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My Diesel History - Jason Sands

A Compression-Ignition Biography

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I was born in San Diego, California, but our family only stayed there for a year. My parents, Bill and Cathy, soon moved us up to Oroville, California, to a happy home up in the hills, where I was oblivious to the city’s unemployment and drug problems. I was a little kid (about five or six) when I first got into diesels—specifically in the form of tractor pulling. I was fascinated by the fact that these smoke-belching monsters with low factory horsepower ratings could keep up with blown gas engines and was determined to see what made them tick. Around the age of 12, I got the book Turbochargers by Hugh MacInnes and read it about a billion times, cover to cover. I soon started to get into drag racing, however, and the diesel bug went into hibernation for more than a decade.

After an early childhood in Oroville, our family moved again, this time to the neighboring college town of Chico, California. Since it was known for its parks, art, and culture, I couldn’t have imagined a better place to grow up. I studied math and physics in high school and soon went to college at Chico State as a mechanical engineering major. After two years, I changed direction, citing the low local pay of engineers combined with the high stress of the job. I decided to become a teacher and switched to English with an emphasis in literary criticism and finished off my degree in another two years.

Unfortunately, our education system demanded another two years of prep after my degree, which I thought excessive, so I traveled to Taiwan and taught English at a private school. It was at this time that compression-ignition came back into the picture. Taiwan had all sorts of wacky diesels, including black, smoking, turbocharged smart cars that could spin their tires and get 80 mpg. However, friends, family, and the draw of the culture I grew up in was too strong, and I headed back to the States. It was here that the diesel flame stayed ignited, as my buddies’ juiced-up Duramax diesels were as fast as the stock 5.0L Mustang I owned. For someone who was used to raising compression and adding a high-performance camshaft and a set of cylinder heads to make 150 hp, it didn’t make sense that diesels could accomplish the same thing with a little computer box. But there it was—those things were fast!

For me, as well as countless others, it was a single truck in 2003 that really woke me up to what diesels were capable of. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Richard Madsen ran an astounding 11.42-second pass at 118 mph in his four-door Cummins-powered Ford F-350, and a video of him blowing away an RX-7 by 20 truck lengths circled the Internet. Later, when I learned the truck had run that time at a race weight of 7,100 pounds, it made even less sense. Back then, I owned a 3,000-pound Chevy Vega with a small-block 350 and nitrous, and it was slower than this mile-long, 3½-ton behemoth!

During the next couple of years, I bounced around through various jobs, including call centers and food delivery, while I tried to choose a new path in life. At our local bookstore, I picked up a copy of the July ’06 issue of Diesel Power and noticed it was looking for writers. Despite having no experience, I shipped off a resume and some photos, assuring myself I would never hear back from the magazine. After all, there are only a handful of automotive journalists in the world compared to other professions, and for me, the dream of working for a magazine was just too big to comprehend.

In late 2006, tired of working dead-end jobs, I decided to start my own auto transport business. I bought a ’97 Dodge dualie and three-car trailer, and my dreams of grandeur included jetting around the state with an 11-second car hauler. I was in the process of getting insurance and licensing when I got the call from the magazine. It turns out my combination of mechanical and linguistic talents were extremely rare. I had unknowingly been grooming myself for this profession ever since my obsession with tractor pulling as a child. On December 18, 2006, my life changed forever—as I became Diesel Power’s newest staff writer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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