Portland, OR electric car assembly

Crash Course

Our publisher flies to Portland and gets the education of a life time in high performance electric vehicles.

By Bill Moore

My head is swimming. Between the clouds of singed rubber, muscle car auto exhaust fumes, and the steady banter about volts and amps, motors and controllers, I feel like a cat in a clothes dryer.

Welcome to the heady world of performance electric drag racing.

The driving force behind the Electro Autos Eficaces de Mexico Nissan Tsuru conversion project in Mexico City, Victor Juarez G. had invited me out to Portland to learn about the next enterprise he and his business associates have embarked on, a 3,000 pound, four-door sedan conversion destined for the American market. (See: The R-EV-olucion Spreads!).

EAE had chosen Portland because it has to be consider the planetary nexus of high-performance electric car conversions. At the center of this small, close knit community of battery car efficiandos, is John "Plasmaboy" Wayland, so named after he accidentally dropped a wrench on a battery pack and instantly learned what happens when a thousand amps of lead short circuit. John was staging his Third Wayland Invitational drag race, under the auspices of the National Electric Drag Racing Association or NEDRA.

For two nights this weekend in July, Wayland and other performance EVers would see just how quick they could cut the quarter mile at Portland International Raceway. As it turned out, because of procedural and safety rules, some of the folks who had hoped to race, couldn't. One of them was Victor Tikhonov, the tall, lanky Russian emigre who is the very sharp mind behind MetricMind, the company that is doing the EAE sedan conversion.

If Wayland is the "princess" of the Portland electric car court -- that's Killacycle owner Bill Dube's term, not mine -- then the wizard is Otmar Ebenhoech, who owns Cafe Electric, a tiny power electronics shop that used to turn out -- when he felt like it -- maybe 50 custom 'Zilla' controllers a year. He's now up to 250 and has just hired a production manager, so he can go back to what he loves, designing controllers, instead of managing inventory.

Wirey and athletic, Otmar (few ever use or even know his last name) taught himself the black art of high-power control circuitry by taking apart a Curtis control that had blown up. The company blamed him for it and he wanted to prove them wrong, which he eventually did after xeroxing the circuit board, enlarging it and, with the aid of his electronics engineer father in California, figured out how it worked; and more importantly, why it had failed. He then realized he could build a better box and Zilla controllers were born. They are the only controller built that can manage the paint blistering 1,400 amps of electric power, which is why performance EVers turn to him when records and reputations are at stake.

But on this particular Saturday night -- I would learn latter from Wayland, since I had a flight to catch back home that afternoon -- even the vaunted 'Zilla 2K (named for its ability to handle a truly shocking 2,000 amps of power) may have trouble handling the power output of A123 lithium ion batteries. With the Zombie's electronic controls thrown wide open, it was the mighty Zilla that lit up this night and not Wayland's racing slicks. In a brilliant display of light, the Zilla exploded harmlessly under the hood of the stripped and tricked 1972 Datsun 1200.

Fortunately, the "wizard" had driven his own Porsche 914 conversion to the track. He volunteered to temporarily swap it for the one smoldering under the Zombie's once-virgin-white-now-blackened engine well and in short order the "beast" was back in business, setting a track record of 11.445 and 114. mph.

If Otmar doesn't look like the classical Harry Potter wizard, Don "Father Time" Grabtree does. In fact, he might be mistaken for Professor Dumbledore. Now retired from his job as a machinist, but still actively involved with electric vehicles of the two-wheel persuasion, Grabtree inherited his monicker while racing speedboats. Already sporting his trademark white beard and long, flowing mane, the race announcer commented over the public address system, 'and here comes father time." The nickname stuck.

The night I was at PIR, he was having trouble getting his low-slung electric drag bike charged. Bone tired and with my lungs saturated with gasoline and other noxious fumes, I would ride back to the hotel near the airport with Victor and his colleague, Xavier Niebla, one of the partners in EAE, before I saw if "Father Time" ever got his "clock" wound up.

If Wayland's White Zombie was the prima donna of this electric opera, the dashing leading man was Dube's Killacycle. [See also The Secret of the Killacycle's Success]. Billed as the quickest electric motorcycle in the world, this machine is more missile than motorcycle, though it too had its own moment of embarrassment when during the much anticipated debut of the bike, Scotty Pollacheck over-revved the rear tire and spun it off its own rim. It would be another half hour or more before the pride of Colorado would finally get the chance to strut its stuff.

Trying to video tape the launch of the Killacycle is nearly impossible from any angle but the rear, and even then you'd better be very quick on the zoom. As the lights on the "Christmas" tree count down: red, yellow, yellow, yellow, green, the bike explodes into motion. In one second it is doing 60 mph and Scotty is pulling an estimated 3 Gs. About seven seconds later, he's a the quarter mile mark doing around 150 mph. The crowd cheers and applauds in amazed admiration.

Back behind the grandstands, electric car fans and first-timers wander among the line up of converted gasoline vehicles, their hoods and trunks yawning in a display of electric car simplicity. An uninitiated asks Tikhonov, who is trying to install a meter of some type, about the feasibility of doing 'cheap' EV conversions and selling them to "hippie-types." The Russian is polite but un-amused. Video crews continue to swarm around Wayland, who is now sporting a black A123 tee shirt instead of the Enersys one. Jim Husted, who repairs electric motors and built the massive twin DC motor in the Zombie, is hawking his collection of new and rebuilt motors. Father Time, now decked out in black leather, which only accentuates his flowing white hair and beard, grumbles that he's still having trouble charging his electric drag motorcycle.

But for me, it's been a very long, tiring day and thankfully Juarez and Niebla are also ready to head back to the motel. It's nearly 11:30 Pacific Time (1:30 AM my time) when I finally crash into bed, exhausted but exhilarated. Tomorrow, we'll meet the performance EVers at the local Village Inn (see photo above) to debate the merits of various electric car components over strawberry blintzs and cheese omlets. There Rich Rudman, who builds Manzanito Micro chargers, will trade good-natured barbs with Otmar who will, in turn, tell me how he got into this whole EV scene in the first place, while outside Marko Mongillo, who builds the battery boxes for the likes of Wayland and now, it would appear, EAE, will tell me his own story of how he converted a funky, little 1959 Fiat 600 (the green car in the photo). His is perhaps the neatest conversion of all.

These are the folks who help sell the sizzle of electric cars.

Times Article Viewed: 8063
Published: 27-Jul-2007


blog comments powered by Disqus