By now, everyone's well aware of the monstrous performance potential of electric drivetrains. The first time you stomp the gas on a humble Nissan Leaf commuter is a real eye-opener – let alone the sheer force of a Zero SR, or Tesla Model S.
Neither of those are really designed as high performance machines, either. The Lightning LS-218 electric superbike is, and that thing accelerates fast enough to scare the hairs off the stoutest scrotum.
Electric is no joke. But there are still heights to be scaled before the battery is crowned king over the combustion engine on the racetrack. When the flag drops, the bullshit stops and results speak for themselves.
The Ultimate Challenge
The quarter-mile drag strip is one of the purest tests of vehicle performance, and it's still ruled by the combustion engine; specifically, the Top Fuel class.
These giant, mutant, 10,000-horsepower fire-breathers suck down more than 20 gallons of nitromethane fuel over the course of a pass. Their ear-splitting, 150-decibel, open exhaust headers are angled upward, and they push enough gas to give the car an extra 1,100 pounds worth of downforce to help with the almost-impossible task of sticking its giant rear tires to the drag strip.
Fearsome doesn't cover these things. Within 0.8 seconds of launch, they're doing more than 100 mph, and they run a quarter mile in 4.5 seconds, hitting up to 332 mph at the finish line. That's in Australia, which is the only place that still lets them run that far. The rest of the world decided years ago that top speeds were getting out of control, and only runs them about three quarters of that distance … keeping top speeds to a much safer 328.8 mph.
These are among the most extreme machines on the planet, a hair's breadth from explosive destruction at any given second, and ultimately these are the Goliaths that will need to be defeated if electric is to truly take over in the pure performance stakes.
Electric drag racing is progressing fairly well, but it's nowhere near what the Top Fuel guys are doing. According to the National Electric Drag Racing Association, the current quarter-mile record for an electric dragster is 7.274 seconds @ 185 mph, set by the Swamp Rat team in Florida three years ago. That's crazy fast to you and me, but the 2.7 seconds between that and the Top Fuel record is an ocean of time in drag racing.
In order to cover that distance and relegate combustion to the history books, electric drag racing has to take a huge leap forward – a leap that will require the biggest, baddest, highest discharge, most powerful electric powertrain ever hooked up to a set of quivering tires.
Meet Top EV Racing
This Western Australian company believes it's nearly ready to take on the Top Fuel challenge – and break an armful of drag racing, land speed and Guinness world records along the way.
Top EV Racing is the brainchild of electronic engineer Michael Fragomeni, a long time drag race enthusiast, who drove a 9-second altered race car at the tender age of 12.
Fragomeni and his team haven't just had to build a car. Off-the-shelf electric motors, inverters and battery packs simply can't produce and handle the massive power and discharge rates this task requires. So, using cutting-edge aerospace alloys, additive manufacture and generative design, the team has spent the better part of the last seven years working on the custom powertrain engineering.
If this car lives up to its potential, it will be a foundational revolution in the sport of drag racing. Its 1,000-volt, 5,000-odd horsepower motor might fall short of the peak power figures of the Top Fuel cars, but it'll generate more than 17,000 pound-feet (23,049 Nm) of torque from zero RPM, has more "power strokes" per revolution, and should use its muscle in a far more controllable way than the combustion cars.
The team believes it won't take long to beat the Top Fuel cars at their own game, under their own rules, and the Australian National Drag Racing Association (ANDRA) has agreed to let the Top EV car race alongside Top Fuel cars once it's sanctioned.
If all goes to plan and they beat the best of the combustion world, things could get really interesting. Freed from the constraints of Top Fuel regulations, the Top EV team wants to start running a host of other new technologies that could make the car significantly faster and safer.
And while acceleration times are the clear focus here, the team is also aiming at tarmac-based land speed records as well, with a stated target of half the speed of sound, or about 612 km/h (380 mph), down an airplane runway. These are wildly dangerous endeavors, accelerating terrifying amounts of electric energy to speeds that test the outer limits of control.
We spoke with Top EV's director, electro-motive engineer and eventual driver Michael Fragomeni. A transcript follows:
Loz: What's your timeline looking like right now?
Fragomeni: We are about 12 months away from our debut run. When we debut the car we have to license both the car and me as a driver. We will need to complete a burnout, show we can launch the car and complete the quarter and half tracks.
So we're going to be building the car up slowly. But we hope we can set a world record on our first day out, and then we've got another several to achieve after that as we continue to step the car up and learn the car.
We're custom building the entire driveline, you can't buy this stuff off a shelf, and that's great part of what's taking time. In top fuel and like most motorsport racing, you can buy all of the engine and driveline parts from suppliers around the world and put it together. But for us it's new technologies, it's new development.
We are also working towards commercializing these technologies. The components are scalable and can be used in other forms of motorsport including drag racing, but we are also eagerly exploring other industries and applications.
If it was just about a race car, we could've built this out in the back shed, from a personal budget, and we could go fairly fast. But then it wouldn't be repeatable. This is all about building a business so we can support the car, take the race car around Australia and around the world in time, and grow to a multi-car team.
So we've got to create a lot of new technologies, to be able to create and draw on the power that we need to achieve such.
What kind of power are we talking about there?
We've just been able to step up our inverter design and swing a bit more power to the motor. So we might end up close to 5,000 horsepower now. Yet we won't unleash that power straight away.
It will probably take us 6 to 12 months from hitting the track to applying that full power because we want to be safe and repeatable, and keep the car off the walls. We're talking about 4,000-plus amps of current, so it's a considerable amount of energy. You approach it carefully and learn the car as we go. We're bound to find improvements along the way and implement those.
We wear two hats really; we're racing competitively and going out there to put on an exciting exhibition. Really big burnouts and really show the crowd some exciting passes. But we're also developing the technologies and bettering that through constant research and development.
Let's talk a bit about the records you're hoping to set.
We're hoping to achieve drag racing records, and also land speed. On the drag strip, we want the Elapsed Time and Top Speed records for both the quarter and eighth mile. We want the Guinness World Records for fastest accelerating electric vehicle, and fastest accelerating wheel-driven vehicle outright. And we want land speed elapsed time and top speed records as well.
We'd like to do land speed not only on the quarter mile, but also on asphalt. We're not really looking to hit the salt. The car is designed for an awful lot of launch energy. We really want the traction, so we would like to stay on asphalt.
Zero to 200 km/h (124 mph) in 0.8 seconds over the first 20 meters, hitting over 7G's is the goal, and drag strips are prepared with sticky rubbery glue all down it. We're able to apply energy and get that launch. When we go to an aircraft runway, even though it's asphalt, it doesn't have that sticky preparation on it. So we're not going to be able to achieve the same launch forces on a long runway, we'll instead have a more consistent acceleration off the line, and hold it for a lot longer over the measured mile.
Our top speed goal is half the speed of sound, 612 km/h (380 mph). That's more than enough for us now. The limit for rubber tires is about 800 km/h (497 mph). They just fly apart after that from the centrifugal force and dynamic loads. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
What kinds of tech are you developing to get there?
Batteries, inverters, motors. There's also data acquisition, safety intervention, and active aerodynamics systems.
How about traction control, will you be using anything like that?
I'll have the feature to be able to completely "manual-ise" the car and it's all just up to me as a driver. Or I can turn on our closed-loop control systems.
The Australian National Drag Racing Association will class us in Exhibition class, and that means we can pretty much do what we want, within safety regulations. But we do what to be able to compete fairly against the Top Fuel cars in time. We're trying to keep everything as Top Fuel sanctioned as possible so it's apples for apples, apart from the obvious driveline differences.
So, the same minimum weight, the same chassis parameters, the same aerodynamics, but you can't have any closed loop controls, you can't have any real-time performance intervention. It can be pre-set before the run, but you drive the car essentially manually.
We want to be able to do that, get as fast as we can under all the Top Fuel regulations, and ANDRA has said they'll let us race side by side with Top Fuel cars once we've had a few meetings under our belt and we can show we're safe and consistent. The ultimate goal over the next two or three years is to reach those cars' speeds and then beat them.
Once we're at that point, we can start using higher technologies that aren't really allowed in drag racing, to go faster. So once we match them with their regulations, we can start doing some very different things to the car.
That'll bring us to our version 2 car, and it'll have very different aerodynamics and not worrying about minimum weights, and hopefully we'll go a fair bit faster in time. That's our long term goal. We're already planning version 2 and version 3, so we know where we're headed with things.
So as you go down a drag strip side by side with a Top Fuel car, where will your advantages be?
We feel we're going to have an amazing advantage all the way to half track. That's for a couple of very obvious reasons; electric motors make all their torque from zero RPM, so we've got more launch force. In Top Fuel drag racing, these guys are slipping their clutches all the way to half track or more, so they're not using anywhere near the full power their engines are able to make until about half track.
Our limiting factor is tires and grip, just like theirs is. But the difference, I believe, is that we're applying our power and torque much more precisely and more controllably. Those cars are subject to clutch behavior changes. And the air pressure, humidity and temperature change, which affects the power of the motor, and the ignition timing is critical as those variables change and the applied load varies. They have a lot of factors changing dynamically that are very hard to master.
We believe we can be a lot more precise and measured, with a lot more control. We hope to achieve more launch force and take advantage of our launch force more linearly up to half track.
Now, electric motors do roll off torque with higher RPM, and that's something we'll have to monitor with data acquisition to work out those characteristics and how to better them over time, yet it's not overly different to an internal combustion engine rolling off power and torque at high-RPM too.
But we by no means think we're going to hit the track and do a 4-second pass. This is going to require development, and the evolution of the car, the technology, and us as a team.
There's nothing off-the-shelf to run these kinds of power, so it's been about seven years of specific development to date, specifically on this project. I've been an electro-tech my entire career, working on electro-magnetic drives, switch-mode inverters and all sorts of things over my 30-odd years of practical career time, so a lot of the fundamentals are well-exercised.
What are the biggest challenges for you guys at the moment?
Our biggest challenge is developing motorsport sponsorship partners. This venture of ours is understandably not a cheap exercise by any means, what with engineering, materials, parts, exhibition assets, and a lot of time. We've been actively working with sponsors to build up this race team, which is the approach for many global motorsport categories. That takes a lot of time in itself, to generate those relationships and see what sponsors want out of the project, and incorporate their insight.
We have many great companies on-board, and with their support our team and program is growing exponentially. Our debut naming-rights partnership is currently open to be established. If any of your readers here have an interest in getting on-board, please go to our website, have a look through our dedicated sponsorship partners, and please drop us a line.
So developing the right professional networks and the right sponsors over time is a large chunk of the admin side of the business, aside from all the time we spend on developing the engineering and components. We don't want to be a one-hit wonder, and then park the car away. There's a lot to achieve, to learn, to address.
Then there's the constant advances in component-level technologies. Battery management systems, data acquisition, nano-tech coatings, and the like. Battery cell chemistries are constantly evolving. Discrete components in electronics such as high-output transistors, everything's constantly evolving.
It's a double-edged sword. We want to hit the track yesterday, yet some of the extra time we've spent is because there are different components becoming available at a rudimentary level that we can use. It seems the longer we take to get to the racetrack is good, because we'll have newer tech and improved safety margins in devices that we can utilize.
Are you aware of anyone else trying to do something like this?
There doesn't seem to be anyone doing this at such an advanced and scientific level. There's a couple of electric drag racers with fast cars, that have almost hit 200 mph. And they're very close to doing just that. It's an exciting space, and a healthy rivalry nevertheless. Top EV is a whole other level, different driveline approaches and new technologies, with our power levels a hell of a lot more difficult to achieve safely.
We're talking about enough potential power, mounted within a foot behind my head, to run a whole suburb of houses with lights and appliances switched on. The electro-chemical energy density of the battery pack is equivalent to more than 18 kilos of TNT. If that's to short circuit and dissipate all the energy in the power pack, you're dealing with 18 kilos of TNT essentially, plus high speed and stability at those high speed you're pressing the boundary of.
So you can start to work out that safety systems are paramount in this kind of race car. Certainly for me as a driver. But not just that, for the team and track safety crew as well. They need to know that the car's safe if they need to extract me out, and that the car's chassis is not live for example. They can't use their standard fire extinguishers on things either. So there's a lot of electronic safety systems, technical considerations and personnel training for all involved.
We've spent a lot of time on this project, and we're in for the long haul, because we want to do this right, we want to do this safely and we want to promote the sport, so that in time, Top EV becomes the name of the class we'd like to see come about. You've got Top Fuel, Top Alcohol, Top Doorslammer, Top Bike, as class naming conventions, and now Top EV–Top Electric Vehicle.
To get that going, you'll need serious competition.
And we'd love to see other cars preparing to compete. We imagine over the next few years you'll start to see a complete field. Wouldn't that be exciting?
I've worked a lot in high-end competition-level car audio for about 20 years of my life. I've set seven world and Australian records. Without sounding too arrogant, every competition we'd go to, we'd win. I got about 90 trophies in that time, plus those of my clients. It's a bit lonely at the top. It can be quite unsatisfying not to have someone next to you that you're really edging to beat. That lack of competition.
The same thing will happen in this sport. If it's just us out there setting speed records and whatnot, well, that'll be awesome for the first year or two. But as much as we think we're addressing all the challenges and all the hurdles and going fast, there's other people with different minds that can do things differently.
Certainly, we hope to dominate the field once there is a field, but it'd be great to have that competition next to us doing their own things as well, and raising the bar with collective development. I guess we're looking at the 3, 4, 5 year mark for that.
I just can't wait to be strapped in and put my foot down. It'll be a great reward for all, with the time and effort inputted and with the great people involved.
I understand you're working on being able to show some telemetry visually on the car, and via an app to fans in the stands. Can you talk us through that?
Exactly right. We have the technology to monitor the vehicle in a number of ways and share this with the audience. Fourteen inbuilt cameras will help us to monitor various components in the vehicle with four of these available for streaming to the public. It is an exciting novelty, and just another way we can engage our audience, both locally and globally.
You mentioned active aerodynamics; what are you planning to do with that?
Front and rear active aero. It's been designed and developed, and now we're starting to fit it to the race car, and that's going to give us a lot more control and stability down the course.
Now, in order to be apples for apples when we race against other classes, we won't use it. We'll set things up manually. But once we're free to use our own systems and controls that are not sanctioned … Look, active aero's nothing new, you see it in many forms of motorsport and exotic cars. But not in drag racing, it's not used. We've never seen it used once. I hope when we hit the track with ours, it'll be the first time that's been seen in use, and always the most advanced.
There's a lot to develop there, that'll give us a lot of efficiency down the run, and certainly stability control. It also gives us the ability to brake the car aerodynamically if we have an issue. So I'm able to hit my abort button that'll intervene in many systems and bring all the wings up at a high angle of attack and slow the car down.
If you have a static wing position, then your drag and downforce are generally proportional – they both increase with speed. You want downforce, you don't want drag. In the case of active aero, you're able to launch with a lot of angle for increased downforce at low speed, and then as our speed increases we can take the angle of attack out and thus drag away. So downforce becomes a consistent force, instead of one that linearly increases with speed. That'll help us to get faster in the second half of the track especially.
What sort of battery do you need for this kind of work?
It's centered around very high discharge ability. One advantageous consequence of that is fast charging ability too, but that's not a big practical consideration for us, because we have about two hours to turn the car around between competition runs, and we'll only need a few minutes to charge up if we need to push it. We'll have plenty of time to maintain and check over the rest of the car as we essentially trickle charge the thing back up.
But yes, very high electrical discharge. It's drag racing, so 4-5 seconds of full throttle, and we're dissipating a hell of a lot of energy throughout those 5 seconds. So the internals are designed for very high current discharge, very high thermal stability, high-voltage isolation, and safety in the case of internal explosion, and safety in the case of high-speed impact.
Even though the specifications of our battery packs are designed for drag racing initially, we see a lot of potential uses in other high energy discharge situations as well. These driveline technologies can go into aircraft, or flying cars, boats, hyperloops, and similar.
We're set for killer power, but this can be scaled down for other applications. The race car, for us, is effectively a dyno machine for our ongoing research and development. To the motorsport fans it's a new race car spectacle, and we'll do great burnouts, we'll set great elapsed times and speeds, we'll achieve our performance goals, and we have a lot to show and a lot to prove.
When was the last time there was a real technological revolution in drag racing, a new class, something like what you're doing now?
That's a really good question. Before electric? I'll try not to offend the petrolheads out there, and I'm a revhead too! But what we've seen with the internal combustion engine, both in motorsport and in day-to-day transport is improvements in materials, improvements in the tolerances of machining by CNC essentially, and improvements in data acquisition and therefore tuneability.
They're very small increments. So you've seen a lot of drag racing classes, and speedway, NASCAR and Formula 1 for example, slowly implementing electronic fuel injection, electronic ignition mapping, variable intake runners and variable cam timing from a better understanding of port flows and fluid dynamics inside ports … You've seen a lot of improvements over time, but it's still the same basic technology.
We're using the latest cutting-edge aerospace materials on the car, and adopting additive manufacture. Certain parts are 3D printed. We don't know of any drag racing teams that have used any form of 3D metal printing for any part for their car, let alone made with the best aerospace alloys on the planet. We've partnered with Airbus on that and we're using its Scalmalloy.
When we went to additive manufacture, we had to take another look at our designs, because they were all ready for CNC machining. But now we can make shapes that aren't limited by CNC machining tool paths, and we're using a material as strong as Titanium yet as light as aluminum, so we can really reduce our wall thicknesses and make components that are much lighter but just as strong. That's taking advantage of the pure material science and additive manufacturing advances.
Hopefully when we hit the track and debut with all this stuff, we can be the first to do it. And that'll be a testament to our partners, our sponsors, our team, our forethought, and we're grateful for access to these technologies from around the world.
We look forward to following Top EV Racing's journey going forward.
More information: Top EV Racing