The Electric Battery Acid Test

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.

A mere beat after the green light flashes, a belt on Gone Postal’s right side flops frayed and useless on the ground as the life drains from the Jeep’s wheels. I think to myself that this kind of ending — a big wind-up and a bitter disappointment — has its own merit. It’s not Seabiscuit; it’s Mighty Casey. A win is anticlimatic. This is poetry.

The Discovery Channel’s Duran seems to agree. “This is great!” she says as the Jeep coasts back to the pit and she chases Wilde down for a shot of Gone Postal in the blazing Vegas sunset. “Can’t you just see it! He’ll be back. It sets up the next episode perfectly.”

—Judith Lewis

Hold Your Demons

Satan is alive and well in the Pasadena Sheraton’s Magnolia Room.

“We got some seats right up front where the good stuff is,” offers Bob Larson, who is about to demonstrate a live exorcism before 150 people. “You can see the whites of the demons’ eyeballs up here.”

Once the king of the Christian airwaves with his nationally syndicated radio show Talk Back With Bob Larson and his TV program In the Name of Satan, the holy warrior currently focuses his energies on casting out demons and raising DWJD (“Do What Jesus Did”) spiritual freedom teams. (“Not ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ but do what he did,” says Larson, on the difference between his DWJD and the more famous WWJD.)

Larson is thin and energetic; his strawberry-blond hair is slicked back, its color perfectly matched to his well-groomed beard and mustache. “Michael Jackson needs an exorcism, not the Nation of Islam,” begins Larson, in the sonorous tones of a veteran DJ. “Kobe Bryant’s got demons! The guy’s making 40 million bucks a year. Would you risk it all for five minutes of quickie sex in a hotel room?”

Suddenly, a woman violently shakes her head, mutters and storms out. Is she possessed? Is she a plant? I follow her to find out. “This is nutso,” she explains. “He’s not from the Lord. He needs a gossip column.”

Larson continues to work the crowd. He describes the fury of past exorcisms; once, in South Africa, a Ouija-board-toting kid threw Larson against a stage and broke his ribs.

Soon it will be exorcise time, but first Larson implores the audience to buy his audiocassettes, videos, pamphlets and books, items that expose the evils of vampire cults, yoga, marijuana, Mormonism and, of course, “The Truth About Harry Potter.” Tonight’s demonstration is free, but Larson hopes — even prays — to snare some paying converts for the next day’s 10 a.m. seminar.

Finally, Larson removes his blazer, showing that he’s ready to deliver some mortals from demonic bondage.

“Think about the earliest, deepest, most traumatic experience of your life,” instructs Larson. He offers to help anyone who’s been “molested, incested, raped, beaten, abused, unwanted and unloved.”

Just then, an elderly woman seated directly behind me screams, “I hate you, Bob! You’re a liar!” Her name is Faith. I know because she introduced herself to me earlier in the evening; she seemed so nice and non-demonic then. Now she looks like an aging, inbred crack whore with a gray mullet.

“Keep your eyes on me,” instructs Larson when people in the audience turn to look at Faith. “Don’t get distracted.”

“I’m gonna kill her, Bob,” Faith yells, presumably threatening to murder herself.

Though the old woman seems to be the most-likely-to-be-possessed attendee, Larson ignores her. After a few more outbursts, Bob walks up to Faith and seethes, “I’ll talk to you when I want to. You be quiet, or I’ll have you removed.”

It’s unclear whether Larson is speaking to Faith or her demon — either way, she/it shuts up.

Larson picks out a young lady named Patty from the audience and anoints her forehead with some kind of holy oil. He asks her to recall her most horrific memories. Patty says she was raped and her parents used to beat her with a baseball bat.

 

Larson shoves his face directly in front of hers and says, “I want you to look at me as if I was one of the men who raped you. What would you say?”

Unlike Linda Blair’s, Patty’s head doesn’t do a 360; she doesn’t vomit, nor does she ram a crucifix into her crotch. Instead, she begins to cry.

Larson backpedals and explains why a demon has yet to manifest itself. “The dominant emotion at times like this is just this shameful emotion of pain,” he says softly. “Tell you what: I’ll work with you more tomorrow. I’m so proud of this young lady for having the courage to be up here like this.” The audience applauds. The moment seems more Maury Povich than Mark of the Devil.

“Those of you who felt some stirring down inside you, maybe even resentment toward me, I want you to stand up,” commands Larson.

Heidi, a young, heavyset woman, with brown curly hair, rises.

Larson shoves his Bible into the small of Heidi’s back, causing her to produce hideous moans. Two DWJD team members rush to protect him.

Larson asks Heidi’s demon how long he has possessed her. “Since she was 5,” she howls, not unlike a dying dog. “A man did it to her.”

“What did he do to her?” Larson demands.

“You know what he did to her,” she replies, now sounding a bit like Freddy Krueger. “Don’t play games with me.”

“You don’t play games with me!” Bob retorts. “Do you want that sword in your back again? Tell me what he did to her.”

“He touched her,” Heidi replies nonchalantly.

The confrontation escalates. “Satan, do you have a right to be there? Answer the question! Yes or no?”

“Is she gonna let go of me?” she cackles, now resembling the Wicked Witch of the West.

Larson’s team members hold her arms, as Heidi’s body twists and contorts. Larson jabs his Bible-sword at Heidi’s chest and says, “I divide Heidi from you, Satan. Do you have a right to be there? Yes or no?” Heidi laughs satanically. Larson asks again: “YES OR NO?!”

“Okay, no,” Heidi says, intoning a bratty, Valley Girl.

“Who are you?” Bob demands.

“Distortion.”

Larson’s beady eyes light up. His demons rarely have ancient names like Belial and Beelzebub; they are more likely to have mundane monikers such as Murder, Hate, maybe even Parking Tickets.

“Distortion?” he asks. “What do you distort?”

“The mind.”

“So you sexually abuse a little child, and it throws everything into distortion, doesn’t it? Who she is . . . what love is . . . what sex is.”

“Yes,” she whispers. “It’s all devised.”

“I bet you wish you hadn’t come here tonight.”

“She’s been praying for it all week,” answers Distortion. “She’s fasted two meals today. She never fasts.”

Even Larson finds the “self”-effacing entity a little goofy. “This demon ought to be on the Comedy Channel. This demon’s got personality, but it’s also arrogant and cocky.”

Larson orders Distortion to “go to the pit,” and Distortion quickly agrees.

“You’re lying,” says Larson. “Demons don’t agree that easily to go to the pit. Heidi, I wanna see you at 10 o’clock tomorrow.” The gauntlet has been thrown down, but the battle for Heidi’s soul will have to wait until Saturday’s seminar. What won’t wait is the pitch: “I’m going to pray that right here tonight someone will write a check for $7,000,” he tells the now freaked-out audience. (Hey, it doesn’t hurt to ask.) He’ll also accept $70, $140, $210 or $700.” Credit cards accepted.

—Dan Kapelovitz

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