Today was the first full day — about 373 miles — of the Audi TDI Challenge, which is Audi’s perverse idea of fun: driving from Albuquerque to San Diego on one tank of Diesel. We’re currently in third place, and I’m not really sure anyone’s going to make it. It’s hot, tedious, and a little nerve-wracking. Road madness looms.
Essentially, the trip forces you to hypermile. What is hypermiling, you may ask, preferably aloud and screaming to a crowded library or office? Think about it like this: do you like long road trips, but wish there was some way you could combine them with a medieval sense of self-punishment? If so, you need to try some hypermiling. It manages to combine motorsports, math, pleasure denial, and sweating with the tension and excitement of getting stranded somewhere.
Now, I did some research, and before we really got started today I took some time to make some quick aero modifications to the car with some cardboard I brought with me. In order to reduce drag, I used the old hypermiler’s trick of skirting the rear wheel.
Not only does it give the Audi the rakish good looks of a Citroën DS, but it is supposed to give some real efficiency benefits as well. That’s why you see skirted rear wheels on cars like the first-gen Honda Insight and the famous and dead GM EV1.
Sure, we lost one of our skirts about halfway in, but I cut another one at our lunch stop with a steak knife. The Audi guys were pretty supportive at the time, though they did tweet out something to suggest that we were violating the rules:
Now, if you read that ‘commandment,’ you’ll notice it’s referring to competitor’s cars— not your own car, so I think we’re in the clear. Later, we found at least one other team was employing these same methods, so I think we’re safe. In fact, I just fished some more cardboard out of the trash to make a new set for tomorrow.
Still, the aero mods only help a tiny bit — the real way to drive over 800 miles on a single tank is to be miserable, absolutely fucking miserable the whole time. That means windows up and A/C off so the car heats up like a mobile steam room, providing my second experience with the now-too-familiar scent of Stewed Jew.
Getting the sort of mileage we’ll need, about 62 or so MPG, means that you have to drive in a very specific way. Mostly, slow. Painfully, punishingly slow. Slow as in getting passed by school buses, RVs towing cars, a huge boat, and a fucking barn slow. I thought we’d be golden of we could keep the revs under 2000 — after a day of driving I now realize that number is more like 1500, tops. It’s like never exceeding a fast idle.
You have to go to manual shift mode, and force that thing into 6th gear as soon as you can, right below 40 MPH. You then accelerate gradually, with the speed coming at a pace geologists are comfortable with, until you hit 55 or maybe 60 tops. If you’re lucky enough to get a nice downhill run, you can pop it into neutral and build up as much speed as is safe, but almost any benefits you get can be killed at the first even minor incline, which makes your MPG drop like Yoda’s pants at wherever it is Yodas masturbate.
It’s a desperate sort of driving. It requires constant focus on the tach and instant MPG indicator, and you find yourself micro-modulating the throttle to keep the MPGs as high as possible (usually in the 80-120 range, but occasionally hitting 300) without going so slow you actually become a hazard.
Driving like this connects you with the car in a pretty intense way, but not the fun, man-and-machine-become-a-beautiful-fleet-mechanical-centaur-way like in track driving. Hypermiling means you connect with a car like a therapist dealing with a car’s engine-image insecurity issues. It means feeling, in your gut, the pain your car has to endure as it climbs a hill. You become painfully aware of the energy expended to haul 3000 lbs through the cruel, thick air, and up those miserable hills.
My driving partner, Neal, actually loves this sort of driving because I suspect he’s been hit by lightning a few times and he, honestly, hates driving and cars. Still, I’m glad he likes it, and he does have a pretty good instinctive knack for the sort of light-foot perfidy this all requires.
At the end of Day 1, we found ourselves in a very close 3rd place, making 58.7 MPG and having a range of 775 miles, which will still not quite be enough. We did go 5 miles off course, so I think we’re pretty damn close to the 2nd place car, really. Tomorrow’s a whole other day, though.
A whole other day of 500 more miles, through much more desert. The road madness is coming, I can feel it in my bones. The road madness, she’s a brutal, deep grey asphalt dragon with a dashed yellow line down her back. She senses that we’ve taken speed hostage and are doling it out in miserly little lumps, and she’s not happy.
The road madness will, we all know, eventually win. At some point, she’ll make us snap and stop that accelerator and crank that wheel until we’re a diesel-smelling blur bound straight to hell. I accept that. But she can’t have me until San Diego.
Then, once again, I am hers. God help us all.