Time was when drag racers were drag racers, and environmentalists were, well…not drag racers.
Now, though, that’s changing. A few drivers of eco-friendly, zero-emission electric cars are showing up at drag strips and beating gasoline-powered Chevy Corvettes and Dodge Vipers. Mike Willmon, pictured on Design News’ cover this month, has done a 12.4-second quarter-mile in – incredibly – an electric 1978 Ford Pinto. Another top electric drag racer, John “PlasmaBoy” Wayland, has pushed his street-legal electric Datsun to a time of 11.4 seconds in the quarter-mile. And Bill Dubé, founder of the so-called KillaCycle team, has reached speeds of 168 mph on his electric motorcycle while doing a quarter-mile in 7.82 seconds.
If all that sounds unbelievable, then we encourage you to see for yourself:
–Watch Wayland’s Datsun beat a Corvette.
–See Dubé’s KillaCycle.
–Electric Pinto on the dynamometer:
To be sure, Willmon, Wayland and Dubé don’t describe themselves as environmentalists. They are, first and foremost, drag racers. Willmon, an engineer, squeezes every ounce of performance out of his ’78 Pinto by employing 848 pounds of batteries. His battery pack creates 360 V and 1,600 A of current, theoretically generating more than half a megawatt of power.
The trick for this new breed of drag racers seems to be “slamming” huge amounts of electrical current into their DC motors. At times, they reach current levels of 2,000 A. “The more amps you can pack into these motors before they melt, the more awesome torque you have for launching your car,” Wayland said.
That technique, of course, isn’t likely to be adopted by manufacturers of electric vehicles. But these drag racers are proving a point about electric cars: It still comes down to the battery.
While researching the cover story for our June issue, we talked to numerous electric drag racers. All had two things in common: They love racing; and they’re all desperate for better batteries. “It’s all about the battery,” Dubé told us. “The technology in the rest of the machine is interesting, but the battery is the key.”
Battery experts that we contacted during our research said that the drag racers’ high battery power doesn’t immediately translate to 400-mile ranges in electric vehicles. David Swan of DHS Engineering, a battery consultant for the 245-mph White Lightning Racer that held the EV land speed record a decade ago, said that a good battery can produce high power or high energy, but not both simultaneously. EV engineers, he said, will have to aim for one or the other, or some mix of the two.
Still, Swan indicated that the tremendous power demonstrated by the drag racers provides a ray of hope for future EVs. “The fact that we are seeing batteries with this kind of power bodes well for energy density,” he said.