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Fuel Altereds Flash-Forward at Famoso

By Cole Coonce, Photography by Ted Soqui

In the stone-age times of eight spark-plug wires, dragstrip dinosaurs coexisted with other primitive forms of life in a land known as 1320. To the scientific community, the phylum of these creatures is "fuel," the class is "Altered" and the order is "Awful Awful." In those antediluvian days, the species known as "AA/Fuel Altereds" foraged and frolicked and fought amongst the tribes for supremacy and survival, from the drag cities of Famoso to Fremont, from Great Lakes to Green Valley, and from Tucson to Puyallup.

These short, primordial machines came to be known individually as Groundshaker Jr., Stone T, Instant T, Deliverance, Monkey Motion, the Smog Rat, the Rat Trap, Pure Heaven, Pure Hell, the Winged Express, Mondello & Matsubara, the Magnificent 7, and many others. In a proud display of power, engines were mounted high over ancient body styles like '23 T-Buckets and '48 Fiats, and squeezed between chassis often shorter than 100 inches. In full dress, they bounced between guardrails and hunched on hind legs while belching a very foul fire. Though they lacked grace, they had the brute strength of King Kong, just big-ass hairy apes swinging from skyscrapers and swatting at anything coming their way. They guzzled nitro, and the people flocked. The tribal councils ran, however.

Yes, like King Kong, the Fuel Altereds were impossible to contain—much less market—and by the early '70s, a new breed of mutant machinery had marauded across the mainland…showroom-replica Funny Cars. The words "Production Bodies only" became carved in slate. Their popularity surge meant doom for Fuel Altereds. The beastly behemoth Awful Awfuls faced extinction.

The last time AA/Fuel Altereds gathered en masse as its own class to pounce upon the pavement at a March Meet was in 1970. That year, the Burkholder Bros. '23 T beat Mike Sullivan's Fiat. The next year, the class had been folded over into Combo Eliminator, to race against Junior Fuel dragsters, fuel-injected floppers, and eventually Top Gas dragsters. Despite his class's imminent obsolescence, the long-haired and mustachioed Mike Sullivan returned to Bakersfield with a new machine and muscled his swoopy, unpainted Topolino down the quarter-mile, declaring dominance and order over the rest of the caveman clan.

"The class [in '71] was dominated by the Fuel Altereds," recalled Rod Hynes, a retired long-and-lanky AA/Fuel Altered shoe and unofficial historian of all things Awful Awful. "In the semifinals, two of the four cars were Fuel Altereds. The MOB versus Sullivan was one race, which Sullivan won. I cannot remember who Rich Galli raced in his injected fuel dragster in the other race, but it was Galli who Mike beat in the final—while on fire!"

Although spectacular, it was a pyrrhic victory. The comets had crash landed. Many Fuel Altereds hid in caves, waiting for the Ice Age to thaw.

Some of those men and machines survived the transformation. Over the years, the living would wake from hibernation and poke their heads out at second-market strips in Palmdale and Tucson. Indeed, the species mutated and attempted to survive the Freeze Out.

By the '90s, some adapted by mixing their seed with that of the Funny Cars. These creatures became known as the "transformers." The wheelbases grew to 130 inches and these machines sprouted Top Fuel Dragster wings and fuel-tank overhangs. By swapping out their flip-top bodies, these hybrids could race as Funny Cars or Fuel Altereds, depending on the preference of any given track promoter, be it in Palmdale, Tucson, Cordova, Boise, or Bakersfield.

Epochs passed. The ice melted. Mike Sullivan got a haircut. Last year, the International Hot Rod Association resurrected the remaining Awful Awfuls as "Classic Fuel Altereds" in their Nitro Jam series. Following suit, in 2014 the Fuel Altereds also reappeared at the Bakersfield March Meet, as an eight-car eliminator.

But not all was kumbaya come the resurrection. There were purists. And there were new guys, the interlopers.

By Cole Coonce
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