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Electric dragsters spark track duels

Electric vehicles are making their presence felt at amateur drag races across the U.S., challenging gas-powered cars and motorcycles. The "amp heads," computer geeks and tree-hugging environmentalists driving the electron-powered vehicles are starting to kick some major rear end.

Published July 30, 2007
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<p> PORTLAND, Ore. — Straddling a 280-kilogram motorcycle, Scotty Pollacheck tucks in his knees and lowers his head as he waits for the green light. When he revs the engine, there's no roar. The bike moves so fast that within seconds all that's visible is a faint red taillight melting in the distance.</p><p> Pollacheck crosses the quarter-mile marker doing 156 m.p.h.(251 km/h); he's traveled 1,320 feet (402 m) in 8.22 seconds, faster than any of the gas-powered cars, trucks or motorcycles that have raced in the drag sprints on this weekend at Portland International Raceway.</p><p> It's particularly impressive given Pollacheck is riding a vehicle that uses no gasoline and is powered entirely by lithium-ion batteries.</p><p> Electric vehicles are making their presence felt at amateur drag races across the U.S., challenging gas-powered cars and motorcycles. The "amp heads," computer geeks and tree-hugging environmentalists driving the electron-powered vehicles are starting to kick some major rear end.</p><p> Pollacheck and his bike — dubbed the KillaCycle — are part of a growing movement that's exploiting breakthroughs in battery technology and could soon challenge the world's fastest-accelerating vehicles in the $1 billion drag-racing industry.</p><p> "In professional drag racing I expect to see the electrics eventually pass up the fuel dragsters," said Dick Brown, president of AeroBatteries, which sponsors White Zombie, the world's quickest-accelerating street-legal electric car — a 1972 white Datsun 1200.</p><p> "Electric gives you instant torque whereas gasoline you have to build up," Brown said. "As we learn to manage it, you're going to see some really amazing performances.''</p><p> Brown believes electric vehicles will challenge the top drag-racing records within five years.</p><p> The KillaCycle runs on 990 lithium-ion battery cells that feed two direct current motors, generating 350 horsepower. The bike accelerates from zero to 96 km/h in just under a second — faster than many professional gas-powered drag motorcycles and within striking distance of the quickest bikes that run on nitromethane. With that hyper-potent racing fuel, riders can get to 96 km/h in 0.7 seconds.</p><p> Bill Dube, KillaCycle's owner and designer, likens the sleek, hulking bike to an oversized household appliance.</p><p> "This is like a giant cordless drill with wheels," said Dube, who designs pollution measurement instruments for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.</p><p> Except for the batteries he receives from sponsor A123 Systems, Dube pays the costs of his racing team — about $13,000 a year — out of his own pocket.</p><p> "We have a chance of actually taking away some nitromethane records, perhaps the overall record," said Dube.</p><p> In drag racing, two vehicles accelerate from a standstill and race over a straight quarter-mile track. The National Hot Rod Association oversees the racing of amateur street-legal cars on hundreds of tracks around the country as well as the professional drag circuit.</p><p> In the most popular professional division, Top Fuel Racing, dragsters with large rear wheels and narrow bodies reach speeds exceeding 531 km/h in 4.6 seconds. Drivers are practically flattened against their seats during their short ride, meeting more g-forces than astronauts during a space shuttle launch.</p><p> The National Electric Drag Racing Association holds just four races a year. But electric drag racers are increasingly showing up at drag strips across the country to show what they can do.</p><p> Their vehicles are posting faster and faster times at amateur meets, but they still have a ways to go before matching professional world record times. The fastest quarter-mile time by an electric vehicle is the KillaCycle's 8.16 seconds — that's 2.36 seconds off the nitromethane world record for drag bikes set by Larry "Spiderman" McBride last year.</p><p> And larger electric vehicles have even more catching up to do. White Zombie's best time in a quarter-mile is 11.46 seconds — that's quicker than a 2007 505-horsepower Corvette ZO6, one of the fastest production vehicles available to the general public — but it's still 6.4 seconds away from the Top Fuel record.</p><p> Not everyone in the gas-powered crowd is convinced electric vehicles are the next big thing.</p><p> "I certainly don't see them challenging for professional records in the near future," said Graham Light, senior vice president of racing operations at the NHRA. "We don't have a blind eye to new technology, new innovations and new methods of doing things" but "at this point I don't see a strong movement toward electric cars.''</p><p> But electric vehicle racers say people like Light are out of the loop. They say rapid advances in battery technology will give EVs a shot at drag-racing records.</p><p> "This is a disruptive technology and there is a lot of room for improvement in this area," said Ric Fulop, founder and vice president of business development for A123, the maker of KillaCycle's batteries.</p><p> In December, the KillaCycle will receive a second-generation battery pack that will have twice as much juice as its current 374-volt system, giving it close to 1,000 horsepower. Fulop said he believes the KillaCycle can break the drag racing motorcycle record within the next year.</p><p> Electric drag racers are test-driving the technology that will eventually spill over into mass production cars, analysts say.</p><p> Today's hybrid cars, like Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius, use nickel metal hydride batteries, which cost less than lithium-ion batteries.</p><p> But the price of lithium-ion is expected to drop. In addition, the latest generation of batteries offers a higher rate of conductivity and takes less time to charge — the KillaCycle's battery pack can be juiced up in five minutes. New materials also mean the battery is less prone to overheating and explosions — a danger of earlier generations.</p><p> Experts say lithium-ion batteries that will power a car tens of thousands of miles over their lifetime and deliver more horsepower are on the horizon.</p><p> The rechargeable lithium-ion battery market, which today mainly powers consumer gadgets, is worth an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion. That's expected to mushroom to between $9 billion and $11 billion by 2011 as the technology becomes more widely used by the military, medical and automotive industries, according to analysts at Frost & Sullivan.</p><p> The Chevrolet Volt, which is expected to be released in 2010, is a consumer hybrid that uses gas to power a charger and can travel 1,030 km on a tank of gas and up to 64 km on one electric charge. The vehicle will run on a lithium-ion pack similar to the one used by the KillaCycle.</p><p> Dube and other EV racers say electric cars aren't just about 2-cent-a-mile transportation, lessening reliance on foreign oil or curbing global warming. They're also about performance.</p><p> "For electric cars to matter, people have to buy them," he said. "If you have a car that is faster than everyone else's, if it's electric so be it, but people will buy it.''</p>