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February 21, 2010

News & Features

Racing's big shift: Drag racers discover the power and speed of electric vehicles

Special to NWautos

Killa Cycle

KillaCycle, an electric motorcycle that can reach 174 mph, may be the fastest on earth. (Courtesy of Bill Dube)

The drag-racing world is getting a serious wake-up call from what, on the surface, seems like an unlikely source: gas-free vehicles powered by batteries and electric motors.

A new crop of grassroots racers are stretching traditional notions of the best automotive technology for racing by building electric cars and motorcycles at home on shoestring budgets.

See them in action
  • KillaCycle and White Zombie are scheduled to race at the Wayland Invitational at the Portland International Raceway this summer.
  • KillaCycle
  • Power: More than 500 horsepower
  • Batteries: Powered by 1,210 lithium ion nanophosphate cells developed by A123 Systems
  • Battery weight: 200 pounds
  • Recharge time: less than four minutes per run
  • Online: killacycle.com
  • White Zombie
  • Power: More than 400 horsepower
  • Batteries: Powered by 192 ultra-high-power Kokam lithium polymer cells
  • Battery weight: 345 pounds
  • Recharge time: Two hours for a 35-mile range
  • Online: plasmaboyracing.com

Bill Dube, builder of the drag bike KillaCycle, claims it is the quickest electric motorcycle on the planet: It can cover a quarter-mile track in less than eight seconds. Zero to 60? Less than a second.

If the term "electric bike" conjures up images of scooters, think again. The KillaCycle can flat-out fly -- to the tune of 174 mph.

"Electric vehicles are no longer 'nerd-mobiles' or traveling science projects," says Dube, of Wheat Ridge, Colo. "The present generation of battery technology has changed all that."

The batteries used in the KillaCycle were developed by A123Systems and are similar to those found in DeWalt power tools. "The KillaCycle is just a giant cordless drill with wheels," says Dube.

The bike uses less than seven cents' worth of electricity for each run down the drag strip, and it's silent aside from some chain and tire noise.

"The next generation of muscle cars will be electric. It's a fact," Dube says. "You will be able to get insane horsepower with the fuel economy of a Prius."

Based in Portland, Ore., White Zombie has been gaining its own cult following in the electric vehicle and drag racing worlds.

Owner John Wayland's rechargeable, white 1972 Datsun 1200 is capable of hitting speeds of 114 mph and can cover a quarter-mile in 11.46 seconds.

White Zombie frequently takes down BMWs, Corvettes and police cruisers in head-to-head races, leaving them in its zero-emission dust.

White Zombie

White Zombie, an all-electric Datsun 1200, can hit 114 mph. (Courtesy of John Wayland)

The secret to EV-racing success is in the torque, says Wayland: "An electric car's motor makes full torque instantly, compared to the gas car's internal-combustion engine that has very little torque until you rev it up." And electric drag cars don't need a transmission, flywheel or clutch to multiply torque, he says.

Electric-racing speeds are expected to climb even higher as smaller, more powerful batteries become available. This will allow muscle cars and drag racers to see huge power gains with less weight.

In 2007, Wayland upgraded White Zombie's battery pack from lead acid to lithium ion for a test race. He instantly gained 100 horsepower and dropped more than 700 pounds of weight.

Wayland has been tinkering with new Kokam battery packs, which he expects will give his car the power to push it into the 10-second range when racing begins this spring.

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