Rolling coal started when people with big diesel trucks held contests to see whose truck could pull the heaviest stuff for the longest distance, but, for the most part, this crowd kept to themselves and contained their hobby to organized events. The little kids watched the big kids, and then, at some point, the little kids realized that excessive clouds of spent fossil fuel tend to get liberals kind of annoyed. Now, coal rolling has gone from the county fair to public roads, all in the name of making people angry.
Coal rolling is done by forcing more diesel fuel into the engine than the engine can handle, coordinating its release to get as much attention as possible. The coal rollers target eco-friendly cars, the Prius in particular, assuming that the drivers of such cars are liberal-leaning and are therefore likely to be most offended. On public roads, this hobby is illegal, because a truck emitting that much smoke violates the Clean Air Act. There are a few different ways to modify a truck to get it ready for coal rolling, but anyone who does is almost surely flaunting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations by removing the diesel particulate filter that reduces contaminants in the exhaust. In addition to polluting the environment (which is practically the entire point) the EPA reiterates that the chemicals can cause severe asthma and can also make existing heart and respiratory conditions much worse, even to the point of death [source: Bigelow]. Black carbon emissions, the type spewed out from coal rolling, is one of the most toxic types of airborne contaminants and one of the most influential causes of climate change. The toxins spewed from diesel smoke lead to 21,000 premature deaths every year [source: Kulze]. Some states have hotlines specifically for reporting vehicles that emit "excessive" smoke; even Texas has a fine on the books, up to $350 [source: DeMorro].
So far, it seems there are few actual consequences to coal rolling. Enforcement of these rules is done at a higher level, in that it's illegal to make, sell, or install parts that allow a vehicle to override federally mandated emissions controls, or what the EPA calls "defeat devices." One example is a computer chip or software upgrade that changes ignition timing. The EPA, for its part, admits that the purpose of a defeat device isn't to override the emissions controls; it's just that overriding emissions controls is a necessary side effect of achieving the desired gains in engine performance. In other words, the EPA doesn't run around in squad cars chasing down offenders, but they will "prosecute cases where significant or imminent harm is occurring" [source: Ballaban]. Also, to be fair, people with gasoline cars install these kinds of upgrades all the time. It's just that the side effects, which might be measurable with emissions testing tools, aren't as conspicuously visible. And they aren't being used as a political statement.
The Origins of Coal Rolling
In motorsport form, the eye-catching diesel smoke is a byproduct of the truck's functionality. When it's just for fun, as we'll see later, the driver can make the smoke spurt on command. And the coal rollers who do it for sport now face the burden of trying to distance themselves from the ones who do it as a political statement.
Truck pulling is the motorsport of choice for many diesel pickup enthusiasts, and it's the source of the newfound interest in coal rolling. Truck pull participants modify their diesels for extra performance, using engine tuning strategies and methods that we'll describe later in detail. The drivers of these performance-oriented pickups gather at official events (or on someone's farm), line up, hook up some extra weight on a sled that's dragged behind the truck and then race for speed or distance. The plumes of black smoke are merely a side effect of all the modifications required to succeed in truck pulling -- but they're definitely dramatic.
For a motorsport that seems like it would be easily scorned, interest in truck pulling appears to be still strong. Most truck pulls are organized events, and clubs like the Outlaw Truck and Tractor Pulling Association boast hundreds of members, decades of experience, and a calendar of dozens of events from spring until fall. The Outlaw group, which is based in the Midwest, has been around since 1982, and its members compete in truck pulls across the country. The Outlaws' website says that for the past three years, group membership has increased by at least 10 new recruits per year. The group says that safety and good sportsmanship are its top priorities, and there are plenty of other truck pull clubs that appear to take themselves and their sport just as seriously. It's not hard to see why truck pull groups are trying to distance themselves from the negative public perception of the recent coal rolling trend. Truck pulls might not suit everyone's tastes, but there's a lot to be said for being responsible and respectful of the surroundings.
Blame the #Hashtag
To an extent, anyway. Rolling coal, as a non-motorsports hobby, is a deliberate attempt to pollute the environment and waste fuel. It's something that probably wouldn't be happening if not for the sheer glee of baiting people over the Internet, although some participants have told reporters they've been into it since their early teen years [source: Kulze]. It's impossible to say for sure, but Facebook pages, YouTube channels, and Tumblrs of smoky black pictures and videos help the coal rollers boast about their accomplishments, and evidence of their misdeeds helps stir the political pot.
Facebook and YouTube are two of the most popular gathering places for the coal rollers. Memes, jokes, and general scorn for opposing political parties are shared on Facebook, and some of the most popular groups dedicated to the cause have accumulated tens of thousands of followers. And plenty of coal rollers aren't satisfied with simply blowing smoke and driving away -- it's recorded and then uploaded to YouTube, so the feat can be congratulated again and again. Any opposition, of course, begins a whole new cycle of name-calling and slur-slinging. Other social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, are also commonly used for such purposes, adorned with hashtags such as "#brownin," "#farmboy," "#country," and vehicle-specific terms to identify the particular flavor of Detroit pride.
It's not the smartest thing to do, considering that, in a lot of these widely-circulated pictures, the coal rollers' license plates are clearly visible. We've already discussed the illegality of coal rolling due to its obvious environmental concerns, but there's more to it. Coal rolling is also dangerous because it requires driving aggressively and impairing other drivers' vision. Such aggressive and threatening driving might result in traffic tickets if witnessed by police. Granted, the EPA is pretty busy, and even "The Dukes of Hazzard" got away with plenty of their shenanigans in broad daylight; however, posting evidence of criminal activity on the Internet is rarely a good idea, but it seems to be half the point of rolling coal.
Factories, Trains, Ocean Liners and Pickup Trucks
While environmentalists want to get the best fuel efficiency possible, coal rollers spend time and money to get the worst.
The engine has to be a diesel. No matter how modified a gasoline engine is, it isn't going to work. The smoke is the result of unburned fuel particles, and only diesel will do. Gasoline isn't dark or thick or offensive enough. But not just any diesel truck can roll coal. As the truck pulling crowd knows, such an achievement requires some modifications. The goal is to get extra fuel into the engine, which will be immediately burned off and puffed out as smoke. Witnesses then interpret the smoke as proof that the truck is indeed quite powerful. Quality matters as much as quantity. The blacker the smoke, the more unburned fuel it contains, and therefore, the better it is. To achieve this feat, a coal roller has to buy extra stuff. An aspiring coal roller may be able to get away with using the truck's stock exhaust, but that doesn't make much of a statement. Chimney-pipe-style exhaust stacks installed in the truck bed seem to be the way to go.
It's possible to spend a lot of money modifying a diesel engine to roll coal, anywhere from about $500 to $5,000. There are a couple approaches. The first and most expensive is to take a lesson from the truck pullers, and modify the engine for performance gains, of which excessive black smoke is a normal byproduct. For prospective rollers willing to crack open the engine, installing bigger injectors is the most likely route to producing the biggest clouds. This step often requires a lot of custom tuning and complementary modifications, because it'll significantly affect the way the truck runs, and that means there should be a thought-out, cohesive plan in place, preferably with the help of experts. Otherwise, the truck will run horribly. Upgrading the engine is the best way, but that's probably best left to the motorsports crowd.
It's easier and cheaper to achieve a coal-rolling truck that's all bark and no bite. An engine tuner (aka programmer) is the simplest and least expensive way to actually feed the engine more fuel. This will basically flood the engine with excess fuel that the engine has no choice but to burn off, and it doesn't accomplish much else on its own. Another option, if you're coal rolling just for attention, is a smoke switch, which is probably the way to go. Like the other methods, a smoke switch will trick your engine into a state of fuel gluttony for gluttony's sake. It's very much a DIY project, and a cheap one, at that ... which saves money for all that extra fuel.
Author's Note: How Coal Rollers Work
I read a bunch of articles and blog posts about rolling coal, and I still didn't really believe it was a thing until I was asked to write this article. Politics aside, it's ridiculous. Prius-hating isn't new anymore. It's not funny or trendy, except, apparently, in places like South Carolina, where a source for Elizabeth Kulze's eye-opening Vocativ article said that down there, everyone assumes compact-car drivers are freedom-hatin' liberals. Around the rest of the country, though, plenty of Republicans and conservatives drive hybrids because, environmental motives aside, they're decent cars. Decent enough that American car companies eventually had to concede and start making hybrids, too. I hope this fad is short-lived, and not just because it's wasteful, but because we don't need any more reasons to be divisive. On the upside, the tired old GM vs. Ford argument is taking the backseat, for a bit.
- Ballaban, Michael. "The EPA Just Said That This Whole 'Rolling Coal' Thing is Illegal." Jalopnik. July 8, 2014. (July 14, 2014) http://truckyeah.jalopnik.com/the-epa-just-said-that-this-whole-rolling-coal-thing-is-1601808499
- Bigelow, Pete. "Rolling Coal: America's political divide reaches the roads." Autoblog. July 10, 2014. (July 14, 2014) http://www.autoblog.com/2014/07/10/rolling-coal-americas-political-divide-reaches-roads-video/
- Colton, Emma. "Smoke Responsibly And Roll Coal the Right Way With These Truck Modification Options." Daily Caller. July 10, 2014. (July 14, 2014) http://dailycaller.com/2014/07/10/smoke-responsibly-and-roll-coal-the-right-way-with-these-truck-modification-options/
- DeMorro, Christopher. "'Rollin' Coal' Isn't a New Thing or a Tea Party Thing." Gas2. June 28, 2014. (July 15, 2014) http://gas2.org/2014/06/28/rollin-coal-isnt-new-thing-tea-party-thing/
- Kulze, Elizabeth. "'Rollin' Coal' is Pollution Porn For Dudes With Pickup Trucks." Vocativ. June 16, 2014. (July 14, 2014) http://www.vocativ.com/culture/society/dicks-pick-trucks-meme-rollin-coal/
- Outlaw Truck & Tractor Pulling Association. (July 24, 2014) http://www.outlawpulling.com
- Walker, Hunter. "Conservatives Purposely Making Cars Spew Black Smoke." Business Insider. July 5, 2014. (July 23, 2014) http://www.businessinsider.com/conservatives-purposely-making-cars-spew-black-smoke-2014-7
- Weigel, David. "Rolling Coal: Conservatives who show their annoyance with liberals, Obama, and the EPA by blowing black smoke from their trucks." Slate. July 3, 2014. (July 14, 2014) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/07/rolling_coal_conservatives_who_show_their_annoyance_with_liberals_obama.html
- Wyler, Grace. "There's Nothing Wrong with Rolling Coal." VICE. July 11, 2014. (July 14, 2014) http://www.vice.com/read/nothing-wrong-with-rolling-coal-711