SAN FRANCISCO --
Wayne Keith, a hay farmer from Springville, Ala. (population 3,000),
pulled into Berkeley last week driving a lime-green pickup truck that
runs mostly on wood chips but sometimes cow dung, too.
Keith, who wore dirt-flecked overalls and a trucker's cap, was in
town to compete in the first Escape from Berkeley race, a kind of mini
Cannonball Run to Las Vegas for drivers of vehicles that run on
anything but petroleum. Two other racers relied on vegetable oil, one
on alcohol and one on steam power to run his carriage (mostly for show;
after a few miles, it was put on a trailer to traverse some of the
Contestants in the three-day race starting Oct. 11, were tempted by
the $5,000 purse - awarded to the team reaching the Sahara Hotel and
Casino valet parking area first, about 600 miles away - but most seemed
equally pleased to show off their inventions to the public. They also
wanted to see if their vehicles could withstand the jagged topography
of the Sierra Nevada and the bleak flatness of Death Valley.
"I haven't paid for gas in three years," Keith said, looking at the
bags of wood scraps he had collected for free from a shutter company in
Lubbock, Texas. "I'd like to win the race, sure, but the real incentive
is to show people the technology works."
Yet showing people the technological wonders of gasless cars has
been a challenge. The technology for non-petroleum vehicles has been
available for decades, but even General Motors has been struggling to
fit a cost-effective titanium battery into its electric car, the Volt.
On Wednesday, the San Jose alternative energy startup Tesla Motors
announced it would close its Detroit office, lay off employees and
delay production of its battery-powered mid-market sedan, the Model S,
until 2010. The company blamed the troubled economy and difficulty in
raising financing, yet it has produced 650 Tesla Roadsters, the
electric car that sells for $109,000.
Until gasless cars are available on the mass market, the difficult
trek to Las Vegas illustrates that petroleum-free cars are for
environmental enthusiasts with inventor streaks rather than for
Craig Reece, owner of Berkeley's PlantDrive, one of the largest
retailers of diesel engine converter kits, estimates that between
100,000 and 300,000 people in the United States now drive on vegetable
oil, a tiny fraction of cars on the road. More than 250 million
passenger cars were registered in 2006, according to the U.S.
Department of Transportation.
Fred Benoit, a representative for the Massachusetts-based Grease Car
company, which sells conversion kits to run engines on grease, said
retail sales of the kits rose dramatically in the spring (along with
gas prices), yet the average American is still not ready to convert his
"Running off grease isn't as easy as pulling up to a station,
filling up and driving away," Benoit said. "It's a commitment, and most
Americans want their convenience - we're just not there yet."
Going gasless is messy
Back in Berkeley, the youngest racer, 16-year-old Calund Llaguno
from San Diego, arrived at the starting line in a 1984 maroon
Mercedes-Benz 300SD. He was dressed snazzily in suit and tie and topped
that off with a shaded racing helmet in honor of the anonymous test
driver The Stig on the British TV show "Top Gear."
The teenager converted the Benz diesel engine to run off vegetable
oil with the help of his father, Lundy Llaguno, who also wore a suit
and was required to sit shotgun to help his son complete the remaining
25 hours of his learner's permit.
"My son's idea was to dress racing-classy," Lundy Llaguno said of
their apparel after the race was completed. "But by the time we were
oily, we had to ditch that (idea)."
As in the 1981 Burt Reynolds flick "The Cannonball Run," mechanical
difficulties delayed the three-day journey. Of the 10 teams that signed
up, only seven made it to Berkeley able to actually race, and just five
got off the starting line. The motorcycle team had trouble with its
gasifier system; the solar-powered bike team had gear and brake
failures; and a Volkswagen van, also rejiggered for gasification,
leaked potentially toxic amounts of carbon monoxide back into the car.
But imperfections are the lot of DIY energy culture. Its adherents know that finding a solution to petroleum is messy business.
"It's part of the event's point," said Jessica Hobbs, the organizer
and a member of Shipyard Labs, an artists' colony in Berkeley that
turned into an alternative-energy colony when the city shut off its
power in 2001 in an attempt to force them out. The artisans, looking to
power their industrial space, quickly became experts in alt-energy. "A
lot of the innovation in this field is coming from people hacking away
in their garages, trying new things."
Somewhere before Mono Lake, Lundy Llaguno reported that the Mercedes
slowed to 45 mph. The chilly temperature had coagulated the vegetable
oil, gumming up the tubes; Lundy said the contents of the main tank had
jelled and looked like a thick vinaigrette dressing with speckles of
The father-and-son team had to reroute the tubes on the fly to keep
the oil warm and flowing, purportedly using a Paul Newman's grape juice
container and "a whole lot of zip-ties and duct tape" to solve the
His first car
The Mercedes is Calund's first car, and he nicknamed the luxury ride
"the Merc," short for "Mercedes," but also because "it acts like a
mercenary. If you don't pay it - or if you neglect it - it acts up on
you and doesn't work."
In the end, the delays cost the team valuable time; they had been the pre-race favorite to win, but arrived in third place.
It didn't cost a dime to fill their tank, Lundy Llaguno noted. The
two picked up donated oil from churches, restaurants and friends along
Keith, the hay farmer, used about 600 pounds of wood scrap, spending
what amounted to 1 cent per mile, he said. A blown tire helped Keith
Another team, which styled its Lotus Seven roadster after the '60s
television show "The Prisoner," had fewer technical glitches and
reached the finish line three hours ahead of Keith's pickup.
The winners were Jack McCornack and Sharon Westcott from Cave
Junction, Ore., who zipped along at a top speed of 72 mph and used 12
gallons of top-shelf canola oil to reach Las Vegas.
"The truth is, we decided to join the race before we read the fine
print and knew there was even a prize," McCornack said. "We were
inspired by efficiency."