The Sparks Fly

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 23, 2012

TAMPA, FLORIDA -- John Wayland, who runs the legendary “White Zombie,” an electric drag-racing 1972 Datsun 1200 that can, and regularly does, smoke the top gun muscle cars, was pacing the stage at the EV Expo in Florida. Despite knowing the secret sauce that allows his street-legal econobox to leave Dodge Challenger R/Ts (with nitrous) and Nissan Skyline GT-Rs eating dust, he’s clueless about Power Point. Plugging the speakers into the laptop’s mike input was not going to give his video the mighty roar he was after.

The White Zombie gets its nose in the air. (Plasma Boy Racing photo)Actually, Wayland has had his share of mishaps. He got his nickname, Plasma Boy, in 1998 after he dropped a brass clamp bar onto the top of White Zombie’s 336-volt Genesis batteries, causing a massive short and the formation of a vivid blue ball of plasma that ate most of the car. Nevertheless, he went racing the next day, with the help of his close friend, Otmar Ebenhoech, inventor of the legendary Zilla EV controller, who was with him in Florida. It was Ebenhoech who fixed the Power Point problem.

Actually, reversed cables and shooting sparks play big roles in some of Wayland’s best stories, which are all dedicated to the proposition that electric cars aren’t slow, Ralph Nader-ized grandma cars. In 1980, he tripped over an old war surplus generator from a DC3 in his father-in-law’s garage and, intrigued by the idea that it could run a car, installed it in a Datsun. Running without a controller, he twisted the driveline and cracked the transmission, but it moved. By 1994, he was winning fledgling drag races set up by Portland, Oregon’s electric car club—using helicopter batteries and a diesel starting solenoid as a controller.

Much later, shooting for a 10-second quarter mile, Wayland assembled the car and was surprised both by its new level of power and its lack of control. When driver Tim “Cool Hand Luke” Brehm took off down the straights he was sideways all over the track, but smoking the tires still at 100 mph. The car was turning in mid-10s (its best time ever on lithium ion is an ET of 10.258 at 123.79 mph) and won the race, but strained to stay on a straight course. Back at the garage, it turned out that its 2,000-amp Zilla controller had been putting out 3,000 amps—because Wayland had reversed the wires hooking it up. And the car itself was on steroids, with 981 horsepower at the wheels.

John Wayland at the EV Expo, getting ready for the Florida races. (Jim Motavalli photo)Despite White Zombie’s prowess (a zero to 60 time of 1.8 seconds, making Lamborghinis look like Tata Nanos), it’s in the street class for a reason. “With the current Dow/Kokam lithium-ion batteries, I can drive to the track, blow away muscle cars, then head home—with enough charge left to do errands the next day,” says Wayland. Based in Portland, he recently drove the car to the races in Seattle, Washington, a distance of 173 miles on I-5. Fortunately, the corridor is wired with EV chargers—the Zombie has 100-mile range, so Wayland had to stop only once.

Wayland is, like nearly everybody at EV Expo, a cheerleader and proselytizer for electric transportation. The National Electric Drag Racing Association he co-founded (in 1996 “with a small group of ampheads meeting at a local pizza eatery”) is now a respected competitor, sanctioned by the National Hot Rod Association. Wayland doesn’t even seem to mind that there are now EV dragsters out there faster than White Zombie. Shawn Lawless, for instance, has broken the 10-second barrier with a 9.8-second E.T. at 132 mph. His ride is Lemon Juice, a yellow Chevy pickup running four GE motors on a single direct chain drive, hooked up to a pair of 2,000-amp Zilla controllers and a Flight Power 333-volt lithium battery pack.

Shawn Lawless’ Lemon Juice: breaking the 10-second barrier. (NEDRA photo)“There’s a guy with a Pontiac Fiero breaking into the low 9s,” says Wayland, who is wearing a black White Zombie T-shirt and still exhibiting the boyish enthusiasm that led him to convert that first Datsun. “The electrics are getting a reputation, and people are telling us they don’t want to go up against a car with batteries.” It’s safe to say that the slow-poke image is history.

Who says you can’t race an electric Ford Pinto? (Jeff Floyd photo)Wayland and crew (including Chip Gribben, the designer who created the White Zombie T-shirt) were in Florida to work—with the NEDRA Florida Nationals, sponsored by the EV Expo, at Bradenton Motorsports Park February 23 and 24.

What’s the future of electric drag racing? Wayland says a series is in the works. An issue, believe it or not, is sound—which explains why Wayland was toiling over those speakers. The race was exciting because the muscle car he beat was hitting the redline—White Zombie was as quiet as a Nissan Leaf. “Big-block V-8s sound even cooler when they’re losing against an electric,” Wayland said. Nonetheless, two EVs going up against each other won’t require earplugs—and that’s not necessarily a positive thing when it’s entertainment value we’re talking about.

The power electrics guru and Zilla inventor Otmar Ebenhoech. (Jim Motavalli photo)These guys are experimenters, so we probably haven’t seen the last of a competitive White Zombie—it can get into the 9s too (see the video below). Ebenhoech has his own projects, which range from an all-electric plane to a battery-powered VW Vanagon (to go with the stretch one he already has). Despite all the wild stories, both Wayland and Ebenhoech are sticklers for safety, and if anyone has gotten hurt in electric drag racing, I haven’t heard about it. But the sparks do fly. Here’s John Wayland on my video camera, but find Plasma Boy’s video library here:

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