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Hell on Wheels: Fuel Altered putting the hot rod back in drag racing

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

For a few magnificent years in the late 50s and early 60s, Fuel Altered was king of the drag racing world.

With a sanctioned ban on fuel racing gripping the straight-line community between 1957 and 1963, nitro racers were forced to the outskirts of the sport, taking refuge at the few tracks that would still house these high-octane speed demons. But while organized drag racing continued down a less-exciting path, tracks in California and elsewhere resisted the movement, continuing to include these fan-favorites as a regular item on their racing buffet.

For half a decade organized drag racing existed without the incredible thrill of fuel racing, while underground nitro racing continued to thrive and even grow. Like a rebellious teenager, the fuel community found new ways to exist and even create more over-the-top machines than ever before. And from that rebellion came one of the most exciting racing classes ever to grace the quarter-mile – Fuel Altered.

A tribute to the golden age of drag racing, these wild contraptions resembled nothing fans had ever seen before. With non-aerodynamic bodies, short wheelbases and powerful nitro engines, speed was not a problem for the Fuel Altered community. Keeping it in a forward trajectory to the finish line without, say, hitting the guardrail, crossing the centerline or ending up on its top, now that was no easy task.

Jason Richey in Pure Hell

Taking a special kind of person to get behind the wheel of something that rarely went in a straight line in a sport where going straight is the primary goal, Fuel Altered quickly became a hit with fans and lifted the drivers to near hero status. No ordinary man, many thought, would actually try to tame one of these mythical beasts.

But many did and the class known at Fuel Altered took off like never before.

“It was a great time to be a part of the sport,” said Randy Bradford, the 64-year-old driver of Bradford’s Fiat, a Fuel Altered he campaigned in the 60s and continues to race even today. “Back in the 60s we could run almost every weekend somewhere in southern California. We did it on a budget, but boy was it an amazing time. All of the people that ran them were like family and we had a good time racing.”

Throughout the fuel ban and even into the early 70s when nitro racing returned to the circuits, Fuel Altered continued to thrive. Bradford, one of the original Fuel Altered competitors and perhaps the only original who is still driving today, recalls the drive to get behind the wheel and of course the addiction that kept him there.

“I was lucky to be brought up in a family that is car crazy. My dad is an engine builder and owned an auto parts and machine shop,” Bradford said. “I started drag racing in 1963 driving our 1940 Ford pickup and eventually took up Fuel Altered racing in 1966. My dad and I ran Fuel Altered from 1966 through 1973. Racing even kept me in school. Pop used racing as leverage. He would threaten to stop running the cars if I didn’t pass my classes.

“After 45 years of driving it is still like a grab bag, you simply never know what you are going to get when you hit the throttle. The sensation is great and I am still addicted to these cars even today.”

And Bradford isn’t the only one. Fuel Altereds sprang up throughout the west in those early days leading to some incredible racing and, of course, some heated rivalries. Names like Nanook, Rat Trap, Pure Hell and more became household names in the motorsports community and the drivers of those cars gods in the eyes of most.

But sadly nothing great lasts forever. As the sport moved into a new era of big money over true hot rodding, and of course the ever-increasing popularity of the nitro Funny Car, Fuel Altered sputtered and all but died off in the late 70s. Only a few journeymen continued the tradition, racing their bad-boys as exhibitions at tracks that would still have them.

True Fuel Altered racing almost went extinct. Almost.

“It seemed unfair, but the funny cars were the cars that the drag strips wanted and Fuel Altereds became the dinosaurs,” Bradford remembered. “But you couldn’t keep these cars away forever. I got out of the sport to raise a family, but I have never been able to filter the nitro from my blood and now these cars are back and good as ever.”

While Fuel Altered racing may have fallen off the radar, it never truly went away. Families kept the spirits of the original machines alive with identical replicas of the old cars and continued to tour as a group to bring the tradition of Fuel Altered racing to a whole new generation of fans.

Today, some 50 years after these beasts sprang from the depths, Fuel Altered racing is quickly returning to its glory days. Once again tracks across the country are clamoring for Fuel Altered racing to headline events and be the star attractions in the show. The class has even earned a fulltime spot on a traveling circuit for the first time in the history of the sport, joining the Nitro Jam tour in 2011 alongside nostalgia Funny Cars and dozens of other nitro classes.

Cars like Rat Trap, Nanook, Pure Hell and even Bradford’s Fiat have returned to headline events around the country. To many, it is a nod to the good ol’ days when racing was simpler and crossing the finish line first – no matter what it took – was all that mattered. While Bradford may be the only original driver from the glory days still racing, many of the other cars have stayed in the original families. Later this year Kyle Hough will become the third generation of Hough to race the Nanook car when he makes a pass at the Arizona Nitro Jam in March, joining his grandfather Dave – the original driver of Nanook – and his father Rick.

Just last year Nanook even earned the distinction of claiming the first official championship in Fuel Altered when Ron Maroney drove the legendary machine to the first Nitro Jam Fuel Altered championship ahead of Jason Richey in Pure Hell. While Maroney will step aside this year for Kyle to take over the ride, Maroney will be right back in the mix driving his own Blind Faith entry in 2012.

“It is an unbelievable dream to race these cars. I grew up watching these cars as a kid and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would get a chance to drive the famed Nanook Fuel Altered,” Maroney said following his championship clinching race in August of last year. “These cars were outlawed in the early 70s because they were too dangerous so nobody had won a world championship with these cars before. It means a lot to me that I was able to do it for the Hough family and this car.”

And of course, that isn’t the only reason Maroney continues to pilot a Fuel Altered. For a man who seemingly spent more time in the other lane than his own and even had a few close encounters with the wall in 2011, Maroney said that is all part of the magic of this class and a big reason he remains behind the wheel today.

“I often tell people that I rarely drive the car, I just hold on for six seconds,” Maroney said. “It is an adrenaline rush like you wouldn’t believe accelerating from zero to 230 miles per hour in the blink of an eye. If there is one thing that can be said about a Fuel Altered it is this – you have to see it to believe it.”

And that magic will continue in 2012 as Fuel Altered headlines all eight Nitro Jam events and brings Fuel Altered racing back into the spotlight for a new generation of fans.

“It is great to see real racing return to the limelight,” Maroney added. “If fans want to experience what it was like in the glory days of drag racing, this is it. This is what real racing is all about.”

Last modified on Thursday, 23 May 2013
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