The rise of the green dragster

Alex Chadwick Dec 9, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: GM says it’s going to miss sales targets for its whiz-bang new electric hybrid Chevy Volt: 8,000 sold; probably not the 10,000 they wanted.

A government investigation found Volt batteries can catch fire if they’re damaged in accidents. GM has offered to buy cars back from nervous Volt owners if they like, but Alex Chadwick discovered not too long ago that — Volts aside — there are plenty of people still happily battery-powered.

Alex Chadwick: All down its long, rippling Mississippi border, ghosts still linger from Missouri’s frontier past. So a pioneer gearhead-techno-geek gathering sort of makes sense here, led by the Daniel Boone of electric cars.

Jack Rickard: We’re trying to get liquored up here, and play with a little high voltage, and go for a drive.

Jack Rickard is holding a 16-ounce ‘souvenir’ from the Stag Beer truck that’s parked on the taxiway outside his own big private hanger at the Cape Girardeau airport. Happily, Jack’s not actually driving. But others are.

Mike Bream: We basically enjoy racing cars.

Mike Bream, one of 160 attendees at the first-ever electric vehicle conversion conference. Basically, they take normal cars, strip out the engines and replace them with electric motors and batteries. And you’re thinking ‘hmm, earnest, sensible greens.’

Nah, not these guys.

Bream: These cars are going in a very short period of time to outperform, in just about every aspect, gas-powered vehicles.

These are car nuts — visionary tinkerers, obsessed hobbyists, engineer entrepreneurs. And many of them sound as though they’re just fed up with the ways things are. Ron Adomowitz brought an electric dragster.

Ron Adomowitz: I feel our money should stay here in America. The batteries don’t come from America but they come from a good country — at least a country that’s not trying to kill us. So I don’t like foreign oil, plain and simple.

OK, actually we get most of our oil from countries that are very happy to sell it to us — doesn’t matter. That’s just how these people feel. Jack Rickard:

Rickard: It takes a little bit of effort, but you go in your garage and you make your own damn car. And it’s kind of a little bit of an element of flipping the bird to the oil companies.

The electric car: 150 years of invention

Sure, you could get a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt, but the conversion crowd here really wants you, listening in your car, to join them. And you just might if the cars are really cool, which they are. When the all-electric kit-car Porsches — the classic 356 body — drag-race a quarter mile down the closed taxiway, ripping up to 80, the Gs will shove you back in your seat. Someone brought a converted World War II Jeep; there’s a less glamorous ’90s era Ford pick-up. Really, you can convert any car for $12,000, or $20,000 or $30,000 — how much car do you want?

Rickard: And this is one thing that an individual can do that’s not like recycling grocery bags. You can actually do something. An individual can take a car they like and convert it to electric and it works as a car — they’re not out anything, it’s not a science project.

Jack was also an early Internet pioneer; he can afford to bankroll this gathering. But for many of us, there are other considerations in gas-to-electric conversions. A mechanic friend notes if you wreck one of the kit cars going fast, you might as well be wearing a potato chip.

And sure, they’re electrics, but if the power comes from coal-burning power plants, or Jack’s generator, how green is that? And there was that memorable powerpoint slide from one of the presentations: ‘The top five reasons our cars catch on fire.’ And that was before the news of the Volt. If electrics are really going to go anywhere, someone will have to make a better battery.

In Cape Girardeau, Mo., this is Alex Chadwick for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Alex Chadwick is the host of the new public radio series “Burn” from SoundVision Productions. Special thanks to the National Science Foundation.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.