Dan Hix’s Heatseeker transformer-type AA/Fuel Altered, en route to victory at the March Me
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.
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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.
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Mike Sullivan’s period-plausible classic Fuel Alt.
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Dean Oberg and Keith Wilson blaze down the quarter-mile.
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E/T is flat amazed by the mid-course and top-end antics of these buggers
One long-time Fuel Altered stalwart who is less than pleased with the transformer-style race cars is Dave Benjamin, who was back at the Famoso March Meet, shaking down his Nasty Benjamin '27 Ford T-Bucket, before engaging in further competition at the IHRA Nitro Jam in Tucson the following weekend.
"These things don't have to look like spaceships to go down the track," Benjamin declared. "Look at Pure Hell: 6.20 at 244. No overhang in the front, no wings on the back."
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Famoso mandated that its AA/FA Eliminator competitors adhere to a 6.00 index, in an attempt to keep the spaceships in check and give the truly classic Altereds a fighting chance. But this break-out rule did little to douse Benjamin's ire.
"Everybody seems to want to stick more and more out front," he continued. "Half of them don't know what they are doing. Ninety-eight percent don't know they don't need all that shit out front. You could hang 25 pounds of weight on the front end and it'd do the same thing. If you are trying to run 280 mph, you are going to need a big wing. But for what we are trying to do, it isn't necessary."
I asked Mark Leigh, crew chief on Dan Hix's Heatseeker transformer-style '34 Chevy, about his take on the class and how their race car was different than a Funny Car: "It is the same wheelbase," Leigh said. "The motor placement is the same and it has the same clutch as a Nostalgia Funny Car."
Leigh was in favor of the break-out rule.
"This altered class is going to be great because there is the 6.0 index and you can't go faster. So you don't need the carbon-fiber brakes and you don't need the Leahy [automatic shut-off] system."
Leigh revealed that his team was using a 526ci Miner Bros. Hemi, fueled by a 30-gpm Waterman pump that they "are bleeding off."
He said, "You can pick your own fuel pump and your own motor and they don't have to come tech you looking for anything other than safety items. It's simple. It keeps the tech to a minimum."
Besides keeping the bureaucracy at bay, Leigh saw this as a chance to let a freedom flag fly.
Jeremy Sullivan mixed it up with modern machines, and kept his old man’s old-school cred.
"There is some expression allowed," he explained. "You can do whatever you want."
Freedom cuts both ways. In his return to Famoso, Mike Sullivan's choice was to maintain tradition with a new '48 Topolino that looks remarkably like the one that caught on fire in 1971, en route to the March Meet winner's circle.
When asked why he is still racing Fuel Altereds, Sullivan quipped: "Somebody said I was off my rocker, but it was while I was adjusting these valves."
When quizzed on what was different than his original race cars, he said, "It's a late-model [Hemi] and about 10 inches longer. Other than that, we try to make it like the original."
And unlike the transformer-types, Sullivan still eschews the wing.
"So far, we have been able to make it from one end to the other without a wing. It's still controllable—controllable chaos, I guess."
With his son Jeremy swapping the pedals, the Sullivan entry waded its way through an eight-car bracket that included some of the same entries from the days of yore: Pure Heaven, Pure Hell, and the Winged Express, who were mixing it up with modern transformers like the Witch Doctor and the Heatseeker.
Regardless of vintage or vehicular style, the action was insane. Lane-swapping. Opposite lock. Timing cones flying in the air. Wheelstands at 1,100 feet. On-and-off-the-throttle pedal work. Pure Hell eliminated the Winged Express. Jeremy Sullivan dispatched Pure Hell. On the other side of the ladder, the transformers seemed to take out each other. The final round was like a taste test between Coke Classic and New Coke: John Henry versus steam power. Luddites versus the laissez-faire. Mike Sullivan versus the Heatseeker.
Dan Hix laid down a 6.11 and beat Jeremy Sullivan, who turned a 6.21 at 220 mph.
Tradition was trumped. The Transformers triumphed. But old school sure looked cooler, even in defeat. 'Twas ever thus.
Poetry in motion.
“Nitro Warrior” Mike Boyd blisters the rubber in the legendary Winged Express AA/Fuel Alte
Dean Oberg with the wheels in the air at 1,100 feet.