Quiet. Weirdly quiet. That's probably the most striking thing. And, while I'd hesitate to say "fast," it wasn't quite as slow as you might think. But still pretty slow. Pretty very slow.
I also dragged a Chevy Volt that same night, to quite similar results, if a bit louder and a bit quicker. I was at Willow Spring's drag racing night because I'd just been shooting a big electric car segment at the track with ABC's Nightline — I'll talk about that more in a later post.
We came to the track with a Nissan Leaf, a Chevy Volt, and a Tesla Model S, though for a number of reasons I was forbidden to drive the Tesla and we weren't allowed to drag race the car or even take it on the track. Which is too bad, since as we drove down the paddock, everyone wanted to see that Tesla on the dragstrip.
That same vocal everyone who wanted to see the Tesla on the drag strip couldn't donate two fecal lumps to see the Leaf or the Volt on the strip. Which is too bad, since both Chevy and Nissan let us do pretty much whatever the hell we wanted with those cars, and I vigorously mistreated both of them.
Actually, it's not just apathy people seemed to have for the Leaf on the dragstrip — it bordered on something between disgust, dismay, and contempt. A drag strip in the California desert isn't really the Leaf's core market, and it shows. Now, not everyone was hostile, and the track has had its share of non-traditional cars, including Prii and Smart cars in the past, but as I entered the line to race, the looks I was getting weren't really ones of admiration.
I was to run the Leaf against the Zelectric Bug, as a sort of all-electric car race. I wanted to race it against something loud and more traditionally hairier, because I thought it would be funny, but the Zelectric builder really wanted to try his Beetle out against the Leaf.
We get in position, and I can hear the announcer talking about the "cars of the future." The crowd, which had been pretty loud and boisterous, waited out the countdown with us, as the Christmas tree blinked down to green. It hit green, I stomped the gas and... silence.
We both took off, sure, but the lack of engines revving and loud pipes bratting out exhaust was just bizarre. It felt like without the noise, no one knew exactly what to do. I was told later the announcer commented that this was the "quietest he'd ever heard the track."
The comparatively glacial pace of the cars probably also contributed to the strangely sedate atmosphere of the track during the race as well. With ECO mode off and my foot holding the accelerator to the floor, I managed a 14.871 second time at 71.41 MPH. That seems decent until I remembered that the track is 1/8 of a mile, not 1/4. Which makes it seem, um, less decent.
I was a bit disappointed with the Leaf's performance because I know electric motors, making all their torque from a standstill, can accelerate quite well. There must be some software going on to de-fun the car a bit, because I found the throttle response lacking both on the track and on the drag strip.
I did manage to beat the Zelectric Bug, but that was partially due to the driver running it only in 2nd gear. On the next race, when I was in the Volt, he started in 1st and beat me off the line easily, even though I caught up in the end. The Volt, in "sport" mode, did the 1/8 in 14.135 with a top speed of 76.59. A little better, but not much.
There absolutely are and will be more electric cars that wreak holy hell on drag strips, but the Leaf isn't one of them, and the hybrid Volt isn't too much better. But I don't think that's because of anything inherent. I suspect our hot rod kids of the future will be using software to really get these motors to scream. Nissan has a Leaf racing car, called the Leaf RC, that we'll be trying soon, and that may give a better idea.
Still, the silence. Silence should stay put in libraries and in between jokes at open-mic nights where it belongs, and get the hell off America's racetracks. The next time I drag an electric car, I want a Van De Graff generator on the back shooting arcs of lightning and making everyones hair stand up while it pops and crackles and booms like an unholy electron monster. A Tesla coil could work, too, but I can sell more ads on the big sphere of the Van de Graff. I'm always thinking.