Tesla tames Pikes Peak: NASCAR next?
Capable of distributing more than 750 horsepower from the factory and the most aerodynamic mass-produced car in history, the Tesla SP90D is effectively a road legal stock car.
And tech entrepreneur and electric vehicle racing pioneer Blake Fuller proved on July 1 that the zero emission four-door is every bit capable of matching its fuel-guzzling counterparts on the racetrack after he smashed the Pikes Peak Hill Climb record by more than a minute.
Never before had a Tesla been to the mountain to take part in the historic 12.42-mile challenge that features 156 turns over an ascent of just over 14,000 feet before drivers reach the snow-covered summit. But who better than Fuller, a previous winner of the event who designed the Braille and Go Puck batteries—the lithium ion technology used in every motorsports category from IndyCar to F1.
A gearhead and battery nerd combined, Blake helped build the first hybrid race car in North America, so taking a Tesla to the mountain and setting a new production electric vehicle record of 11 minutes 48 seconds was the logical next step.
Power-wise, how much did it differ from a Model S off the production line?
No more than two months prior to the hill climb, this car was a seven-seater Model S with a panoramic roof that I took my family on a road trip in to enjoy the redwoods of California. From the factory, the car is capable of over 450kw or 600 brake horsepower as an average horsepower for short periods. And it needs this power because in stock form the Tesla tips the scales at 5,300lbs fully equipped. In race form, we had almost 4,600 pounds to hustle up a mountain on street tires.
Did you max out the car’s potential or can it go quicker?
This car can go much quicker. In ‘Ludicrous’ mode it can reach over 750HP according to Tesla. During our run, we only averaged 250 to 300HP—just the right level to drive at to break the record and showcase the production vehicle’s capabilities. The Model S platform has the potential to go much quicker as we develop the program. Theoretically, the areas for improvement are in areas that are built in to the car to provide the utmost safety to regular drivers under a wide variety of road conditions. There’s more gogo juice in the car from a potential standpoint. In this run there was no need to tap into the ‘Ludicrous’ level.
Why didn’t you use all the power available to you?
While we have testing and know some of the potential, this effort was to showcase for the purpose of the record what could be done with a rule-compliant production car. I knew we were running at a quick pace but I was candidly driving in a manner where I had power in reserve so as to make sure that for the first outing of a Tesla racecar and the Go Puck Racing team in a public venue that we had a successful run—and not end up sitting on the side of the road looking ahead to next year. But moving forward, there is headroom on the table. And with my team’s knowledge on what we can do with batteries, it’s pretty exciting.
The Tesla has no lag or gear changes. What was it like to race compared to gas?
On race day you only have one chance to break the record, just one run. And there are 156 turns. It’s like doing 31 quarter miles in a row and that’s hard work in any car. But in an electric vehicle? It changes your driving style a lot and warps your perception of speed because there’s no engine noise to let you know how rapidly you’re gaining speed. And the Tesla wind insulation is so effective that when you’re doing 100 it just doesn’t feel like 100. It’s a recalibration of your senses as a racing driver. I’ve driven pretty much everything and this was a complete reset.
What was Tesla’s involvement?
It wasn’t a hidden factory effort by any means. I’m that mad thrill-seeking entrepreneur that loves racing. So for me, it was the fact nobody had done it yet, it was the 100th anniversary of the race and I was one of only 100 lucky people to be invited. And we thought if someone was going to take a Tesla to Pikes Peak and showcase not only what electric vehicles can do today, but what you can buy, that it was us. Previously, I had designed batteries that were to be used in the Tesla P85D and 90. So I had an intimate knowledge of their vehicles and their batteries, plus I’m a battery geek in general and have won Pikes Peak before [the 2002 Open Class, which allows for major modifications on stock cars]. Nobody had built a Tesla race car. It sounded fun. And the reception so far from people at Tesla has been very positive.
Are Tesla and cars like the Model S the future of production racing such as NASCAR?
It’s a never ending discussion of trying to balance the entertainment of motorsports with the existing sources of revenue, rules, politics, regulations and environmental benefits of electric vehicles. I think in the NASCAR format and ones similar, revenues on Monday equal who wins on Sunday. So I don’t think you will see Teslas in mainstream motorsports anytime soon because of their sales and revenue model—even if they were allowed. That’s why races like Pikes Peak are so enticing and we’re pursuing them, because they have about as many rules as they do guard rails.
Could a modified Tesla beat a Nascar over 10 laps at Daytona?
That’s an interesting question. I like that challenge. First, our coefficient drag is way less than a NASCAR vehicle. Two, there’s enough energy in a Tesla to be able to complete 10 laps at over 200-plus miles an hour; three, if it’s a one-off effort and doesn’t have to be a NASCAR certified vehicle, it’s possible. And four, it’s just a matter of changing the gearing that’s designed for cars to do 0-60 in 2.8 seconds to something that can do 200-something BHP an hour. I think with someone like Red Bull involved, we could make that challenge become a reality.