FUEL ALTEREDS FOREVER!
A look back at the heyday of these hairy, barely tamable beasts.
When asked by a fan at a fuel altered event what it was like to drive the famed Winged Express AA/FA, the late William Bowen Borsch commented in his folksy sort of manner, “Try putting a blown fuel Chrysler engine into a car the size of a Volkswagen. Then drop a brick on the throttle and hang on!”
“Wild Willie” wasn’t far from wrong. In drag racing jargon, the altered, and particularly the fuel altered, was the quintessential hot rod of its time. Half dragster and half roadster (or coupe), these short-wheelbase creations harken back to the early days of hot rodding, when crew-cut-wearing youths, many fresh from the service, stripped down vintage coupes and roadsters to the bare minimum and dropped in the most potent flathead, OHV Chevy or Oldsmobile, or Chrysler Hemi engine they could find and went racing.
In 1956, the NHRA defined these stripped down hybrids as “cars with moderate changes,” hence the altered designation. The altered coupes and sedans (at the time the roadsters had their own classifications) were allowed up to 25-percent engine setback plus extensive bodywork like chopping and channeling. Just like the dragsters, all safety regulations were applicable; and classification was broken down into three groups, A, B, or C, based on cubic-inch-to-weight ratio. The late-1950’s adaptation of the supercharger created three new upper echelons: Aa/altered, BB/ Altered and Cc/altered. But where did the “fuel” in fuel altered actually come from?
Predictably, the fuel altereds as we know them were born of outlaw lineage. While it is true that the NHRA’S Hot Roadster (HR) and Altered Coupe and Sedan (AC) class rules provided the basic framework for the top altered classes, the infamous fuel ban of 1957 haphazardly gave birth to the class. In the late 1950s, the Overland Park, Kansas-based American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) championed the fuel racers’ cause and allowed the Hot Roadster (HR)
and Fuel Coupe (FC) cars to compete in Hot Class Eliminator. And yes, they were allowed to run fuel. The term “fuel altered” simultaneously appeared on the Drag News Standard 1320 list around that same time, and the name just sort of stuck.
Throughout the coming decade, the fuel altered enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity. Probably the first “legit” fuel altered show was the inaugural Smoker’s Car Club-promoted Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships in 1959, principally dominated by Bob Hansen’s A/HR. Other cars of note from the early ’60s, included the Chrysler-powered No. 554 coupe of Mooneyham and Sharp, and the Brissette Brothers and Eichenhofer ’32 Austin Bantam, which achieved near dragsterlike speeds and elapsed times. Sixteen-car fuel altered shows at places like Lions, San Fernando, San Gabriel, Fontana, Fremont Raceway, and other palaces of speed suddenly became commonplace.
In 1962, the NHRA recanted its fuel ban and instituted a new classification, Fuel Altered Eliminator. Altered standouts from that era included Boyd Pennington’s Chrysler-engine ’32 Bantam; the Dunn, Merritt, and Velasco Chevy Fiat; Richard and Joe Campos Lo Blow 1; Walker and Geary’s Chevy/ Bantam; the Beebe Brothers and Mulligan J&S Speed Center Chevy/bantam; the Harrell, Borsch, and Muse Winged T; Guasco and Cerrutti’s Pure Hell Chevy/bantam; Leon “Pure Heaven” Fitzgerald’s Chevy Fiat; Mondello and Matsubara’s Fiat, the Bad News coupe, and countless others.
As the decade progressed, speeds and elapsed times plummeted into the low 7s at 200-plus mph. However, if there was one solitary incident that guaranteed the fuel altered a spot in the annals of drag racing history, it would have to be 1968’s highly publicized, Gold Agency-booked, four-car Aa/fuel Altered Tour consisting of “Wild Willie” Borsch, Leroy “Magnificent 7” Chadderton, Leon “Pure Heaven” Fitzgerald, and Henry “Beaver Hunter” Harrison. These four guys were responsible for introducing fuel altered racing to the Eastern Seaboard, the Midwest (to a certain degree), and Canada, which up to that time had only seen these cars in magazines.
It’s interesting to note that in spite of the fact that NHRA appeared to be streamlining its Super Eliminator mix, axing numerous Group II classes like A/FA, A/GS, and others, AA/FA remained stronger than ever. However, you would not see proof of that at an NHRA national event, as these cars were
forced to race in a Handicap eliminator. Conversely, the UDRA took up the gauntlet, forming its own Fuel Altered Circuit hosting the likes of Gabby Bleeker, Dennison, Arlasky and Knox, Rosen and Schumacher, Bob Parmer and Charlie Hill, the Gretchko Brothers, and others.
Privately, AA/FA racers like Lynn & Dave “Nanook” Hough began taking charge of their own destinies with the formulation of events like Tucson Dragway’s Fuel Altered Nationals. Formally promoted shows like the PDA Championships and Nitro Championships at OCIR, the March Meet at Bakersfield, and others likewise fully extolled the virtues of the “awful-awful’s.”
However, fuel altered racing was expensive, and one couldn’t ignore the economic realities and profitability of racing a Funny Car. One by one, fuel altered owner/drivers vacated the ranks in favor of the floppers.
Of course, this is just a short primer to the wild and wooly world of fuel altered racing. While fuel altered racing continues to exist in one form or another today, primarily through circuit-booked shows, few will argue that the golden era of Fuel Altered Eliminator was from 1960 to 1972, as the accompanying photos clearly illustrate.
> By 1965, the Chrysler AA/FA of Jim Harrell (Harrell Engines) and “Wild Willie” Borsch was sporting an adjustable wing built by Al Barnes. The idea was to keep the car firmly on the ground, and it worked. The car would later become known as the Winged Express.
> This classic duel occurred at OCIR in the summer of 1968. Lee Le Baron’s Between Heaven & Hell squares off against Way, Hoven & Okazaki. Le Baron’s car would later become Leon Fitzgerald’s Pure Heaven III.
5 6 7> 5. Flattery is the sincerest form: Another thundering Fuel Coupe from that era was the Hawkins, Webster & Mcleod Chrysler-engine ’34 Ford five-window driven by both Lyle Webster and occasionally by Mike Demarest. In 1965, 15 Oz tied Monkey Motion for the Drag News No. 5 Mr. Eliminator spot at 157.61.> 6. Another tire fryer from that era was the Hyder & Koulan Chrysler-powered, direct-drive ’34 Ford coupe from Los Angeles, which ran a best of 10.05-155.17 on fuel.> 7. The 1927 T of Anaheim, California’s Richard and Joe Campos originally got its Lo Blow name from its crank-driven, fuel-burning small-block Chevy. However, the 1:1 drive ratio of a crank-drive blower seriously limited performance, so the team switched to a top-mount blower instead. Tom Ferraro was the primary driver. 8> 8. This steel-bodied, blown-chevy-powered ’48 Fiat AA/FA was campaigned by Joe Davis of Davis & Ingram fame, and sponsored by Ansen Automotive Engineering. Oddly enough, this car would later be rebodied as a Mustang coupe, and campaigned as the Colt 45 Mustang Bb/altered.
15 16 17 > 15. The Tom Ferraro-driven Lo Blow 2, owned by Richard and Joe Campos, made its debut in June 1967 running on tried-and-true (377ci) small-block Chevrolet power. Lo Blow 2 won a number of local, So Cal fuel altered races at Lions and OCIR, then the team swapped in a blown Chrysler Hemi (1969) and really started knocking down the big numbers, clocking a best of 7.74-193.13.> 16. This shot of the Walker, Dubose & Eads Super Rat big-block Chevrolet-fiat AA/FA going up against Marcellus & Borsch’s Winged Express was taken at the HOT ROD Magazine Championship Drag Races, Riverside International Raceway, circa 1969.> 17. Head porter Joe Mondello and driver Sush Matsubara debuted this Ed Weddle-chassis Fiat powered by an injected small-block Chevrolet on gas around 1964 running 9.20s at 154.00. Three years later, the car was upgraded to a blown 427 big-block Chevy complete with fancy fuchsia paint job. Times in the 7.70s at 200 mph were commonplace. 18 19 > 18. Leroy Chadderton’s (Hawkins, Cowie, Chadderton & Scull) Chrysler-powered Magnificent 7 ’23 T appeared on the scene early in 1967 and immediately established itself as a threat with runs as good as a 7.95-197.36. In 1968, Chadderton and the Mag 7 participated in the first ever Fuel Altered National Tour, racing the likes of “Wild Willie” Borsch, Leon “Pure Heaven” Fitzgerald and Henry “Beaver Hunter” Harrison.> 19. This battle of “Heaven vs. Hell” occurred during an AA/FA event at OCIR. Note that Dale “Snail” Emery in the Chrysler version of Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell is out on Fitzgerald’s Chevy-powered Pure Heaven. Times were in the 7.6-zone at 200 and some change.