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DECK: Fuel Altereds Raze Bakersfield

Dateline: FAMOSO RACEWAY, BAKERSFIELD CA -To some folks this place is hell on earth. A hot, fe tureless moonscape west of Death Valley and stuck between Los Angelesand Fresno, the dusty town of Bakersfield has long been the butt of many a California punchline.

But to others it represents something entirely different. During hot rodding’s six-year dark ages, (from 1957 to 1963), when the NHRA sanctioned a ban on fuel racing, it was only Bakersfield’s Famoso and a handful of other speedways that resisted the foolishness, nurturing instead a fuelie culture that would give rise to some of the weirdest, most volatile machines in drag racing history: the mighty Fuel Altereds.

“The old saying with an altered is if you start out in one lag, tag the guardrail, then cross the other lane and tag that rail, it’s a normal run,” says Steve Duke, assistant chief to the Duke Racing Team, whose Altered Minds car ran in the high 7s at the March Meet. “It’s a challenge for the driver – no two rides are ever the same to make it go straight. And you never get BORED!”

Neither do the crowds. A Fuel Altered run is one of least predictable events in sports, and people never tire of seeing a giant, powerful beast careen out of control (this also explains Liz Taylor’s career). What lends these freaky-looking things their uneven temperament is the combination of massively powerful engines (basically Top Fuel dragster territory) and non-aerodynamic bodies (prewar Fiats, Austins and roadsters). Throw in the Altereds’ very short wheelbase, anywhere from 75 to 100 inches, and you have the makings some extremely truly multidirectional runs. You see, while speed was never a problem for these things (the Altereds routinely ran 170-plus mph in their halcyon days – the late ‘60s -- and many of today’s AA/FAs, like Jeff Bennett’s “No Mercy,” are running 5s in the quarter-mile). The problem? Keeping the Fuel Altered in a forward trajectory that reaches the finish line before it reaches, say, the Christmas Tree, the guardrail, and/or the grandstands.

History abounds with stales of Altered excess. There’s legendary narcoleptic driver Willie Borsch (whose “Winged Express” was known to get airborne now and gain) jumping the guardrail, flipping upside down, and rolling toward the stands, only to have his chute open and wrap itself in a pole, thereby averting disaster. Despite the Altereds’ speediness as a class, writes Don Montgomery; drivers who could merely “keep the tires from going up in smoke, keep the car going straight, and keep the engine in one piece” won most Fuel Altered Elimination races

Despite the fan popularity and historical interest (altereds really are throwbacks to the days of California dry lakes racing, where hopped-up coupes, sedans and roadsters competed for nothing but the thrill of it), there are those within the corporate world of rodding who have always sought to fell the ghastly things. Since the days of the fuel ban, the AA/FA’s popularity was claimed to have only regional appeal. And these contraptions happen to terrify insurance companies. And NHRA -- which HOT ROD magazine writer Gray Baskerville says stands for “No Hot Rods Allowed,” -- basically rendered the quick, trick beasts extinct in the ‘70s by putting them in the Sportsman Class – tagging the drivers, owners and builders as “hobbyists” (come on, *knitting * is a hobby – putting together a 200-mph, blown-Hemi deathtrap is a * job*). This effectively banished the Altereds to a land with neither TV coverage nor big time sponsorship. Though nostalgia runs have revived some of the aged monsters, old biases persist.

“The NHRA doesn’t want nothing to do with these crazy little cars,” says Kevin Robbin, owner and driver of two classic Altereds, “Panic” and “Old Raunchy.” “That’s why they try to cut that class at 7.50 index in the Nostalgia Eliminator – to keep the real haul-ass ones backed off. This week there were actually three late-model Fuel Altereds that were 5-second cars, and they were actually run in Nostalgia Eliminator. I mean, * bad-ass cars, * but they were being clicked off at half-track.”

Of course, all of this belies the true point: that Fuel Altereds are a hell of a lot of fun to watch and we’re lucky to have them back in any degree. Even if only a handful was seen in competition at Bakersfield. is
The fact that these cars cost as much as a fuel dragster to put together, yet don’t get the track purse or the tobacco money underscores the coolest thing about the Fuel Altered movement: the pure-hearted commitment of its participants.

“The main thing is this: hot rodding,” says “Soapy Sales” driver Larry Huff. “The NHRA’s not hot rodding anymore. Now it’s all corporate, go-fast deals. Here, I know all the guys – and we think the world of what Forze and Prudhomme and all the guys have done, but they’re not having any fun. We come here, we stay here at the track – we’d NEVER think of staying in a motel , I mean Jesus, you wanna be with your cars!”

“Soapy Sales,” by the way, is actually the legendary ‘60s AA/FA “Pure Hell” masquerading under a Funny Car-looking roadster body. It pulled a 6.99 in the second round of eliminations at Bakersfield, and would’ve run better were it not for an unscheduled blower explosion.

Robbin, whose “Old Raunchy” also suffered a blower explosion at Famoso, is inclined to agree with Huff.

“Hell, I’m just in it for the fun,” he says. “There’s no money in this crap!”

--el rey