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SOLAR DERBYTHE TRUE STORY OF A SUN-LOVING, ELECTRIC-POWERED HOT-RODDER

Ernie Holden remembers the time he drove his hot rod into a gas station to fill it up. The car was a 1964 El Camino, a beast dating from the days when gas was cheap and engines were big, and its 350 cubic inches put out more than 300 horsepower in weekend competitions. Holden began filling it with, of all things, unleaded gas, traditionally thought to be the enemy of high performance.

A kid with a jacked-up Chevy Super Sport watched him, aghast. He couldn't have been more shocked if Ernie had been banging on the vehicle with a sledgehammer. "What are you doing that for?" the kid gasped.

"I don't want to ruin the catalytic converter," Ernie told him, and watched the kid react like he'd been hit in the face with a two-by-four at the very mention of the dreaded contraption.

This story illustrates the two contradictory sides of Ernie Holden, a man who railed against catalytic converters until he proved with his El Camino they don't affect performance; a man who once competed on the NASCAR Sportsman's circuit in a 1955 Chevy and is now organizing a race for solar- and electric-powered cars; a man who wouldn't mind saving the planet, but wants to be able to get from zero to sixty in less than eight seconds while he's doing it.

Ernie Holden has organized the first running of the Solar and Electric 500 this weekend. The duo of races, scheduled for this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, will bring together most of the important people on the cutting edge of electric-car technology.

If a get-together of solar and electric cars sounds as exciting as a Greenpeace convention, if it appears to have overtones of granola and self-righteousness, or perhaps, just plain silliness, consider these facts: A company in California is working on an electric motor that will give you the performance of a Lamborghini. And there are rumors of an electric dragster that can turn a four-second quarter mile, something not even top-fuel dragsters have done yet. Electric cars are your driving future. California passed a law mandating that 2 percent of all vehicles sold in the state by 1998, and 10 percent of all sold by 2003, be emission free. Major auto manufacturers have taken that to mean one thing: electricity.

Although there is a solar race--the 500 refers to 200 kilometers for solar cars and 300 kilometers for electric ones--no one is talking seriously about those flimsy-bodied, cockroach-shaped solar vehicles as a realistic alternative to anything. Most of this weekend's solar entrants are from universities, those ivory towers whose most recent contribution to American life was deconstruction.

But electric cars are real cars--production street sedans whose engines have been replaced with electric motors. "Virtually every major automaker is rushing to get these built," Holden says.

By putting together a race, Holden hopes to dispel the notion that electric cars are like everything else that's good for you: boring.

The knock against electric cars up to this point has been that they go slow and have no range. The only production electric vehicle available today, for example, has a top speed of 53 mph and a range of 60 miles. As Holden says, when he first thought about electric cars, "I thought about getting in a golf cart and getting run over by a delivery truck."

Trying to inject sex appeal into an electric vehicle seems to be a trend in the industry today. Last year, for instance, when General Motors unveiled its prototype Impact, a good deal more was made of the car's eight-second zero-to-sixty--faster than 90 percent of the cars on the market--than of its benefit to the environment.

And one of the observers at this weekend's races is Peter Bos, whose Polydyne Incorporated in California is dedicated to developing the electric power plant of tomorrow. Bos' reaction to an electric car that sacrifices freedom, speed and acceleration is: Forget about it. "Buy it because it's the patriotic thing--that's baloney," he says.

These are men, in other words, who think a smog-free future ought to be fun.

Holden became a convert to electricity much like Saint Augustine became a convert to Christianity, after a lifetime of sin.

Holden started out racing sprint cars, tiny things that compete on dirt tracks and have the greatest power-to-weight ratio of any racing vehicle. He gets quite enthusiastic as he describes how dangerous they are, and is enormously impressive when he talks about going to sprint races with George Hurst, he of the Hurst shifter.

Holden is a guy who has bounced around a bit in his time. He taught high school, managed a couple of racing ovals in the Midwest and made drawings for a company building Indy cars in California. He lived in Phoenix in the early Seventies and came back nine years ago to open Holden Motor Company, an emissions shop. Then, he says, he realized he was turning fifty--that's scheduled for this year-- and, like a lot of guys, took stock of his life. Some men chase blondes. Holden decided to organize a race for solar and electric cars.

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Anna Dooling