Portland International Raceway was predictably noisy last Saturday night. Rubber screeched as drivers burned off layers of tire; engines belched, purred and spat machine-gun noises. But amid the smoky chaos, a few gearheads were quietly building a revolution.
One of the dragsters waiting for a pre-race tech check was a long, low-slung red motorcycle. The rider got on, and the bike raced off—silently. Observers gaped. Then a 1978 gold Ford Fiesta also scooted away in total silence.
There was no roar because the bike and the Fiesta are electric vehicles, appearing thanks to the National Electric Drag Racing Association. NEDRA, a group of EV owners, fans and suppliers, has organized these electric-vehicle drag races since 1994 to sex up the EV's image—the idea being that battery-powered cars not only run cleaner and cheaper, they can also haul ass.
Thanks to the success of Chris Paine's recent documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, EVs have come to the public's attention—as gas prices soar past $3 a gallon. NEDRA hopes pitting EVs against traditional dragsters will win more electric-car converts and lead to technological improvements.
For now, the EV drag races are piggybacked onto existing events. Saturday's event was last-minute, said Roy LeMeur, NEDRA Northwest regional race director, which might be why so many of the electric cars had mechanical issues.
"But there's an old saying in drag racing," LeMeur said. "If you're not breaking it, you're not trying hard enough."
No one in the crowd of 800 seemed particularly keen to watch the EV guys plug in and calmly top up their batteries. But out in the lanes, LeMeur said, people were more excited about the electric racers.
The prospect of an electric car that really works—goes fast, refuels quickly and cheaply, has a decent range—is indeed exciting. It's just not as exciting as, say, the hot-red Barracuda that sounded like someone was remaking Apocalypse Now under its hood, or the VW Bug that wheelied on takeoff.
The red bike, owned by a guy known as Father Time, hit 85 mph but left the crowd puzzled. "Yeah, that is quiet," the announcer said. "It's electric." On its next run, the bike did a burnout that looked awesome but sounded like a dentist's drill.
Intellectually, EVs are clear winners. But on a drag-race track, they're like near-beer. And it's not because they're slow; they've been known to break 100 mph. The problem is more primitive. Without the teeth-rattling roar, it's just hard to cheer them on. A guy in the recharge pits had it right: "I think they should put in speakers or something."
The next EV drag race at Portland International Raceway will be the NEDRA Late Night Nationals, Aug. 25-26. Races 6 pm-midnight. $8, $5 children.
Paine, director of Who Killed the Electric Car?, is scheduled to appear.