The faded blue eyes of the corner worker lit up and his tanned face, furrows plowed deep by the California sun, cracked a bemused smile as the Brammo Empulse RR, like a yanagi blade taking a sliver of sashimi from a fresh fillet, smoothly sliced its way through the corkscrew. Minutes earlier, I'd overheard his thin lips spit out a lament about racing without its traditional sonic hyperbole. Though his judgment about the electric competitors might stay unchanged until his last breath, it seemed in that moment, at least, a heretical thought had occurred.
I am at the 2014 SportElectric TT, the competitive portion of the Refuel electric vehicle event put on annually by Speed Ventures. From my track-side seat I watch carefully as a number of adventurous souls, each with their own allotment of time and space, sling various vehicles through the curves and corners of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, my camera attempting to freeze fleeting moments of skill, courage, and luck. It's pretty awesome.
A time trial is not just a race against the clock, it is a competition that carves out small places in history for those who can wring the most from their machines on a given day, at a particular place. This year, Shane Turpin, his steed newly-wrapped in fiery imagery from sponsor Icon and tweaked to pump out 170 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque, whittled an especially sweet notch: 1:31.634.
That is the fastest Refuel lap ever – just tenths of a second short of the all-time record electric loop around this track set in 2011 by Steve Rapp on the Mission R – and one that puts two wheelers ahead of their four-wheeled kin in the unending argument of which is the more capable.
That wasn't the only trophy the Brammo team walked away with, though. In that same modified motorcycle category, Eric Bostrom, riding an Empulse TTX – the brand's race-prepped version of the Empulse R, showed what is possible with that machine, wringing out a 1:45.629. Meanwhile, Brian Wismann, who usually wears a hat emblazoned with "Director of Product Development," made his competitive debut and picked up a third place in the production bike class aboard his personal Empulse R. Despite extra room to groove, his 2:01.569 lap was actually a couple seconds slower than the 1:59.467 he managed earlier in the day with other traffic on the track. Racing can be that way.
When it came to production cars, Tesla Motors certainly had a large presence, what with the TMC Connect conference co-ordinated on the same weekend bringing dozens of vehicles to the neighborhood. This year, the cars from the California automaker were placed in a new Production GT class, with no fewer than 23 Model S sedans and Roadsters taking part.
Joe Nuxoll, no stranger to the top of the heap at the SportElectric TT, took first place in a blue Roadster on loan from Jonathan Taylor, crossing the finish line in 1:49.018. Meanwhile, the top Model S was the Teslarati car (pictured above). Piloted by Vlad Tovbin and wearing racing rubber, the team showed off its prowess with a 1:54.433. Considering that these vehicles aren't engineered to be track weapons – they are a bit on the heavy side and power can be limited after a couple laps, or if driven hard too soon after supercharging – those are pretty respectable times.
Watching vehicles that distinctly belong in the Production class make their way through the twisting descent of the corkscrew is like munching a palate cleanser after drinking in the intoxicating stream of Teslas. These everyday, ordinary cars look a bit out of place on a race track, but somehow command our attention because of it. They are, after all, vehicles that can fit within an average family's budget and it's interesting to know how they stack up against each other. The SportElectric TT helps establish a performance pecking order for these more attainable automobiles, putting the claims made by the automakers into perspective.
This year, the Toyota Rav4 EV grabbed both first and second place, with the top time being 2:07.252. Considering the form factor of the small SUV, the result seems a strong testament to the Tesla drivetrain that resides within them. The Fiat 500e, which we raced around the parking lot last year, made its TT debut and not only looked pretty sweet whilst rocking the turns, it also (barely) beat out a Chevrolet Spark EV, Honda Fit EV and possibly the last example of a BMW Active E still on the road today with a 2:11.638.
In the Conversion class, Michael Bream repeated his top finish from last year with the EV West BMW M3, stopping the clock at 1:52.330. It may be the last Refuel appearance for this monster, as the SoCal shop has another project – secret for now – that it's developing for future competitions. Its customer Carl Winefordner, meanwhile, took third-place in a very clean looking Porsche 914.
Jeff McCabe, in his lightning bolt-festooned Porsche 928, repeated his second place result from last year, though he managed to chop it down by three seconds, turning in a 2:09.484.
The electric go-karts on hand were very, very fast. More so, even, than the 2013 crop. Rattlesnake Electric Sport principal Richard Hilleman had his sights set on the overall lap record, but despite a great effort, came up short. Still, wearing freshly-applied white paint over its carbon fiber monocoque, and with Brett Buckwalter taking the wheel – formidable racer Memo Gidley had been the intended driver but is still in recovery from a horrific crash at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January – Rattlesnake 4 did put the bite on the previous kart top time, turning in a remarkable 1:32.889. That's the third-fastest SportElectric time ever and less than two seconds from ultimate victory.
The Palatov DP1e first made an appearance at this competition back in 2010 when it finished third behind entries from Kleenspeed and Wrightspeed. This year, it re-emerged after being acquired by one Luke Workman – famous in certain circles for his electric "bicycle of doom," which lapped this same track in 2:13.453 a couple years back – who put his EV expertise to work, stuffing batteries from Zero Motorcycles into the carbon fiber chassis and getting the whole package in operating condition the night before.
With Marcos Ramirez in the driver's seat, the newly assembled machine clocked in at 1:54.601, taking the top spot in the Prototype class. His only competition was the very sweet Factory Five 818e, which we've seen on a track before, but without body work. Driven by owner Erik Hansen, this clean build passed the checkered flag in 2:04.376.
Zero Motorcycles also had a strong presence with ten machines competing, dominating the Production Bike class. Brandon Nozaki Miller, known around these parts as the "Electric Cowboy," collected the first place trophy for his 1:53.047 performance aboard a Zero SR, while Jamie Perugini collected second aboard the regular Zero S.
Though able to ride safe at speed on the track, Cowboy had less luck after returning to the mean streets of LA. Just a few days after his victory, he was hit by a left-turning car, getting banged up pretty good in the process. Thankfully, he is expected to make a full recovery and we wish him a speedy return to form.
You can catch our view of the 2014 edition of the Refuel SportElectric TT by browsing though our mega gallery of the corkscrew and trophy awards. For all the official results, you can check out the Refuel website. Scroll down for videos that let you ride along with the winners of the modified motorcycle, production and conversion classes. If that's not enough spins around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in-car footage from the 2nd-place Model S, which includes time, speed, and g-force telemetry awaits as a bonus.