All-Comers Racing: Electric Vehicles at ReFuel 2015

It’s a cool June morning at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. A vintage Volkswagen bug ambles across the pits, but there’s no telltale air-cooled boxer rattle coming out the back end—only the sweet sound of an electric motor doing its thing, moving the world forward one less hydrocarbon at a time. Nearby is an assortment of box-stock economy cars, come to engage their alter egos around one of the world’s most famous racetracks: Fits, Fiats, and Leaf EVs all make the show. There’s a Chevy Spark, arguably the world’s fastest nerd car, which comes off the showroom floor ready to smoke tires and swallow Corvettes whole—for a few feet, at least. A Honda Civic is so laden with batteries it looks like it could never inch off the starting line. But it does. There’s a Rav4, a bit top-heavy for the track perhaps, but who cares? This is egalitarian racing. Run what ya’ brung.

Off in a corner lot is a smiling assemblage of Tesla owners—better dressed than the rest, perhaps, and with their own branded Superchargers readily at hand, looking confident of victory. Up against pit wall, fast guys on motorcycles apply tire warmers. A row of kart racers spin wrenches under pop-up tents and carefully lower megabuck carbon fiber bodies over skeletal chassis, conversing about thermal management profiles. Nowhere except in EVs can the professional racer mix so readily with the backyard wrench.

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Welcome to the fifth annual ReFuel electric vehicles time trial, where the corded, cobbled and home-constructed co-exist happily with the high priests of horsepower. It’s all good. And it’s all electric.

The event, which took place June 26 in Monterey, California, consists of three, 15-minute sessions around the 11-turn, 2.4-mile track. Sandwiched in the middle is the big show: a one-lap, flying-start time trial (one racer against the clock), which limits the bad things that can happy when testosterone-infused racers compete in a thicket of vehicles. About 50 competed, including about 30 cars, 15 motorcycles, and five karts. The whole thing is run by track-day organization Speed Ventures, out of Los Angeles. EV sessions are alternated with those of gas cars throughout the day.

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It was, ironically for this track, a no-sound-limit day. (Mazda Raceway, a county park closely hemmed by mansions, is famous for its 92-decibel sound limit.) In response to this gift, the gas cars rejoiced, and the EVs emitted a collective electrical hum. We don’t need no stinkin’ decibel meters, after all. It’s ironic to attend an event where the only time you put in earplugs is when you’re not racing.

While still modest, this year’s ReFuel was like the Daytona 500 compared to the inaugural event in 2009. “It’s grown every year we’ve done it,” says Aaron Bitterman of Speed Ventures. “We sell out the car side every year. There’s very limited space.”

One other thing has changed over the course of the event: the number of mass-produced entries. “There are so many more EVs on the road than there were five years ago,” says Bitterman. “In the early days, our field was full of factory cars, or funky conversions people had built in their garages. Back then we had maybe five Teslas. We could have 100 Teslas now if we could fit them in.”

Winning Tesla Roadster

Cars

A low murmur surrounded the phalanx of Teslas on display, as this was the first year that the four-wheel-drive, hyper-fast P85D was on track. (Early prototypes were present last year.) Despite the eyeball-flattening acceleration of the P85D, it was a well-used, 2008 Tesla Roadster driven by Joe Nuxoll that took the day, clocking 1:49.32, less than a second off his own track record, set last year.

In addition, a new production class record was set, by Derek Young in a Focus Electric: 2:04.38.

Another much anticipated entrant was a custom, carbon-fiber car from Palatov Motorsport. Indeed, the car turned some fast times, and appeared to be girding for the win. It was not to be. As I stood nearby, a loud pop suddenly reverberated through pit lane, followed by a puff of smoke above the Palatov. “Get the marshmallows!” said one passerby in a fine example of black humor. The car eventually re-gridded, but later blew an oil cooling line, ending its day.

Winning Brammo with Rider Brian Wismann

Motorcycles

The motorcycle class was the exclusive battle of two titans (if there is such a thing in EVs): Zero Motorcycles of nearby Scotts Valley; and Brammo, the latter recently infused with the support of Polaris (maker of Victory and Indian motorcycles). Neither company, however, fielded a full race effort, as teams were otherwise engaged at the Isle of Man TT or Pikes Peak Hillclimb.

The Zero bikes were essentially stock, according to the company, and there were a lot of them: 10, by my count. The tent was arguably the most boisterous spot in the pits, with a dense thicket of riders, mechanics, vans, pop-ups, and sundry family members. It was a raucus affair, more party than pit. (Zero was everywhere, seemingly—most karts included batteries or powertrain components supplied by the company.)

The Brammo, a customized bike ridden by Director of Product Development Brian Wismann, turned the fastest morning times, but then ingested a connector during the second practice, leaving a frustrated Wismann leaning against the turn three pit wall. Fortunately, the gremlin was unearthed and banished, and the bike rallied to complete one, fast lap at the end of the day, winning the category in 1:50.88. Thankfully, in a time trial, that’s all you need. But it was well off Brammo’s own ReFuel record of 1:31.63, set last year.

Winning Kart with Driver Brett Buckwalter (left)

Karts

The lean, purpose-built karts are always a treat to watch. Hovering centimeters off the ground, they scrape and wallow over the slightest pit lane irregularity. But once on track, they really go, churning out power out of all proportion to their size and weight.

The winner was Brett Buckwalter, driving a Rattlesnake Electric Sport kart, in 1:32.89, just a fraction of a second off his own track record, set last year.

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The Main thing is to Have Fun

By the end of the day, boxes of fuses, terminals, and wire cutters littered the grounds, and the occasional smell of burnt plastic wafted across the pits, the result of overheated motors, impromptu repairs, or sadly, small explosions. Fortunately, no fire trucks were summoned during the course of the day, and no humans served as fuses.

The overall take? It was all-comers racing at its best, a fine reflection of a sport that’s growing fast, but still folksy. “It’s fun to have the variety of cars,” said Tesla owner Jonathan Taylor. “Everyone is pretty friendly. We’re trying to win the TT, and we talk about it all year. But the main thing is to just have fun.”

This story was originally published on the Plug In America website. Feature image courtesy CaliPhotography and Speed Ventures.

 

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