Amped-up motorcycles and cars have credibility on the drag strip

Chip Gribben started off as a normal electric-car geek. It was 20 years ago, after seeing the Electric Vehicle Association of Washington, D.C.'s display at the D.C. auto show.

"We went to a meeting and drove the club's car," Gribben says. "It was a [Dodge Omni] TC3 electric conversion, and that's how we got into electric vehicles. We converted a Ford Escort."

Gribben didn't get into drag racing until later.

Electric vehicles are coming into their own, with offerings from Nissan (the all-electric Leaf), GM (the Volt, with a backup gas generator on board) and the Tesla, whose all-electric, four-door Model S just took a drubbing in The New York Times after it failed to meet a reporter's (and the manufacturer's) range expectation.

But as big manufacturers continue to increase useable range and amenities, EV tinkerers-the font of EV enthusiasm since the early '70s-have taken the cars to the other extreme. For more than a decade, a handful of hot rodders have built their electric vehicles for America's true proving ground: the quarter-mile drag strip. Last May, for the first time ever, Larry "Spiderman" McBride went zero to 200 mph on an electric motorcycle at a track in Virginia.

The trip took 6.9 seconds.

The bike-designed and built by Shawn Lawless in collaboration with Orange County Choppers (yeah, those guys)-was featured in a 2010 episode of the show after it broke the electric-motorcycle record the first time. (It ran about 7.5 seconds to 177 mph.) Called "Rocket," the bike is packed with 363 volts and 4,000 amps driving a 13-inch diameter motor.

Lawless, whose Ohio-based company designs and builds parade-float chassis, is now building a drag car for the legendary racer Don Garlits, accoring to Gribben. "He wants to be the first to break 200 mph with an electric car," he says. (Actually, that car is done and running-all 2,011 horsepower's worth.)

Gribben's old Escort-a 1986 model-has a 9-inch motor and 18 golf-cart batteries delivering 144 volts. He says it would do the quarter-mile in about 18 seconds at 70 mph. "Not bad but nothing to brag about," he says. Gribben commuted a few miles to work (at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center) and back with it for many years; it is currently hibernating while he decides whether to refuel it with good old lead acid batteries for $2,600 or upgrade to the new lithium iron phosphate (LiFPo) batteries, which might double the car's 50-mile range.

"The lithiums are the thing-if you have the money," he says. "They require special balancing of the cells." Gribben would have to buy a new battery manager and charger; he figures the cost would total about $8,000. It's a lot to invest.

"The car's really old," he says. "Parts are breaking off. It's starting to rust."

A friend of Gribben's let him test drive a new Tesla last week, he says: "It's gorgeous. Very easy to drive." Gribben says he had no trouble with its range or useability. It makes going back to the Escort all the harder.

On the track, Gribben expects the junior drag car he built for his 14-year-old son will do better than the Escort. "We just took it out last year for a shakeout run," he says. The car was doing 55 mph at the eighth-mile trap, Gribben reports-but he wasn't trying. "You do a couple of slow runs after you put something like this together," he says, "just to make sure it will go."

The drag car has a smaller motor than the Escort-7.2 inches; made for an industrial pump-and fewer volts: just 72 from six 12-volt batteries. But the Escort weighs about 3,200 pounds; the drag car-15 feet long, with a roll cage and slicks-weighs about 400 pounds, Gribben says.

"I'm like the only one in D.C. that has a dragster," Gribben says. "Most of the guys in our club, they don't really drag race. They don't really build cars."

A graphic and web design professional who used to work for NASA, Gribben is also the PR director and webmaster for the National Electric Drag Racing Association, a 16-year-old organization that was formed after drag-strip officials around the country-worried that high-powered EVs that had started winning races could pose a safety hazard-started banishing electric cars from their tracks.

John Wayland, whose converted 1972 Datsun 1200 coupe was, by the mid-1990s, routinely besting V8-powered cars at the Portland International Raceway, met with several other electric enthusiasts to plan a new organization. He became its first president in 1997.

The dangers of high-amp direct current race cars are not inconsiderable. Although there is no gasoline to catch fire, if the batteries arc, they can create a runaway reaction and a hot plasma cloud that can melt steel.

It happened to Wayland in 1998, burning the Zombie to a crisp. Fire extinguishers did nothing; only hazmat-suited firefighters were able to stop the reaction by disconnecting the shorted, melted batteries.

The mishap gave Wayland his nickname-"Plasmaboy." He still campaigns the Zombie regularly at tracks around the West Coast.

Gribben has helped organize several drag meets at Hagerstown's Mason-Dixon Dragway. The 2012 meet was canceled due to the track being refurbished, he says. It's hard to get the sport's heavyweights to travel across the country all the time to race, but a local person could build a street-strip car pretty easily. As with the gas-powered variety, all it takes is money.

"The White Zombie, he's up to 10 seconds now in the quarter-mile. That's with a street car," Gribben says. "Usually at that speed, you're into an exotic. Or with a Camaro or something usually it's-you're tubbing it out [i.e. cutting the trunk out to make room for steamroller-sized slicks]. It's not streetable."

But Lawless, the Ohio parade-float guy, has a pickup truck that's running high nines in the quarter-mile, Gribben says. "He can actually drive that on the street."

And Wayland's White Zombie has a 100-mile range, thanks to a special Dow Kokam battery pack, says Gribben. "He can drive the car to the drag strip-no trailer-he'll drive it there, race a couple Corvettes and beat them, and then drive it home."

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