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The History Of Electric Drag Cars And EV Drag Racing

It's hard to imagine a sport better suited to the specific strengths of electric vehicles than drag racing. The ability to instantaneously put down massive amounts of torque is a huge advantage for electric motors, especially during a short quarter mile burst that doesn't put much of a strain on the cooling systems required for optimal battery usage.

Electric Engine Bay

You may not be surprised to learn that EV drag racing is growing in popularity as the technology behind battery-powered automobiles continues to develop and drop in price. There are national organizations dedicated to running electric-only drag events, manufacturers are starting to bring out factory-backed EV drag packages, and of course grassroots racers are building their own electric street machines that can put up impressive ETs.

Let's take a look at how electric drag cars evolved from rare curiosity to sophisticated front-runners supported by a growing aftermarket of go-fast tuners, vendors, and drivers.

Humble Roots

Electric cars have been in the mix since the beginning of the automotive age, but battery-powered designs eventually lost out among mainstream manufacturers well before America fully embraced the motorized carriage. Still, they put up a good fight in terms of sheer speed, fending off gasoline and steam models in the record books until the mid-1920s. For much of the next 70 years, electric cars would be considered a novelty, one-offs built by hobbyists or experimental designs from mainstream manufacturers, with almost no presence in organized motorsport of any kind.

White Zombie EV drag racer

That began to change in the late 80s and early 90s, when the cost of the batteries required to juice an electric motor, and the electronic technology and software needed to manage a drivetrain setup, began to gently slope into the realm of the hobbyist. Now the same folks who might have once tinkered in the garage on a carbureted street machine could instead afford to swap carbon for electrons.

It was here that the foundations of organized electric drag racing began to be laid. Two men in particular, John Wayland and Roderick Wilde, would parlay their fascination with the potential of electric cars into a group that would gather together like-minded individuals interested in more than just saving a few bucks on gas with their green machines.

White Zombie Electric Drag Racer side view

Wayland and Wilde had become friends due to their shared interest in the Portland, Oregon electric car scene, as well as their appreciation for speed. The former's Datsun 1200 and the latter's Mazda RX7 were based largely on off-the-shelf forklift engines tuned not so much for range but for performance. In a pre-Prius, pre-Volt world, their preference for EVs was far from mainstream, but by 1997 they had gathered enough interest in the Pacific Northwest to form the National Electric Drag Racing Association.

Momentum Builds, Technology Improves

NEDRA might have started with a mere 50 members, but within two years it had already successfully petitioned the National Hot Rod Association to sanction its cardholders at their events. The helped break down a major barrier between the traditional drag racing world and electric drag cars, which had often encountered resistance or flat-out refusal when attempting to get on-track.

Improved EV engine bay technology

Many of these early racers made use of lead-acid batteries not unlike standard 12-volt designs, which meant that vehicles were often heavily weighed down by their power packs—and delivered meager range as a result. Over the course of the next decade, however, a gradual shift to lithium-ion batteries (made possible, again, by diving technology costs), would see more sophisticated, and lighter-weight electric drag cars start to hit the track.

EV drag racer

Another frequent feature of EV dragsters was the use of multiple motors running in tandem to produce as much power as possible—something much simpler to attain with electric power as compared to twin-engine gas or alcohol dragsters. A further advantage for electric drag cars of the time was the ability to redistribute battery weight throughout the chassis, rather than concentrating it all in one spot as is the case with an internal combustion design.

Faster And Faster

As the price of EV technology continued to dive, so did electric drag racing ETs. Although early cars were fast if they could post a quarter mile run in the 13 second range, by 2010 electric drag bikes were below 8 seconds. Less than a decade later cars would join them, with both doorslammers and dragsters posting similar times, and modified street machines from well-known brands like Tesla joining the 7-second club. Even legends of the sport would get involved: currently, NHRA hall of famer 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits holds the record for the fastest (189.04) as well as quickest (7.29) EV pass of all time with his Swamp Rat 38, each set in 2019.

Don Garlits Swamp Rat 38

It wasn't long before automakers had taken note of NEDRA's status as an NHRA Alternative Sanction Organization (and SFI + IHRA member), as well as the increased interest from both regular consumers and drag racing fans in the potential of electric motors on the track. This led to the development of in-house electric drag racing platforms intended to show off leadership in the EV space while also demonstrating that, with the right amount of investment, electric cars could keep pace with their fuel-powered counterparts.

eCOPO Camaro Drag Car

Two of the most recent efforts have been the Chevrolet eCOPO Camaro Concept and the Ford Mustang Cobra Jet 1400. The eCOPO debuted at the 2018 SEMA show with 1100 horsepower from a pair of 700-amp electric motors, mated to the same transmission and suspension setup offered by the standard gas-powered COPO drag cars.

Ford Mustang Cobra Jet 1400

Ford's Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 topped the eCOPO's output by 400 ponies when it was released this year. Combined with 1,100 lb-ft of torque, the car is also designed to undercut the Camaro's ET by a full second by posting an 8-second run at a trap speed of 170-mph.

The Next Step In Racing?

Although both the CJ and the eCOPO are prototypes, and have yet to be cleared for the same limited production that each respective company gives to its dedicated fuel dragsters, the bolt-in nature of their EV drivetrains is a strong indicator of just how far the sport has come in a very short period of time. With a wider range of platforms available to those would build electric drag cars, and a vast increase in the number of e-motors and battery designs available on the general market, creativity, more than budget, would seem to the only thing holding back the next generation of EV drag racing talent.

Want to learn more about the Ford Mustang Cobra Jet 1400? We've got all the details right here.

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