Thoughts and Stories from the Electric Car Challenge: Reinventing of the Great American Road Trip
“Dude, we just drove 3000 miles across the country … in an all electric car!” I said to Men’s Health senior editor Eric Adams. The reality of what had just happened over the past 12 days was finally sinking in when our team of drivers popped open a bottle of champagne after parking our car at the Santa Monica Pier in California.
The road trip, dubbed The Electric Car Challenge by the magazine, was never just about the drive. It wasn’t even just about the car. This trip transcended that and became so much more meaningful. It would be a test of self and of relationships—relationships forged with new team members and a test of an existing relationship with my girlfriend Nicole.
When Eric first asked me about joining him on his mission to be the first team to drive an all-electric car from New York to Los Angeles without a single drop of gas (“petrol” for my British readers), I instinctively said yes, as I normally do. It’s usually only about two weeks after I agree to do something of this nature that I ask myself what on Earth did I sign myself up for!?
A Mixed Bag
The team consisted of a mixed bag of personalities, carefully hand-picked by Eric himself. The team was a science experiment in itself. Eric was simply wondering, “What would happen if you put a racing driver, a TV personality/X-games winner, a beauty queen, a former Navy SEAL, a bartender, a popular sex columnist for Men’s Health, and a Men’s Health editor in a Ford Focus Electric to go across country to do something that everyone said was not possible.” He got his answer over 12 action-packed days in April.
The trip officially started on Wednesday April 11th, 2012 as Tanner Foust and I drove our Ford Focus Electric right off of the main Ford display at the New York Auto-show and set out west.
Our first stop was High Bridge, New Jersey where we were welcomed like heroes. This small town is as friendly as it gets and even came with its very own purpose-built electric car charging station. Local politicians came out to greet us, and the town’s pub put on a display of cheese and biscuits. “This is going to be great,” we thought. Unfortunately, High Bridge was a mirage of the reality of what the rest of the trip would be like. We were welcomed heartily in most places, but it was never quite the reception we received at the outset, and over the next 12 days the team encountered many testing situations that pushed each and everyone one of us to the breaking point, only moments away from failure or becoming stranded.
The car had an approximate range of 80 miles and would require 3 hours to completely charge the battery. I say approximately 80 miles, as we quickly found out that there are several big factors that determine the car’s actual range—namely, the incline of the terrain and the amount of opportunities there are to brake, thus recharging the battery using the on-board regenerative braking system. Depending on the terrain we either completed 86 miles with 20 miles left in the battery, or trickled into an RV park on ZERO miles after only 70 miles of uphill terrain the whole way.
Go-Karting Standoff: Circuit Pro Vs. Rally Pro
Tanner and I were whisked off to Lehigh Valley Grand Prix, an indoor Kart track in Allentown, Pa., while the car was charging at the first stop for some high-octane fun. As the two token racing drivers on the trip, Eric wanted to quickly establish the pecking order, just for fun. I’m proud to say that I kicked Tanner’s butt! Sorry mate, the numbers don’t lie. Granted I may or may not have a slight weight advantage, but I will take my victories wherever possible.
Long Beach Race
Shortly after the race was over I had to rush to Newark Airport in order to fly to California for the Long Beach Grand Prix and the second race of the year for my day job, driving the #37 Nissan-Oak P2 prototype car in the American Le Mans series. We were on course for a victory until an untimely pit lane violation cost us victory. Still, it was a great weekend and justified leaving the Electric Car Challenge for 3 days.
Flying East to Drive Back West (Slowly)
Early Sunday Morning, Nicole and I took a 6am flight out of LAX to St. Louis where we rejoined the group and were greeted by Eric Adams and Naomi Piercey (Men’s Health’s Girl Next door columnist) in the Ford F150 support truck. Neither of us had met prior to this trip, but Naomi has a fun-loving personality that makes you wish she were your next door neighbor.
Jumping in at the Deep End
That night Nicole and I were initiated into the hardcore spirit of the trip and were quite literally thrown into the proverbial deep end when we were handed the nightshift drive. We sat down in a lonely Burger King with Coleman Ruiz as he mapped out the next 3 charging points for us, with the distance, the address, and a phone contact number. Wes, our fearless route-planner, handed me a piece of paper on how to rewire a 50-amp plug should the charging cable break. I’ve never dealt with electricity in this capacity before, and now I faced an all-night drive along back roads, off the highway, and sometimes on dirt roads, only armed with an iPhone GPS and 1000 unknowns ahead of us.
Mother Nature Always Wins
On that very first trip alone at night, we found out just how quickly things change and just how unknown our journey would be. Driving down a steep hill on a dirt road outside of St. Louis, I had to quickly slam on the brakes as the road ahead had been washed out by a flash flood and was under about 3 feet of water. With no way of getting around, I was forced to make a U-turn and back track all the way to the highway, costing us valuable battery life. Now with a 20-mile range deficit to the next charging point, the team was forced to re-route and head to a new address.
We found a campsite about 50 miles away, re-charged there and got back onto the original plan. The rest of that night went relatively smoothly. However, I will say that the first time I drove 76 miles, it was extremely stressful. Every team member described a sensation we called ‘range anxiety.’ The battery life on the display screen was never a true indication of how long you could drive. The battery life was a predicted range, based on your driving behavior and on the power needed to drive, say up a hill. That number would fluctuate wildly leaving for many a sweaty moment as the range would drop by 20 miles after a steep hill, leaving us a predicted 20 miles short of our charging point. After some extreme energy saving driving, we would be able to stretch out the battery to the next stop, along with a long sigh of relief.
Re-Discovering Your Inner 8-Year Old
Play is a behavior that humans slowly do less and less the older we get. The question that was posed by this trip was, why do we have to play less the older we get? Where is it written in the rulebook that an adult can’t jump on a trampoline or fly a kite or launch foam rockets in a campground or race 100 mph RC cars? And so we let go of those inhibitions, sprinted to the large jumping pillow at the KOA campgrounds, and for just 20 minutes, we were 8 years old again. Taking out the Traxxas XO-1 out of its box reignited the spirit of Christmas as we anticipated the speed of this thing…and came close to destroying it!
More Steak Than I Could Ever Handle
Passing through Amarillo, Texas, the team stopped off at The Big Texan restaurant, famous for the Free* 72oz steak. This meal of massive proportions is free to the patron if he successfully manages to eat all of it inside an hour and adhering to the strict rules set forth by the restaurant. As the two smallest guys on the team, Wes Conner and I went head-to-head in a steak eating contest. It was a battle of the British kid versus the good ol’ boy from Georgia. After the most uncomfortable hour of my life, determined to win, I came away triumphant after eating a whopping 41 oz compared to Wes’s 36 oz. Watched by a few hundred people on the restaurant’s two webcams, I felt like Adam from Man vs. Food—though he actually completed this challenge.
Slowing Down and Finding the Beauty of What’s Around You
I’ve heard of the term light-pollution before but I never truly understood what it meant until the team stopped off in the middle of nowhere near Barstow, California. That night Eric took out his telescope, instructed us to switch off all phones and lights of any sort, and to wait in total darkness for 20 minutes for our eyes to adjust to the darkness.
With no lights from any town visible on any horizon, you could barely see the hand on the end of your arm. Once our eyes had adjusted I was amazed at just how bright the stars were, and how many there were. Stars that are otherwise invisible because of light emitted from our towns don’t show up as easily in the sky. Nicole and I lay on the roof of the F150 in awe as we witnessed shooting star after shooting star. I have probably only seen one shooting star in my whole life and here I saw 5 in 30 minutes!
Meteor Crater is another perfect example of what we all drive past at 80 mph and miss. If it weren’t for the fact that the Focus had to charge at the Meteor Crater RV Park, then I probably would never have gotten to see one of the country’s most beautiful sites. It would have just been another road sign along the I-40 freeway. This trip did one thing that I have never able to do. It forced us to adapt our pace of life. By forcing us to stop every 80 miles and charge the battery for 3 hours at a time, there was no more “rush.” For those 3 hours, we had to find something to do, take a deep breath, and take in the world around us. Those charging points were the perfect excuse to do things that we choose to put-off, because we are always so busy, yet as we all discovered they are all things that make us happy and fulfilled in life. They say it’s the small things in life that count. You wouldn’t believe how much fun you can have with just a Frisbee, football, a foam rocket, the perfect outdoors, and a good group of friends.
Cool things happen when you put a diverse group of individuals in a unique situation. I’ve never laughed as hard as I did this trip. Maybe it was the sheer lack of sleep making us all delirious, but the team shared so many funny moments and one-liners that would beat any stand up comedian. Wes Conner would crack me up by just by laying his accent on me. And some of the phrases that came out of his mouth were just gems that really engrained themselves into the spirit of the trip. Here are just a few one-liners…
—While sitting in the F150 with a novelty water bottle shaped like a cowboy boot: “No boot-shaped cup holder? WTF, Ford?!?”
—While the team was stargazing with Eric’s telescope in the middle of nowhere: “There’s no lines in the solar system! Those planets know where they’re going”
Finding Your Own Limits of Endurance
This trip really tested my limits of how much sleep I thought I needed daily. To put it simply, sleep was an afterthought. After a few overnight drives, my body got used to living without sleep, instead taking quick 30 minute power naps was just as beneficial as a full nights sleep.
Sometimes the trip forced us to think out side of the box. One time while driving the night shift, I was caught short of my charging station by about 10 miles after a battery depleting uphill route. I had to think on my feet and look for possible charging stations in the area at 3 a.m., so I started going through a list of golf courses, fire stations, car garages and as a last resort, knocking on peoples houses at 8in the morning!
By slowing down, I found out that I achieved and experienced so much more than if I had rushed from point A to B. See the irony there? I saw things that I never would have seen and did things that I haven’t done in along time because I was too busy living “fast.”
The Ford Focus is a very impressive car; it has pushed the boundaries of what an electric car can do and has changed my opinion of EVs. Is it ready for the general public to use for daily life? For commuting, absolutely. For a long road trip—well, that depends on how adventurous you’re willing to be! But after all, this was never about the car. The lessons that I learned about myself, about others and about the world around me have changed my outlook on life for good. I’m seeing life through the eyes of an eight-year-old kid again.