I was fortunate to spend time close to the NHRA drag racing circuit in my career. Mostly, it was in the 1990s while I was sports editor at the paper in Gainesville, Fla., where the Gatornationals event took place each spring.
It was a big event for the community, and we looked forward to covering it. The stars of the sport were always accessible and likeable. John Force. Kenny Bernstein. Joe Amato. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.
We published a special section with driver bios and information on the sport and track every year. The press box at the track was named in honor of the former sports editor of The Gainesville Sun, Norm Froescher.
I brought my young son, already enamored with cars and combustible engines, and his little friend from the neighborhood, to the track one weekend during the NHRA stop in town. As we walked by Prudhomme’s tent in a restricted area, he and his team were working on his Funny Car setup. We’d barely passed the tent when the engine revved and roared – literally shaking the ground we were walking on.
Both boys instantly paused, and in slow motion, their faces melted into masks of tears, so frightened by the sudden, furious burst of sound. My son Ben, now a decade into his career in the automotive parts business, somehow remembers it fondly.
In Alabama, we attended tractor pulls in rural towns, smoke billowing out as gears were grinding and giant tires spinning in the mud. It was great.
For my son’s 21st birthday we went to an exotic race car experience in Las Vegas, where he tore around the track in a Lamborghini.
Burned rubber, diesel fuel exhaust plumes high in the air, powering everything from carnival rides to deep-sea fishing boats to huge logging trucks on Oregon Avenue. The sites and smells of cars and trucks have been a meaningful part of my life for decades.
All of these memories came rushing back the other day because …
Last week I experienced something unlike anything else I’ve known related to cars. It felt like … the future.
I was given the chance to ride in, then drive, a new Tesla. The battery-powered vehicle is cutting-edge technology, and when driving in the whisper-silent cabin, you are ready for it to slowly take flight and glide above the other traffic. Just like The Jetsons.
The power in the car is immediate; if you want to go faster, lightly press the pedal. It increases speed as quickly as the volume rises when you slide a button along a boom box. Driving side-by-side at the same speed as another car, the Tesla will pull away like the Enterprise on warp speed.
Quick facts about the Tesla I drove: It’s built to last 1 million miles; the battery lasts 500,000 miles, so two per vehicle lifetime if all goes well. A single charge lasts about 350 miles.
And it’s friendlier to the environment. The power to charge the battery can come from multiple sources, including fossil fuels, solar and wind energy. Change that is truly transformational takes time, and while our world seems to evolve exponentially faster these days, the gas-powered vehicles aren’t going anywhere soon.
Earth Day is April 22, as good a time as any to recognize efforts for cleaner fuels and cleaner-powered vehicles.
If I’m around for the demise of the combustible engine, I’ll miss its rumble and rattle.
But I can’t wait to see how our transportation continues to evolve. Jet packs, anyone?
Note: This column has been updated with the correct miles-per-charge.
Noel Nash is publisher of The Chronicle.