(Cover feature from Westword, June 9, 2011)
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.