Local | Economy

New Electric Dragsters Beat Gas Guzzlers

OPB | Aug. 5, 2009 1:46 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:10 a.m. | Portland, OR

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By Colin Fogarty

Drag races on hot summer nights at Northwest racetracks are loud, fast and competitive. But some of the fastest cars aren't loud at all.

They're electric and they're beating their gas-guzzling counterparts. Electric sports car maker — Tesla Motors — is hoping drag races can help sell its product.

The company opened a showroom in Seattle recently. Colin Fogarty took a ride in Portland with some electric drag racing pioneers.


The one million dollar Ferrari Enzo can do zero to 60 in about 3 and a half seconds. So can Mike Willmon's 1978 Ford Pinto.

 Dragsters
Electric dragster Mike Willmon with his electric 1978 Ford Pinto he calls “Crazy Horse.”

Mike Willmon: “I've 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 did all this for the love of using his electric vehicle or EV to compete in drag races.

Mike Willmon: "It's fun. You go out there, it blows people's minds, you know?"

Willmon takes me out for a spin on some Portland back roads.

Colin Fogarty: [laughing] "What was that?”

Mike Willmon: “That was the sound of smoke being made from the tires.”

Colin Fogarty: “My head went back.”

Mike Willmon: “You've got the EV grin.”

Colin Fogarty: “The EV grin?”

Mike Willmon: “The EV grin. The first time you drive in an EV and you feel the power these things have.”

Colin Fogarty: “I can smell burning rubber.”

Mike Willmon: That is the smell of burning rubber, yes. That's the only emissions this car makes".

Willmon trailored his Pinto to Portland from Alaska for a race organized by fellow electric car aficionado John Wayland. Willmon parks in Wayland's Portland driveway after our whiplash-inducing jaunt.

Wayland owns a homemade electric Datsun dragster. His shop also houses an electric lawn mower, electric garden tractor, electric forklift, electric scooters. Oh, and a Honda Insight hybrid too.

 Drags

John Wayland's "White Zombie" homemade electric Datsun dragster was featured on Oregon Field Guide.

You can watch the video here.

John Wayland: “You know what I call Hybrids? They're training wheels for Americans.”

Electric vehicles are the wave of the future, says Wayland. He's on a mission to change their image.

John Wayland: "I like to say that the electric car has been in the hands of the wrong people for too long…the environmentalists. Now, I am an environmentalist. I love trees, but I don't hug them. I love animals. I like clean air. But I like to have fun. And I realized you have to make the electric car fun and exciting."

Wayland and Willmon use old-style batteries. The major carmakers today are all moving to lithium batteries, akin to those used in laptop computers. Well-known battery engineer David Swan says the lithium batteries offer more power, longevity and range.

David Swan: "We always knew we could produce very powerful batteries. But even I am surprised how quickly that's happened, more than I would have expected."

The poster child for the progress of electric cars is a sports car developed by California-based Tesla Motors. Its first production model is called the Roadster. The company says its 100-thousand dollar showpiece can travel 244 miles on one charge. And at Portland International Raceway, the Tesla Roadsters were all the buzz.

Hot rods and souped up cars line up for the regular Friday night drag races. They're open to anyone. On this summer weekend, enough electric vehicle enthusiasts are competing for could be the largest electric drag racing event ever. The biggest crowd pleasers are the match ups of electric vehicles against their gas-guzzling counterparts.

The winner is Tesla Roadster owner Paul Gulick, who's the founder of the Oregon-based projector maker InFocus.

Paul Gulick: "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 a 100 miles an hour and did it in under 13 seconds from a dead stop. So that was fun."

The gas-powered hot rod Gulick beat was a menacing turbo-charged Volkswagen Beetle. It's owner Travis Matney of Longview says he had no idea he was up against an electric car.

Travis Matney: “I was impressed how well that car ran. It definitely put me in my place.”

Overall it was a mixed night for electric vehicles. They clocked impressive times. But several cars with old style batteries — including Mike Willmon's Ford Pinto — lost power altogether. In the big picture, major car companies such as GM and Nissan are polishing production electric vehicles. And Tesla Motors is using low-interest government loans to develop its second model. The family sedan is pegged to sell for about 50-thousand dollars. Come back in a few years, you might see those cars drawing grins at the Friday night drag races.


Online:

National Electric Drag Racing Association

Portland International Raceway

Tesla Motors

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