WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Flanked by an array of unique vehicles, Bob Gillespie stood in the chilly morning air at Watkins Glen International and spelled out the rules in a drivers' meeting like no other at the famed road course.
"There's no drafting, no tailgating, stay 50 feet behind the car in front of you, and there shouldn't be too much passing," Gillespie warned Friday before the start of his pet project, the Green Grand Prix. "Drive safely. I don't want anybody going 30 mph or even 33 mph at the top of the esses. And if you have to take a potty break, there's a porta-john over there."
Kent Johnson shrugged in fake dismay, then smiled as he settled behind the wheel of a Honda Insight.
"Painful," predicted Johnson, who's more accustomed to speeds of 140 mph racing Ford Mustangs around The Glen's 2.45-mile short course that NASCAR uses every August.
The Green Grand Prix is a celebration of sustainable transportation that promotes awareness of environmentally friendly vehicles and fuels through motoring events and educational activities. Billed as the only road rally for alternate-fuel vehicles and hybrids in the United States sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America, it was staged for six years on two-lane country roads in and around Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
The rally was moved to the storied track this year and WGI president Michael Printup hopes it becomes a fixture. Enough already of Sprint Cup cars that get 4.5 miles per gallon, even if they are using 15 percent ethanol fuel this season.
"This was right down my bowling alley," said Printup, chairman for green initiatives at all 12 International Speedway Corp. tracks. "This is my 300 game right here."
Two fuel-economy rallies were run simultaneously Friday, with one group covering 50 miles and the second 100 miles. The goal was to average 45 mph — and may the most fuel-efficient car win.
Bill Buchholz, one of 44 drivers to compete, couldn't wait to hop into his three-wheeled Dirigo. It was parked right next to Roo Trimble's ROOPOD, another three-wheeler with this to offer: "Two people, two gallons, two hundred miles, one hell of a trip."
"I think it's good to get all these cars together," said Buchholz, who made the 500-mile trip from his home in Camden, Maine, in his Dirigo and has driven it to California. "You feel a little bit lonely sometimes in these odd cars trying to promote fuel mileage, and here's a whole critical mass of small cars doing it.
"I hope there's a political component here as well that people express the need that we have to take these cars further and get them out to the public. The public should demand high-mileage cars from manufacturers. That's the ultimate goal."
The Dirigo is powered by a three-cylinder, 950cc diesel motor that generates all of 20 horsepower. Its front end was fashioned from a Kawasaki off-road vehicle, its wheels are from a Volkswagen Beetle, and the body is made of western red cedar "because it's very light, carbon neutral and you can build nice shapes with it."
"And we're from Maine — wood, you know," Buchholz said.
The Dirigo also has a slick cruise control made from a contraption used to hold sails in place on a sailboat. And though the vehicle remains crude at best — the windows use zippers and the fumes from the engine are noticeable with the windows zipped — it works.
"This is the best we could do being regular backyard mechanics. I think all owner-built cars suffer from rattle and noise and imperfections," said Buchholz, the only remaining member from a group of 20 that gathered every Saturday in Camden for a few hours to figure out ways to go farther using less fuel. "I get smiles and nothing but positive energy. People don't look at it like, 'Wow, that's bizarre.' They look at it in a real positive way.
"We're beginning to believe that there's a market opportunity here for a company to design something that's high-mileage but not dorky," he said. "I think that cars can be high-mileage and cool at the same time, and it's pertinent to where we're at today."
Indeed. The price of gas is hovering around $4 a gallon and not likely to go down any time soon.
"I think $4 a gallon gas is a big psychological hurdle," Buchholz said. "You can see $3.95, $3.98, but when it's $4.01, all of a sudden it's $4. I think now people might begin to start to react to that in a different way."
Trimble hopes so. He spent three years developing the ROOPOD, which is powered by a two-cylinder, 480cc diesel that provides all of 13 horsepower but still can reach 55 mph.
"When I started building this car (the last time gas approached $4 a gallon), it was sort of an epiphany moment," said the 43-year-old Trimble, an industrial designer from Massachusetts who's looking for sponsors. "I was looking at my Volkswagen Beetle and I started thinking that when I'm driving it, nine parts of my gallon of gas go to hauling the weight of the car around. I wanted to make a car that had a better ratio.
"The goal is almost met here," said Trimble, who weighs around 260 pounds. "When there's two of me in that car, the car and me are almost the same weight, so it gives you a 1-to-1 ratio."
Cornell University entered the 50-mile race with its Custom Redshift, a diesel-electric hybrid with a license plate number of CU100MPG. Matt Robison, a masters student studying engineering and business, was behind the wheel as professor Al George lamented that the car would have to try to make it all the way on battery power because of an electronic problem.
It did as the professor pondered the future.
"I'm a grandfather now, and basically my grandchildren's grandchildren are in trouble," George said. "We're running out of energy. We cannot afford to keep doing what we're doing. Each person in the United States is using twice as much energy as people in Europe. We just can't do it. We don't have the resources.
"We have to improve our vehicles, our home heating, everything we do. People have a very short view of where the world's going. It's really a shame."
This was the second time Buchholz competed in the Green Grand Prix. He took second place in his class two years ago at 89 miles per gallon didn't make the podium on this day. West Philadelphia High School's Factory Five GTM nailed top honors at 160 mpg, while a Chevrolet Volt finished at 129 mpg.Comment on this story
And the day wasn't painful at all for Johnson, who chairs the automotive department at Alfred State University. He took top honors in his class at 89.6 mpg.
Robert "Chip" Beam was conspicuous by his absence. His 1988 Isuzu Trooper, which is powered by wood chips, had taken part in the previous six events, but he never called this year and Gillespie never called him.
"He was stealing the show," Gillespie said. "It's not about the future of wood-powered vehicles. It's something different from that."