By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In the parking lot of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on a bracing Saturday morning, a cluster of men stands around a standard-issue postal Jeep. Squat and boxy, the car seems an unlikely dragster — only its bright silver paint and decals make it look sporty at all.
“It’s not very aerodynamic,” I say to a young man hovering over the motor. He gives me a tolerant but nonetheless withering look.
“It doesn’t need to be aerodynamic,” he says. “It’s got a huge stack of batteries.”
“Gone Postal,” as the Jeep is known, has 40 batteries, each weighing 40 pounds, with a peak draw of 4,000 amps at 240 volts. It is the pride of the EV racing crowd, who consider its shape ideal. People who don’t like the look of it “don’t understand the concept of the sleeper,” says its creator, Roderick Wilde. “It’s the little-old-lady-from-Pasadena theory — you get something that doesn’t look like it goes very fast, and then it blows everyone away.”
Were it not for the presence of Gone Postal and about 10 other EV cars, this would be a regular race day. The lot outside the track rumbles with the revving engines of gasoline-powered rails and Dodge Vipers; there’s even a National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) funny car that goes 260 mph in a quarter mile with an engine that turns viscera to gelatin. By contrast, Dennis Berube’s 336-volt Current Eliminator, a drag rail that can finish a quarter mile in less than nine seconds, emits no more than a high-pitched whir, as loud as the hard drive that spins on your computer.
I’m here at the invitation of my good friends Reverend Gadget and his wife, Kimmie, new recruits to the National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA), a loose coalition of EV enthusiasts bent on speed. NEDRA boasts of street conversions that can reach 81 mph in 10 seconds and electric motorcycles that top 100; there’s even a scooter here that goes 46 mph. Speed is a sensitive topic: When I mention to the notoriously obstreperous Berube how people are shocked to learn EV drag races exist, he snickers and suggests that I be sent home in a diaper.
The notion of a speedy EV, however — particularly one that runs fast on the quarter mile — is relatively recent. And like every rise to power, it is not without complications. “We don’t know how to deal with power yet,” says Rich Rudman of Manzanita Micro, who serves on the Gone Postal team. “We’ve got to make the insides look like race-car transmissions and not something somebody put together in his back yard.”
Just before noon Gone Postal appears on the track to race against a souped-up old Chevy. Over the loudspeaker a man’s voice introduces it as “Gene Wilder’s Jeep — oh, wait, did I say Gene? — that’s Rod, folks, Roderick Wilde’s all-electric vehicle — running on just 40 percent of its charge!That’s kinda like running on half a carburetor!”
The idea, explains NEDRA official Jan Himber as we wait in the bleachers for Gone Postal’s launch, is to make sure everything holds before letting the car run at full speed. “It’s the first time out,” she says. “They don’t want to break anything.”
At 40 percent, Gone Postal finishes a quarter mile in 17.33 seconds with a top speed of 84.17 mph. “What’s it going to be like when it’s fully charged?” chirps the voice over the P.A. “Stay tuned!”
Gone Postal heads back out for a second run at 60 percent, and hits a top speed of 90.6 mph, but all did not go well. “It was not a clean launch,” Wilde admits. “I screwed up — put my foot down and lifted it off again.”
Wilde next tries to run the vehicle at full power. But full power, it turns out, is too much. Gone Postal takes off and almost immediately stalls on the track, slowing to a crawl well before the finish. The massive torque has sheared the rear axle drives.
Back in the pit, Wilde is down on his back under the car, his long, slate-colored ponytail dragging on the tarmac; another guy has a laptop hooked up to the car’s guts, and a white-haired character calmly solicits advice from several experts attracted to the scene.
Off on the sidelines, Elise Duran, a producer from the Discovery Channel, paces nervously around the hubbub. “We’ve watched this project from the ground up,” she says. “We’re shooting a pilot — it’s called Sucking Amps. And these guys have put their hearts into this.”
“We need a weld on this bolt!” shouts someone from under the truck.
“I won’t weld without a helmet,” says someone else.
“Give me four pairs of sunglasses,” says Reverend Gadget. “I’ll weld.”
Lacking faith, I leave the pit to watch Berube’s last run and stay long enough to see him disqualified, launching just a few hundredths of a second too early. When I return, I’m shocked to see Gadget’s suit splotched with road dirt and four pairs of sunglasses still on his head. “You missed my welding!” he scolds. It’s a quarter to 5 and Gone Postal is closed up and pulling out. Duran has convinced the race officials to keep the track open late, and we have to run in order to hit the bleachers in time for the launch. People are cheering; down on the track I see the Discovery Channel crew rushing to get into place.
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