PORTLAND — Straddling a 619-pound motorcycle, Scotty Pollacheck tucks in his knees and lowers his head as he waits for the green light. When he revs the engine there's no roar. The bike moves so fast that within seconds all that's visible is a faint red taillight melting in the distance.
Pollacheck crosses the quarter-mile marker doing 156 mph; he's traveled 1,320 feet in 8.22 seconds, faster than any of the gas-powered cars, trucks or motorcycles that have raced in the drag sprints on this weekend at Portland International Raceway.
It's particularly impressive given Pollacheck is riding a vehicle that uses no gasoline and is powered entirely by lithium-ion batteries.
Electric vehicles are making their presence felt at amateur drag races across the country, challenging gas-powered cars and motorcycles. The "amp heads," computer geeks and tree-hugging environmentalists driving the electron-powered vehicles are starting to kick some major rear end.
Pollacheck and his bike — dubbed the KillaCycle — are part of a growing movement that's exploiting breakthroughs in battery technology and could soon challenge the world's fastest-accelerating vehicles in the $1 billion drag-racing industry.
"In professional drag racing I expect to see the electrics eventually pass up the fuel dragsters," said Dick Brown, president of AeroBatteries, which sponsors White Zombie, the world's quickest-accelerating street-legal electric car — a 1972 white Datsun 1200.
"Electric gives you instant torque whereas gasoline you have to build up," Brown said. "As we learn to manage it, you're going to see some really amazing performances."
Brown believes electric vehicles will challenge the top drag-racing records within five years.
The KillaCycle runs on 990 lithium-ion battery cells that feed two direct current motors, generating 350 horsepower. The bike accelerates from zero to 60 mph in just under a second — faster than many professional gas-powered drag motorcycles and within striking distance of the quickest bikes that run on nitromethane. With that hyper-potent racing fuel, riders can do 60 mph in 0.7 seconds.
Meanwhile, White Zombie's best time in a quarter-mile is 11.46 seconds — that's quicker than a 2007 505-horsepower Corvette ZO6, one of the quickest production vehicles available to the general public — but it's still 6.4 seconds away from the Top Fuel record.
Not everyone in the gas-powered crowd is convinced electric vehicles are the next big thing.
"I certainly don't see them challenging for professional records in the near future," said Graham Light, senior vice president of racing operations at the National Hot Rod Association. "We don't have a blind eye to new technology, new innovations and new methods of doing things" but "at this point I don't see a strong movement toward electric cars."
But electric vehicle racers say people like Light are out of the loop. They say rapid advances in battery technology will give EVs a shot at drag-racing records.
"This is a disruptive technology and there is a lot of room for improvement in this area," said Ric Fulop, founder and vice president of business development for A123, the maker of KillaCycle's batteries.
In December, the KillaCycle will receive a second-generation battery pack that will have twice as much juice as its current 374-volt system, giving it close to 1,000 horsepower. Fulop said he believes the KillaCycle can break the drag racing motorcycle record within the next year.
Electric drag racers are test-driving the technology that will eventually spill over into mass production cars, analysts say.
Today's hybrid cars, like Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius, use nickel metal hydride batteries, not more expensive lithium-ion batteries.
But cost of lithium-ion is expected to drop. In addition, the latest generation of batteries offers a higher rate of conductivity and takes less time to charge — the KillaCycle's battery pack can be juiced up in five minutes. New materials also mean the battery is less prone to overheating and explosions — a danger of earlier generations.
Experts say lithium-ion batteries that will power a car tens of thousands of miles over their lifetime and deliver more horsepower are on the horizon.
The rechargeable lithium-ion battery market, which today mainly powers consumer gadgets, is worth an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion. That's expected to mushroom to between $9 billion and $11 billion by 2011 as the technology becomes more widely used by the military, medical and automotive industries, according to analysts at Frost & Sullivan.
The Chevrolet Volt, which is expected to be released in 2010, is a consumer hybrid that uses gas to power a charger and can travel 640 miles on a tank of gas and up to 40 miles on one electric charge. The vehicle will run on a lithium-ion pack similar to the one used by the KillaCycle.
Dube and other EV racers say electric cars aren't just about 2-cent-a-mile transportation, lessening reliance on foreign oil or curbing global warming. They're also about performance.
"For electric cars to matter people have to buy them," he said. "If you have a car that is faster than everyone else's, if it's electric so be it, but people will buy it." ———
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