Could grassroots racing bridge the electric-car culture clash?

Tesla LeMons

The daily news cycle already provides plenty of fodder for taking sides for or against electric cars.

In the real world it’s just not that polarizing. Most people who decide to embrace electric vehicles probably understand that EVs do anything but preclude driving enjoyment; and many want to share that enthusiasm with others.

That’s part of what the founder of the ever-scrappy 24 Hours of Lemons, Jay Lamm, sees as a culture clash—one that just melts away as soon as people from seemingly very different cultural places get down to nuts and bolts, with a day at the racetrack.

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“Car enthusiasts, once they wake up and realize it’s not us versus them, that this is not the hairshirt tree-huggers trying to take their Camaro, that this is a whole other set of opportunities and problems for them to figure out, they’re going to be all over it,” said Lamm, who after 13 years overseeing the race has decided to create an electric vehicle class.

LeMons has had 7500 people involved per year, with most participants running multiple races. Lamm quips that it’s become “the world’s biggest racing series by drivers and the world’s smallest racing series by fans.”

“There are seas of empty stands, because for reasons I don’t understand nobody wants to watch a hearse and a chicken car and an Oscar Meyer Weinermobile all fight for points and position—which would seem to me to be a spectator goldmine.”

Clearing the air on preconceived notions

When he originally started LeMons, Lamm said that there was a weird disconnect between what people thought racing was and what it actually is; and he sees some parallels today to how electric cars are perceived.

To help clear those misconceptions, it seemed like an obvious next step to add a new Electric Class to LeMons’ three existing classes—A, B, and C, a.k.a. the good, the bad, and the ugly. The EV Class requires a separate tech inspection system and new rule set that continues to evolve rapidly—and is not at all represented by this Duff Beer Jet Electrica 007, er, Plymouth TC3 from this past year’s competition.

Duff Beer 1981 Jet Electrica 007 (Plymouth TC3) – Murilee Martin/24 Hours of Lemons

Duff Beer 1981 Jet Electrica 007 (Plymouth TC3) – Murilee Martin/24 Hours of Lemons

Duff Beer 1981 Jet Electrica 007 (Plymouth TC3) – Murilee Martin/24 Hours of Lemons

[photo: Murilee Martin/24 Hours of Lemons]
 
What makes the new class different is that the batteries, motors, and power systems don’t count toward the $500 (plus safety systems) cap on vehicles. Battery swapping is also permitted, but that’s become what Lamm calls the biggest engineering and safety challenge, “because you have to get them in and then once they’re in that they stay there.”

“Before you start building one of these cars, contact us,” sums Lamm, noting that they’re still figuring out the new rule set, establishing a base layer of safety, and understanding the failure modes. The organization is looking at a central leasing pool idea for batteries, as it makes sense from a tech and safety standpoint. It’s also working with the FIA, and credits Pikes Peak for doing an excellent job with its new electric class.

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Lamm expects the first car in the EV class to arrive and pass safety within a half a year, and definitely by the end of next year’s season. “So far you’re looking at a pretty small universe…but within that universe you’re looking at some extremely smart and talented people.”

There will be some spectacular failures along the way, he predicts. And it will create a clash of strategic priorities. “But when one driver in a 4,000-pound, 450-hp electric car just sucks your doors off, because he has to stop every hour to do a battery swap, and another driver in a gasoline car can go 3.5 hours on your fuel load,” he says, that’s when it might be time to spin the electrics off on their own series.

Altthusiast EV Mille

Don your ascots

If all this seems a little too nuts and bolts for you, Lamm is also the host and booster of a posh event that sounds almost equally farcical to LeMons at first description: A high-end event this June 25-29 he’s calling the Altthusiast EV Mille, centered for four nights around activities at the Monterey Peninsula’s Quail Lodge and including time at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

The inaugural event June 25-29 is “marque agnostic” and costs a lofty sum of $6,400 per vehicle/couple. Lamm would like to make it a recurring/touring event—using a Formula E–style generator, for instance, to tour from San Francisco to Yellowstone and back, to celebrate green vehicles where the infrastructure hasn’t caught up yet.

Pushing Lamm to thread the needle through what his two new EV events have in common, Lamm doesn’t miss a beat: “There’s this world of car people who are into a certain thing that the rest of the world isn’t into yet…Whether they’re super-luxurious vehicles or whether they’re bring your Pinto and dress up in a suit of tinfoil armor, they’re ‘find your people.’”

Which, one would hope, helps people understand that a future including fun-to-drive electric cars doesn’t have to be yet another thing that divides us.

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