Race Starts With Little Fuel, and Goes Uphill From There

Jesse McKinley
October 12, 2008
New York Times

BERKELEY, Calif. — It is a classic road rally, 600 miles from the liberal embrace of Berkeley to the anything-goes lights of Las Vegas. No speeding is allowed, or in some cases even possible. And if you stop to refuel, it had better be in someone’s trash.

On Saturday, five teams began the Escape From Berkeley, maybe the world’s most eco-friendly motor race, driving all manner of alternative-fuel-burning jalopies, roadsters, and even a frying oil-fueled Mercedes-Benz, with a single goal: to complete the race using no petroleum.

“Gentlemen, start your whatever they are,” the M.C. shouted to begin the race, which offers the winner $5,000.

The final catch of the race is that participants — artists, environmentalists and even a cattle farmer from Alabama — have to find or scavenge their go-go juice, whether it is used vegetable oil from restaurants or twigs and sticks from the side of the road. All the vehicles, which had to be street legal, were allowed to start with a single gallon of whatever fuel they used.

“We’re just going to hang out in front of Ace Hardware and beg,” said Ben Wedlock, who was riding a two-man bicycle, augmented by a one-horsepower electric motor that runs on ethanol.

Not that building a nongas car is easy. The race originally had more than a dozen entrants, some of whom did not show. Several others scratched late, as their vehicles failed to fire up properly.

The race’s route also presented some challenges, running from the relatively mild terrain of the Bay Area, across the Sierra Nevada via the Tioga Pass (elevation 9,943 feet) and through the deserts outside Las Vegas.

All of which is highly likely to make it more a matter of survival than of speed for some racers.

“Considering the Tioga Pass, it will be pretty much miraculous if we make it,” said Shannon O’Hare, the designer of Kristie’s Flyer, an elegant steam-powered vehicle on three wheels (two of which are wooden). “But I think it’s more of an art piece than a competitor.”

Indeed, Mr. O’Hare and several other participants are veterans of Burning Man, the art-for-art’s-sake festival held every summer in the desert north of Reno, Nev. At an opening party for the race on Friday night, a giant fire-breathing snail — late of Burning Man and made of metal and wood — was in attendance.

Jim Mason, the founder of Shipyard Labs, the event’s sponsor, said the race was meant to encourage creative thinking about alternative energy. “We want to transfer it from an engineering problem to art,” Mr. Mason said.

Many of the cars were worked on at the Shipyard, a 20,000-square-foot open-air garage, where self-described “geeks and gearheads” work in shipping containers.

“We have more Ph.D.’s than Google,” Mr. Mason said. “But here, they weld.”

Not all of the racers are Bay Area cognoscenti. Wayne Keith, 59, is a cattleman from Springville, Ala., who decided five years ago that he wanted to be independent from gas.

“When gasoline hit $1.75, I bailed out,” Mr. Keith said. “I’m a hostage to no one.”

His adapted lime-green Dodge Dakota pickup burns wood in a pair of burners in the pickup bed and uses the gases created by the combustion — primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide — to drive the engine. He said the ready availability of scrap wood on his farm made his energy expenses almost nil.

On Saturday, Mr. Keith’s truck was also towing a table saw, in case he happened on any particularly large branches. “I don’t know if it makes me good or guilty,” he said. “But the wood’s going to rot if I don’t use it.”

Mr. Keith said the truck’s top speed is about 90 miles per hour, making it a favorite to win the race. Not so for Mr. Wedlock, 24, and his racing partner, Mike Gittelsohn, 54, who spent about $3,000 to build their recumbent bicycle, complete with an engine better suited for a weed whacker.

Neither man is much of a cyclist, they said. “A really strong human can produce about one-third of a horsepower,” Mr. Wedlock said. “I’m probably less than a quarter.”

The men’s main concern was the wind, which had been gusting through Northern California for several days. The team, called Two Cats, had built a cover for their bike but were worried that it might be more of a sail than an aerodynamic sleeve.

“If we have crosswinds like we did today,” Mr. Wedlock said, “it’s going to be an issue.”

The elements, including snow in the upper Sierras, were also quite likely to be an issue for the Prisoners of Petroleum team, which was driving an open-air and open-wheel two-seater.

Jack McCornack, part of the Prisoners team and the owner of Kinetic Vehicles, a maker of alternative cars in Cave Junction, Ore., said his roadster could go 72 m.p.h. — and get 70 miles to the gallon — using nothing but vegetable oil.

“It’s extremely no-frills,” Mr. McCornack said of his car, which has no windows or doors. “It’s everything you always wanted in a sports car, and less.”

Sure enough, there was snow in the pass on Sunday, and Mr. Wedlock and Mr. Gittelsohn had dropped out because of an engine problem, Mr. Mason said.

Mr. O’Hare’s steam-powered carriage, which he had estimated would top out at 15 m.p.h., had been reduced to a ceremonial role, leaving three viable challengers in the race.

Mr. Mason said he suspected there might be a little more attrition before the race ends on Monday in Las Vegas. “It might just be one or two,” he said. “But maybe they’ll all make it.”

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8 Comments

Gary Graham's picture

I can almost hear what these

I can almost hear what these folks would have been saying when Mr.Keith rolled in with the wood burning gasser with all the practical know-how and extreme demonstration of preparedness since he drove from Alabama to enter the competition... I would be shaking in my boots if the competition pulled up to race towing a trailer with a table saw on it.

Wayne Keith's picture

Hello Peter,

Hello Peter,

Sorry about the slow response but I have been covered up.

First let me say there are no sour grapes here, I came in second to Jack McCornack who I consider a friend, gentleman and great competitor.
http://www.kineticvehicles.com/

If anything will lessen the pain and agony of defeat from losing a race it would be having points taken away for going too fast. I was not notified officially but heard from others that I may have been penalized

.
The Escape from Berkeley race was to be a three day race or road rally from Berkeley Ca. to Las Vegas NV. Because we were on public roads and for liability reasons the rules said if we where caught speeding we would be penalized.

We could not buy fuels but we could barter, trade and scavenge along the way. We were allowed 1 gallon of gasoline for the entire trip.

At the start of the race there were all types of vehicles and machines that had entered, even bicycles. When the announcement was made, (gentlemen start your engines’) I had just driven over 4,500 miles to the starting line on wood.
To gain attention to gasification we drove from my home in Alabama through Georgia, South Carolina and to the Atlantic coast. From there back through South Carolina, Georgia , Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, ( along the coast ) Texas, Oklahoma , back though Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

When the race started we went straight to an old red wood lumber pile that Jim Mason had located for us. I was pulling a small trailer loaded with a gasoline generator that was modified to run on wood gas from the truck gasifier, table saw and electric chain saw. We went to work and got enough wood to do the entire trip and had most of it cut up into blocks before we started.

At the end of the day and already with enough wood to do the entire trip I was in the lead. Al the participants had dropped out except for three. Myself with the only gasifier, a small diesel sports car fuel with canola oil (Jack McCornack) and a Mercedes fueled with used cooking oil.

The second day was planned to go across the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Tioga pass (on the trip to Berkley we came through the pass at 10,000 feet elevation with no problem) but during the night the pass was closed due to snow. The officials chose to allow the racers to forgo the check points that where to be along the way through the mountains and each could choose his route to the check point that was to be the end of the second day ( Lone Pine Ca.) Each chose different routes. The diesel vehicles found smaller roads going over or around the mountain. The route we took turned what was to be a 300 mile drive into a 500 mile drive. We got lost once and went about 40 miles out of the way but was able to correct ourselves. We had driven south toward Bakersfield on some good roads but the small tires on the trailer we were carrying the wood and machines gave out and we had to load up what we could in the truck bed and keep going.
In hast of cutting the wood I think I had pieces too large and had some trouble with bridging that cost us time. We arrived in Lone Pine and after the extra couple hundred miles we were in second place to Jack McCornack

My only grievance to the entire event was the starting of the second day. It was cold but I had the wood burner fired up and running strong. It was cold enough the biodiesels wouldn’t run and I was told that the operators took their fuels to the cabin bath tubs and were warming them with hot water. The starting time was delayed about two hours while I had been ready to ride. (I wish I could have been down the road 120-140 miles when they got started)

The third day was to be traveled across the desert and Death Valley. I knew I needed to make up some time from the bad luck the day before. (No snow, no traffic, open road) Jacks car with the little diesel was governed at 72 mph, my 318 dakota has no governor and across Death Valley there are a lot of open stretches with a little down grade. I will admit to letting her roll!! One of the problems was the officials was trying to get to the next check point to check us in but we were ahead of them for some time.

When we rolled into Las Vegas we were able to take a shower, put on clean clothes, spend some time in the lounge and wait a while until the next vehicle rolled in (Jack Mc.)

The cooking oil Mercedes rolled in the next day but missed the ceremonies the night before and we missed greeting them because we had already headed home.
The Mercedes was collecting used cooking oil from restaurants along the way.

Jack Mccornack was trading merchandise for off the shelf canola oil.

There was some talk about splitting the prize money but it didn’t turn out.

When I pulled up in my driveway back home we had logged 7,388 miles all on wood, had seen the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, the Grand Cannon, Yosemite Park and driven over 10,000 foot elevations, Death Valley, South Carolinas low country, the high plains and heartlands. The Georgia peanut and pecan farms, the bayous of southern Louisiana, vineyards of California

The trip was long, the people we met were great, getting to see this United States without the use of petroleum, Priceless!!!!!!!

Peter Coronis's picture

Hi Wayne,

Hi Wayne,

Sounds like a very fun event. So you arrived in Vegas first & lost for going too fast even after waiting for fuel problems to be resolved. Well, rules are rules, but you must have given the oil burners a whole new respect for WG vehicles!!

Peter

WOW Wayne what an inspireing

WOW Wayne what an inspireing story and what sounds like an awesome adventure. To think I once thought jumping freight trains was a cool way to ride for free but you get to pick your route and make your own schedual.

Wayne Keith's picture

Hello Jim,

Hello Jim,

Thanks for the nice comment. I don’t feel real bad being put in second place to a vehicle that was powered with fuel that cost near $8 a gallon (canola oil).

Yes, touring the USA is a great adventure. Doing it with little help from BP, Chevron, and Exxon made it even more enjoyable.

Wayne