When gas-electric hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius first became popular, one of the questions people asked was: Could it go as fast as a regular car? Can it even go 55? Turns out that at some racetracks, electric dragsters are beating their competitors that run on gas. Colin Fogarty with Northwest News Network took a ride with some electric drag-racing pioneers in Portland, Oregon.

COLIN FOGARTY: The $1 million Ferrari Enzo can do 0 to 60 in about three-and-a-half seconds. So can Mike Willmon's 1978 Ford Pinto.

Mr. MIKE WILLMON (Drag Racer): I tore it all down, took the whole 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.

FOGARTY: Willmon takes me out for a spin in his electric vehicle, or EV, on some Portland back roads.

(Soundbite of tires spinning)

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOGARTY: What was that?

Mr. WILLMON: That was the sound of smoke being made from the tires.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOGARTY: My head went back.

Mr. WILLMON: Yeah. Now you've got the EV grin, too, I see.

FOGARTY: The EV grin?

Mr. WILLMON: The EV grin: the first time you drive in an EV and you feel the power these things have.

FOGARTY: I can smell burning rubber.

Mr. WILLMON: That is the smell of burning rubber, yes. That's the only emissions that this car makes.

FOGARTY: After our whiplash-inducing jaunt, Willmon parks his Pinto at the Portland driveway of his friend and fellow EV aficionado John Wayland. Wayland has his own homemade electric dragster. It's a Datsun that he's hoping can change the image of electric cars.

Mr. JOHN WAYLAND (Drag Racer): I'd 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 like trees, but I don't hug them. You know, I love animals. I love clean air. But I'm also - I like to have fun. And I realized you've got to make the electric car fun and exciting.

FOGARTY: 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.

Mr. WILLMON: It's fun. You go out there, it blows people's minds, you know?

(Soundbite of engines revving)

FOGARTY: Hot rods, souped-up cars and EVs line up for the regular Friday night drag races at Portland International Raceway.

(Soundbite of engines revving)

FOGARTY: The winner of this race is a Tesla Roadster. 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.

Mr. PAUL GULICK (Drag Racer): I have just now done my very first drag race, and I beat the gas-powered guys 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.

FOGARTY: 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.

Mr. TRAVIS MATNEY (Drag Racer): I was impressed at how well that car ran. It definitely put me in my place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOGARTY: Even so, it ended up a mixed night for electric dragsters. Pioneers like John Wayland and Mike Willmon saw big glitches and lost power altogether a few times. Wayland blamed it on the lead-acid batteries they use.

Mr. WAYLAND: We're blowing some batteries and having some problems. We're using the old-technology batteries. The guys with the lithium batteries are not having any problems. They're running strong.

FOGARTY: Tesla and the major car companies are all moving to lithium batteries. They're more reliable and more powerful. They're also much more expensive.

(Soundbite of engines revving)

FOGARTY: For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.

(Soundbite of song, "Red Barchetta")

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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