Watkins Glen greener than ever

By John Kekis

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A driver's 1958 Chevy flex-fuel truck is inspected before the start of the Green Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Friday, April 15, 2011. The event is a celebration of sustainable transportation that promotes awareness of environmentally friendly vehicles and fuels through motoring events and educational activities.

David Duprey, Associated Press

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.

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