Teslas Go Drag Racing and Smoke the Combustion Faithful

Teslas Go Drag Racing and Smoke the Combustion Faithful, by Ira Boudway.

At the drag strip, a Tesla is not a status symbol for the tech elite or a totem of environmental responsibility or the start of a conversation about cash-burn rates and stock shorts — it’s a fast car and a provocation.

In this part of the country, where dragways are almost as common as churches, the combustion engine is an object of devotion. It’s horsepower on Saturdays and the Holy Ghost on Sundays. Many of the drivers whom Charles meets have spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars tinkering on their Corvettes and Camaros. If the Tesla — a car with nothing to do under the hood, no rumble, and no roar — can take hold here, the electric car can take hold anywhere.

In October 2014, when Tesla announced the release of its first all-wheel-drive Model S and fastest car to date, Ted ordered one that night. “When they said zero-to-60 [miles per hour] in 3.2 [seconds], and I didn’t have to do anything to it, I’m like, ‘Sign me up,’ ” he says.

He took delivery of the P85D in Raleigh on the day after Christmas. When he got home, he stopped by the house of the neighbor who had sold him the Camaro decades ago. The two men drove the electric car to a stretch of road where they had burned more than a few tires over the years. Ted switched it into “insane mode,” which allows for maximum acceleration — Tesla has since changed the name to “ludicrous mode” — and punched it. About 8 seconds and an eighth of a mile later, the two looked at each other with the same thought: This was a race car. …

He took me out onto a side road near his home in the Model S P100D he was planning to race later that night. He brought the car to a stop and asked if I would mind if he started the camera behind the rearview mirror. I was about to be fodder for a Tesla Racing Channel subgenre: the first-timer reaction shot. When he stepped on the accelerator, I felt the car squat for a split second as the tires gripped the road. Then I felt myself pinned to the seat. I could muster only two words: “Holy shit.” …

As long as Charles doesn’t blow the start, the Tesla will win the first 60 feet against any gas-powered car. An electric motor needs only the time it takes to switch on to go from zero to full power. In a Tesla, that’s about a tenth of a second. A gas engine needs at least a few seconds to ramp up.

Drivers who are unfamiliar with this instant acceleration tend to overreact. “When the Tesla jumps out that far in front, you go into the oh-shit mode,” says Ted. Panicked opponents add too much power, spinning their tires and allowing a Tesla to win even against faster cars.

Except for the batteries, electric cars are great. Fewer parts, better performance, and computerized traction control. But the batteries are heavy and expensive, don’t hold enough usable energy, and require replacing every five years.