City Paper is not for tourists
High-school senior William Snow enters his electric-powered “Car 51” through the driver’s-side window, just like a professional driver. He straps himself in, adjusts his black helmet, and locks his gloved hands onto the steering wheel in the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. As the 18-year-old D.C. native stares straight ahead, his classmates and teachers push the converted 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit into position on the pit road of the Richmond International Raceway. Snow announces his strategy: “I’m not going to shift.”
When Snow hits the accelerator, Car 51 jumps forward but remains almost silent. The rubbing of its tires on the asphalt almost drowns out the low hum coming from under the hood; the car makes less noise than an electric razor. Snow weaves the unnaturally quiet machine through a one-eighth-mile, serpentine course defined by orange traffic cones. But Snow is still figuring out how fast his machine can corner. At one point, the car tilts alarmingly, threatening to roll onto its side. Snow decelerates, gets the car back under control, and finishes his run in 33 seconds.
Snow isn’t the first driver to let his car’s speed creep up on him. Earlier, another electric car went into an uncontrolled slide, its rear tires leaving a black “J” on the asphalt. But such lessons are part of the experience at the annual EV (“Electric Vehicle”) Grand Prix, sponsored by Virginia Power and held at the raceway April 26 and 27. This year, 13 high-school teams have converted a total of 15 gasoline-powered cars into safe, race-ready electric vehicles. Competitions include tests of the vehicles’ ranges, speeds, accelerations, and handling/braking capacities; the teams also answer oral questions and present their own videos on electric vehicles.
Snow is among 10 students and six faculty members from Phelps Career Senior High School, the only school in D.C. to enter the grand prix. The school originally obtained Car 51 from an insurance company; the car had been abandoned on a D.C. street. “People like to tell the story that it was stolen, but really we don’t know how it got there,” says teacher Joseph Stull, who directs Phelps’ electric car program. To finance the gas-to-electric conversion, the school solicited sponsors and donations, and held fund-raising car washes.
Today, as D.C.’s only electric racing auto, Car 51 cuts quite a respectable figure. In keeping with racing tradition, its white exterior bears decals from sponsors like PEPCO, the D.C. National Guard, and Goodyear. Inside, bright blue foam padding covers the metal pipes of its roll cage. “The number of our car expresses our hope that D.C. will become the 51st state,” Stull explains.
Car 51 is matched against cars from schools in North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. Each school received sponsorship from an electric company to cover its $5,000 entry fee—PEPCO sponsored Phelps and Suitland High School in District Heights, Md. But not every car is driven by a high-school student like Snow, or even by a newcomer to racing. Either to increase their competitiveness or to save on insurance, most schools turn over all the driving events to adults with licenses from NASCAR or some other professional sanctioning body. Others, like Phelps, allow their kids to drive all but the final race (which is not open to students).
Snow drives the serpentine handling/
braking course twice—grand prix rules allow drivers two chances, provided they take their second score. More relaxed and confident for his second run, Snow shaves his time down to 29.96 seconds, which earns him a round of cheers from his classmates and teachers. After the judges tally the results of this competition, the vertical scoreboard in the center of the track displays “51” in lights—fifth from the top. Gloucester High School of Gloucester, Va., wins the event with a time of 28.04 seconds.
The fifth-place finish thoroughly satisfies Stull. The teacher, a retired Army colonel, considers Car 51 the ultimate teaching aid, a real-life application of math, geometry, electronics, and chemistry. Stull also has a paternal enthusiasm for the competition—no soapbox derby dad ever cheered louder. “My thinking is, I want the students to have the experience of driving the car in the grand prix,” he says. “Taking part is the payoff for contributing. And if our car is the best, we’re going to win no matter who’s driving.”
Despite Stull’s optimism, Car 51’s performance hasn’t been stellar so far. On the first day of the grand prix, Phelps junior Paul Prosper drove Car 51 in the acceleration competition and came in 12th. Phelps then finished 13th in the range competition, with Snow in the driver’s seat; Car 51 completed only 18 laps around the three-quarter-mile track before slowing to a crawl, and Gloucester won the event with 59 laps.
But all is not lost. Car 51 might still place in the 26.25-mile race, which serves as the finale of the EV Grand Prix. Phelps’ designated adult driver is Chuck Teets, a Centreville, Va., resident, president of an air conditioning/heating company, and part-time dirt-track driver.
Teets climbs into Car 51 and takes his position on the pit road. There’s a long delay as the Suitland team wrestles with a technical problem. An emcee in checkered-flag pants fills up the time by interviewing the drivers with a cordless mike. Most drivers say they plan to conserve juice—range is the bugaboo of electric vehicles. Even General Motors’ retail-ready “EV1” model, which serves as pace car for the race, can only go about 90 miles between rechargings.
Finally, the Suitland crew pushes its stylishly painted, red-and-white Dodge Daytona into position. The aerodynamic EV1 leads the way onto the track, a silent UFO gliding close to the ground. Car 51 rolls near the end of the pack, its position having been determined by the results of the range competition the day before. Normally, if you’re standing in the infield during a race, you can’t hear anything but engines. But here, the shouting from the infield drowns out the cars on each pass.
The race lasts 35 laps, but Car 51 begins to slow long before that. On Lap 17, Teets gets a black flag, the sign from the judges that he must call it quits. Car 51 has become a hazard to faster-moving cars, which are circling at a top speed of about 70 mph, and it’s all over for Phelps Career Senior High School. At the awards ceremony, Gloucester carries away the first-place trophy for the race. The Phelps crew must settle for a second-place trophy in the video competition.
Stull continues to speak positively about the character-building and educational aspects of the EV Grand Prix; his disappointment only shows when he talks about the car itself. “My expectations were a lot higher,” he says sadly. “Somehow, we ate up all of our [battery] capacity. Why?”
But his students accept Car 51’s shortcomings more casually. Snow reclines his lanky, 6-foot-plus frame on the low cement barrier that separates the pit road from the infield. “I made fifth place [in braking/handling],” he says, munching on a green pear. “I think I did pretty good.”—Maurice Martin