4 min read

Do not ask for whom the coal rolls

Do not ask for whom the coal rolls

Includes modifications to truck exhausts, two appearances by a guy in a Tesla, and Bedtime for Bonzo

For the last 2 ½ years I have driven a Tesla, and last week, for the third time, I was coal-rolled. If you don’t frequent truck pulls or websites for truck aficionados, you are now puzzled. “Rolling coal” refers to modifying a diesel engine so that it doesn’t fully combust its fuel. Why would anyone do that? Most often it’s to permit the driver to spew clouds of noxious soot out of the truck’s exhaust. Converting a standard exhaust system to roll coal involves removing or circumventing the emissions controls and replacing exhaust stacks with larger components. These modifications are not cheap. I’ve seen estimates that range from $500 to $4,500. It’s bad for the truck, bad for the air, bad for other drivers, and in many states illegal. People do it anyway.

From what I can tell, the practice began at truck pulls. Contestants compete in an arena to see whose truck can pull the heaviest weight, and for some reason people pay to watch. Truck pullers mess with the emissions controls to boost the power of their rigs so they can pull more weight.

Sometimes rolling coal on public roads is just entertainment for the easily amused (see above). But more often it’s aggression toward drivers of hybrid or electric vehicles—for example, a Baltimore essayist behind the wheel of a white Tesla Model 3. Some coal-rollers refer to the smoke as “Prius repellant.” They share videos online of their coal-rolling exploits. Similar videos may be found on EV websites, posted by pissed off Tesla and Prius drivers. The prevailing assumption among the coal-roller crowd is that anyone driving an EV or hybrid car is an urban liberal Democrat environmentalist who voted for Biden—for example a Baltimore essayist behind the wheel of a white Tesla Model 3.

Journalists have been reporting incidents of coal rolling since at least 2013, when the Obama presidency ignited all sorts of right-wing lashback. The reasoning, if you can call it that, is that if Obama and Biden and the left-wing environmentalists all favor electric cars, then disaffected rural truck owners—that is, real Americans—will show them who’s boss by blowing diesel smoke in their faces. Slate reporter David Weigel spoke to a man who sold kits for modifying exhaust stacks. The vendor described what he heard from some of his customers: “To get a single stack on my truck—that’s my way of giving them the finger. You want clean air and a tiny carbon footprint? Well, screw you.” An Illinois state representative who proposed $5,000 fines for altering emissions equipment received this note from an irate real American: “Why don’t you go live in Sweden and get the heck out of our country. I will continue to roll coal anytime I feel like and fog your stupid eco-cars.”

There’s a Facebook page called “Prius Repellant.” It’s been inactive since 2022; its last post quotes noted environmental expert Ted Nugent on how green energy is a scam. Another post: “Imagine raising a kid for 17 years and it buys a Prius.” (Interesting choice of pronoun.) There are photos of trucks spewing smoke, some standard right-wing trolling about guns and patriotism, a lot of stuff that suggests someone’s been wrestling with male inadequacy issues, and a movie still from the 1951 film Bedtime for Bonzo of Ronald Reagan feeding a chimpanzee from a bottle, complete with the added caption, “Rare photo of Ronald Reagan babysitting Barack Obama in 1962.” You get the drift.

Elsewhere in the social mediaverse, on X the Rollin Coal Club has posted 27,000 items, including this from someone posting as Max: “Some kid wearing a traffic guard uniform just yelled at me to slow down and I rolled Coal in his face and I’m dying right now.” Well, you can see the humor, not to mention the social justice. And those 27,000 posts appearing on a platform now owned by the CEO of Tesla? Irony never sleeps.

(One of the “likes” on the page is for the Desert Reptile Center. You can’t make this stuff up.)

If you think all of this should be waved away as merely jerk-prank behavior, consider the Texas teenager who, in 2021, coal-rolled a group of cyclists before running down six of them. The riders were training for an Ironman triathlon. Four had to be hospitalized, two after emergency airlift from the collision site. A far-right online publication, The Washington Free Beacon, bankrolled by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer, subsequently named the driver one of its 2021 Men of the Year, claiming the kid had panicked after being menaced by the cyclists. He was driving a Ford F-250 Super Duty, a truck nearly 20 feet long and more than six feet high, but, as the Free Beacon tells it, six scrawny guys on bikes made him fear for his life. Quoth the Beac:

The [Houston] Chronicle described the ensuing wreckage as "mangled bicycles strewn about the grassy right of way adjacent to the road." A gratifying image, to be sure, but it's worth noting the collision also caused "heavy damage" to the front end of the teenager's pickup, which is regrettable.

And you thought you could no longer be surprised by stupidity and moral vacuity in The Land of the Free.

My personal encounters with coal rollers have been in rural West Virginia and Maine. I wasn’t alarmed, just irritated in the same way I’m irritated by a guy who lives near me, the one who flies a brace of Confederate flags in front of his house and for a time adorned his yard with a huge “Fuck Biden” sign. Eh, whatever.

But I do have to ask a question that disturbs me more: How disaffected, powerless, and scared do you have to be for it to seem like a good idea to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars to degrade the engine of an expensive truck, just so you can blow smoke at a harmless old goat like me while I’m on vacation?

Buckle up, America. It’s a weird dark country out there.

Feel free to forward this newsletter to anyone who might appreciate it. Around here we operate on the Grateful Dead marketing plan—let everyone trade tapes of our shows and sooner or later some of them will buy records and tickets. And as always, thank you for reading.