Fast love: The KillaCycle brought this couple together
Eva Håkansson and Bill Dubé fell in love with green technology, going fast, and each other. Now they're on a mission to make you believe that electric is sexy.
One of their homemade motorcycles, the KillaCycle, goes from 0 to 60 mph in less than one second. And that's without an engine. Engines use fuel and fire. This bike has no exhaust pipe, no radiator, no spark plugs, no transmission and no clutch. The electric drag motorcycle runs on two series-wound DC motors — the kind Germany used in its U1 submarines during World War I — and cordless tool batteries, the same kind used in DeWalt power tools. Dubé calls the KillaCycle a cordless drill on wheels.
The world's quickest, sexiest cordless drill.
It's a Wednesday morning in late May. The KillaCycle's only real competition today is the weather: Dark, low-slung clouds squat above Morrison's Bandimere Speedway, pregnant with rain and hail, ready to break water at any minute.
A television crew from the German science program Galileo has rented the entire racetrack for roughly $300 per hour, hoping to get footage of the KillaCycle in action. Up in the pits, the KillaCycle rests on patches of outdoor carpet next to its trailer, looking like some sleek black-and-orange waterbug with handlebars. Far below, large rolling machines lumber along the drag strip, scrubbing and conditioning the concrete, drying off the previous night's downpour and applying a new layer of skin-thin rubber.
Tracy Helmhold steps out of the KillaCycle trailer wearing his red-and-white Alpinestars racing leathers. A veteran motorcycle driver from Morrison, he's one of two pros who've set records atop the electric beast. Helmhold walks around the pit with a bowlegged gait and does an occasional squat to stretch against the aramid fibers in his suit. He looks like he's been riding a horse all morning; now he's preparing to ride several hundred at once.
"If I'm going to wreck, it'll happen between the trailer and the starting line," Helmhold says. "The bike isn't built for steering, and the tires aren't made for bumps or impressions in the pavement. The whole thing just wants to go fast. And because it's electric, there's no sound or warning; accelerating is like flipping a light switch. One flick of the throttle and it goes ballistic."
The film crew is eager to get to work and anxious about the rain. The fashionably disheveled cameraman hoists his camera on and off of his shoulder, sets it on the ground next to the KillaCycle and fiddles with his yellow foam earplugs. Dubé takes a few steps over, puts his hand on the cameraman's upper arm and gives a compassionate squeeze. He points at the earplugs and gently says, "You know you're not going to need those, right?"
Bill Dubé grew up in Cranston, Rhode Island. A member of the ecology club in high school, he graduated in 1971, fourteenth in his class — from the bottom. A glut of draft-dodging college applicants and his less-than-stellar academic record left him few viable options, so he enlisted in the military. After a couple of years tooling on small engines and catching jet planes for the Air Force, he returned home to Rhode Island and began work as a foreign-car mechanic and an apprentice electrician.
"The blizzard of '78 drove me out of Rhode Island," he remembers. "A buddy of mine gave me a deal on this old beater car, so I loaded it up and drove to Colorado." He started attending adult education classes in Aurora, where his introductory algebra teacher laughed at his aspirations of becoming an engineer. Soon enough, however, Dubé enrolled at the University of Colorado Denver — paying his own way on part-time jobs and a small check from the GI Bill — and earned a degree in mechanical engineering.
With his environmental orientation and electrical engineering education, it was no surprise when Dubé discovered electrathons in the 1980s. The events, which still take place all over the country, challenge participants to build battery-powered vehicles that can outlast the competition using only a limited amount of energy. At their core, they more closely resemble a dance marathon than an actual race; endurance is the main objective, and speed is irrelevant. "It was a bunch of tree-huggers and nerds building science projects," says Dubé.
He quickly recognized that electric vehicles should be both efficient and powerful and that mainstream motorists would never voluntarily buy EVs, as they're known, until both characteristics were available in one package. He also believed — in part because of timid, genteel events like the electrathon — that electric vehicles had a serious publicity problem.
To beef up their wimpy image, Dubé and a group of other enthusiasts decided to introduce EVs to drag racing. "Racing is less sophisticated, but it's a lot more exciting," Dubé points out. In 1996, he helped found the National Electric Drag Racing Association, becoming its first tech director and drafting the organization's safety rules. Dubé and NEDRA's inaugural president, Roderick "Wildman" Wilde, successfully lobbied the National Hot Rod Association, the primary governing body for American drag racing, to change a 56-year-old rule that required drag vehicles to have an internal combustion engine, opening the door for EVs to compete in official NHRA-sanctioned events.
Dubé's first homemade drag EV was a cherry-red 1985 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible named the Ewetwik Wabbit. In 1998, the Wabbit vomited its transmission onto the starting line of a drag strip in Portland, Oregon. Dejected during the long drive back to Denver, Dubé daydreamed about his next project. "Conversions always have issues," he says. "Cars are heavy and expensive, so I decided on that road trip that I wanted to build a motorcycle."
He spent six months creating the KillaCycle in the basement of his Park Hill bungalow. He dismantled the finished bike to get it up the stairs, then reassembled it and took it straight to the racetrack.
The KillaCycle dominated the electric-motorcycle scene for the next ten years. In August 2000, it became the world's fastest electric vehicle in the quarter-mile drag. It was the first electric vehicle of any kind to surpass 150 mph — once clocking in at a top speed of 174mph — and the first electric vehicle to break the eight-second barrier for quarter-mile drag racing, traveling 1,320 feet in 7.86 seconds. With 500 horsepower and an output of up to 375 volts, the Killacycle is still the world's quickest electric vehicle, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in under one second.
From the staging area, the entry to the Bandimere starting line looks like a square mouth, a wide strip of Dodger-blue paint lying between the two tracks like a tongue. A small four-wheeler runs up and down the track spraying what Helmhold calls "goop": PJ1 TrackBite, a special resin-based traction compound that helps tires stick to the concrete and doubles as a fire retardant.
"Don't walk across the path of the bike while you're filming; it's considered bad etiquette," Dubé advises the Galileo crew. "You wouldn't want to, anyway: The goop will suck your shoe off your foot if it's not laced tightly."
Helmhold slowly glides the KillaCycle downhill, a dark lozenge easing into the throat of the speedway. The air is wet and heavy; time is running out.
A track employee sprays a little water behind the KillaCycle; Helmhold walks the bike backward until its rear wheel sits in the puddle. It's time for the burnout: a drag-racing move in which the driver intentionally spins the rear wheel of the vehicle on the pavement, heating up the tire enough that it lays down a thin strip of rubber at the beginning of the track, theoretically improving traction. But mostly it's a roaring, smoky display of prowess and power meant to build excitement. If drag racing were sex, this would be the foreplay.
The cameraman tiptoes in, his forehead glistening with anticipation. The sound engineer follows close behind, his boom mike dangling overhead. Helmhold pulls on his helmet and gently slips the connector into the ignition. His shoulders and thighs brace to catch the sudden thrust. He cranks the throttle.
The KillaCycle goes clunk. Nothing happens.
Dubé rushes over. "That's not good," he mutters. "What happened? That's never happened before. Eva, do you have a Dzus? Honey, I need a voltmeter!"
Eva Håkansson drops her tool purse and sprints off, out the mouth of the racetrack, up the stairs and back to the pit.
Eva Håkansson took her first trip to the racetrack in a baby carrier. Her father, Sven, was a motorcycle builder and championship racer in Sweden long before she was born, competing in the 50cc class. He was the kind of character who would wake up one day, sniff the air and decide to build a desmodronic-valve engine — the sort used in some Ducati motorcycles — entirely from scratch.
Håkansson grew up in Nynäshamn, Sweden, a port municipality in Södermanland, 57 kilometers south of Stockholm on the shores of the Baltic Sea. "Sure, it was beautiful, but boring," she recalls. She passed the time by tinkering with technology, building things with her father in his workshop. Her parents fondly recall her constructing a model nuclear power plant out of cardboard and used soup cans when she was only four years old.
By the time Håkansson turned eighteen, her little projects had blossomed into serious science. She won the Swedish Junior Water Prize in 1999 for a biological wastewater treatment project that explored eutriphication in the Baltic Sea, proposing cost-effective, low-impact techniques for curbing excess nitrate and phosphate pollution. In 2000, she presented a project at the Swedish Exhibition of Young Scientists, proposing that purifying water with chlorine and boiling methods was too expensive and inefficient for practical use in emergency situations, and suggesting that high-voltage currents or high-efficiency heat exchangers could do the job faster, for less. The presentation earned her a place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Detroit — the Olympics of academic science competitions. Over 1,200 students from 48 states and 40 countries made presentations, but Håkansson's was one of just two that received the Schlumberger SEED International Prize.
Since her parents and two older brothers had all pursued educations in engineering, everyone assumed that Håkansson would follow in their footsteps when she graduated from her technical high school program. Instead, she took a rebellious turn and became a business major. "I wanted to do something different," she says, "and I decided that the easiest way to help the environment was through the economy." At Mälardalen University, she earned a bachelor's degree in business administration with an emphasis in ecological economics, and a bachelor's degree in environmental sciences.
In the meantime, she worked with her father to build her first electric motorcycle, the ElectroCat. They stripped all vestiges of the two-stroke combustion engine from an old Cagiva Freccia and replaced it with a permanent magnet DC motor, battery pack and controller. After extensive lobbying — and a little fibbing about its top speed, which exceeds all Swedish speed limits — the ElectroCat became Sweden's first street-legal electric motorcycle.
In 2007, while writing a book about electric vehicles, Håkansson contacted Dubé and requested permission to reprint a photograph of the KillaCycle. They met face-to-face that December, at the 23rd Electric Vehicle Symposium in Anaheim. EVS is the world's largest electric-drive conference, a massive gathering of the who's who and the what's what in the world of electric vehicles. Standing in the hallway outside a conference panel, Håkansson introduced herself and told Dubé she would love to take his KillaCycle for a ride.
"I don't let anyone ride the KillaCycle, not even me. Only professional drivers," says Dubé, who'd crashed the KillaCycle into a minivan while doing a burnout demonstration at the Wired NextFest in Los Angeles a few months earlier. "But I liked her, so I gave her the test anyway."
He pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet, creased it lengthwise and held it at the top end with his fingertips. He instructed Håkansson to hold her thumb and forefinger open at the opposite end, near the bottom of the bill, and to watch his fingers closely.
While she held her hand out, pincher grasp at the ready, he delicately explained that operating the KillaCycle requires far-beyond-average reflexes, and that when he lets go of the dollar, most folks catch the bill at the very top — the last possible moment — if at all. Håkansson didn't say anything. Her eyes met with his briefly, and then she focused on his hand. Dubé let go.
Håkansson pinched the bill right on Washington's face.
Dubé was in love.
Soon Håkansson was, too. She moved to the United States and, eighteen months later, rode down the aisle on the ElectroCat, dressed from head to toe in traditional Swedish attire. She and Dubé exchanged non-conductive wedding rings made from zirconium dioxide, an advanced ceramic material that is used to make the batteries in their motorcycles more powerful. Their chapel was a gleaming-white Boulder Electric Vehicle delivery truck.
At the Bandimere starting area, Dubé uses a Dzus fastener tool to detach the KillaCycle's fiberglass shell. Beneath the slick exterior, the bike has innards that look like an old computer — coiled wires, batteries, fuses, even an Ethernet cable. The Galileo crew continues filming Dubé and the KillaCycle while he hunts for the source of the malfunction. Håkansson returns, ripping through the staging area on an electric-assisted commuter bicycle. They find nothing wrong, so they reattach the top panel and prepare for a second attempt.
"Let's just make an easy pass to make sure everything is okay," says Dubé.
Helmhold reassumes his position over the bike and hits the throttle.
Other than the whir of its motors and the squeal of tires against the pavement, the bike is completely silent, but it is most certainly revived; a fierce plume of blue smoke rises from the spinning tire and envelops the film crew. Helmhold taxis forward to the start, watches for the green light and then launches down the track. Even taking it easy, the bike moves like a bullet.
"Maybe there was a moth in the connector, or a pebble, but it looks fine now," says Dubé. "You just never know. Sometimes these things happen." He puts his arm around Håkansson and she pats him on the stomach.
The day before, Dubé and Håkansson had welcomed the Galileo crew to the two-car garage behind their small home near I-70 and Kipling in Wheat Ridge: Team KillaCycle headquarters.
Kimmo Wiemann, the Galileo reporter, pointed to a hulking, 190-pound cube on the floor, replete with little glowing green LEDs and microchips. It looked a bit like a miniature, low-fi version of the Borg cube from Star Trek, built from hundreds of batteries — not that different from the ones sold in the supermarket — soldered together in a giant grid. "Is this the battery pack?" he asked.
Dubé gave a quick laugh, then started doing public-relations calculus in his head, thinking about how far he wanted to go with his explanation of the LiFePO4 cells that power most modern electric vehicles. As he began to speak, it was clear he'd decided to hold back and give the light version. "Yep, that's the battery," he said. "This one over here is the new battery pack — well, this was a test for the new battery-pack design. It's going to save us over 100 pounds of weight when it's finished."
"So tell me, how does it work?" asked Wiemann.
Dubé sighed, then spun around, picked up a cordless drill and popped out its battery. He held the battery up as though he were about to propose a toast.
"This is an A123 cordless tool battery," he said. "It's powered by lithium and iron phosphate, which some folks just call LFP. A123 Systems calls their brand Nanophosphate. They were invented by Yet-Ming Chiang at MIT."
Dubé was on a roll, building a rhythm as he explained that these are self-assembling batteries — you can dump the ingredients into a container and they assemble themselves into a battery — which means they're relatively cheap to manufacture. Batteries naturally expand and contract, and paste-based batteries like classic disposable AA alkalines eventually crack from the stress. Since LFP particles self-assemble, they expand and contract less, making them infinitely more durable. Yet-Ming also found that when you control the particle size, you get a huge increase in conductivity. That's the source of the KillaCycle's power.
The Galileo reporter bobbed his head blankly. "Well, enough of the nerdy stuff, eh? Let's look at the bike!" he said.
"Yeah, enough of that. I thought you only talked nerdy to me, baby," Håkansson said to Dubé, slinking up next to him, practically purring.
Dubé gave a naughty grin.
Håkansson was reassuring her husband, but she was also ready to interject some of her own nerdiness. "What the technology does for us is create a battery that can last for 10,000 cycles. That's compared to only 300 cycles for the typical cell-phone battery or 500 cycles for a laptop, if you're lucky," she said.
"We talk about batteries in bed, you know," Dubé added.
Dubé and Håkansson were running at full horsepower, but their KillaCycle headquarters was a crowded mess. There was the KillaCycle, undressed, exposing its underbits to everyone. There was the ElectroCat, brooding beneath a nylon sleeping bag, desperately in need of body work after Håkansson crashed it on a test ride up Pikes Peak. The garage also contained an old drill press, a CNC mill, a gargantuan lathe, a floor jack, a compressor with its hose snaking around the floor, an inexplicable jumble of broken chain links, endless loops of extension cord, blocks of wood and even an ancient Clark forklift — "It's electric!" said Håkansson — that they'd bought for $500 in a government auction.
The Galileo crew seemed a tad overwhelmed by the clutter, so Dubé and Håkansson shuffled things around, looping up cords and hoses, moving out the ElectroCat and the forklift. Every film crew that visits wants something different, Dubé said; one day he's scolded for the mess, the next he's encouraged to leave everything in its natural state. Either way, it's important to him that the media capture the reality of their circumstances: Team KillaCycle is on one serious shoestring.
Most professional racing programs spend more in a weekend at the racetrack than Team KillaCycle spends in a year. On average, Dubé pours $15,000 to $20,000 annually from his own pocket into the racing program, far less than it needs. Sponsors like A123 Systems in Massachusetts and Woody's Wheel Works in Denver offset some of the costs with free materials and labor, but "asking someone to sponsor your race program is like asking your next-door neighbor to buy a large-screen television for your house," Dubé told the crew.
"We spend, on average, an hour a day out here. That's all we have," said Håkansson, picking up loose bits of who-knows-what from the floor. "This is not our day job. It is still just a very expensive hobby, but when you think about it, it's rather impressive what we have accomplished on Bill's government salary."
While Håkansson whittles away at her graduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Denver, researching carbon fiber applications for distribution cables (those giant, 70,000-volt electric-transmission lines you see running next to the interstate in rural areas), Dubé works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building advanced sensors for hurricane hunters, the enormous surveillance planes that fly into hurricanes and measure atmospheric conditions. They're both proud of the work they do — professionally and academically, they have found ways to potentially help the environment — but it takes time from their true passion.
Like time, money is in short supply. The old Prius in front? Haggled for a heavy discount on eBay. The converted travel trailer that carries the KillaCycle to the racetrack? Found for a steal on Craigslist. Their living room furniture would look more comfortable on the porch of a fraternity house. "That crappy sprinkler makes us go faster," Håkansson said, pointing to a cheap plastic sprinkler watering their lawn. "Every spare cent goes to the bikes. The crappy trailer, the crappy house, the crappy furniture, it all makes us go faster. And if going faster makes people believe in electric, it's worth it."
Despite their devotion to the cause, the KillaCycle has lost some of its attention-grabbing momentum in the last year. Dubé and Håkansson's budgetary limitations have taken a toll on the KillaCycle's construction and performance. They can only afford commercially available motors and controllers, the devices that control the output of energy from the battery pack to the motors. Although the KillaCycle's two current motors are designed to only handle 23 horsepower, Dubé has pushed them to 250 horsepower. To really hang with competitors, though, both need to be custom-built.
New, boutique vehicle manufacturers like Tesla Motors have followed Dubé and Håkansson's philosophy of designing high-performance electric vehicles that are both efficient and powerful, but are able to develop their EVs using millions in venture capital. The $100,000 Tesla Roadster can reach 14,000 rpm and top speeds of 125 mph, but still last 245 miles on a single charge. "People freak out about the price tag," Dubé notes, "but the Roadster is just as powerful and sexy as a Ferrari or Lamborghini. No one thinks paying $100,000 for a Ferrari is crazy."
Other vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt, although more modest in price and performance, now command considerable mainstream attention — far more than the pilot EV projects of the 1990s. More than a century after their invention, electric vehicles are finally on the cusp of widespread acceptance. The KillaCycle is no longer going it alone; it's now part of a pack. "As electric gets faster, interest builds," says Dubé, "and money is pouring into electric drag racing right now." Every time the KillaCycle sets a record, it encourages someone else to try to beat it.
"That's the nature of records," says Dubé. "They're never owned, only borrowed, and they're always meant to be broken." In drag racing, where the KillaCycle was the undisputed leader for over a decade, it's now lost significant ground to other, better-funded programs.
One particular racing program has taken the lead. Ohio-based builder and racer Shawn Lawless teamed up with Orange County Choppers (yes, the reality-show celebrities on the Discovery Channel and TLC) to create the subtly named Rocket, an electric drag motorcycle designed to usurp the top seat in the NEDRA record books.
Last August, using a battery pack that Dubé claims was built by a member of the KillaCycle crew, racing legend Larry "Spiderman" McBride drove the Rocket at Quaker City Raceway in Salem, Ohio, on a pass that unofficially beat the KillaCycle's fastest time in the quarter-mile drag. In September, the Rocket became the first electric motorcycle to enter the 175 mph club, a barrier that the KillaCycle has yet to break.
Lawless and his crew quickly went back to his shop and built another battery pack, at a cost of unknown thousands, that increased the Rocket's output to nearly 900 horsepower. By November, the NEDRA record for world's fastest belonged to the Rocket.
And then on April 30, at Virginia Motorsports Park, the Rocket shattered the ceiling: It passed a quarter of a mile in 7.246 seconds, more than half a second faster than KillaCycle's best, and reached a top speed of almost 186 mph. Lawless says he plans to break into the sixes and top 200 mph before the end of this year.
Matt Villescas is going to need some protection. He doesn't look like the sort of guy who likes to go fast; he's a little shy and a lot polite. But his custom license plates read YAWCNTL, an insider's nod to Active Yaw Control, the computer-controlled differential that punches extra torque to his car's wheels. And that added torque is doing the trick: He just drove his street-legal 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Concept-X on a pass at Bandimere Speedway in less than fourteen seconds. That means that Villescas must wear a helmet for all subsequent passes. He's surprised when he looks at his time slip — and pleased — because he's never raced his car on a real drag strip before.
The Galileo crew wants a little competitive contrast for its television segment, so Håkansson has invited Villescas, a friend of a fellow DU grad student, to face off against the KillaCycle. Villescas borrows a helmet from the Bandimere staff and narrowly squeezes his head into it, his dimples accentuated by the pressure against his cheeks. He steps into the driver's seat and fastens his seatbelt.
After the initial clunky start, the KillaCycle has recharged its battery and returned to the starting area, ready to race head-to-head with the Evo X. Helmhold rolls up, mumbling something about the KillaCycle's gear ratio feeling soft, then turns to Dubé. "I think I'll hug the left side of the track this time, since I don't have any tire tracks to follow," he says. "And I'm probably gonna give him a little head start," nodding his head toward Villescas.
The Galileo crew has decided to shoot this pass from high above the track, at the top of the spectator stands. As they wave that they're ready, Helmhold does a conservative burnout.
The starting tree, affectionately called the "Christmas tree" by racers, begins its cycle through the lights: yellow, yellow, yellow, green. The Evo X screams off. A few hundredths of a second later, the KillaCycle flies past.
Helmhold finishes nearly five seconds faster than Villescas, in the eights.
"That is one hot street car!" says Håkansson, enthused by the Evo X's performance. "Of course, you know, it didn't stand a chance, but wow!"
At this moment, it's obvious that the mission is not to beat other electrics, but to beat gasoline.
Specifically, Team KillaCycle is competing against sexy-hot autos like the Evo X, which are the antithesis of EV stereotypes. "Electric vehicles don't have to be boring, slow or ugly," says Håkansson. "Who wants a nerdmobile? People want to go fast without feeling guilty about it."
Dubé looks giddy again, thoroughly satisfied. "Not bad for only seven and a half cents," he says.
"Well, fuel prices fluctuate, of course. He means we use the energy equivalent of only two ounces of fuel," Håkansson says, explaining that the KillaCycle's battery contains enough juice to power the motorcycle through seven passes down the drag strip. When it's needed, a Cummins Onan Hybrid Quiet Diesel generator recharges the KillaCycle in around four minutes. Dubé and Håkansson only use biodiesel, naturally, but dream of integrating the generator into a solar or wind system.
Unfortunately, in drag racing, no one much cares about that sort of thing.
The weather continues to hold, occasional patches of blue peeking through the clouds. For the next couple of passes, the KillaCycle lays down eights, Helmhold making it look easy.
"Five years ago, [those passes] would have set the world record," says Dubé. He lowers his voice, takes a few steps away from everyone else, and explains that someone could easily spend a million dollars to get one line in a record book — only to have it erased two weeks later by someone else with more money. He believes that the KillaCycle deserves a deep-pocketed benefactor; he's just not sure that he can be that someone.
In the KillaCycle's formative days, folks were encouraging because it was a novelty, in its own class, and not perceived as a threat. But after a decade at the top, the KillaCycle became the bike to beat, and technological advances outpaced the bike's own innovations.
Dubé is undoubtedly competitive, but he's also an idealist on a mission — and his mission can only be achieved through cooperation. Working alone, electric vehicles will never completely dominate the racetrack, the mountain passes, the congested freeways or, more important, drivers' hearts. "That's why land speed racing is totally different, a lot more fun," he says. "Folks work together to see how fast we can make each other go. It's a completely different attitude."
Maybe that's why he's so excited about the KillaJoule.
On September 15, 2010, Eva Håkansson took her first steps on the moon. Her spacesuit was a poofy, white, five-layer Nomex fire suit, the sort worn by top fuel dragsters and stunt artists, and the moon was the USFRA 130-mph Club track at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The spaceship? The KillaJoule.
While the KillaCycle has topped out at 174 mph, with the KillaJoule, Håkansson and Dubé ultimately hope to break the land speed record for any motorcycle: 376 mph.
In 2009, with Håkansson driving, the ElectroCat set a NEDRA world record for 48-volt, street-legal motorcycles. Last June, under veteran racer John Scollon, it became the first electric motorcycle to complete the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, establishing the first world record for electric motorcycles in the event. But to go faster still, Håkansson created the KillaJoule.
She stripped wheels, axles and brakes off an old Suzuki motorcycle she found on Craigslist. With the help of two Bay Area frame-builders, Clay and Gary Gardiner, Håkansson and Dubé built the eighteen-foot-long chassis and roll cage in four days in March 2010. Håkansson's father helped design the suspension system. Early designs were optimized with computational fluid dynamics software, creating the most aerodynamic shape possible; when Håkansson and Dubé realized that the ideal model's design of composite fibers (the standard used for most contemporary streamliner land speed vehicles) would cost thousands of dollars, they had no choice but to switch to less expensive materials. So instead they riveted together curved sheets of aluminum to build the body, just like an airplane. For the nose cone, they molded fiberglass around one of those oversized exercise balls you find at the gym.
The result of the modifications? It seems that Håkansson's goal — to make people think electric is sexy — took a literal form: The first incarnation of the KillaJoule looks like a giant red vibrator on wheels.
Håkansson and Dubé took the KillaJoule to Bonneville for the World of Speed, an annual gathering of the world's greatest, newest and most bizarre land speed vehicles — think electrathon meets Burning Man meets rocket car. A few months before, Håkansson had planned to race the ElectroCat to the top of Pikes Peak, but she broke her wrist in a crash during a test run. The ElectroCat left her with a titanium plate in her forearm — but the KillaJoule could kill her.
"I'm not insane or anything," she protests. "Land speed racing is for grandmas. There's nothing out there to hit. You just go straight until you stop."
Land speed racers have been making the pilgrimage to the Bonneville Salt Flats since 1914, breaking all the major land speed barriers from 300 to 600 mph along the way. With no elevation changes, no major surface imperfections and nothing to crash into for miles, the only obstacles here are engineering and imagination.
After hours of slogging through the tech inspection — checking everything from the expiration date for her onboard fire extinguisher to the bead quality of her welding — Håkansson finally got her first pass on the flats. Inside the KillaJoule, she sat in a full recline, her eyes barely peeking over the front windshield. She steered the bike with two long, joystick-like steering rods. If needed, she could deploy a parachute out the back to assist with braking.
But she didn't need the parachute that day. The KillaJoule struggled to stay balanced, wobbling and curving, so Håkansson was unable to make a clean, straight pass. After each run, she returned to the pits, where Dubé and their pickup crew attempted to diagnose the problem. Steam billowed out of the compartment; it was coming from Håkansson, who was boiling inside her fire suit.
Was it wheel alignment? Steering? Håkansson's inexperience as a racer in general and with streamliners in particular made it impossible for her to sense the source of the problem while she was driving — and her compartment was too small for anyone else to enter. To an outside observer, the initial run of the KillaJoule looked like a complete failure.
For Håkansson and Dubé, though, just getting there was a success. "We kept the rubber side down and the shiny side up," Håkansson wrote in her racing blog.
While attending the World of Speed, they rediscovered that generous, cooperative spirit that once followed the KillaCycle at every event. They had the opportunity to spend several days entirely immersed in the world that they love — without the distractions of work, publicity or competition — and mingle with like-minded folks who believe in their mission to bring awareness and respect to the world of electric vehicles.
The two returned from Utah with renewed vigor and a plan. They've spent the last seven months completely revamping the KillaJoule, bringing it up to speed. The entire steering mechanism has been redesigned with the help of Håkansson's father. While she will still drive the KillaJoule for record attempts, the driver's compartment has been extended an extra eighteen inches to allow a larger professional driver to take it for a test ride. And they've also added a sidecar wheel, which is permitted under land speed rules, to overcome any balance issues and serve as a training wheel for Håkansson until she gains more experience.
Jim Corning at Novakinetics, a composite airplane-part manufacturer in Flagstaff, offered to completely rebuild the KillaJoule's body. Right now, the exterior is being shaped to resemble a hybrid of the original design and the body of the Ack Attack, the reigning fastest streamliner motorcycle in the world. The result will most likely be a lot more sexy and a little less sexual.
Once the body and steering modifications are complete, Håkansson and Dubé hope to find a private airstrip here in Colorado where they can conduct tests. They plan to return to the World of Speed this September, when Håkansson will shoot for "a more modest goal" of 217 mph, the current world record for streamliners with sidecars. If she exceeds 250 mph, she will need to buy a second parachute. If she surpasses 265, she'll have to drop $4,000 on special land speed tires.
Meanwhile, the KillaCycle will spend the summer trying to get back on top.
Back at Bandimere, the Galileo crew wraps up filming as the first tiny drops of rain tap against the pavement. The Mitsubishi Evolution X smells like a burning clutch. The KillaCycle's work here is done.
Dubé and Håkansson roll the KillaCycle up the ramp and into the trailer as soft thunder rumbles overhead. Dubé grows solemn. "We're going to build that new battery pack and have a little fun with it, see what it can do. We're negotiating for sponsorship with Evo Motors in the U.K. We're going to get back our records," he says. "But after this year, unless someone wants to fund all of this, I'm hanging it up. I'll still do the occasional exhibition race, but otherwise we'll just focus on land speed, on the KillaJoule."
But Jeff Sipes, the media and marketing director at Bandimere Speedway, believes the KillaCycle has already succeeded in its objective: It's become a crowd favorite. "We're all thinking of a Prius that can barely go sixty," he says, "and out comes the KillaCycle, as quiet as a cordless drill. People aren't sure what to think." He's seen attitudes change in one night. People who are unfamiliar with electric vehicles "go wild when the KillaCycle hits the sevens and eights." And they go home with a newfound respect for alternative energy.
The KillaCycle may never again dominate the drag strip, but records are not the point: The bike is a vehicle for a message, and messages can be delivered in a variety of shapes and sizes. "After the KillaJoule, I want to build the KillaGram," Håkansson says playfully, holding her hands about one foot apart. "It will be the world's fastest, smallest electric RC motorcycle."
Dubé and Håkansson's ultimate message? Do the right thing for the planet, but remember that you're living on it. Have fun, go fast, but do it in a way that doesn't make you feel guilty. "Today's hybrids run exclusively on gasoline until they sense guilt; only then does the electricity kick in," says Dubé. Guilt is not what they're about.
"You wanna know what this is all about?" Dubé asks. "It's about those stupid little 'Turbo' stickers people buy at Auto Zone and stick on their cars so they can pretend to be cool."
He wants to walk into an auto parts store someday and find similar stickers that say "Hybrid" and "EV" because electric vehicles are coveted, the hip thing to drive. "I'll walk in, see those stickers, and know I was part of something big," he says.
A flash of electricity streaks across the sky, tearing a cloud open. Fat drops pound on the trailer. It's a downpour.
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