Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of hype and hysteria over “rolling coal," a redneck motorsport trend that involves tricking out diesel pickup trucks to emit giant plumes of black smoke. Mostly, this is done for fun or performance enhancement, but nowadays it seems the kids are “rolling coal” to piss off cops, Prius drivers, and anyone else who happens to get in the way of their big-ass trucks. Naturally, this has driven the left into a panic.
Rolling coal is not a new phenomenon. The trend stems from truck-pull competitions popular at county fairs and rural speedways, in which two diesel trucks face off to see which one can carry a weighted sled the farthest. To increase power and speed, truck-pull drivers modify their vehicles to dump excess fuel into the motor, which has the added effect of making the trucks emit clouds of soot. It’s an impressive effect—a sort of visible manifestation of the vehicle’s power and speed. Unsurprisingly, other pickup enthusiasts (mostly teenage boys) have tried to recreate the show, coughing up anywhere between $500 and $5,000 to make their car smoke. The motivations aren’t complicated: It looks cool, and it’s funny to roll coal on babes.
It wasn’t until last month that coal rolling turned into a flashpoint in America’s perennial culture wars, thanks to a Vocativ article unearthing the inevitable online subculture, or “pollution porn," as the author describes it, that has emerged around “coal rollin' diesel.” As it turns out, there are literally thousands of Instagrams, Tumblr posts, Facebook groups, and sweet truck memes dedicated to rolling coal, not to mention endless YouTube videos with names like “World’s Sickest Coal Rollers” and “Prius Repellent.”
It’s that last one that has really lathered up progressive hysteria. With the help of this post from Slate’s David Weigel, coal rolling has morphed from gearhead gimmick and occasional road-rage weapon into some kind of far-right political protest, akin to bringing an assault weapon to Chipotle or camping out at Bundy Ranch. “The motivation,” Weigel wrote, “is roughly the same one that gets people buying guns and ammo after mass shootings.” Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall chimed in: “Not sure I've seen much that better captures the cultural moment than this,” he wrote in a blog post. The liberal blogosphere uniformly agreed, albeit more shrilly: Coal rolling, their argument goes, is just another right-wing fuck-you to Barack Obama, environmentalists, and the actual environment.
“The coal rollers are actively polluting the environment—wasting fossil fuels that directly contribute to global warming, making the planet more painful for everyone,” wrote Daily Kos blogger Paul Hogarth.“All to make a stupid political statement, because they hate that damn Kenyan Socialist in the White House.”
It’s true that the black carbon emissions are among the more toxic air pollutants and also a major source of climate change. But rolling coal is not likely to have much of an environmental impact. Especially when compared to say, industrial factories, or deforestation, or the 3 billion coal and biomass cooking stoves that people are using worldwide. “It's like so many things—if a few people are doing it, at truck shows or race tracks, it doesn't really matter,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, Davis. “If it becomes lots of people doing it, that's when it matters.” (He added that “if these people don’t think it’s bad, they should have to put their tail pipes in front.")
So while the practice might be gross, and it’s definitely dangerous to blow toxic smoke into a pedestrian’s face, coal rolling is not going to turn Alaska into Death Valley any time soon. Because, despite the recent media frenzy, most diesel truck drivers don’t actually roll coal. In fact, a scan of diesel forums and websites this week suggests that many hardcore enthusiasts actually scorn the practice as an amateur gimmick that wastes fuel and gives diesel a bad reputation. “It’s the grilling equivalent of dumping so much starter fluid onto the coals that it ruins the taste of pretty much everything around you,” one blogger wrote on the diesel enthusiast site Gas2.The Facebook group Coal Rollers Across America is even considering changing its name.
“The diesel industry has spent the last decade investing billions of dollars in developing new technology to reduce emissions, so as you might expect, the practice is somewhat disturbing, and it's certainly not mainstream,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a nonprofit industry group. Rolling coal, he added, has been around for a long time among truck enthusiasts, mostly without incident.
"It's great that people love diesel," Schaeffer said, "but what we're seeing here is the practice of emitting smoke to offend people. That's not a representative sample. So now folks with pickup trucks are stepping up. People recognize the stupidity of the whole thing."
As for the politics of rolling coal, it’s not hard to find a pickup truck driver who doesn’t like Obama. And new EPA standards, which make coal rolling illegal by requiring trucks to be equipped with diesel particulate filters, have definitely rankled the community. But diesel drivers who roll coal do so primarily as a sport, limiting the practice to racetracks and truck shows, not as some kind of fuck-you to the nanny state.
“In the sport, it happens automatically—the more smoke that you see means the more fuel that they’re throwing at it, which probably means that that’s more horsepower they're going to get and the faster and further they’re going to go,” said Erik Lawson, the owner of Coal Roll’n Diesel, a North Carolina company that makes apparel and promotional materials for diesel truck rallies. “It's almost like horsepower that is going to be seen.
“When you sit there and you can hear and you can see the horsepower, it does something to people around here. It makes them giddy. It happens naturally, but there’s an awe effect.”
Lawson said that he understands why environmentalists are upset about videos of trucks rolling coal on Priuses and passersby (although he would prefer that they not call him an idiot and an inbred on his company’s Facebook page). He dismisses people who roll coal on the street as “bad apples” and “rebellious hellions.” But he added that even the kids posting YouTube videos of their coal-rolling road rage aren’t doing it because they hate Obama or the EPA, but because it’s sweet to make your car look like a cartoon.
“I know the people who do this are not doing this for some kind of political protest—they’re doing it because it’s something cool,” Lawson said. “A kid gets his new diesel and he thinks that it's the greatest thing in the world, the fact that he can roll coal. He's thinking, This is cool, a truck that actually does something instead of just going from point A to point B. I can make my own little show.
“I think this has all been blown out of proportion,” he added. “At the end of the day, this is America, and we have the free rights that everyone else does. Our planet, our country, has bigger issues to worry about than a couple of trucks blowing smoke."