“This technology is completely untapped,” Joe Napoleon said of the eerily quiet all-electric but blindingly quick Chevrolet Camaro EL1. “Everybody talks about it. Nobody does shit about it. We’re going to go debunk all the myths.”
That’s what the owner of Napoleon Motorsports has to say about this latest creation, which takes the team from its roots in short-track racing and Pirelli Trans-Am into Formula Drift’s top Pro class.
Team operations guy and self-proclaimed “enabler” Ron Bergenholtz was a bit more blunt describing the reaction to the EL1, which Travis Reeder is driving this season. It’s Formula Drift’s first electric car, and a build that has the potential to open up a whole new world of big-power performance electric builds.
“All of the sudden you guys come into the scene,” Bergenholtz exclaimed, “and completely shake up and break the system with a sledgehammer!”
Drifting has seen several major innovations over the years, from wide-body kits to V8 swaps and today’s absurd high-power builds. Yet no one dared run without an internal combustion engine until now. The very idea of an electric drift car is so radical that the Long Beach Fire Department wouldn’t even let it run at Formula Drift’s season opener, claiming that they didn’t have adequate time to prepare for the extra demands of a potential EV mishap.
The Camaro EL1's name is “Freedom,” as noted on top of its windshield. “That’s why this country is so kick-ass: we innovate, because people are free,” said Bergenholtz.
This bitchin’ Camaro wasn’t picked specifically to upset American muscle fanatics. Rather, the Napoleon Motorsports team has run Chevrolets for years, not just in the past five years for Trans Am, but going even further back to the team’s short track and drag racing days.
While Napoleon Motorsports was competitive in Trans-Am’s TA2 class, they went all-in on Formula Drift this year because FD offered a wide-open rulebook where they could build exactly what they want: the series’ first-ever EV.
And they hope it will open the door to even bigger and crazier things when it comes to electric race cars.
The team got the idea to run an EV in Formula Drift from a video they watched in Summer 2018 of an electric BMW drifting. Formula Drift is the perfect place to tinker with electric drivetrain tech, too, as the series’ short, sub-minute-long runs are well-suited to the current limitations of high-performance EV technology, Joe explained.
Before dropping a ton of money on the build, Napoleon Motorsports had to make sure it had a place to run. Napoleon Motorsports is based just outside of Houston, so, the team approached Formula Drift about the idea in September 2018 during its round at Texas Motor Speedway near Ft. Worth. Thankfully, Formula Drift was all for it, and excited about having something new.
That being said, the build didn’t really get started until October 2018, after the team got approval to enter Formula Drift in 2019. The team assembled the Camaro EL1 in less than five months to make the car’s first planned event in April.
Finding the Camaro was the easy part. When members of the team’s namesake Napoleon family mentioned to a friend that they’d like to do an electric drift build, that friend offered them a wrecked Camaro on the spot.
“We went and picked it up, and it was obviously an insurance job,” explained Joe. “It got hit, and it was a relatively light hit in the right front by a freight train, of all things.”
Honestly, a car that got hit by a train might just be the single most fitting origin story I’ve ever heard for a full-contact Formula Drift build.
“It took out a lot of body stuff, and body parts are really expensive,” Joe continued. That’s less of a problem when you end up working with Anderson Composites to make your own ultra-lightweight body panels out of carbon fiber. The only factory body panels left now are the front bumper and the roof.
“Body parts in the world of drift are dispensable items, so that whole thought process even led to developing the whole new body kit for the Camaro that the EL1 possesses,” Joe explained.
The Camaro came to Napoleon Motorsports’ shop for its teardown, which shares a facility with the Napoleons’ other family business, Turnkey Industries.
Turnkey makes trailers and truck parts for everything from oil industry service rigs to pro teams’ race car haulers. For them, the race team is one big research and design exercise, and they said they’re already using some of the knowledge gained from building this drift EV on the trailer-building side.
“As we got the car torn down, we found more and more and more to take off this car,” Joe explained. “We took every little stud, welded bracket, everything we could within the guidelines to get the weight down.”
Even though they added 800 pounds worth of batteries, the final weight of the Camaro EL1 was around 3,000 pounds—about 300 pounds less than the curb weight of a stock sixth-generation Camaro.
“We engineered a car together,” Joe explained. “We didn’t do a simple [build where you] pull the motor out, build an adapter plate and run a bunch of cables,” he continued.
Once the car was stripped, the team’s lead chassis fabricator Robert Quezada installed a roll cage. Shocks, control arms and a bar connecting the front shock towers went in next as the team finalized their drivetrain plans.
SLR Speed machined the front suspension from a design done by pro drifter Chelsea DeNofa , which lets the wheels to turn at extreme angles in competition.
The kit also allows them to run a lot of negative camber where the top of the wheel sits further in from the bottom, such that the car is less prone to understeer and the angle of the tire compensates for how it wears during hard use. The rear suspension uses the stock pickup points, but is entirely Napoleon Motorsports’ own design. Both ends of the car use BC Shocks.
From there, the waiting began. The car sat for a while as an empty, caged shell. If Formula Drift rejected the team’s plans, a regular combustion engine could fit in the Camaro without too much difficulty. Still, Napoleon Motorsports held off on a mass-order of EV components until they knew the series would approve their build plans.
Getting approval for the Camaro EL1's finalized design required the team to be in constant contact with Formula Drift officials. The series looked to other motorsports like Formula E to come up with their own set of EV rules, but not everything those other series do necessarily applies to a drift car.
There were few EV builders they could turn to for advice during the build, and none had done a project like this one. “I can’t even count on my hand the amount of experts that are involved with performance electrics,” Bergenholtz explained.
Even then, as Long Beach painfully pointed out, getting individual venues prepared for the slightly different needs of EV racing can be an uphill battle. The week before the car went to Orlando, the team worked to meet new standards based on those used by Tesla road cars that the series believed would alleviate the fears of future venues’ staffs.
Their 25 pages of safety documentation prepared ahead of the first round grew to 42 pages for Orlando, but that was enough to meet the venue staff’s approval. The team is already working with other future venues on Formula Drift’s schedule to make sure another Long Beach-style denial doesn’t happen again.
That being said, Formula Drift now has some of the most comprehensive rules for EV racing in motorsports. Napoleon Motorsports dealing with the back-and-forth issues means that it should be much easier for future teams to drift an EV, or even introduce EVs into other new series.
Getting parts in was another wait, as most electric vehicle conversion suppliers out there at the moment cater mostly to hobbyists, and aren’t used to the demands of a racing team operating under a quick deadline.
“Everybody wanted to take forever to get everything done,” Joe said.
Once the all the necessary components were in and the plans were approved, it was a mad dash to order everything and assemble it all.
“What’s really cool about EL1 is we’ve taken basic stuff that’s available to every consumer and we’ve packaged them and brought them together,” said Joe. Yet getting those components to work together took a lot of design and fabrication work, especially since they were doing something completely separate from the eCOPO Camaro that also came out last year.
“[When] you get a part, it doesn’t typically take but 30 minutes to put it on, but it takes days and hours to engineer everything around it to make it work,” said Joe. “That’s just motorsports.”
Sometimes supply issues also forced them to fabricate something themselves, and luckily, that’s worked out pretty well.
“We tried to get batteries, but ran into a brick wall there, so we developed all of the battery canister and shadow box to replicate that of a standard V8 engine and transmission,” Joe explained.
Having the EL1's lithium iron phosphate batteries as their own self-contained unit allowed the team to plumb a line for firefighters to pump fire-suppressing foam into the system directly in case of an emergency using a quick-connect. This is in addition to an onboard fire suppression system that can quickly douse a cabin or engine bay fire. That battery container sits inboard of the car’s front crash zones, and the team designed it to meet the same standards Turnkey has to use for its industrial applications.
The Camaro EL1's batteries have more capacity than the car really needs for Formula Drift’s short runs, too. Each individual cell isn’t worked as hard as it would be in a smaller, lighter battery setup. That makes the car safer as the batteries don’t give off as much heat, and it also means that it should stay pretty reliable throughout this first season.
Because the batteries don’t generate a ton of heat, the car’s cooling needs are pretty minimal. A twenty-minute practice run only raises the temperature of the battery cells by about 1.5° F. A CSF racing radiator keeps the inverter within its optimal working conditions.
The team monitors all 120 battery cells individually to make sure nothing’s out of balance using an Elite Power Solution battery management system. Each individual battery contains four of these cells.
Plans also evolved as other partners joined on to the project. One of the earliest ideas involved using a Tesla Model S as a parts donor, a car which they never got back from Joe’s wife. Electric vehicle parts company EV West joined onto the Camaro EL1 project shortly thereafter, pushing the team to use a customized solution for its drivetrain and solidifying the Model S’s newfound status as a daily driver. EV West provided the motor, controller and technical assistance to the build.
When we spoke ahead of the Orlando event, the car hadn’t run at a Formula Drift event yet, but it had tested enough to burn out a screen they needed to adjust the Camaro EL1's regenerative braking.
This feature charges the engine, which they don’t really need to have for Formula Drift’s short runs, but it also provides some resistance when the driver is off-throttle that mimics the engine braking behavior of a regular combustion-powered car.
“The components are shaped and installed in a way that replicates the weight distribution and balance of a normal combustion vehicle to give the driver what he’s accustomed to drive,” said team marketing director Justin Napoleon.
Something that can’t quite be replicated with no clutch in the car is a clutch kick, where drifters push in the clutch pedal to decouple the drivetrain from the spinning wheels. It’s a way to break the tires loose when they have too much grip.
That being said, the magnet-less motor for the EL1 freewheels when the driver is not pressing the throttle, not unlike an old Saab, or what happens when you coast with the clutch in on a car with a manual transmission. The motor uses a series of pulsing electrical charges to spin the rotor inside the motor, and it only sends these electrical pulses when the throttle is pressed.
When the EL1's throttle isn’t pressed, the motor itself doesn’t have any effect on the wheels’ movement. The Driveshaft Shop Stage 100 axles keep spinning. While there is still some resistance from the EL1's regenerative braking system, otherwise, it freewheels.
Reeder said that he mainly initiates drifts using the throttle and the car’s hydraulic handbrake. There’s enough power to brake the tires loose on command by simply laying into the throttle pedal, so he doesn’t need to kick the clutch to do that.
Reeder can’t hear how the throttle input affects the engine’s performance anymore, so he says he drives a lot more with his “butt dyno.”
“The feeling that you get in the seat of what the car’s doing—you have to really pay attention to that because you can’t hear if you’re wide-open throttle,” Reeder explained. “When you’re out solo, you can hear the tire pitch change, so there is some noise with change of throttle, but when you have another car by you, it kind of gets drowned out.”
That motor sits where the rear axle would usually go. It’s a Bosch-style three-phase brushless, magnet-less motor and inverter unit, speced out just for the EL1 that can spin as fast as 16,000 RPM. This is a big improvement over having a fuel cell in the rear, given that the motor’s weight sits lower in the car. There’s also no change in the weight balance of the car when fuel gets used (as there’s no fuel) and no issues running at different elevations, either.
The team set up the electric motor to have a similar, but slightly better torque curve to that of a high-performance internal combustion engine. Again, familiarity was key. The drivetrain produces 514 brake horsepower.
It’s also a lot safer than you might expect outside of the self-contained battery box, too. Alternating current (abbreviated as AC) is the biggest danger in the electrical system, as that’s what can turn you into a big human electrical ground if you’re not careful getting out of a wrecked EV.
“The inverter that contains the alternating current is attached directly to the motor which is [performs the functions of] the transmission, driveline and everything in one nice little package,” Joe explained. “So, it contains that alternating current to just that motor unit.”
Usually, this style of AC-containing motor unit would sit behind the rear axle, but the team moved it further forward for better weight distribution as well as to get it out of the car’s rear crush zone.
“Everything exposed in that car is straight DC voltage, which would be no different than taking a whiz on an electric fence,” Joe explained. While Ren and Stimpy taught 90s kids to never do that, Joe’s point is that the DC, or direct current, voltage might be unpleasant, but you’d live.
“DC voltage is considered ‘high’ around 600 volts—we’re at 430,” Joe said of the wires that come out of the motor unit. Just in case anything happens, though, a Health 1st trauma pack and defibrillator rides on the car.
Another safety item they’re installing is a simple one: a horn. While the short, loud nature of Formula Drift runs doesn’t need an external speaker or siren to alert people of its presence on track like you’d hear on an electric Pikes Peak car, it’s quiet enough in the paddock that a horn should come in handy.
Inside the car, Sparco seats, harnesses and a steering wheel round out the interior.
Some of the most unexpectedly complicated items weren’t in the drivetrain itself. The front splined swaybar system, for example, was developed from other racing parts Napoleon Motorsports has on hand. There’s now a selection of about 40 different swaybar sizes to set the car up for different course conditions.
The DCE Electronics EPASS 35 electric power steering system took a long time to sort out as well. Currently, it’s more of a voltage drain than the drivetrain itself. At one point in sorting it out, the controls were inverted, such that turning left turned the wheels right. (Fortunately, that bug is no more.)
The car runs on staggered König Ampliform wheels that are 20" x 9.5"in the rear and 19" x 8.5" in the front, all on Nitto NT555G2 tires. Wilwood brakes bring it to a halt, with three-piston calipers up front and a dual-piston, dual-caliper setup in the rear.
The best part about this build is that they ended up with a drivetrain where there are far fewer wear items and parts to break.
“There’s no U-joints, no oil lines or dry sumps and all these things vital to driving an air compressor,” said Joe, referring to a combustion engine’s numerous parts.
There’s no transmission, clutch or differential to destroy, no turbos or superchargers to break down, and far fewer maintenance items that need to be taken care of during a race weekend.
“Rather than change the oil and do all this other garbage, just make sure it’s charged up. That’s it!” Bergenholtz explained.
It’s part of the reason why Napoleon Motorsports believes EVs could really catch on in the world of drift.
“Once we get the bugs and kinks worked out of this car, we have eliminated so many costs and for someone to pick up this sport, we want to help show them that they, too, can do this and it’s within reach,” Joe explained.
While drifting is a judged motorsport, the team isn’t concerned about the people who complain about the EL1's lack of noise. Drift fans tend to be younger, and more open to welcoming new tech.
“Think about when 2010 [or] 2011 came around, and people started LS-swapping and V8-swapping drift cars and it was all of a sudden the end of the world,” Reeder explained. “Everyone hated it, and now everyone and their mom has a V8-swapped 240 and it’s the hot shit. It’s no different than that. People are scared of change.”
Besides, the team noticed that a lot of the same fans who commented the Camaro EL1 was the worst or that it would fail in some spectacular way were many of the same commenters who were disappointed not to see it run at Long Beach.
“Even though they hated it, they still wanted to see it,” said Justin.
As for effects on the actual competition, Reeder admitted that the judges may have a learning curve getting used to judging things like throttle commitment on a run without the audio cue of a combustion engine blaring at full throttle.
“They’re going to have to train themselves to judge a little differently,” Reeder explained of solo runs. “But in tandem, there’s not going to be any difference. They watch how the car moves—fluidity, proximity and how the car drives—and that’s no different than any other Formula D car.”
That being said, the team says they’re being careful with how they introduce EV tech into Formula Drift. New technologies that make driving too easy, or are such an absurd advantage over the rest of the field often get banned by racing series, and that’s not what they want to happen to electric vehicles in Formula Drift. After all, that’s already been the case with Alta electric bikes’ ban from AMA motocross.
Either way, the team says that this is just “phase one” of their plans for the build. They wouldn’t elaborate on what they might be up to next, but this certainly isn’t the Camaro’s final form.
They were also adamant about the EL1 being a work in progress. Sadly, intermittent issues they couldn’t fix on short notice sidelined the car in Orlando, so they went back to using Reeder’s backup car. The team realizes there will be ups and downs, but as the initial guinea pigs for technology that’s new to pro drifting, they’re expecting all kinds of issues as the car gets sorted.
They’d love a Pro championship or to see Reeder get Rookie of the Year, but they’re also realistic about the uphill battle they took on with this car, and are in it for the long haul to prove that an EV can drift well.