Posted with permission
BBC Top Gear September 1999 All rights reserved.

Terminal Speed...

Hot rodding without gas might sound like a drag, but when you’re an eco-friendly Denver techno-nerd, a few batteries make a for a whole lotta fun.

Story Richard Fleury
Photography Simon Clay

Dateline: Bandimere Speedway, Denver, Colorado where Dennis Berube’s £60.000 Current Eliminator III is set to break his drag racing world record.

The start line traffic lights hit green and the Eliminator’s huge rear tyres yelp in protest as he takes off.

But that’s the only noise the spectators can hear. The initial acceleration is unreal, cartoon like, as if the car is being catapulted forward on a giant, invisible bungee rope. Listen more carefully and there’s a muted whine rising in pitch down the track and the hissing of sticky rubber on tarmac.

Berube glides to the finish line, surfing down the strip on a vast surge of noiseless power. Eliminator is running like a dream today and he records a new quarter-mile time of 10.229 seconds, with a terminal speed of 122.61 mph. He’s done it – pushed the record still higher. For electric dragsters.

The hushed crowd, who’ve come here to see things roar, scream and spew fire aren’t sure what to make of it. They seem baffled and impressed in equal measure but decide to give the run a polite round of applause.

They don’t have any such problems, however, when John Wayland, committed environmentalist and fellow electric dragster, hits the strip.

Beaming like a loon, he’s unleashing clouds of choking white smoke into the thin Colorado air, pulling burn-outs in his huge battery-powered 1972 Datsun.

The crowd are loving very noxious, pollution pumping, ozone depleting second. They howl, holler and whoop with delight as Wayland’s white Datsun is engulfed in a billowing curtain of toxic fog. "Was that a good burn-out?" yells the exuberant track commentator, "Give him a hand! Good Job! Way to go, John!"

Wayland is president of the National Electric Drag Racing Association. As such, he believes electric vehicles: (a) are here to stay, and (b) will one day the world a cleaner, safer place. And to him, wheelspinning ‘White Zombie’ in front of all those hardcore drag racing fans is as good a way as any to show what a few thousands amps can do.

Since he helped found NEDRA in 1997, Wayland’s start-line showboating has become his trademark. While it’s not the most conventional display of concern for the environment, every time his acrid tyre smoke disperses on the breeze he hoes a few preconceptions about electric cars will float with it.

‘Amp Suckers’, as they’re known, are already accepted as a bona fide racing class by the American drag racing’s governmental body, the National Hot Rod Association. And at a handful of drag meets each year they share the bill with their less evolved, fire spitting cousins. To find out more about these overgrown Scalextric cars and the eco-aware speed fiends who race them, I had to see them in their natural habitat.

It didn’t take long to locate the electric enclave among the bellowing hot rods in the pit area. The techno-geeks stand out a mile. The atmosphere in the NEDRA camp hovers somewhere between an electricians’ conference and an open air Grateful Dead concert. Intense, goatee-bearded types in tie-dye T-shirts rush around, lending each other wire crimpers and talking about capacitors, kilowatts and brushless motors.

With a few big-budget exceptions, most electric racers are home-built, Heath-Robinson affairs. And some of their creators look pretty eccentric, too.

Like Don Crabtree, owner of motorcycle ‘Dragon Parade’. Don, or ‘Old Father Time’ as his fellow racers know him, is 62 but looks 602 thanks to his long, flowing beard and mane of grey white hair. Grandfather Don, who lives just outside Seattle, designs sewing machines for a living and used to race electric hydroplane boats (as you do). Before he started building the bike just over a year ago, he hadn’t swung a leg over a motorcycle for three decades.

"I had a Suzuki 30 years ago," he says, "I got my ankle caught between the gearbox and the front bumper of a car and spent five months in a cast. I got into it again once my kids had grown up."

Nowdays he’d be more likely to catch his beard in the spokes. But it doesn’t stop him getting a 16.1secs record-setting quarter-mile time in his voltage class.

Painted on his bike’s bodywork are the phrases ‘Unkle Betty’ (a Seattle rock band and one of his sponsors) and ‘improbability Drive’ (a Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference). "I’m a fan of Douglas Adams," explains Don, "That’s why my racing number is 42."

That’s the answer to the question: ‘What’s the meaning of life?’, isn’t it?

"I hope so," he replies, cryptically.

Most of NEDRA’s 60-odd members own electric cars or motorcycles and about half race them. Many earn a living building or supplying electric vehicles and parts. But they are all absolutely dedicated to challenging the widely-held notion that electric cars are just about as thrilling, dangerous and desirable as mung bean salad.

If, or more likely, when electric vehicles go mainstream, these sci-fi-readin’, soda drinkin’, rock band-listenin’, long haired electro-evangelists may well be remembered as pioneers, like the first street rodders after WWII.

"The whole club is close knit. We’re trying to help each other," explains 60-year-old Bruce Meland, who publishes an EV magazine, Electrifying Times, and is here to put his ‘Kawashocki’ motorbike (a converted 1985 Kawasaki 600 Ninja) through its paces.

"We are just trying to bring a taste of what EVs are capable of. And that’s why we are drag racing – in order to show they can be powerful."

You’d be hard pushed to find a more extreme clash of automotive cultures than the scene in the Bandimere pits. Drag racing technology has barely progressed since the 50’s. It’s not about state-of-the-art engineering; it’s about vast, crude V8 engines that belch lung-scorching fumes and burn fossil fuel like an oil rig disaster, while generating a hellish racket capable of dislodging internal organs, making the grounds shudder and shaking small animals out of trees. The most unrepentantly macho form of motor sport, drag racing is about putting on a show for people who enjoy making their eardrums bleed.

Electric drag racing is, on the other hand, an altogether more delicate business. "It’s like using a find line to catch a big fish," explains Bill Dube’ from Denver, who races a beautifully finished Killa-Cycle battery powered motorcycle and an electrified VW Golf cabrio. As recently as five years ago, the technology powering these vehicles simply hadn’t been invented. Nowadays ‘amp suckers’ are taking on the doorslammers at their own game. And sometimes winning. Because its electric motor develops full, cog-cracking torque at zero rpm, a sorted electric dragster will beat anything over the first 100ft. It’s only as they near the end of the strip that the old-fashionedgas-burners can hope to reel them in.

Few of these cars have a range of more than a few miles. But that’s not the point, says Dube’. By sacrificing range, electric racers can achieve incredible performance in short bursts. "Drag racing could almost have been invented for electric vehicles," he says.

Current Eliminator III’s Dennis Berube has been winning longer than most. Since he started in 1993, Berube, from Phoenix, Arizona has remained the man to beat. He regularly races, and humiliates, hardened gas-guzzlers.

Berube’s confidence is such that he recently offers a $1000 bounty to anyone who could beat him over the quarter-mile. Is he expecting to pay up today?

"No. The wager’s off now," he announces, "I gave it to the kids in Denver after the school shooting. I used it to set up a fund to get the children interested in racing. What happened here touched me and I felt like it was the right thing to do."

It’s also the timely thing to do. Over the last year some big money has been sunk into building cars to challenge Berube’s crown. One of these, ‘Bad Amplitude’, is making its track debut at Bandimere today. This monstrous creation boasts two motors compared with Berube’s one. It’s one and a half times the weight of Berube’s machine but develops twice the power and twice the torque. And also, unlike Current Eliminator III, it’s kitted out with the latest secret weapon in electric drag racing – a two speed transmission.

"We stand one of the better chances of beating Berube," opines Bad Amplitude’s creator, George Hamstra of Illinois-based NetGain Technology, "Dennis is a great guy. We all like him and respect him, but we all want to beat him to the finish line. The power output is equivalent to 900bhp and it has 2,000lb ft of torque – all the way down the track. When it’s healthy it’s going to run well. It should be good for nine-second quarter miles."

When it’s healthy? Is there a problem?

"One of the controllers exploded last night," confesses George, "we were up until 3.30am trying to get it ready. We’re under the gun right now."

Controller problems are a common bug in electric dragsters. A controller acts like the carburetor of a petrol engine. Only instead of metering petrol, it meters the flow of electrons to the electric motor. The more power you let through, the faster you go. But turn it up too high and it goes bang.

As an emergency measure, Bad Amplitude is wired to run on just one motor and one controller. But the rewire goes haywire and the second controller blows up 20ft into the first run. The car rolls to an ignominious standstill as wisps of smoke spiral their way up into the sky.

"He’s letting the smoke out of it!" shouts the commentator. A kind spectator gives a translation. "That’s electrical slang for something bad happening," he explains, "when it lets the smoke out, you know it ain’t gonna work anymore." While his rival is towed off the strip, I spot a grinning Berube running back to his car.

As he arrives back in the pits, I collar Bad Amplitude driver Tom Ellingham. As suspected, the car blew its remaining controller a split-second into the run. The extent of the problem didn’t make itself apparent to Tom until he felt his buttocks being gently griddled by the flames under his carbon fibre seat. It’s fair to say he was extremely grateful for his fire suit.

"I was trying to get out really quick," says Tom, "but then they told me I wasn’t on fire anymore so I stayed where I was," he continues, displaying an insouciance usually seen only in people who’ve had their entire central nervous system removed.

Tom’s been driving conventional gas dragsters for 20 years. How does the battery-powered version compare? "It feels like driving one of those tiny cars at Disneyland,: he replies, "I’m used to the kind that bust your ears."

The NetGain team aren’t the only competitors with controller problems. Roderick Wilde’s 140mph ‘Maniac Mazda’ RX-7 is also suffering. Wilde, from Jerome, Arizona, had hoped his new prototype lead-acid batteries might give him the edge over Berube. But his car’s controller had other ideas. The street-legal coupe – which once beat a Dodge Viper over the quarter mile – manages a sub-14-second run but fails to deliver its full potential.

"It’s embarrassing," says an exasperated Rod, "I know our vehicle is perfectly capable of much higher speeds once the controller problems are sorted out. I’m very disappointed."

His disappointment may be very short-lived. Wilde’s company, Wilde EVolutions Inc, is preparing to wheel out the first one-megawatt electric dragster – the equivalent of 1,000bhp – at NEDRA’s annual races which take place at Woodburn, Oregon, at the end of August.

Now that thing should really set the sparks flying…