When you think about the origins of the fuels that power our vehicles, your mind probably snaps to images of bureaucratic oil execs sitting around conference tables scheming. Seldom told are the stories of passionate racing enthusiasts, their families and dreams as the driving force for racing fuels.
Good ole’ sweet smelling race gas, you know the aroma. They say the olfactory sense leaves the most lasting impression on the human condition, and whether that smell transports you to a pleasant memory at the track in the past or just reminds you of your favorite hobby it’s imprinted on automotive enthusiast culture.
VP Racing Fuels is arguably the most recognizable brand of race gas, additives and other custom concoctions to keep our high-strung race engines running instruments in the green. VP Racing founder Steve Burns sat down to tell his story, it’s not one of oil cartels and business tunnel vision, but one of genuine dedication to a calling.
“It really started out with a love of racing, it’s really that simple. I didn’t truly have the money when I was young to go racing myself,” Burns starts.
“My dad was a World War Two Veteran, he was in the Army all of his life, and towards the end of his career he had 4-6 weeks of summer vacation each year. We would take trips, he took me to Washington D.C. wanting to give me a love of country and history of the country. We passed the Library of Congress and what impressed me was my dad said; ‘everything Man knows is in that building.’ That always impressed me and stuck with me.”
Like so many up-and-coming racers, drive and passion almost always outpace funds. Any determined racer will tell you they find a way to support their habit, often parleying the skills they cultivated wrenching and tinkering into a career. Burns was no different, his calling just came from a different angle than most home-brewers; fuel.
“I was interested in fuels, I had a 6-cylinder car that when modified with a lot of compression got real sensitive to fuels. I started playing with avgas, regular gas, and other types of gasolines I saw there was a difference and was pretty fascinated,” Burns reminisced. With a zeal for knowledge and a library card, Burns took to a dedicated regimen of self-guided study.
“20 years later, the military went off gasoline … so everything they did in the war had become declassified. There was no internet, this was in the early ’70s, there were libraries,” he discovered.
“I got my dad’s pickup, tents and camping gear and I went into Virginia across the river everyday into Washington D.C. A young librarian gave me piles of de-classified information. I was privileged to have this information when very few, if anybody else, had it. The information was good, valid, very scientific and cutting edge.”
Everybody knows a load of “book ‘learnin” is only about as useful as the paper it’s printed on until experience, opportunity and ingenuity enter the picture. Burns did just that, calling on his contacts both in laboratories and racetracks.
“I brought all this knowledge back to Texas with me, I had some friends that were in the refining business (sons of the men in the refining business) and I asked for help. I didn’t have any financial help, but what I had was way past financial help; the ability to be in their labs and talk to their technicians,” he explained gratefully.
“I had another fortunate opportunity: David Reher and Buddy Morrison. They came along and became NHRA Pro Stock champions. I quickly met Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson. So I had the background knowledge of research done during the war, current knowledge of the guys working in the refineries, and young racers in the sport of drag racing. We had the place to develop fuels and the guys to test them.”
With the world of motorsports booming and expanding throughout the 20th century, Burns wasn’t about to pigeonhole himself and his knowledge to drag racing. With initial proof of concept and great success following countless 1/4-mile tests, Burns broke into the massive spectator arena of motorcross.
“A national champion in motorcross, Kent Howerton, lived down the street from me and we became friends. Through my connection with Kent I got straight into factory Suzuki. Our fuels worked excellent, C12 which was our leading drag race fuel at the time, was really good and it took quite a few years to come up with something substantially better,” Burns recalled.
“That relationship with factory Suzuki quickly changed to Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and a number of years later KTM. The technology in motorcross engines (2-strokes at the time, and evolving into 4-stroke) was rapidly changing and that was really good for VP because it gave us an education on fuels and engines as they developed along side.”
The snowball kept rolling, road racing and oval-tracks were the next testbeds for VP exotic one-off fuels and staples (like C12, C16 and the like). Since those days, we find VP products in every corner of motorsports and around the globe from Baja to China and all in between. Where does the drive to keep going come from? Burns explains;
“We care, it’s the passion that I hope shows through the entire business. When we go racing, we go racing with you. When we’re working; putting fuels together, drumming the fuels, or testing we live this stuff. Racing is a passion sport, I guess a lot of sports are passion sports, but this one is really a passion sport.”