rich history within the Allis-Chalmers brand, it was also one with regional historical significance. “When I first got it, the tractor had a decal on it from the Madonna Construction fleet,” she says, “which was incredible because that gives it so much story and value.”
Madonna Construction was founded by Alex Madonna, a self-made highway construction tycoon perhaps more widely remembered for the Madonna Inn, an unconventional hotel he built for his wife in 1958. Featuring unique décor and themed rooms, the establishment quickly became a landmark and remains a popular tourist destination today.
The self-proclaimed introvert had also been pushed outside her comfort zone, and that helped instill confidence. “My mentor would make me talk and make calls,” she says. “I hated making phone calls because I would always stutter or get so nervous. Those projects really pushed me through and I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable.”
Annika credits her mentor, Keith Miller, with most of her success on the two tractor projects. “He’s the nicest and most humble person I’ve ever met,” she says. Annika went so far as to nominate him for Delo’s Cathy McCarty Hendrix Advisor of the Year Award: Throughout the project we faced many hardships but he continued to encourage me in every way possible and make me laugh no matter the situation. He once told me as I apologized for the late-night work, ‘Do you know why I’m here? Because I want to be. If I didn’t, I’d be back at the house with my kids. But you are family so I’m here to help.’ I will never forget the true compassion he showed me.
“I wanted to prove I could do this”
At Delo’s awards banquet held on Oct. 28, 2021, Annika swept the awards, winning Grand Champion and Best Photo honors. “Once they called my name,” she recalls,
“I was sitting there going ‘holy cow, there’s no way!’ I felt like I almost passed out, so I had to sit there and take a deep breath.” To put the final touches on an already perfect evening, her mentor, Keith, was also named Delo’s Advisor of the Year. It was the tractor restoration world’s equivalent of a triple-crown win.
“After that first year with the Ford, my only goal was to place in the Delo nationals or in a local competition,” Annika says. “That was my only goal. I wanted to prove I could do this.” In the Delo program’s 26-year history, Annika is just the second female solo entrant to be named Grand Champion.
Annika currently attends community college in San Luis Obispo, where she’s aiming for an associate’s degree qualifying her to work as an automotive technician. A budding entrepreneur, she also owns two businesses. “I own something called That Tractor Chick,” she says, “and hopefully I’ll have it patented soon.” With a website ready to go, she plans to use an internet presence to market her past (and future) restoration projects. She also owns Wild Child Creations, focusing on jewelry and brand apparel. “I take tractor parts and turn them into jewelry,” she says. “It’s listed under That Tractor Chick collection.”
As Grand Champion, Annika won a cash prize of $10,000 and will be touring the country with her Allis-Chalmers in 2022. The young girl who sat in the back of the class is taking over the world one tractor restoration at a time. Annika Ernstrom: That Tractor Chick. FC
Email Annika Ernstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org. About the author: Christina Staff is a freelance writer with a knack for bringing stories to life through humor and enthusiasm. She has a strong appreciation for vintage tractors and all things caffeinated. Email her at email@example.com.