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Drag races begin from a standing start, and finish anywhere from 4 to 17 seconds later. Powerful muscle cars can cover a 400 meter long track at speeds of up to 530 kilometers per hour. On some racetracks, those hot rods are electric and they are beating their gas-guzzling counterparts.
Take, for example, Mike Willmon's 1978 Ford Pinto. He did a bit of work on it. "I tore it all down, took the front end down, took the engine. The infamous exploding gas tank is gone. Now, the batteries take up the back trunk area where the gas tank used to be as well as the back seat area," Willmon said. Now, it can go from a standstill to 100 kph in about three and a half seconds. Wilmon compared the acceleration speed to a $1,000,000 Ferrari Enzo.
John Wayland, Willmon's friend, and fellow electric vehicle, or EV, aficionado, has his own homemade electric dragster. It's a 1972 Datsun that he's hoping can change the image of electric cars.
Changing the public perception of electric vehicles
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"I like to say that the electric car has been in the hands of the wrong people for too long; the environmentalists," Wayland said. He added, "I like trees, but I don't hug them. I love animals. I love clean air. But I like to have fun. And I realized, you have to make the electric car fun and exciting."
Wayland and Willmon are leaders in the National Electric Drag Racing Association. They share a love for beating the pants off of gas-powered hotrods. "It's fun," Willmon insisted. "You go out there, it blows people's minds, you know?"
At the Portland International Raceway, hot rods, souped-up cars and EVs, line up for regular Friday night drag races. Recently, a Tesla Roadster, owned by entrepreneur Paul Gulick won the night's first race.
Gulick, who bought the $100,000 sports car from the California-based Tesla electric car company, seemed as surprised as anyone. "I have just now done my very first drag race. And I beat the gas-powered guy that I was up against by a mile. And I got to run it up to over 100 miles an hour and did it in under 13 seconds from a dead stop. So that was fun," he said.
The gas-powered hot rod Gulick beat was a menacing turbo-charged Volkswagen Beetle. Its owner, Travis Matney, admitted that he had no idea he was up against an electric car. "I was impressed how well that car ran. It definitely put me in my place," he said with a rueful laugh.
EVs not a sure bet yet
Even so, it ended up a mixed night for electric dragsters. John Wayland and Mike Willmon stalled, sputtered and lost power altogether a few times. Wayland blamed it on the lead-acid batteries they use. "We're using the old-technology batteries. The guys with the new lithium batteries are going strong," said Wayland.
Tesla and the major car companies are all moving to more reliable and powerful lithium batteries for their new electric vehicles. But those batteries come with a much higher price tag that could put EVs at a disadvantage in the showroom, and keep them a rare sight on the racetrack.