Mike Willmon stands next to "Crazy Horse" — his electric-powered 1978 Ford Pinto — at the racetrack.
Mike Willmon stands next to "Crazy Horse" — his electric-powered 1978 Ford Pinto — at the racetrack. Colin Fogarty
When we of think of an electric car, many of us think of hybrids like the Prius. We certainly don't think of a souped-up muscle car. But on racetracks in Portland, Ore., and elsewhere, electric drag-racing pioneers are beating their gas-guzzling counterparts.
Mike Willmon's 1978 Ford Pinto can go from zero to 60 in about 3.5 seconds — just like the $1 million Ferrari Enzo. The Pinto has also run a quarter-mile — the dragstrip benchmark — in less than 12.5 seconds.
"I tore it all down, took the front end down, took the engine. The infamous exploding gas tank is gone," Willmon said. "Now, the batteries take up the back trunk area where the gas tank used to be, as well as the back seat area."
On The Road In An EV Dragster
A recent ride with Willmon in his electric vehicle, or EV, on back roads around Portland brought only one distinct sound — that of the car's tires squealing as they struggled to keep up with the engine's torque.
"You've got the EV grin," Willmon told me.
"The EV grin?" I asked.
"The EV grin," he said. "The first time you drive in an EV and you feel the power these things have."
"I can smell burning rubber."
"That is the smell of burning rubber, yes. That's the only emissions this car makes."
After our whiplash-inducing jaunt, Willmon parks his Pinto in the driveway of his friend John Wayland, a fellow EV aficionado. Wayland has his own homemade electric dragster — a Datsun that he's hoping can change the image of electric cars.
"I like to say that the electric car has been in the hands of the wrong people for too long — the environmentalists," Wayland said. "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 are leaders in the National Electric Drag Racing Association. They share one love: beating the pants off of gas-powered hot rods.
"It's fun," Willmon said. "You go out there; it blows people's minds, you know?"
Hitting The Racetrack
Hot rods, souped-up cars and EVs line up for the regular Friday night drag races at Portland International Raceway.
A Tesla Roadster speeds to victory in one race. Its owner is entrepreneur Paul Gulick. He bought the $100,000 sports car from the California-based electric car company Tesla. Gulick seems as surprised as anyone to have won the race.
"I have just now done my very first drag race," he says. "And I beat the gas-powered guy that I was up against by a mile. And I got to run it up to over 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 turbocharged Volkswagen Beetle. Its owner, Travis Matney, says he had no idea he was up against an electric car.
"I was impressed how well that car ran. It definitely put me in my place," Matney said with a laugh.
Technology Speeds Forward
Even so, it ended up a mixed night for electric dragsters. Pioneers like Wayland and Willmon saw big glitches and lost power altogether a few times. Wayland blamed it on the lead-acid batteries they use.
"We're blowing some batteries and having some problems," he said. "We're using the old-technology batteries. The guys with the new lithium batteries are going strong."
Tesla and the major carmakers are all beginning to use lithium batteries. They're more reliable and powerful. But unfortunately for do-it-yourselfers, they're also much more expensive.