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May 1, 2008

Scenes from a gas struggle: Will soul-deadening gridlock and exorbitant fuel prices kill the remnants of SoCal car culture?

By Cole Coonce

In efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, there is a great interest in ethanol and biodiesel. There are many pluses to the use of these fuels, including environmental. However, the National Academy of Sciences reports if all the corn and the soybeans grown in this country were committed to biofuel manufacture, it would replace only 12 percent of the gasoline used annually here. Don’t forget, these days we eat most of the corn and soybeans grown here.”
-Chris Economaki, Editor’s Notebook, National Speed Sport News, July 19, 2006

“Myth has usurped reality, because it embraces something technically engaging that is also freighted with emotion. Myth has tangibly led to a rail renaissance that includes a full-blown subway (which actually has red cars) that has cost an astronomical sum, several hundred million dollars per mile. It all adds up to, in the words of one Los Angeles critic, “misplaced technological lust.”
-Robert C. Post, “The Myth Behind the Streetcar Revival,” American Heritage, May-June 1998


We were having a roundtable dinner and drinks at Les Frères Taix in Echo Park. Spilling a gin and tonic, a local art gallery owner unloaded her distress after having crashed her boyfriend’s car. The conversation segued to the gnarliness of just navigating an automobile through this city on any given day. Amongst the conversationalists a gal whose day job was that of an animated sitcom producer, and who was happy as a clam and proud as a peacock about commuting to work in her hybrid.

Also at the table was Mike Bumbeck, an automotive journalist and the editor of, a website that chronicles all things Mopar (i.e., Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth). Between pulls of his French onion soup, Bumbeck was politely listening to the car talk and slathering butter on his bread and commenting about the real costs of alternative fuels.

Since he was busy with his bread, I chimed in. “I think any attempt at alternative propulsion is great. I know this mechanical engineer who says – and I quote – ‘The gasoline internal combustion engine is still so much better than alternative technologies. It will continue to be the dominant prime mover for transportation.'” “I don’t know,” the Hollywood-type said. “You should really go see the Al Gore movie.”

You’d have thought I’d sneezed in the soup. But for Bumbeck, the gauntlet had been tossed … . Between bites of bread and butter, he slathered. “Look,” he said, “Al Gore movie or no Al Gore movie, driving a hybrid isn’t going to fix anything. The end of ridiculous commutes might fix something. Beyond that, if we made hydrogen, with say… a breeder-type nuclear reactor … that could make sense. Besides, then we could all drive atomic cars!” None of the Hollywood-ites got the joke. He kept talking despite the nervous looks from across the table. “No one,” he said, “wants to deal with the real costs of so-called alternative fuels. Burning coal, for instance, is nasty business, but the fact of the matter remains that we burn tons of it to make lamps and TVs light up. Burning up coal down south precipitates lake sterilizing acid rain up north. Meanwhile someone charges up an electric car in New York City at a roughly 50 percent loss of energy, and drives around thinking they’re saving the world.”

Bumbeck took the accompanying silence as mute agreement and thus kept up his spiel, segueing the topic to ethanol production and consumption as a fuel…

“The rest of the world have been tooling around in compact automobiles packing small displacement turbo-diesel engines under the hood that get upwards of 50 mpg for years now,” he explained. “Let folks get their hands on some instead of getting handed another steaming plate of subsidy from the corn lobby.”

The roundtable was silent. The producer-type was insulted. In an attempt to reanimate the conversation, Bumbeck told her what a fan he was of her animated series, but the damage was done. Nobody wants to be told that their attempts to control pollution and mitigate domestic dependence upon foreign fuel sources are futile. People want to feel good about their automotive experience and not be bothered with an eleventh-grade-level physics lesson about how energy cannot be created, nor destroyed – it just changes form.

Or, put another way, at another dinner by Doug Kruse, a drag-racing promoter and automotive engineering savant, who has been researching alternative forms of propulsion since the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973: “Left to its own, energy runs downhill in a given form,” he said. “But at the same time, it is going uphill in a different format. The water that runs downhill in the Mississippi River is then warmed by solar energy which raises [the water’s vapor] to cloud level which is higher than the origin of the Mississippi. So then when it rains, do you say it is still traveling downhill? Or has it merely returned to its source for another downhill journey in one energy form but is an uphill transition in another form. So everything that is going downhill in one format is concurrently going uphill in another format.” Yes, the Laws of the Conservation of Energy will be obeyed. And in this, the summer of unprecedented sweltering heat, polar ice caps reduced to a wet spot on God’s carpet, a foreign policy that plays slap and tickle with our imported petroleum supply, and a continuing proliferation in the demand for freeway capacity and parking spaces, denizens of SoCal can chant in unison: “I do not like the form it is changing to.”

Do not think that you are alone.

223rd and Alameda (or, Valhalla Revisited)

I caught up with Doug Kruse again last weekend in Bixby Knolls. He was sporting an orange vest and directing traffic along a cordoned- off city block of Atlantic Avenue. It was a different gig for Kruse, who is a longtime member of the Society of Automotive Engineers. (Kruse’s mission these days “is to bring the benefits of good fuel economy and emission compliance to benefit the general public.” He is currently working on a VW turbo diesel for use in military aircraft engines, and has installed his multiple-direct-injection technology on heavy-duty diesel engines. Kruse says he expects to complete licensing agreements with several engine companies in the near future.) As an engineer and a thermodynamic visionary, he makes an okay traffic cop, albeit with a twist: The car he was parking was a vintage Top Fuel dragster, the ChiZler, a sleek silver machine powered by nitromethane and credited with the first official speed of 200 mph, a feat accomplished in Alton, Illinois, 45 years ago. The boulevard is a bivouac of retro race cars and their crews and car owners. On one race car trailer is a bumper sticker that reads, “A Towel is not a Hat.”

But it is too hot to laugh at such sentiments. The heat is oppressive and the mercury trips the triple-digit mark, and vapors bounce off of the concrete and asphalt, and though the heat and haze a couple of graybeards futz with starting up the dragster and squirt some fuel in the motor’s intake manifold, thus bringing the 1957 steel Chrysler engine to life. WHHAAPP-WACKA-WACKA-WACKA-WWHHAAPP-WACKA-WACKA-WACKA- WWHHAAPPPP-WACKA-WACKA! sings the mighty ChiZler, as voluminous clouds of nitromethane – the drag racer’s patchouli oil – waft out of the engine’s exhaust manifold.

It is ridiculous heat, and here Kruse and his minions are creating more ridiculous heat. In the restricted area, I commented on the torrid conditions and about my camera’s lens fogging up. An old drag racer, whose stitched-on name patch read “Chili Phil,” said to me “Boy, you don’t miss the ozone layer until it’s gone.” Mixed with the nitro fumes, the vapors and heat waves creating a mirage of memories, aided by an MC who tells the assembled that this is what it once sounded like at Lions Drag Strip – a mere three miles from here located at 223rd and Alameda – when Doug Kruse promoted races there under the sanction of the Professional Dragsters Association … . I remember Lions Drag Strip. For a gearhead, the place was magic. My best reminiscence of Lions is from 1967 at one of Kruse’s PDA Meets. It was an orgy of speed, smoke, and noise. Top Fuel cars from across America made the journey to Long Beach mostly because of what the racetrack represented. It symbolized the psychedelic Valhalla that was Southern California: Copious amounts of burning nitromethane, two girls for every boy, etc. The sun would set in the west, and the fog would creep in off of the ocean, and two dragsters were lighting up, two more were leaving the starting line and another was pulling their parachutes. It was nonstop fire, smoke, and lights through a star filter, all smeared through the Vaseline lens of layers of condensation. I opened my eyes at the Bixby Knolls Dragster Expo and got in the car. On the way home, my mind’s looking glass continued to spiral into the rabbit hole of SoCal Car Culture and Doug Kruse’s inextricable link to same … .

In Julie Newmar’s Dreams

It was after midnight, a couple of years after the Rodney King race riots and right around the time of the LAPD Rampart scandal. My girlfriend was asleep in the bedroom. I was on the couch, catatonic and could’ve been mistaken for dead. I was rife for decompression, exhausted by the existential rigors of life in Los Angeles. The only thing that made sense was to allow the blue light of bad television bathe my tired retinas. The volume was soft enough not to wake my girlfriend, but loud enough to inform her dreams.

Like now, it was a time of civil disobedience and class tension. The pirated cable connection in my house was tuned to a public access station and reruns of the day’s L.A. City Council meetings. On it, Julie Newmar, a vampy television actress (and Catwoman on the old Batman series) for whom the limelight had doused was chirping about the intrusion of leaf-blowers and how the noise interrupted her beauty rest and the exhaust particulates damaged her sensitive show business skin. Following her self-absorbed polemic, then-recently shamed Councilman Mike Hernandez – a man who would remain in office even after pleading guilty to purchasing and possessing cocaine – took the podium, defending the hard-working members of his East L.A. constituency who made their livings blowing the leaves off of the lawns of the affluent and into the gutters and the storm drains. Central city Councilmember Nate Holden then gave his two bits, saying that his Latino brothers needed to use brooms to clean up rich people’s lawns and not the fruits of a dirty noisy motorized technology. My eyes were on the verge of rolling clockwise into their sockets when I heard a man say he had the solution to the city’s problems … : “Chairman and city council members, my name is Doug Kruse, and I represent Micro Pulse Controls. I have patented a technology that may alleviate the problems with contemporary leaf blowers.”

I recognized the name of course, and woke up with a shot. Doug Kruse? Promoter of the PDA races at Lions Drag Strip? The mechanical engineer and fabricator? Helping Los Angeles with its noise and pollution problems? One had to marvel at the irony. His solution to excessive volume and emissions was a leaf-blower driven by a small, direct-injected diesel engine. He said such a design was quiet and clean-burning and the subtext was that this would allow illegal immigrants to make a living and Julie Newmar to make her next casting call, well-rested and zit-free. And despite the haze of time and fumes, I more-or-less remember what Kruse told the L.A. City Council: “I have designed a prototype for a leaf-blower based on lessons learned from the 1973 oil embargo,” Kruse said, reading from a notebook and shifting uncomfortably in a suit that almost fit. “As with cars, there is a way with leaf blowers to improve the fuel efficiency by using a higher compression ratio like a diesel engine. Logic said that the only way to do that would be to utilize the direct injection of gasoline and to control the combustion process.” Hernandez, Holden, and the fellow council members were lost, but Kruse soldiered on with words to the effect of, “So I researched the fundamentals of the technology, the thermodynamics of an engine cycle, and discovered that there were combination techniques that could be utilized and patentable. Therefore, with a small, modest research & development budget you could produce a significant advance in the technology.”

And with that the council leader’s gavel came down, stopping Kruse in mid-pitch. “Mister Kruse, the city council meetings are not a commercial for your new company.” And just like a Gong Show act, he was given the hook…

I remember the Jonathan Swift line about the dunces of the world forming a confederacy against a true genius, and went to bed.

Misplaced Technological Fetishism

We are in a swank section of the Huntington Library. Upper-crust women sip tea and talk quietly. The chattering ceases when Robert C. Post, the tall, bespectacled, avuncular man at the rostrum begins to address the assembled from prepared text.

The Huntington had booked the right guy in Post, who is the author of Street Railways and the Growth of Los Angeles, curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History, as well as a former president of the Society for the History of Technology. Back in the day, Bob Post used to travel the languid city streets to watch Top Fuel cars at Lions Drag Strip. One evening – and the setting of the best stories of Post and his automotive-addled youth – he was in the passenger seat of his buddy’s DeSoto and the two men got into a rock ’em-sock ’em fistfight. As the motorized pugilists rolled through traffic, a cop caught sight of the fracas and gave pursuit with the siren blaring and the bubblegum machines rotating. The startled and bewildered law officer asked the driver what in tarnation started the fight.

“I told him that the Chrysler Hemi was going to replace Ford flathead as the de facto nitro-burning engine to dominate the drag strip,” the driver said. “And then he hit me.” “He’s full of shit,” Post said.

It could be argued that Post rarely misread the tea leaves after that. And at a gathering of chattering-class belles, guilty white liberals, and academic-types gathered at the Huntington, champing to hear a fellow liberal and scholar excoriate the Coyote Gods of Automotive Culture, Post told them anything but … . Instead, his talk deflated one of Los Angeles’s most precious canards: the bit about the car companies, the tire manufacturers, and the oil barons all in cahoots to decimate mass transit in Los Angeles, mothball the Red Car trolleys and pave the way for gas guzzlers, gridlock, and the daily grind and hassle of just trying to get yer groceries, punch a clock, or take the young ‘uns to soccer practice.

From a prepared text – later printed in American Heritage magazine – Post read: “We’re always hearing about America’s love affair with the auto; in fact, people love all sorts of technologies, not least railways, and those who love railways often speak in the most hateful terms of motor vehicles. Yet no city, least of all Los Angeles, has been able to stifle the energy – indeed, the outright passion – with which its citizens have embraced the automobile. As [David] Brodsly puts it, “It required no conspiracy to destroy the electric railways; it would, however, have required a conspiracy to save them.” Translation: You had your precious public transport. You didn’t want it. And now that it’s gone, you are wistful about its demise. After the Huntington reading about the inevitability of the Red Car’s demise and “misplaced technological lust,” Los Angeles’ dysfunctional dependence on the automobile for transport has reached critical mass. And any physicist will tell you that it is a short distance from critical mass to ground zero … . Traffic is getting worse and the costs of running an automobile have reached silly levels of expense, fleecing personal savings and pillaging the tax base. (Indeed, a new study out of Riverside concludes that 652 new lane-miles of freeway – costing $8 billion – will be needed in that county just to keep up with expected population growth by 2030.) It makes the modern motorist wonder which fetishism is misplaced after all … and how did it all get so fucked up?

Insurance. Traffic. DMV. Gratuitous Amber Alerts. Gas prices. Faulty sensors and Engine Control Units, exorbitant repair bills. Not to mention intangible, hidden costs, like stress from the claustrophobia imminent from just jumping into an automobile in hopes of getting somewhere and instead just staring at brake lights. These are not factored in, but show up in the cost of therapy, counseling, and medication; specifically sedatives and serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. Again: How did it all get so fucked up? How much more fucked up is it going to get? I wrote Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear – two socio-anthropological works that sum the angst of life in Los Angeles and make us wonder why more people here aren’t shooting each other – and asked him his thoughts about when and how the civil engineering and transportation planning in Los Angeles jumped the shark. He replied, “The wrong turn came in the late 1970s when [then-Gov.] Jerry Brown gave up the battle for regional planning with teeth. The problem has always been that the constituency for good urban design and socially responsible mass transit is too small and elitist.”

I posed the same question to Bumbeck. “As hindsight is always way too easy, it’s hard to say what could have prevented it,” he said. “In L.A., the major mistake was likely dismantling the public transit rail system in favor of GM buses. The rail system is what allowed the developers to build then-outlying housing developments in the first place, and also allowed residents to travel to and fro. Now, freeways go to nowhere for very little time before nowhere becomes somewhere. Look to the 909 to see the coming disaster.” Robert C. Post was a little less Cassandra-like, if not somewhat more Pollyanna about the scenario. “A case study that can be interpreted either way – positive or negative – is the Pacific Electric Subway,” he said. “A short but extremely effective stretch of rapid transit that got people out of the heart of downtown and on their way to Silver Lake, Glendale, and other such places a great deal quicker than was possible in an automobile. After 30 years [1925-1955] the subway was abandoned, but it remained potentially serviceable for quite a few years more until it was rendered completely useless because of the footings of the skyscrapers built on [what was once] Bunker Hill. That’s decline. On the other hand, I see that the Subway Terminal building has now been converted into high-end condos, and that there are a lot more people attracted to the idea of living ‘right downtown’ than there were for a very long time. That seems like a synthesis.”

But not to Mike Davis. The Ecology-of-Fear author is not as convinced about said synthesis and the swords-into-ploughshares promise of urban planning: “For all the hype about transit-centered development and New Urbanism, we are still stamping out the same old auto- centered, peripheral suburbs,” Davis wrote. “Two of my buddies, Pacific Beach surfers who spend their days as concrete contractors, have moved to Brawley, 135 miles from their work in San Diego, because they want their kids to grow up in single-family homes. My kids will probably live in Death Valley and spend half their lives in gridlock.”

The Perversity of Success

During the beginning of summer, I took a cycling tour across the Deep South, doing research on American history while visiting sundry Civil War battlefields and cemeteries. Because of my mode of transportation, I didn’t have to fill up my car for a month. When I got back to Los Angeles, one of my first errands was to drive to the gas station and fill ‘er up. I pulled up to the pump, swiped my debit card, and when the numbers stopped moving, my jaw dropped and I sat in the driver’s seat and just shook my head before turning the engine over. It was nearly $50 to replenish a 14-gallon fuel tank. I immediately thought of a phrase Doug Kruse used over dinner, when he was describing the ubiquity of gasoline and “the perversity of success,” meaning that once an infrastructure has been laid, it is difficult to replace – even if one has a better system. That night, Kruse expounded on this theory, as a sort of different equation: “I’ll quote a past president of SAE [Society of Automotive Engineers], Jack Schmidt, who said in 1995 that ‘the electric cars are projected to be competitive with the gasoline engine in 10 years; but the gasoline engine is a moving target.'”

As far as replacements for gasoline as a fuel, Kruse said, “Efficiency most go beyond the engineering calculation and must include the economic calculation in order to be sustainable.” It’s gotta pay for itself, I suggested.

“Yes, sustainable energy must be economically efficient. But now we get into a political issue where people want to say ‘sustainable’ and they want it for free. Well, wheat is a sustainable crop; weeds are not. Yes, weeds grow for free. But they aren’t sustainable; they will not sustain human life. Yes, we are making efforts to make an engineering breakthrough [in running a car], but we know that the major requirement is that it be economically competitive. “Entropy goes two ways,” he continued into my tape recorder. “Entropy is also used to measure the amount of information that can be carried by copper wire or fiber optics – the same equations that are used for engineering thermodynamic analysis of combustion. So then we merely review that the fiber optic cable can carry either light in a totally chaotic fashion – fully natural – or organized data which is purely a function of humanity. Therefore, what you have to take into consideration is that the only way you increase order is through human effort. And therefore, if you are wishing to keep the universe from going downhill into a state of chaos it is simply a matter of human will.”

Driving the Working Class into the Desert

With Kruse’s riff on “the perversion of success” in mind, I asked Post, Davis, and Bumbeck about the daunting economics and inevitability of still-higher prices of gasoline, a fuel that seems to be as resilient as alley rats in Chinatown.

“Laissez-faire environmentalists and Reason Institute pundits think high gas prices will solve all our problems by forcing us out of our cars and into private-sector transit,” Davis said. “Fat chance. European-level gas prices will simply give inequality a new push and perhaps promote more transit subsidies for the middle classes, like light rail with its very high per ride subsidies. The root of the problem isn’t simply the automobile versus Hubbert’s Peak, but land inflation that is driving the working class into the deserts and beyond.”

Post seemed to be resigned to the inevitability of seemingly cost- prohibitive fuel: “Nowhere in the world, I think, except maybe in Saudi Arabia and a couple of other places like that, does gasoline cost as little as five dollars a gallon. In Ireland, which is arguably the most vital economy in the world, I believe it is somewhere around nine dollars.”

Bumbeck said that if five dollars a gallon is tantamount to “a transportation tax on the folks that can least afford to be taxed anymore, our consumer-based economy will take the hit.” Even more alarming, he said, “Sustained five-dollar-a-gallon gas will most likely be a death blow to the domestic auto industry as we know it.” Kruse summed it up in a typically florid fashion: “What people often miss is that petroleum is stored solar energy. It is solar energy that has been accumulated and concentrated for millions of years. Gasoline is paleo-solar energy. There is a limit to the era where we can draw upon this stored solar energy. There will be a transition time to where we have to use concurrent solar energy, to absorb it, store it, and utilize it concurrent with the sun shining. But that day is probably decades and probably centuries off.”

Kill or Be Killed (or, What Would Beelzebub Drive?)

I used to love the automobile. Any time things got dense, I could close my eyes, get in a Walter Mitty mood and put myself back in my uncle’s dragster on the return road on Lions Drag Strip. The automobile. For years, I thought it represented freedom. Instead, it is a form of bondage. Nowadays, if any errand or social obligation is within 15 or 20 miles of my house, I get there by riding a bicycle. Which is, perhaps, too draconian for most. Including those of my impromptu panel. I asked Bumbeck and Davis what they drove. Bumbeck said, “I drive a 1982 Toyota Starlet – because it was dirt cheap, and has rear wheel drive. It came with dents in it already, gets 40 mpg, and handles like a go- kart. I also like saying I own a Starlet.”

Davis got the last word: “Me? I know I should get a horse, but I have a three-hour plus round-trip commute to Irvine from San Diego, and don’t like to be pushed into the ice plant by Rancho Santa Fe realtors in punk Hummers. Kill or be killed. So I drive a black Toyota Tundra, V-8 4×4 that gets about three miles to the gallon. I am the founder and, so far, the only the member of ‘White Guys in Pickup Trucks Against White Guys in Pickup Trucks.’ My daughter is buying me the gun rack for my birthday.” Davis then offered an addendum. “Correction,” he wrote: “A pang of conscience and $50 fill- ups recently forced me to trade my beloved five-year-old Tundra for a slightly less hypocritical Toyota Forerunner – still 4×4 however. You never know about those potholes in the mall.” -30

(originally published in LA CityBeat)

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