GRAND PRIX OF SAN DIEGO : Electric Cars Make Racing Debut Today

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The technology fans see on the race track eventually makes its way--modified, of course--into automobile showrooms around the world.

Sunday's sight from the Del Mar Fairground bleachers at the Vons Grand Prix of San Diego should have a lot of significance because the Trojan Battery Clean Air Challenge shows off the automobile of the future.

Sleek, silent and capable of reaching speeds greater than 100 m.p.h., the electric car is making its Southern California racing debut and its first appearance in conjunction with a major automobile race. The cars will be part of a celebrity race from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday.

"We're not quite there for replacing the family car, your first car," said Peter Stevenson, designer and builder for Team Clean Machine, the racing arm of Del Mar-based Stevenson Products. "Most of your driving is done short-hop, so we decided to make something that would be applicable for commuting or running errands on weekends, going to the nursery or the market.

"Because the components are still pretty expensive, we have to go for an upscale market, so we're thinking of a car for Palm Springs or Montecito or Carmel--identity-style cars."

The cars retail between $18,000-$27,000. Their driving range is 40-60 miles, and they need about 10 hours to charge from dead flat.

"It's going to be a lot better when the batteries get half-again more energy-dense, then they're going to really get into the practical area where there won't be too much excuse to not have one," Stevenson said. "We've been informed they're very close."

The design is pretty simple. The motor has only one moving part, the armature, and is powered by a 120-volt battery pack. The drivetrain and gear box Stevenson uses in his prototype roadsters are from a Honda CRX and a Volkswagen, and they can reach speeds greater than 70 m.p.h. The General Electric motor takes about 40 minutes to put into the car. The biggest problem is the body.

"It's just amazing how irritating it is to work on electrics because they don't have all the grease and smell and fumes of the fuels; when you have to go back and work on your old car, it seems like it's out of another century," Stevenson said.

Actually, the gas automobile is out of another century. California clean air requirements dictate that by 1998, 2% of all new car sales in the state must be zero-emission vehicles. By 2003, that rises to 10%.

"We'd like to come out with cars wrapped around a regional lifestyle, which big car companies can't do, like a tropical model for the Caribbean where you don't have to worry about driving in a wet bathing suit," Stevenson said. "The small, enclave communities where they're well to do and rarely get on the freeway anyway, and if they do, they use their Lexus for that.

"The biggest trucks and ocean liners and trains all run on electric final drive motors. Power is not the problem. It's getting the juice to the power, or getting the power supply to keep it going. Once we get that solved, up another notch, you're going to see a lot of changes."

Dick Bower is the vice president of marketing for Trojan Battery.

"One of our main purposes for attempting to get ourselves into auto racing is to use it as a research and development center to improve the product," Bower said. "We need to integrate motors, batteries, chargers and controllers, suspension systems and other parts of electric vehicles to make a real system as (gas auto racing) has done."

Another advantage of electric cars is new jobs.

"Because of the mandate from the legislature, there is a lot of activity, particularly in Southern California, to produce electric cars by Californians in California, and we want to be a major participant in that," Bower said. "We're looking to this as a method of hopefully getting a lot of people back to work."

Those scheduled to participate the race include: Channel 10's Bob Lawrence and Bill Holland; San Diego race car driver Margie Smith-Haas; Indy Lights Robbie Groff; and off-road racer Rod Millen.

The Nissan GTP team of Geoff Brabham and San Diego's Don Swanson scored a downtown pit stop victory over Jim Downey and Tim McAdam of the Buick Kudzu Camel Lights team on Broadway Circle in front of Horton Plaza.

In separate GT Pit Stop Challenge competitions, the fastest time of the day was 19.70 seconds in which Nissan changed drivers, four tires, underwent a simulated 12-second fuel change and cleaned oil off the vehicles' windscreen.

The winning team won $1,000 in front of about 1,000 people, the largest crowd in six years.

The All American Racers team running the Toyotas this weekend could well be called Second Generation Racing.

Juan Manuel Fangio II is the namesake of his uncle, the five-time World Grand Prix champion who won those titles in four makes of cars during the 1950s. He won four titles in a row. Juan Manuel Fangio also was the first inductee into the San Diego Auto Museum's Hall of Fame.

P.J. Jones is the son of racing American racing legend Parnelli Jones, whose victories included the 1963 Indianapolis 500.

And team owner Dan Gurney is enjoying a second career in auto racing. The winner of 37 races in 10 countries with 25 diferent makes of cars, including four World Champion Grand Prix events, Gurney is now enjoying a second career as an engineer and manufacturer.

Driving Gurney's Toyota Eagle MKIIIs, Fangio and Jones set a record this season with three consecutive 1-2 finishes. Fangio's six victories is one short of the IMSA GT solo race record held by the late Peter Gregg, and his 13 career victories is one short of Gregg's 14. He has already won the driver's championship, and Toyota already has clinched the manufacturer's championship.

Hawthorne's Larry Mason, 30, is looking for the ride of his life this weekend in the Oldsmobile Pro Series. Mason is making his pro racing return in a Landmark Racing Swift DB2, running a Ford engine. It is his first pro race since breaking both legs and ankles in a June 1990 crash at the Dallas Grand Prix. Mason lost his suspension in a Sesapa Pro Series race, hitting a concrete wall doing 90-95 m.p.h., splitting the 8,100-pound barrier in two with his 1,280-pound car.

Considered to be on the fast track to success at the time of the accident, he was in a wheelchair for six months and still undergoes some physical therapy. Although he has some sponsorship--he's worked with a Say No to Drugs Program the last five years--he's financing much of this weekend's race effort himself.

"I'm looking at this as an investment," Mason said. "I'm just hoping this can springboard me to bigger and better things in 1993.

"I'm looking for a series at about this level with a marketing opportunity."

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