An Electric Off-Road Racer: 535 Horsepower and Something to Prove

By · May 14, 2013

On the Mexican 1000

Recharging the EV1 took 4.5 hours. (SRI photo)

Think about it: Is an electric car the ideal vehicle for an historic 1,200-mile no-holds-barred off-road race through Mexico’s rugged Baja Peninsula early this month? Probably not, except for Jeff Smith, founder of the non-profit Strategic Recovery Institute (SRI). He used the the NORRA Mexican 1000, with a history dating to 1967, to prove what electric vehicles can do.

The SRI EV1 is certainly a fearsome beast, with 535 horsepower (400 kilowatts) and 750 foot-pounds of torque from its pair of NetGain Warp 9 motors. No gas tank, but it carries 138 CALB 3.3-volt prismatic batteries adding up to 82 kilowatt hours and 100-mile range. It looks like, well, a dune buggy on steroids.

Flesh Willing, Batteries Challenged

Remember what I said about 100-mile range, and this being a 1,200-mile race? The ideal would be to have battery swap capability, a big ground team, and several fresh and charged packs at the ready so downtime would be minimized. The concept was there, but not the money.

“It was physics and funding,” Smith said. “We only had money to purchase one set of batteries—they’re $40,000 a set. To be really competitive, we would need two other support vehicles outfitted with a hoist, generators, and extra chargers—around $250,000 more would come close to the delta we need.”

On the Mexican 1000

The EV1 team in Mexico. (SRI photo)

Still Standing

But SRI was happy with the results. The team wanted the EV1 to finish six of nine special stages of the Mexican 1000, and it ended up finishing five, and half of two others. It never broke down. The battery charge took 4.5 hours, and the length of some of the stages made them out of competitive reach. On Stage 1, the team averaged 47.4 mph, which was seven m.p.h. faster than planned. The stage was finished with 15 percent of charge left. For the whole race, the EV1 averaged 41.6 mph.

Oddly, one of the biggest threats to EV1 completing its part of the race had nothing to do with batteries or electric motors—it was a nail picked up in the left rear tire near the end of the first day. But the Ride On tire pressure sensors and puncture sealer came to the rescue, and the tire was swapped during a pit stop.

The team estimates that the EV1 cost $24 per 100 miles of operation, versus $420 for the gas-powered racers. A motor swap is $500, versus $10,000 for the ICE competitors. The electric racer, running with off-the-shelf components, ran flawlessly for five days straight, operated 12 hours daily by novices.

On the Mexican 1000

Rockin' through the desert. (SRI photo)

Proving the Point

“We really did plan our race, and race our plan,” Smith said, “and we had as perfect an outcome as we could have hoped. We encountered many naysayers who scoffed at what we were trying to do, but the team also has many supporters and they kept us focused on the goal and getting through many a dark night.”

By the way, the competitors in this race are an eclectic lot, ranging from custom-made buggies like the EV1 to beefy modified trucks, a '68 Meyers-Manx and a vintage '56 VW Beetle. The overall vintage winner was a '78 Dodge pickup.

The EV1 is supposed to be the first of many. SRI intends to market a version of the vehicle under the Strategic Racing Designs brand, and hopes for military customers. One can easily imagine electric troop carriers serving forward bases in Afghanistan, avoiding long, vulnerable fuel convoys and heat signatures that are missile targets. Add portable solar charging and it seems a very viable picture.

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