So what’s Fuelin’ Around?

April 26th, 2023

Here’s an excerpt from the novel about JK’s time in the racing fuel business and the very early days of VP. Think Animal House goes Racing….

It turned out that my truck driver, Joker, and I had a lot in common. He was lonely and far from his home in South Texas. When I was home, my kids might have been just a few blocks away, but because of the divorce, many nights, I felt like I lived on the moon. Bored and lonely is a perfect formula for getting into trouble. We’d drink a lot on the road, but I wasn’t really into drinking at my house, especially by myself, and rarely at the office. So if you’re bored but can’t or don’t want to drink, two things can pretty quickly liven up a party; guns and fire.

Chester wasn’t in the best shape, and our single-wide office trailer was a target for thieves way too many times. We had bars installed on the windows and the doors, but the burglars decided to just peel the faded, ribbed aluminum away from the exterior and try to climb through between the beams. A complex street light illuminated the front of the trailer, but the rear was in the shadows and vulnerable. Yes, eventually, we’d get some lights installed, but that would take time. Landlords don’t like to spend money, especially when it’s a county authority. I remember the would-be burglars must not have been overly bright because one time, when they peeled back the skin, they encountered the back of a sizeable four-drawer filing cabinet. Now, I would have moved over to the next area and tried again, but luckily, that time, they gave up and went away. We had already lost three or four desktop calculators and yet another answering machine, so we tried to devise something that would prevent them from pushing their way in again. I was smart enough to unplug the fax machine and take it home every night. That little machine was my lifeline to European business. It cost us $600 back in the day, so it was precious. Svensk BP, the only overseas distributor we had in the early days, wanted us to send faxes so they could be interpreted and responded to quickly. Overseas couriers were very expensive, and nobody wanted to wait for the postal services to get it done.

Since rail was on the premises, we found a stack of very heavy railroad ties. An hour later, we had a few inside the office and laid them horizontally against the wall. Now remember, we’re bored, and it’s winter, so there’s not much racing, little phone activity, and hardly any work to do during the day, let alone after hours. We were sitting around talking or watching television, and I had an idea. Maybe it was something we saw on TV; I can’t recall. “Joker, let’s set up a shooting range inside the trailer!”

Yeah, okay, it was a crazy idea but what the hell. I carried a 9mm at work and also had headphones that I wore at the range. We took a piece of paper and drew some circles on it, and then stapled it to the massive railroad tie. The office had three rooms and a small bathroom in the center room. The target was at the back of the trailer, and I stood perhaps twenty feet from it. Headphones on and have at it. I emptied the clip and changed it out for Joker. It was just the two of us standing in an office trailer in a desolate part of town with nothing going on outside but the winter’s cold wind. I remember distinctly that he waved off the headphones and took his turn. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, and within a second, he stopped, and for good reason.

We noticed immediately that while my bullets had found their target, none of his seemed to have. Oh shit, that meant only one thing! We quickly inspected the railroad tie and found some of the bullet holes, but a bunch were missing. Seconds later, standing outside the trailer, we found the “exit” wounds. The damn wall looked like Swiss cheese. Acting like two crime scene investigators, we carefully reconstructed the trajectory the bullets must have traveled as they passed through the thin trailer wall. “Okay, we’re good.” We closed the  Firing Range twenty minutes after it had opened, and Joker went and got a pair of glasses the next day.

Like two little kids with nothing else to do, what other kinds of trouble could we get into? Some old trash drums were lying around, and since it was a bit chilly, we decided to fire one up and get some heat going. Of course, we could have just gone inside, but what the hell? Nothing like a campfire, and in Chester, this was the closest we would get to living in nature.

Thanks to the racing fuel we used to get things started, the fire was going good now. We didn’t dance around like Tom Hanks in Castaway, but there was something primal about it, I guess, plus it was cold, and we were bored. We fed the flames with parts of broken wooden pallets our former neighbor had left on the property line. Okay, now we have a fire. “I wonder if we could see any difference between race fuel and pump gas?’ Joker asked. Well, what the hell. It didn’t take much to entertain us at that point. We probably had twenty different fuels inside the VP warehouse and storage trailers, along with pump gas for lawn mowing and snow blowing. With a basic knowledge of chemistry, knowing about initial boiling points and flashpoints, and all sorts of things, there was a chance we might see something interesting. After all, some of the ingredients to these race fuels had different characteristics and reasons for being there, but they all had one thing in common. They were flammable liquids, and we were curious. Take a second now and consider what Ben Franklin must have been thinking when he sent a kite up into a storm in hopes of attracting some lightning. We’re two grown men. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” By the way, we were both trained in HAZMAT and knew what we were doing but to anyone that might have been watching, who knows what they were thinking.

C12 is a leaded race fuel, dyed emerald green in color, and is one of the most popular race fuels used worldwide. We used the plastic cap off the top of a fuel jug to pour a very small stream of fuel into the fire. Okay, that was cool. Then we tried a larger amount. Okay, that was cool too.

We tried larger amounts and different race fuels, and for the most part, we thought we could tell some seemed to flare up more or quicker, but since we were in an open area with winter breezes, who the hell really could tell? “What do you think propylene oxide would do?” one of us suggested. “Prope” aka “PO,” was a chemical used in fuels to enhance ignition. Man, did that stuff like to catch fire. When mixed with some other chemicals, the right chemicals, and in the right proportion, it made for a really nice race fuel. We wanted to see if we could observe anything different on the flame.

One of VP’s early octane boosters was packaged in metal quart cans, and it was thought that delivery method might be the safest way to introduce the prope to flame. Now remember, we were curious and weren’t drinking. We had a 20-pound fire extinguisher nearby in case something stupid happened. But, really, with this big Texan and a Pennsylvania Irishman working together, nothing bad could happen.

The stuff sizzled. That’s my recollection and the best way I could describe it.

We had grown accustomed to handling the jug caps full of fuel as we poured small amounts into the flames. We got to the point where we could watch the flame travel up the stream and head for the jug cap. Cool. Just don’t try this at home. Leave it to us, knuckleheads, I mean professionals. After all,  we had Commercial Driver’s Licenses with HAZMAT Endorsements and training.

If you haven’t seen an NHRA nitro-burning Top Fuel or Funny Car, I suggest you get to a race or watch some action on YouTube. In particular, watch a video taken at night when one of those bad boys is making a run under darkening skies. If all goes as planned, the eight exhaust pipes spit flame much of the way down the track. It’s awe-inspiring. The sight, the sound, and the smell are memorable. The full-on propylene oxide experiment was about to take place for us back at the fire drum. It was getting late, and you can only play with fire for so long. So we opted not to line up any nitro. The police might be stopping by at some point to see what we were up to, and if they wanted to see a nitro show, they would have to go to the races like everyone else.

We filled one of the quart cans half full and threw it in the fire. Remember the flames erupting from the exhaust pipes on the funny cars? The same damn thing happened to the quart can. It remained intact, but the fire charged from the can opening until the material burned off. It might have only taken a second to burn off, but it was worth it. One Mississippi – okay, that was cool! Now let’s add more fuel, and then let’s add a few more cans. Thankfully we were getting hungry, and with all our attention on the bright flames, we might have lost track of the fact that we were playing with fire in what some might call not the safest environment in the area. “Nitro – should we try some nitro before we go?” That had to have gone through our minds. We were intrigued, but because our luck had been pretty good so far, we decided to try that some other time and called it a night.

You may or may not know that over the next thirty years, we helped grow the business into what it is today – a global presence in motorsports. If you enjoyed this little tale, there’s plenty more in the paperback or Kindle versions available on Amazon here.


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