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EARTHWATCH

Electrifying Action : Battery-powered auto racing is no pedal-to-the-metal test, but plenty of skill is required to take the checkered flag.

March 18, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OK, so maybe Mario Andretti wouldn't be interested.

But that still doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of Mark Murphy, whose Thousand Oaks organization, Electrathon America, coordinates and sets the rules for an unusual kind of automobile racing circuit making big tracks into popularity across the country: electric car racing.

Yes, folks, we're talking sleek, non-polluting, 21st-Century competition vehicles here. And this is not some nostalgic effort to bring back the spirit of Tom Swift, who drove an "Electric Runabout" in a famous turn-of-the century novel that bears his name.

I saw a modern version of such a car at the lively and informative Eco Expo, held last weekend at the L.A. Convention Center.

Murphy and colleague Gary Raymond, events coordinator for the new sports circuit, race as well as build electric cars from the ground up. The cars have names like Aerocoupe and look so futuristic they have been used recently as action props in a forthcoming TV miniseries set in 2017 A.D.

These little marvels began whizzing around racetracks across America in 1991, following their invention in England and popularization in Australia during the 1980s.

Well, perhaps whizzing isn't quite the right word.

For starters, these cars are silent. At a race in Phoenix last week, a gasoline-powered pace car came around the track first--vroom vrooming. Then came the Electrathon competitors, going round and round without a sound. It always surprises people, Raymond says.

But the cars also don't whiz as far as speed is concerned. Due to some interesting rules governing this class of car racing--as well as limitations in the cars themselves--top speeds seldom reach anything that would attract the attention of the California Highway Patrol.

Participants in the circuit have agreed to limit their cars to a battery weighing only 64 pounds. The body and motor are made of ultra-light materials (similar to ultra-light planes) in order to run as far as possible on a single battery charge.

There also is a weight limit on the driver.

"We have a lot of women racing," Raymond says. But heavier men aren't at a disadvantage. He says drivers are made equal "by requiring anyone under 180 pounds--man or woman--to carry a ballast to make up the difference."

This arcane practice gives a clue to the whole point of this kind of competition: It has more to do with the clock than the speedometer.

"You have to maximize everything you've got in terms of skill and methods to get the most out of that battery," says Murphy, adding that the cars can weigh as little as their drivers.

The race is exactly one hour long. If the track is rounded too fast and the battery drains, the car dies before the race is over. But if a driver goes too slowly in an attempt to conserve energy, at the end of the hour there's a lot of juice left over.

Which is why the drivers of these cars--which actually can go faster than 60 m.p.h. on their battery packs--usually don't squander their power with speed. Mae West would approve. She's the one who always advised, "Take it easy, you'll last longer."

Feminine instincts, by the way, may be an advantage in this class of car racing. The first time the Murphy-Raymond team raced the Aerocoupe they built, Raymond's wife, Cathy, was selected to drive. That day, Raymond, in his role as a sports promoter, drove an electric car for another team.

Cathy beat him.

The American record--this is how you measure who wins a race--went to Raymond later, when he racked up 32 miles on the odometer going round and round the course until the 60-minute flag was waved.

Currently, the 30 teams in the electric car circuit are racing in places such as Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Texas, Florida and all over California. Often they use velodromes. Even the Rose Bowl.

Raymond says he has received several hundred applications from prospective participants wanting to have their cars certified, which means they agree to abide by Electrathon America's rules. And to Paul Brasch, editor of Current EVents (the EV is intentional to denote electric vehicles), it is a sign his prediction will come true.

Brasch envisions a not-too-distant day when regular American stock and racing cars will convert to run on electricity and compete in their own class in events such as the Indianapolis 500.

Last week, one such vehicle reached 107 m.p.h. at a competition in its class in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, one of the teams aiming to enter the Electrathon League is setting up shop in Oxnard. Led by John Edwards, a teacher of machine tool technology, it consists of students in the Regional Occupational Program run by the Ventura County superintendent of schools.

Edwards says the students, who are building their racer frame at Hueneme High School, are "stunned" by the amount of physics and math they've had to master to get into the sport.

Already, Raymond reports that fashion manufacturers, such as B.U.M. Equipment, have asked to have their logo displayed on the gear used during the races. And fashion magazines are negotiating to use Electrathon cars as a background for photo sessions, he adds.

Maybe I was wrong to discount the enduring romantic appeal of Tom Swift. Maybe what we have here is "Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout--Part II."

If I know Hollywood, watch for it soon in a theater near you.

* FYI

For information on Electrathon America car racing or the purchase of motors and equipment, call Gary Raymond, events chairman, at (805) 492-5858.

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