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John Yasenka holds a jug filled with used vegetable oil on top of his 1985 Mercedes 300D Turbo. The car has been retrofitted to run on used cooking oil.

Believe it or not, the fact that John Yasenka traveled from Clearwater, Fla., to Ashland for the grand opening of a fast-food restaurant isn’t nearly as unusual as the fuel he uses to power the car that he drove here.

The 45-year-old retired truck driver made the journey in a vehicle that has been retrofitted to run on used cooking oil.

Yasenka’s 1987 Mercedes-Benz, which has a diesel engine, is the second vegetable oil-powered car he has owned. He said he became interested in the concept after reading about it on a Web site, VeggieVan.org.

Yasenka, who says he has traveled more than 20,000 miles on veggie power, said he decided to start fueling his vehicle with cooking oil primarily for environmental reasons. His car, he said produces zero greenhouse gases, which many scientists cite as the primary cause of global warming.

“I’m helping to save the world, one tankful at a time,” he said.

Still, Yasenka conceded that it’s nice to be able to thumb his nose at the big oil companies, particularly at a time when it costs most motorists more than $30 to fill their gas tanks.

“I used to drive around the pumps honking my horn,” he said. “But, people got really mad, so I quit.”

Yasenka modified the car by fitting it with a heat exchanger, which heats the vegetable oil so it can be used as motor fuel.

Yasenka said his car’s performance has in no way suffered as a result of being veggie-powered. About the only drawback, he said, is that the fuel filter clogs up more often than it would on conventional fuel.

Well, there’s also the fact that dogs tend to follow his car more than they do ordinary vehicles. That’s because its exhaust fumes tend to take on the aroma of whatever food was cooked in the oil it’s burning, he said.

If he runs out of fuel in a place where cooking oil isn’t readily available, Yasenka said he can always put diesel fuel in his tank because the car will still run on it.

He said he strains the cooking oil by pouring through a polyester filter before putting it in his tank.

On his most recent journey, Yasenka said he topped off his tank in Daytona Beach and drove all the way to Charlotte, N.C. — a distance of 480 miles — before he had to fill up again. That averages out to about 34 miles per gallon, he said.

Before arriving in Ashland, he said his most recent fuel stop was in Oak Hill, W.Va., where he was able to obtain cooking oil from the food vendors at a festival in the town.

“Most people are happy to get rid of it, and that it’s being recycled,” he said.

Unusual as it may be, the concept of an engine that runs on vegetable oil is by no means unheard of. In fact, Rudolf Diesel, the German inventor who developed the engine that bears his name, was interested in using either coal dust or vegetable oil as a fuel source for his invention.

Also, the recent run-up in fuel prices, coupled with concerns about fuel reserves, has led to expanded use of biodiesel, processed fuel derived from biological sources. Biodiesel can be made from any type of vegetable oil, including soy, sunflower, coconut, hemp and canola.

With the money he’s saved utilizing veggie power, Yasenka said he has been able to purchase two Harley-Davidson motorcycles — neither of which run on vegetable oil — a fire truck and a diesel-powered school bus, which he said he plans to convert into a camper.

Yasenka was in Ashland for Thursday’s grand opening of the new Chick-Fil-A restaurant on River Hill Drive. He said he planned to camp out in the eatery’s parking lot in the hope of being one of the first 100 customers through the door and winning free Chick-Fil-A products for a year.

He said he attended other Chick-Fil-A grand openings in Naples, Fla., and in Charlotte.

After leaving Ashland, Yasenka said he planned to head to Rogers, Ohio, where a massive flea market is scheduled to take place this weekend, and then to Franklin, Pa., to visit his mother.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.

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