Wilde ride: PT man builds electric car for drag race with MiG jet in Croatia

By James Robinson of the Leader
Posted 3/9/10

Roderick Wilde’s garage workshop in Port Townsend is a little bit NASA, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and a whole lot of horsepower.

Electric vehicle horsepower.

It’s an alchemist’s …

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Wilde ride: PT man builds electric car for drag race with MiG jet in Croatia


Roderick Wilde’s garage workshop in Port Townsend is a little bit NASA, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and a whole lot of horsepower.

Electric vehicle horsepower.

It’s an alchemist’s lair dedicated to transforming a 1979 Mazda RX-7 into one of the quickest street-bodied electric cars on the planet – a vehicle capable of winning the world’s first international electric car drag race and expo in Croatia this summer. It’s a vehicle capable of smoking a MiG- 21 jet fighter off the line in the quarter-mile during an exhibition race at the same event.

They’re two tasks Wilde takes very seriously.

“It’s like the Olympics of electric vehicle drag racing,” Wilde said. “I’m representing not just Port Townsend, but the state of Washington and the United States of America. We’ve got to beat that MiG,” Roderick said.

With a string of electric vehicle firsts, key wins at electric vehicle drag races, new electric vehicle technology and a dedicated crew and sponsors, Wilde is optimistic.

“This [the RX-7] has more horsepower than a V-10 Dodge Viper,” Wilde said, pointing to the Mazda and its two electric motors. “In 1998, it was the first electric street-bodied car to break a hundred miles per hour in the standing quarter mile. I was blowing the doors off of Dodge Vipers with those two motors.”

But that was then, and although Wilde still holds records for major achievements in electric vehicle (EV) racing, this is 2010. Technology has advanced dramatically since then.

“It’s changed so much because of the batteries,” Wilde said.


Battery upgrades

Whereas Wilde set his 1998 record running the RX-7 with early generation lead-acid batteries, the world’s top contenders are now using lithium manganese cobalt cells. Unfortunately, Wilde will likely race in Croatia with newer generation lead acid batteries because the lithium manganese cobalt cells are still too expensive. Nevertheless, he said other vehicle modifications will keep him competitive.

The lithium cells provide more amps at far less weight, often shaving the battery pack weight in half. And success in drag racing lies in a delicate balance between raw power and vehicle weight.

“You can get 926 horsepower out of 340 pounds [of] batteries,” Wilde said.

Instead of lithium batteries, Wilde’s plan for now is to run two strings of lead acid batteries in parallel, at 360 volts apiece.

Although Wilde’s Mazda, known among EV racers as the “Maniac Mazda,” has been put to the test before, Wilde is taking no chances. He has essentially gutted the machine to make room for an entirely new outfit of batteries – 60, 12-volt, 16-amp hour lead-acid batteries weighing in at about 800 pounds – plus two red, high-performance motors that together look like a space-age photon torpedo. Then there’s a pair of simple green boxes about the size of shoeboxes, called “Zillas,” or motor speed controllers, capable of producing 1,000 horsepower – if the batteries and motor can take it.

“We will produce 7,000 foot pounds of torque on the rear axle. That’s zero to 60 in 2.3 seconds. That’s 1.5 g’s. When I hit the pedal, I want it to scare me,” Wilde said.

In electrical terms, the motor speed controllers take in 360 volts and deliver up to 2,000 amps to the motors, or, about two-thirds of a mega-watt each.

“When we make a run, we could power 28 50-amp houses for 12 seconds,” said Mike Willmon, president of the National Electric Drag Racing Association. “They are the most powerful motor speed controllers available for a road-going EVs.”

And Wilde added, “They were designed by my friend Otmar Ebenhoech. When the car first broke 100 mph in the quarter in 1998 it was running two ‘Zilla’ 1,400-amp controllers. I had one of Otmar's very first 1,000-amp controllers which was four times as large as the 2,000-amp ones are now.”


Help from friends

Willmon joined Wilde and Sam Maynard, a former NASA contractor employee and specialist in the Mazda motor’s electromechanical linear advance mechanism, on Feb. 27 in Wilde’s Port Townsend garage to help Wilde prepare the Maniac Mazda for Croatia.

The trio fitted new racing tires, discussed body modifications, where and how to package the batteries inside the car to maximize weight distribution and installation of a carbon fiber drive line. Wilde will look at every detail to see where he can shave weight, improve aerodynamics and boost the car’s overall performance.

And while Mazda versus MiG may seem like a testosterone-fueled exhibition gag, electric vehicles, with their lithium manganese cobalt cells, are serious stuff, turning heads at drag strips across the nation. The key to their speed, Wilde says: instant torque.

According to Wilde, an electric vehicle’s motor creates full torque instantly, whereas an internal combustion engine has very little torque until it is revved. Moreover, electric vehicles don’t necessarily need a transmission, flywheel or clutch to multiply torque. Wilde, however, runs his Mazda with a two-speed transmission to make better use of the motor’s low rpm torque characteristics.

“My dad always said gasoline engines were stupid, the piston had to move four times per cycle,” Wilde said. “He thought the future would be the rotary engine.”

Wilde said his father was a service manager at a Chrysler dealership and through him, had plenty of exposure to cars growing up.

“I built my first hot rod in grade school,” Wilde said.


Archangel of EV racing

Since then, and for the last two decades, Wilde has traveled in the United States and around the world as the archangel of EV racing and the nemesis of internal combustion motor heads.

In 1992, he helped found NOPEC, the Northern Olympic Peninsula Electric Cars club, and entered his first EV drag race in 1993. The following year he teamed up with fellow EV enthusiast Bob Rickard to form Wilde Evolutions Inc., based in Jerome, Ariz.

In 1997, Wilde co-founded the National Electric Drag Race Association (NEDRA) and served as the organization’s vice president – a post he still holds.

In 2001, Rickard of Wilde Evolutions retired, and Wilde joined Tom True to form EV Parts. Also in 2001, Wilde participated in a multi-day international electric vehicle rally in Costa Rica. The rally started in the town of Puerto Viejo on the Atlantic coast and ended on the Pacific coast at Puntarenas.

In 2003, Wilde said Craig Piligian of Pilgrim Films and Television asked him to do a reality TV show based on high performance electric cars. Piligian’s production company also produced the series “American Chopper.” Wilde said they agreed to produce a pilot for a potential TV series, but struggled to agree on what kind of vehicle Wilde would “chop.” In the end, they settled on chopping a retired postal van that Wilde named “Gone Postal.”

Wilde and his crew built the van in six weeks and debuted it at a drag strip in Las Vegas. The one-hour pilot titled "Sucking Amps” was aired on the Discovery Channel.


Croatia beckons

And now Croatia beckons.

Although Wilde has more than six weeks to prepare, he said June is approaching fast and there is much to do.

Extreme Dimensions will supply him with a body kit that will bring the car lower to the ground and improve aerodynamics. M and H Tire Company has supplied super sticky drag tires, which Wilde needs to test on the track. Then, of course, there are motor installation and countless other tasks. He invited area residents to drop in on the weekends to learn electric vehicle technology and to lend a wrench if they’re so inclined.

“Anyone from 19 to 90 – you’re never to old to learn new things,” Wilde said. “I’m at that awkward age between puberty and death, and I want to be a race car driver when I grow up.”

Wilde will be 62 three months after he tries to beat a MiG-21 in a drag race in Croatia.