Mountain View Voice

News - January 16, 2009

The need for Kleenspeed

Moffett-based company says its electric race cars are the future of motor sports

by Daniel DeBolt

A company called Kleenspeed Technologies has quietly established itself in a large building at Moffett Field, operating with a simple goal in mind: beat gasoline-powered race cars at their own game.

With the help of venture capital and sponsorships, the company already has three different electric race cars up and running and under development in its shop near Moffett's Hangar One. Their most ambitious goal is to enter an electric race car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans — the world famous endurance race in France.

"I think most people will be pulling for it," said Jerry Kroll, CEO of Kleenspeed and a former agent for professional race car drivers.

The goal of the business side is to develop and patent software and hardware on the racetrack that will improve the efficiency of hybrid or electric cars built by companies like Tesla, Toyota and GM.

"The sooner we can invent this stuff the better it is for the world," Kroll said.

Kroll predicts that someday "the recreational burning of fossil fuels will probably be legislated out of existence."

Hastening that day is the WX10-T, a low slung racer that borrows its chassis from a gas-powered IMSA Lights racer. It accelerates from zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds and has reached a top speed of 136 miles per hour so far, but is expected to reach 160. It uses an AC Propulsion motor and controller — a set-up not publicly available but which powers other fast electric cars like the Wrightspeed X-1 and the Tzero — that is modified by Thruxar, a brand of Kleenspeed.

The batteries — "a private product," Kroll said — sit in boxes on each side of the driver and will last through a 30-minute race. The unmarked lithium-ion-phosphate cells, no bigger than flashlight batteries, are linked in long strands and packed into four boxes for each car.

"A lot of this stuff is stuff people don't have," Kroll said, referring to the backyard electric vehicle builder.

Kleenspeed, in partnership with West Race Cars, plans to sell the WX10-T (The T stands for Thruxar) for about $100,000, Kroll said.

This model is a smaller version of what will be built to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Kroll said. While other cars stop for fuel, the Kleenspeed car will be stopping for new battery packs — or "energy storage devices," depending on the technology that becomes available next year. Kroll says the Le Mans car would have the electric motor equivalent of a 2,000 horsepower gas engine.

To entice buyers of the WX10-T, a free $4,000 set of wheels comes with each car, donated by a Morgan Hill wheel manufacturer called Jongbloed. Kleenspeed is negotiating with a tire manufacturer that will provide free tires to buyers for a whole racing season.

A more affordable race car also sits in the Kleenspeed shop: a former "Spec Racer Ford" which had its 1.9 liter Ford engine replaced by two "pancake"-style electric motors powering each rear wheel, and a black box wired to each motor for control. The Sports Car Club of America has all but given the green light to allowing electric conversion cars to race against their gas-powered counterparts, and Kroll said about 900 of these $15,000 cars currently are being raced at tracks around the country.

Kleenspeed is developing a Thruxar drive system for the Spec Racer cars that will cost $20,000 to $30,000, not including batteries. Kroll says he already has 12 race teams interested in the kit. The prototype weighs about 1,600 pounds with batteries for a 30-minute race, goes zero to 60 in about six seconds, and has a top speed of 110 miles per hour.

Kroll believes race organizers may go further than just allowing electric conversions; many sanctioning bodies could rewrite the rules to give electric cars an advantage "in order to send a clear message," he said.

Besides their lack of greenhouse gas emissions, electric cars have another advantage that could be of crucial help to the sport of auto racing: they're quieter. Local governments have imposed strict sound restrictions on some tracks, such as Laguna Seca in Monterey, in order to give peace and quiet to their residential neighbors. But a pack of electric cars on the racetrack is about "as loud as the Tour De France," Kroll says.

Kroll believes the younger generation may find new interest in motor sports thanks to electric vehicles. It could also spark the interest of older racers — after all, the learning curve isn't that steep, he said.

"You can't be a dummy and be racing," Kroll said, adding, "It really isn't that complicated."

Kleenspeed's rubber will meet the road in Sebring, Fla. on March 15, when the quiet WX10-T will take on a pack of loud gas-powered race cars in the IMSA Lights series. For more information, visit www.kleenspeed.com.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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