Rolling Coal: Show Of Strength Or Smoking Gun?

Sep 19, 2014
Thanks to some unexpected publicity, the term "rolling coal" has suddenly gone mainstream and put diesel enthusiasts under the scrutiny of outsiders. At the peak of the supposed controversy in mid-July 2014, there were more than 22,000 articles about "rolling coal" listed on a Google News search, and stories aired on both CNN and Fox News. On July 7, there was a segment on The Colbert Report during which the "new trend" of rolling coal was mocked as "the best new way to stick it to Mother Earth since paint-cannin', where you dump old paint into a river, or porpoise-corkin', where you hammer corks into the blowholes of dolphins." As a master of the absurd, Stephen Colbert does a great job of predicting a worst-case scenario, in which all diesel owners are lumped together as enemies of the environment and straight-up jerks who film themselves attacking pedestrians and hybrid drivers with thick clouds of soot. So, unlike the tabloids, let's take a step back from all the chatter and try to have a reasonable discussion about rolling coal.
"The practice of rolling coal got a lot of negative attention this summer, but there’s a time and a place where you can blow smoke without being irresponsible."
What is Rolling Coal?
Rolling coal is a term used to describe when a diesel engine is overfueled to the point that opaque black smoke comes out of the exhaust system. Diesel Power Editor KJ Jones describes it like this:
"Generating severe 'black smoke' with diesels is, for all intents and purposes, a direct by-product of excessive fueling. By turning the pump(s) up and letting a diesel eat to its heart's content, plumes of soot will fill the air, as soon as a driver's foot mashes the hammer—and the dark cloud oftentimes will linger long after the offending truck has made its way down the road."
Photo 2/16   |   In a game of inches such as sled pulling, competitors would rather roll coal than risk not making enough power to get the job done. During this run at the 2013 Scheid Diesel Extravaganza, Van Haisley made a 319.43-foot pull and took home First Place in the event he’s been trying to win ever since the ’90s.
These visible emissions are made of carbon and other elements that result when fuel is not completely burned before leaving the engine. Unlike what some news outlets reported, the term is not exclusive to lawbreakers—it can be used to describe any smoky output, even when it occurs in legitimate situations. So, when KJ was asked about his take on rolling coal during competitions, he had this to say:
"What's my take on rolling coal when it's happening at a sanctioned drag race, dyno shootout, or pulling event (at a track, fairgrounds, dyno shop, and such)? Honestly? I think it's an interesting aspect of the hobby. It's almost like a very unofficial badge of honor—especially for the rigs that back up the smoky bravado with four-digit horsepower and monstrous rear-wheel torque. However, the Catch-22 about my opinion is that I really don't dig it on the street. On public roads and highways, in towns and neighborhoods, heck, even out in wide-open spaces in the country, the whole 'rolling coal' thing isn't very responsible at all. I mean, would you want someone to drive up and blast you in the face with diesel smoke? What about your mother? I didn't think you would. Given today's concerns about the environment and such, I'd think there could be more excitement (complete with online videos, forum chatter and the like) about diesels that post stout power, torque numbers, and dragstrip times without the excessive smoke. Such a phenomenon definitely would be a testament to tuners' abilities, as well as to the aftermarket engine hardware that's available today. Diesels work hard and they work well…without blasting tons of smoke from a truck's exhaust."
We posed the same question to Sean P. Holman, content director of the Truck Trend Network (to which Diesel Power belongs), and he agreed:
Photo 3/16   |   The sled pulls at the 2014 National Farm Machinery Show were held inside, so large smoke machines and exhaust extension pipes were used to capture the particulate as it rolled and route it to the outside of the stadium.
"Creating some smoke is an unavoidable aspect of this sport. We try to promote responsible tuning and emissions-friendly performance upgrades whenever possible, especially for street-legal vehicles. The only times we can approve of deliberately 'rolling coal' is during off-highway, closed-course competitions such as sled pulls or drag races. While under load, it can be unavoidable to emit some visible smoke, which we understand as fellow enthusiasts. Our issue is with drivers who willfully blast other people with smoke—especially those who post videos of the act on the Internet for all to see. There's no place for that in our sport, as it casts all diesel and diesel enthusiasts in a negative light."
David Kennedy, the editor-in-chief of Hot Rod magazine (and former Diesel Power editor), shed some light on the technical reasons why rolling coal is common during diesel competitions:
"The compressor map shows the efficiency of the turbo. In ideal conditions, that curve and the fuel curve would be the same. There would be plenty of air to burn all the fuel. In reality, when people don't see smoke, they think they could be running lean in some areas, and that's lost power, so they would rather tune to be rich in those areas."
The Half-Million-Dollar Hammer
While it's not uncommon to see older, factory-stock diesels producing smoke or a haze when the engine is under a heavy load, it's a virtual thing of the past for modern diesels right off the dealer's lot. According to Argonne National Laboratory, diesel particulate filters eliminate up to 95 percent of the mass of smoke produced by diesel engines. This technology is combined with cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and, in new diesels, selective catalytic reduction (SCR) that sprays urea-based diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) directly into the exhaust stream.
Photo 4/16   |   The winner of our 2012 Diesel Power Challenge, Erik Clausen, proves you can build a diesel truck that can win our sled pull event with a 327-foot pull, build 1,970 lb-ft on the dyno, and make low 11-second quarter-mile passes while rolling some coal—but still run clean while on the highways.
Until 2011, it was relatively easy to find parts that allowed owners of street-legal diesels to remove or bypass emissions systems, including complete removal of the DPF and its computer nannies. That's when the EPA made a public show of enforcing provisions of the Clean Air Act that prohibit altering vehicle emissions. After one company was publicly fined more than $500,000, folks selling emissions-delete products disappeared or went underground. Along with the crackdown by the federal government, states such as California are now smog-testing all diesels model year '97 and up. In the Golden State, this involves an inspection to make sure all emissions equipment is still in place, a visible smoke test, and probing the engine computer to check the function of all emissions equipment.
Rolling Coal vs. Running Clean
The legal penalties you risk by rolling coal on public streets are bad enough, but it can also pose a threat to the entire hobby of diesel performance. Blowing smoke on civilians and causing blackouts on the highways are just two examples of acts that are highly visible to the general public. This could lead politicians to take action if their constituency gets riled up. Plus, you can think of it this way: Whenever you're creating a stream of soot outside the realm of competition, you're effectively burning dollar bills in the form of wasted fuel. This in no way means we want you to stop having fun with diesels every day of the week—we just want to challenge you to make power while running clean.
Photo 5/16   |   Rolling Coal Diesel Programming Software
Diesel programming software by companies such as EFILive allows tuners to dial in the operations of their engine using three-dimensional graphs. This control provides the ability to tune a highly modified engine to act “normal” on the streets with a minimum of smoke.
Photo 6/16   |   Rolling Coal Diesel Programming Software Read Out
The Vapor News of Rolling Coal The Origin of the "Controversy"
In summer 2014, the term "rolling coal" suddenly became national news…but why? For at least a decade, this slang expression has been used to describe overfueling a diesel engine. To borrow a term recently coined by David Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Hot Rod magazine, a piece of "vapor news" seems to have created a nearly instant firestorm of coverage from a tiny spark of misinformation.
On July 3, 2014, Slate.com posted an article with the incendiary headline, "Rolling Coal: Conservatives who show their annoyance with liberals, Obama, and the EPA by blowing black smoke from their trucks" by David Weigel. This post appears to be the kernel of "vapor news" that bloomed into what could be mistaken for a national emergency. According to Weigel, the men and women who roll coal are members of "the Obama era's great conservative subcultures," who, "protest against the EPA," with their, "ritual shaming of hybrid 'rice burners'" [his words, not ours].
Photo 7/16   |   2014 DPC Quarter Mile Drag Race 1995 Ford F 350
Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
Wow! That sounds pretty scary!!! It's no wonder numerous websites picked up the story, which resulted in numerous other sites re-reporting this "news." Each mention seemed to spawn another new article about rolling coal. The "revelations" about rolling coal reported by Slate appear to be based on the existence of some "Prius Repellant" stickers, Facebook communities devoted to rolling coal, posts on YouTube and Instagram, and an article on Vocativ.com titled, "Rollin' Coal is Pollution Porn for Dudes with Pickup Trucks." Unless we missed the call or email, Diesel Power magazine was never contacted for comment by Slate or Vocativ, and we would have loved to set them straight…but why question a dramatic headline when you can just run with it and reap the benefits?
Click Bait
While rolling coal is apparently titillating to people unfamiliar with modern diesel performance, in our opinion, it's not breaking news. In fact, the stories by Slate and Vocativ could be considered "click bait." That's a term used for dramatic headlines and topics designed to garner the maximum amount of attention of people browsing topics on the Internet. Just look at all the "keywords" stuffed into the titles of the two articles: conservatives, liberals, Obama, EPA, pollution, pickup trucks, and porn. It's a shotgun approach to attract as many readers as possible. Once they get your click on their website, the "vapor news" has done its job and –poof!—it disappears before the facts can be scrutinized.
Unexpected Ally
It was a pleasant surprise to read the article "There's Nothing Wrong With Rolling Coal" on Vice.com by Grace Wyler. It was posted just a few days after the Slate story was picked up nationally, and it was one of the only high-profile articles in which the author researched the situation instead of just regurgitating the "facts" that had became distorted in the telephone game played by Internet bloggers.
Photo 8/16   |   1934 Chevrolet Rat Rod Pickup Rear Three Quarter

Breaking News
As the magazine was going to print, Democratic New Jersey State Assemblyman Tim Eustace announced plans to introduce bill A3583 (njleg.state.nj.us/bills/BillView.asp? BillNumber=A3583), which “Prohibits retrofitting diesel-powered vehicles to increase particulate emissions for the purpose of ‘coal rolling’; prohibits the practice of ‘coal rolling.’” The Assemblyman said he was inspired to write the bill after someone blasted his Nissan Leaf (a small electric car) with diesel smoke on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Photo 12/16   |   Final Gear 2014 Diesel Power Challange Ford Super Duty 03

Sources:
Argonne National Laboratory
www.anl.gov
California BAR
www.bar.ca.gov
California DMV
www.dmv.ca.gov
EPA
www.epa.gov
Photo 16/16   |   2009 Ford F 350 Super Duty Front View

POPULAR TRUCKS

MOST POPULAR

Subscribe Today and Save up to 83%!

Subscribe Truck Trend Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truck Trend
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Diesel Power Magazine

Subscribe to:

Diesel Power
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
Subscribe Truckin Magazine

Subscribe to:

Truckin
Magazine

PRINT DIGITAL
SUBSCRIBE TO A MAGAZINE
CLOSE X
BUYER'S GUIDE
SEE THE ALL NEW
NEWS, REVIEWS & SPECS