September 7, 2009

A Glimpse Of Drag Racing’s Green Future

Spectators at the Mason-Dixon Dragway got a rare glimpse of the future as they watched electric cars rev up and silently charge around the Maryland track at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour.

The cars, motorcycles and tricycles were an eye-opener for the baffled visitors, who were more accustomed to seeing the dust, dirt and smells of traditional gas-fueled dragsters.

"Seeing them run for the first time today definitely scared me because their times are kinda close to some of my times," drag racer Travis Beall told the AFP news agency.

"Every year they are getting faster and faster," he said.

Such demonstrations are helping electric cars move away from their conventional, stuffy image as the preferred vehicle for those who don't mind driving slow.

At one recent weekend meet, some 20 aficionados tried out their electric vehicles, racing them silently, but with gusto, around the asphalt track.  Meanwhile, over in a grassy field, technology enthusiasts and speed freaks alike checked out the electric vehicles, which included everything from sports cars to three-wheelers.

The National Electric Drag Racing Association sponsors events such as these throughout the U.S.

"People laugh at electric cars and say they are golf carts, but they're not," Jo Reyes, a former Ferrari mechanic who now builds electric vehicles, told the AFP.

"We've come a long way. Look at these Teslas here, they will spank Ferraris."

Plug-in-America, a non-profit organization that promotes electric cars, estimates there are approximately 5,350 highway-capable vehicles on the road.

Many hope these showcasing the latest electric drag racing models, such as the $109,000 Tesla Roadster, a sports car that can reach speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, will lure more fans.

A dark red Tesla Roadster won the all-electric competition at the Mason-Dixon Dragway, clocking it at 103.9 miles per hour.

Electric vehicles race under three categories: "production EVs" cars that were originally manufactured with electric power systems, "conversion EVs", which are internal combustion engine cars converted to electric, and electric motorcycles.

Jeff Disinger pushed his purple flame-painted electric motorcycle to 88.9 miles per hour, taking second place in the competition.

Dressed in a black helmet depicting dreadlocks made of electric cord, the 45-year-old New York-based tattoo artist used to drag race gasoline-powered motorcycles, but hopes his transition to electric will help distinguish him on the racing circuit and allow him to win sponsors.

"I've dragged raced a lot of normally aspirated engines and just thought this would be a different avenue. Nobody else had been doing it and I'm trying to be the first to make it look good," he told the AFP news agency.

Most owners of electric vehicles drive them for their low fuel costs. 

Joseph Lado, a 47-year-old program specialist at the National Science Foundation, converted his bright yellow 1985 Pontiac Fiero to an electric system 16 years ago.  The vehicle now costs just 12 dollars a month to charge.

But the real benefit is the quiet ride, Lado said.

"The car is completely silent. I could hear the wind blowing and the birds chirping in the trees," he told AFP.

"You know you're not using any energy at that point and you shouldn't be."

However, the new vehicles are now without their disadvantages.  For instance, electric car drivers can't simply pull into a gas station anytime for an electricity refill.  Driving distances are limited to just a few hundred miles, and racers at the Mason-Dixon Dragway competition had to use a diesel generator to charge their cars for the quarter-mile track.

Furthermore, specialized lithium ion batteries to power a car engine can cost up to 30,000 dollars.

"The battery technology is a challenge right now," Chip Gribben, president of the national association, told AFP.

"As soon as we can get more production of batteries the price will go lower and then more people will be able to afford them."


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