THE late 60s and early 70s, Fuel Altereds ruled when it came to crowd-pleasing displays of smoking tyres, wheels-up launches and squirrelly runs. On some occasions, the short-wheelbase Altereds even ran faster than the Top Fuellers of the day.
This article was first published in the April 2009 issue of Street Machine
By 1973, the class had all but died, replaced by machines that were more recognisable to the paying public and had more space for advertising — Funny Cars. Ironically, these days you’d be hard-pressed to identify the factory car that any modern F/C is based on.
Some people yearn for the simpler times, when sex was safe and drag racing was dangerous. And a few, like Ron Hope — an ex-southern Californian hot rodder who now lives in Tennessee — have the desire matched to the folding stuff to make it happen.
Body is a fibreglass reproduction of an American Austin Bantam. The original car featured a steel body and that was about the lightest you could get, hence their popularity
Ron was deep in the drag racing scene of 1960s southern California. He didn’t race Fuel Altereds but was a big fan and had several local tracks he could attend on either day of the weekend.
“My first ever job was with [legendary racer] Ak Miller in 1959, when I was 15. I got my licence at 16, bought a ’55 Chevy and drag raced that, then went out to El Mirage to watch the dry lakes racing. The first time I went to Bonneville was 1961 and in ’64 I set a record in C/Gas Roadster with Jerry Tucker. After a break due to a growing family, I’ve been to every Speed Week since 1991,” he says.
Ron got to know original ‘Rat Trap’ owner Don Green during the Fuel Altered Tours that went across the US in ’70, ’71 and ’72 when Rat Trap was accompanied by ‘Pure Heaven’, ‘Magnificent 7’ and ‘Winged Express’. By then, he was working for Chrysler in Chicago.
“The teams used my one-bedroom apartment as a base of operations, and afterwards I stayed in touch with all of the guys and ended up as crew on Rat Trap.”
If you’re wondering about the salt lake connection, it was during a meeting at Bonneville in 1993 that Ron caught up with Don. “I said to him: ‘You know, we need to get Rat Trap back together.’”
Amazingly, the original car’s whereabouts were known — but that’s not the car you see here; this is a recreation.
“The original chassis was built by Dennis Watson, as was this one. Back in 1968 he built three; one had the front cut off and a straight axle fitted and the other disappeared into someone’s garage. The original car is in Alaska but to make it legal to race today, there wouldn’t be much of it left,” Ron says. This car has been built as close to original as practicable, allowing for current safety requirements.
“The original car had a three-point ’cage, while this one has a six-point. That’s probably the most obvious difference — and the new one has a fire system in it.”
Many ‘genuine’ old race cars are really ‘grandpa’s axe’ — it’s had four handles and six heads but it’s still the same axe. The point being that you can’t get too precious about originality with a race car.
“We’ve had to front-half it three times and I’m happy to say that every safety feature on the car has been fully tested,” Ron jokes.
Butterfly steering wheel helps the driver keep the car sideways at 200-plus mph
The motor has also been updated, for reliability and performance.
“The block is an aluminium Donovan Hemi. We put it in about 12 or 13 years ago as good 392s were getting hard to find and you can’t lean on them that hard. The heads are cast-iron 392s that Joe Mondello reworked. We’ve got a set of 354s that he worked on and a set of aluminium Hot Heads by Joe. They require a different tune-up.
“It has a billet Crower crank with a stock stroke but runs a 4.250in bore, which makes it a 440 now. We run a Crane cam, Venolia rods and pistons and the Donovan block uses a gear drive. The blower is a 6/71 Littlefield and there’s a Mallory magneto and Enderle injection. We run it on 90 per cent nitro and there’s no transmission, just an East-West Crower Glide-type clutch and a reverser.”
The best this car has run is 6.64 and 229.88mph, quite a bit quicker than the 7.05@202mph that the old car ran. How come?
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Hemi is an aluminium Donovan based on the 392, stretched to 440ci
“Primarily it’s due to the clutches and improvements in the materials. The fuel distribution and blowers are better; there have been advances in mechanical components,” Ron explains.
What makes this car unique as a Fuel Altered is its independent front suspension: “It was Dennis Watson’s idea. He thought it would help with weight transfer. That view wasn’t widely held and it wasn’t duplicated, even though it was quite successful.”
The stunning paint-job is damn near identical to the original car. “Bob Thompson painted it and Dennis Jones lettered it — the same guys who did the original. We used to change the image of the car with different paint schemes to keep it fresh but the animation on the side always stayed the same. The cars themselves are very animated and they’re at their best at night with the camera flashes making all the colours really come out,” Ron says.
So what’s with the name? Well, the big-block Chev is commonly referred to as a ‘rat’ motor, and it’s a popular choice in the Fuel Altered class. So if you want to catch the rats, you need a Rat Trap.
FUEL Altered developed from Fuel Roadster, a class that was essentially the pinnacle of hot rods as developed for the quarter-mile. Racers knew that the recipe for success was a big engine in a small and lightweight body, and they didn’t get much smaller or lighter than an American Austin Bantam roadster.
In 1930, a clever Pom by the name of Sir Herbert Austin figured the Yanks needed an economy car. He was wrong. By 1935 the company was broke but it was reorganised by the company president, Roy S Evans, and spluttered on until 1940. Although the American Austin Car Company didn’t exactly set the automotive world on fire with its passenger cars, it did develop the prototype for one of the most important vehicles ever created — the Jeep. The Bantam, meanwhile, is also credited as the inspiration for Donald Duck’s car.
1934 AMERICAN AUSTIN ALTERED
Colour: Orange & blue
Brand: Donovan Hemi, 440ci
Induction: Enderle mechanical fuel injection, Littlefield 6/71 blower
Heads: Cast iron 392 or 354 Hemi heads, or aluminium Hot Heads
Fuel: Nitro, 90 per cent mix
Fuel pump: Enderle
Ignition: Mallory magneto
Dyno figures: 3000hp
Gearbox: None — direct drive
Diff: Nine-inch, 3.90 gears
Clutch: East-West Crower Glide-type
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Springs: Coil-over (f)
Brakes: Two ’chutes and rear brakes
Mods: Remove everything that isn’t vital
Instruments: Play it by ear
Shifter: Reverse selector
Stereo: 3000hp Hemi
Speakers: Eight zoomies
RUBBER & RIMS
Tyres: Avon (f), M&H slicks (r)
Wheels: 17x3 12-spoke spindle mount (f), American Racing 16x10.5 (r)