Larry Koester’s not a big guy. Not physically, anyway. Not anymore.

But he’s got presence, a charisma that comes from racing highly modified tractors that pull weighted sleds down a 320-foot track in front of thousands of people. He’s a national spokesman for sponsor Shell Rotella, a line of high-performance engine oils specifically designed for the agriculture industry.

So that’s why he attended Shell’s exhibitor display at the World Ag Expo in Tulare in mid February.

Soon after arriving at the bustling ag show Feb. 13, he attracted a crowd. But not by any splashy antics. He’s a natural storyteller, just not necessarily imbued with a carnival barker’s ability to draw attention. Although, by all accounts, he would appear to need something like that to stand out from the 1,480 exhibitors in 2.6 million square feet of show space to the crowd of about 106,700 attendees who showed up this year.

Koester’s just a real guy, raised in South Indiana farm country in an unincorporated community called St. Wendel. 

On this early afternoon, he drew a small crowd that included Paruss Johnson, 16, from Cedar City, Utah and some of her siblings and a couple cousins. She asked questions. The younger boys appeared a little too awestruck to talk. 

Shell brought Koester’s son Adam’s racing tractor, which looks extremely similar to the one Koester himself drives in National Tractor Pull Association events. The racing season begins in March and wraps up in October. 

“How much does it weigh?” Johnson asked of the tractor.

“With me in it, it weighs 2,050 pounds,” Koester said. 

And the engine, built by Adam Koester, produces more than 3,000 horsepower, said Joe Sousa, owner of Sousa Dairy in Turlock. He was part of the group listening to Koester talk about racing. But Sousa already knew all about Koester Racing.

“I used to watch him all the time,” Sousa said of Koester. “He gets some wild rides.”

Koester, 64, explained how he races. “I put straps on my legs,” he said, demonstrating by levering himself into the race tractor cockpit. “You go like this. I strap my legs. Then I attach the steering wheel. The throttle’s here.”

Koester said how, with all that horsepower, the nose of the tractor stays airborne most of the high-octane pull. That requires him to steer by individually braking each wheel, accordingly, he said.

Johnson drank in the details. So did everybody else standing around as Koester demonstrated. “I like him,” she said. “He’s neat.”

After Johnson and her group left, Koester talked about the accident that robbed him of his legs and required that he strap what remains of them to the seat in his tractor. He has big shoulders and massive, calloused hands, worn from years of slinging his body from his chair to whatever other location he has in mind, whether it’s the tractor or the driver’s seat of the motorhome he pilots from race event to race event during the season.

And he’s got a sense of humor that doesn’t quit. “I got no feet,” he said. “You gotta have big hands.”

A day after his fifth wedding anniversary on July 5, 1986, Koester’s tractor, a regular farm model he was using to cut grass around his rural property, rolled down an embankment on top of him. The steering wheel pinned his legs. Fuel dripped from the tank and ignited. Koester received burns over 40 percent of his body. His legs were too damaged to save.

“Burnt to nothing,” he said. “They didn’t even do a good job (of cutting them off). I have a limp now when I walk.”

Koester grinned. His cousin Jim Koester, who is four months older or younger, grimaced like he’s heard the story many times before. 

“I went from 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds to 4-foot-8 and 136 pounds,” Koester said. “Not quite the diet I wanted to go on.” And, “I’m like the Bionic Man, only shorter.”

Koester’s story — the part how he overcame the accident — is inspirational. He said initially doctors gave him an 18 percent chance of survival. He spent four months in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he said he was treated by specialists who had honed their talents saving accident victims from the Indianapolis 500.

“I’m going to go as fast as I can as long as I can,” he said.

And that’s one of the reasons why Shell Rotella sponsors Koester. His story resonates. Accompanying him was Shell Lubricants technical expert Dan Arcy, who explained the benefits of the product they both peddle and why it’s such a big seller in the industry. “It’s the leading diesel oil in the nation and has been for 30 years,” Arcy said.

Arcy said Rotella exceeds industry standards and in fact was the first to meet the new stringent requirements of Tier 4 emissions and the CK-4 standard, which sets a high bar for higher-performing, cleaner and more fuel efficient diesel engines. “We have done more than 60 million miles of testing in new legacy and prototype engines,” Arcy said, not getting too technical for his audience. “We gotta look at all of it.”

And that means it serves all farm equipment, even the gas engines, he said. And he gave a nod to Koester. “We had engines out there with 900,000 miles before we tore them down,” he said. “I want to see how it lasts at 1 million miles.”

Part of the new technology involves higher temperatures, which means potential wear. Arcy said, “All part of the thermal management strategy. They’ll control within a few degrees the oil gallery to maximize the efficiency and reduce emissions.”

Koester gave the product a thumbs up. He’s been working with Shell for years and said he’d been using the product “in our trucks and equipment since the 70s.” His dad, Oscar Koester, operated OK Transport and Larry Koester and his daughter Ashley Corzine currently broker freight all over the United States via tractor trailer.

“The cool thing about this is these guys (Arcy and Shell Rotella) took me out and let me tell my story,” Koester said.

When he returned home after that stay in the hospital, Koester said his wife Coral didn’t treat him any different. Coral, who he and everybody else call “Caesar,” left him to take care of Ashley, then about 3. Caesar had to go on an errand. At first, when Ashley called for him, he couldn’t get into his chair. He felt the frustration.

Then something clicked. He wanted to be a dad, and Ashley sensed he was having a tough time. Koester told this particular story in a 24-minute documentary on his life, “The Long Road Home: The Larry Koester Story,” produced with the help of Shell Rotella.

Koester said recovering from the burns was agonizing. And after the pain subsided, he had to deal with the scar tissue, which had none of the flexibility of his skin. His legs didn’t move right, and scar tissue had to be cut and new skin grafted in. He said he didn’t want the same excruciating grafting procedures done to free up his left arm, which didn’t have the mobility it should because of the burns underneath.

So he rigged a bar in his garage and hung from it. Every day. It worked. The doctors were amazed, he said. “I actually started working out in the hospital,” Koester said. “I could pull myself up with one arm.

“You try to tell people around you, ‘Don’t let things slow you down.’”

Jim Koester said he didn’t know how his cousin would handle his injuries, at first. But then he was traveling with his wife and kids on a pre-arranged vacation at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida and spotted a guy roll by on a skateboard. The man had no legs and one arm but got along fine. “We took that as a sign,” he said.

Koester also works with Make A Wish kids, telling them to never give up.

On his video, Caesar said of her husband, “He made a presence when he walked into a room.” 

And he still does. 

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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