SALISBURY — Valerie Carriker loves to ride her horse, Ruby, along the roads and back-country trails not far from Hurley Elementary School.
It’s her one-horsepower vehicle.
But on weekends, the 14-year-old Carriker often saddles up inside a vastly different mode of transportation — a roaring, rumbling 1979 Ford F-250 built to pull 40,000 pounds.
A truck with a 500 cubic-inch engine.
A truck with 600 horsepower — 600 Rubys, if you will.
“It’s my adrenaline,” says Valerie, a rising sophomore at West Rowan High School.
The freshest, youngest face on the regional truck-pulling circuit these days belongs to Carriker, who has grown up watching her father, “Big John” Carriker, compete and work on his own Ford F-150 the past 11 years.
“He’s been pulling since she could walk,” wife Cindy Carriker says.
When John Carriker told his family he was retiring from truck-pulling, Valerie stepped in with those eyes and pleadings a daughter saves for her father and asked to take his place.
John Carriker never hesitated. A truck-pulling friend, Tom Collins, also was retiring and willing to sell his red F-250. John saw it as the perfect truck for Valerie, made his own modifications on the hitch and engine and set his daughter up for her first pulls this spring.
“The announcer always goes, ‘Here’s Big John’s daughter,’ ” Cindy Carriker says.
• • •
Until Valerie is 16, Big John has to ride with her during the pulls. While she has placed as high as third and fourth in her 510 Big Block Class, the Carrikers’ real emphasis this season has been to get Valerie as much “seat time” as possible.
So she also has been entering open-class pulls in which she has no chance against more powerful trucks such as 8,200-pound diesels with close to 4,000 horsepower.
Still, she has been holding her own against much more veteran pullers.
“She likes that — when she beats boys,” Cindy Carriker says. “Well, they’re not boys — they’re men.”
Truck pulling, sometimes associated with tractor-pulling events, is a way of life for the Carrikers. Their friends and family are immersed in the sport, and weekends are devoted to traveling to the venues, competing, cooking out and socializing in general.
“It’s a good crowd,” John Carriker says, and the pulls might draw thousands of spectators.
The truck pulls often are held off the beaten path in communities such as Big Lick, East Bend, Peachland, Funderburk Farms in Union County and Kanawha Valley Arena in Dugspur, Va.
• • •
Valerie calls her truck the “Pullin Lil Diva.”
It gets a measly 2.5-miles-per-gallon, using 110 octane racing fuel that costs roughly $9 a gallon.
In pulling the 40,000-pound sled, Valerie only reaches a top speed of 25 to 30 mph down the track. “She goes until the sled stops her, and the sled will stop her,” John Carriker promises.
Valerie usually is able to drag the sled 300 feet or more. She takes off and drives in second gear on her manual shift.
Going the straight-drive route instead of an automatic transmission is actually unusual these days. The Carrikers know of only one other truck running straight drive in their class.
Big John thinks it gives Valerie the advantage of having more power go to the drive train than the transmission.
The key for any truck puller is getting off the starting line.
Keeping an eye on the tachometer mounted on the dashboard to her left, Valerie revs her Ford to 4,500 to 5,000 rpms before letting go of the clutch and taking off.
“You can lose at the starting line,” John Carriker says. “If she messes up on the clutch coming out of the hole, it’s over. You’ve got to read the track, too.”
John has installed hydraulic power steering in the truck to help with the handling through the holes and ruts left by other competitors.
In her first pull, Valerie had a successful start, but her dad had to jump over and push her gas pedal foot to the floor and keep it there, so she had enough power to make it down the track.
“She learned,” John says. “She doesn’t let off anymore.”
It was the last bit of instruction Valerie has needed. Now John is just along for the ride.
“She’s doing everything,” says John Carriker, who works at RDH Tire and Retread.
• • •
For practice starts, Valerie will sometimes take her truck into the field close to where Ruby grazes.
With all of its switches and galvanized metal dashboard, the cab of the truck looks like a rocket ship. Her father has numbered the switches so she follows the right order in flipping everything on, following a progression through ignition, fuel pump, water pump, fan and electric steering.
The truck’s roar is almost deafening, and Valerie reaches 7,000 to 7,500 rpms on the tachometer during her pulls.
To win, a truck simply has to pull the sled farther than any other truck. The adjustments between pulls might come in tweaks to the engine and the hitch — a metal framework built under the truck body to which the sled is chained.
Back home, John Carriker studies video of Valerie’s runs and uses his years of experience to work at squeezing more feet of pulling power out of the F-250.
John Carriker says truck pulling is about weight distribution and traction, making sure all four tires are biting into the track equally.
The sled provides plenty of weight in the rear, so much of the focus goes toward placing more weight to the front, where the Carrikers usually hang about 1,000 pounds of weights to the bumper.
The fuel tank is in front, along with the hydraulic power steering cylinder and the hoodie headers, which help with air flow and exhaust.
John Carriker says “just getting to the other end” of the track is the story behind truck pulling.
“The satisfaction of saying, ‘I’ve done that,’ ” he adds.
• • •
Valerie says she loves the anticipation, the sounds, the crowd and the feeling going down the track.
“I like showing off,” she laughs.
Cindy Carriker says her daughter is shy, but nothing about the truck pulling scares her.
Truth be known, Cindy Carriker may be the most competitive person in the family.
“If you’re 5 feet behind, you better fix it,” says Cindy, who works during the week at Premier Federal Credit Union.
Cindy Carriker hopes her daughter eventually can move on to truck pulls sanctioned by the National Truck Pulling Association — an even more expensive proposition.
Valerie has to be 16, however, before she can join the NTPA.
Though the sport costs the family a lot of money, Cindy Carriker says it’s addictive.
Meanwhile, Valerie keeps riding Ruby. She also likes camping and riding four-wheelers. For the coming school year, she has signed up for an ag-mechanics class at West Rowan High, figuring she’ll expand on some of the knowledge she already has.
On a hot summer’s night, while she has the Pullin Lil Diva out for a test run, Valerie looks at her father with those pleading eyes again.
“Daddy,” she says, “I’ve found out what we need to do — install air-conditioning.”
You can see the wheels turning in Big John’s mind.
Some videos of Valerie Carriker in truck pull competitions are posted on YouTube. Search for “Pullin Lil Diva.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.