Refuel 2013: In which an electric vehicle event comes of age and I live to tell about it

I was making soul-swapping deals with whatever entity might be listening as we entered the very first turn.

The corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. It's probably the most famous single element of any racetrack in the United States. Nay, the world. I expected my first plunge through its twisting coils to be a revelation, perhaps even a full-blown religious experience. I was mistaken. Strapped into the passenger bucket of the EV West BMW M3 electric conversion, I found myself sending a multitude of prayers up to the heavens well before we reached that anticipated nirvana. In fact, I was making soul-swapping deals with whatever entity might be listening as we entered the very first turn.

It was the last session of the day at the 2013 edition of Refuel – an electric vehicle event put on by Speed Ventures that allows EV builders and buyers to become intimately acquainted with this top-notch race track – and, had my mind been able to process anything besides sheer terror as we approached turn three after leaving the relative safety of the pit lane, I might have been comforted by the fact that I was receiving a bit of top quality education. It is, after all, one thing to casually jot down figures like 850 lb-ft of torque while seated at a desk, and quite another to feel it rearrange all your internal organs.

Likewise, one can watch video footage demonstrating ridiculous cornering ability all day long and still not fully comprehend what it's like to seemingly confound Newton's laws of motion until you find your hand welded to the nearest bit of roll bar in an attempt to brace yourself, just in case science wins its argument with the massively meaty slicks clawing at the asphalt.

Several minutes earlier, I had been getting buckled into the six-point harness, excited to finally have a chance to get on the track. In the driver's seat was EV West's Matt Hauber. We had just formally met earlier that afternoon, but having watched him on many episodes of EVTV a few years back, I felt like I'd known him for far longer. He'd always seemed calm and easy going, not at all given to crazy, risk-taking behavior.

Cheers of "Shake and bake!" and others from Talladega Nights should have thrown up a caution flag.

Perhaps the cheers of "Shake and bake!" and other humorous quotes from the movie Talladega Nights traded with his business partner Michael Bream, standing alongside the race-prepared Bimmer, should have thrown up a caution flag, but I remained blissfully ignorant of what was about to happen. This was, after all, the first time he'd had the opportunity to drive the car on the track and so I expected he would take a measured, yet perhaps brisk, approach to his initial laps. I was wrong. So, so wrong.

When the line of assorted Tesla Model S sedans and Roadsters started rolling – all the vehicles with lesser batteries were either being charged or trailered for the drive back to their respective homes – we followed, and it didn't take long for me to realize this was not going to be a Sunday drive. As Hauber's foot depressed the go pedal, the 1.2-megawatt Soliton Shiva controller under the hood started shoveling screaming electrons from the batteries into the NetGain Warp HV11 DC motor. The initial acceleration snapped my helmet back, my stomach wrapped around my spine and the warning bells in my head started sounding off like it was the Christmas in Paris at the Notre Dame Cathedral. We were off.

Deep into that first, impossible turn, I reminded myself of the sand-filled run-off area that would most likely stop our sideways slide before we hit any barriers. The thought was just enough to keep me from crying for my mother as we miraculously stayed on the course, picking up steam, hurtling toward the next right-hander. Soon, we were eating Teslas.

The day had started much more serenely. The sun was just finding this racing Mecca as I strolled across the parking lot counting my lucky stars that the guys at Speed Ventures had found it in their hearts and wallets to fly me out here and put me up for a night. Over its brief five-year history, Refuel has become a magnet for folks who like the combination of electric vehicles and the competitive challenge of a road course. People like me.

This year, it seemed the event had really come into its own. Fiat had a small fleet of its 500e coupes on hand, ready to allow anyone with a driver's license the opportunity to autocross through a maze of pylons. Tesla Motors had a large, though officially unofficial presence, and had brought over half-a-dozen vehicles to reward some of its hard-working working employees with track time. It'd also installed four Superchargers for its attending customers to freely use, easing the burden on the array of level 2 charging points.

As had been the case in years past, there were also a number of electric conversions to be found, some by private individuals and others by small companies – Zelectric Motors and EV4U Custom Conversions, for example – eager to show off their handiwork for customers. And, flying under the banner of Rattlesnake Electric Sport, a small fleet of speedy go-karts.

Electric motorcycles were well represented by both Zero Motorcycles, Brammo and a number of home conversions. Perhaps the most unique bike on display was a monstrous hand-made supermoto put together by a handful of college students calling themselves Team Farfle. Besides the strikingly robust appearance of the custom frame, it featured an innovation I've heard discussed but have never seen implemented; the rear sprocket doubled as a disc brake rotor.

The scene in the parking lot was at least as meaningful as what was happening on the track.

With all the EV afficiandos and their vehicles on hand, the scene in the parking lot was at least as meaningful as what was happening on the track. Conversations swirled around components and kilowatts and charging infrastructure as much as it did about lap times and performance parameters. Refuel is one of the few occasions such a disparate group of EV enthusiasts can meet face-to-face and swap stories and esoteric info.

Credit for the success of the event, though, has to be handed to the organizers. As electric vehicles began to bubble up over the past decade, they saw that motorsports could play an important role, and with electrical-energy storage still being in its technological infancy, realized a time trial would be a great place to start. Besides dealing with the huge task of putting together an affair that's so different from the sort that Speed Ventures typically handles, they also made it relatively easy for complete track newbies to prepare for their time on the circuit.

The morning driver's meeting covered the finer points of the geography of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the various flags and the point-to-pass system, while post-session debriefings helped clear up any misunderstandings that rose up, and increased safety for participants.

While some may consider cheap fuel or access to HOV lanes the best EV benefits, to my mind spectacular performance is truly the sweetest of EV cake frostings.

Overall, being at 2013 Refuel reinforced my feelings about the event. While some may consider cheap fuel or access to HOV lanes to be the best benefit of electric vehicle ownership, to my mind this – racing, speed, performance – is truly the sweetest of EV cake frostings. It is only here that any Jack or Jill owner can tumble down that famous twisted hill, work their way through a number of perfectly-engineered corners, pin the throttle down the front straight and then climb back up to the top of this roller coaster racetrack. That is why, despite my stomach-scrambling experience, I hope to return. Although, next time, Mr. Hauber, I will drive.

Scroll on down for plenty of video from the track, starting with footage from my 2nd lap of terror (I should note, it doesn't look nearly as scary from the camera's perspective). As well, there's an engaging session from an ActiveE, a heart-stopping crash of a Zero S rider that resulted in an ambulance ride – we understand he's Okay – and a few others that should give you a feel for the event.

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