THE FUEL BAN (1959-1963)

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”FBI agents descended on a Texas auto racing track last month looking for evidence that Timothy McVeigh bought a large quantity of powerful racing fuel before the Oklahoma City bombing, ABC reported Thursday night.

”Employees of VP Racing Fuels told the FBI that a man resembling McVeigh in 1994 paid $2,700 cash in Texas for nitromethane, ABC said.

”The chemical is an accelerant the government now believes may have been used to detonate the bomb that killed 168 people.“ — AP WIRE REPORT, 1996.

Even before jet-powered dragsters entered the mix, some independent track operators and the NHRA made no secret of their feelings about drag strip speeds getting out of control. The AA/Fuelers were unsafe.

The offender? The volatile fuel they burned: Nitromethane. Generically known as “Fuel.” Pop. Cackle. Liquid Horsepower. Joy Juice. The Yellow Stuff. The Sweet and Sour Sauce. CH3NO2. As acrid as it is punishing, when it reaches its flash point nitromethane is an angry serpent of a hydrocarbon and its practitioners are snake handlers who have taken it on faith that they won’t get bit — but they often are. Nitromethane is a monopropellant, which is a fancy way of saying that it carries its own oxygen, and therefore once it is lit or merely compressed it is as volatile as a downed high tension line dancing to and fro across the highway.

Ironically, unless under pressure, nitro is surprisingly docile as far as exotic fuels go, capable of taking out unsuspecting railroad boxcars only if under extreme duress. Mishaps off of the drag strip are rare, even when one factors in an incident of domestic terrorism a few years ago. But because of its instability (and the questionable stability of some of its handlers), nitro has developed quite an epic history and mythology, beginning with Italian rocket scientists and their experiments with it as early as 1929, followed by Russian rocket design teams testing a combination of kerosene and a nitromethane derivative a year later.

I tell BZ about the bizarre exploits of Jack Parsons, and how he would invoke pagan spirits before a rocket launch in the once-deserted, arid hills of Pasadena in what is now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As early as 1937 Parsons already had listed tetranitromethane as a possible rocket propellant and by 1945 the company he helped charter, Aerojet, was seriously considering nitromethane as a fuel source for their rocket engines, but demurred in deference to hydrogen peroxide.

Beyond issues of safety, it could be argued that this kind of chemical warfare in an internal combustion was a little outside of the image the NHRA wanted to present to its corporate suitors… Violent explosions, speeds that scared the insurers. Nitromethane was banned.

So at NHRA meets dragsters burned gasoline instead of the devil’s hydrocarbon. Was this a red herring? Was this an excuse to cozy up to Sunoco as the official supplier of gasoline for the dragsters?

Not unlike the jet cars later, after their banishment from the NHRA the Top Fuel dragsters flourished at “outlaw” and unsanctioned tracks, where they proved to be wildly popular, case in point being the Smokers Meet, which began in 1959 and was the most popular event of them all…

The Fuel Ban. In fact, amidst cries and caterwauling of “collusion,” independent trade papers sided with the outlaws and mocked the drag strip establishment as “Druids.”

The Fuel Ban was an exercise in futility and beyond: Not unlike the theorem that states in order to make a bigger bang out of a firecracker all one has to do is wrap it tighter, the prohibition of exotic fuel in drag racing created an entire new scene that thrived and flourished on the contraband fuel. And it boomed loudest and burned brightest just north of Bakersfield…

If guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns could be paraphrased as if nitromethane is banned, only the banned will race with nitromethane… and they did… just another manifestation of the “outlaw” culture insinuating itself into Eisenhower America and its forgotten nooks and crannies… while the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club took over podunk California farm towns like a Mongol horde; similarly, under the sanction of the Smokers Car Club, the renegade fueler guys gravitated to an abandoned surplus airstrip north of Bakersfield, known as Famoso. Nitro drag racers came there from all four points of the Continental US. The “Smokers Meets” were so wildly successful that the money was loaded in 55 gallon drums and the ticket booths ran out of tickets and began exchanging toilet paper for admission…

The vox populi had spoken with wallets. They wanted their nitro. (By 1964 NHRA reversed its position on the Fuel Ban.)

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