Early Thursday afternoon, February 17, 2011. Sunday’s Daytona 500 is about to be canceled.
Celebrating a longtime partnership between NASCAR and General Motors — inspired by the 2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year — the Chevrolet Volt 400 ended with a phone call. Initially heralded as an eco-friendly handshake between NASCAR and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the race evolved into seven days of unexpected history, likely never to be repeated.
NASCAR officials as well as drivers, crew and an exclusive number of fans have broken silence, as a 90-day federal gag order expired on May 23. Speaking out since All-Star Week, what we’re learning about the Chevy Volt 400 is a story of massive bureaucratic overstep, intrusion and secrecy — leading NASCAR no choice but to violate a federal contract and withdraw from the inaugural event.
NASCAR President Mike Helton weighed the image poison associated with pulling the plug on a hybrid-electric vehicle demonstration of such delicate national importance, versus an even worse backlash caused by canceling The Great American Race. With help from the city of Daytona Beach, one president stood up to another and NASCAR’s focus again returned to the Sprint Cup Series season-opener.
“We signed up for a 400-mile promo to highlight the Volt and a lot of the guys were looking forward to seeing what the car could do,” Helton shrugged. “Then they tell us we can’t refuel and something’s up. That car has a range of 379 miles.
“Then they tell us ‘no, you can’t use fuel’ — all electric. That’s 40, maybe — and four hours to recharge. Car stops? That’s it. And every day it was something else.”
Facing scrutiny over the sport’s “fuel-guzzling” image — only heightened in these days of renewable energy consciousness and $4.00 a gallon at the pump — GM believed the Chevy Volt 400 would benefit both parties. NASCAR ratings have been in decline; GM needed to move units. It was seemingly win-win.
Almost immediately, it was anything but. The release of information was successfully locked down until now. No media allowed after the horrific events of Day 1 and all broadcast transmissions were scrambled. In attendance, just 43 teams and crew plus heads of at least 14 different government agencies.
Social networking led fans to the track in such unexpected numbers, the city demanded doors open due to safety concerns. Cellphones and cameras were confiscated at the gate and — Hotel California policy — once checked in, just try leaving. All who witnessed signed a gag order post-dated Feb. 22, believed to have been punishable to a degree so severe that no one has been able to speak words relating to its specifics.
It’s through these eyes, the story of the Chevrolet Volt 400 unfolds …
On the morning of Wednesday, February 9, 2011, GM CEO Daniel Akerson informs NASCAR that “to showcase the Volt in all it’s glory,” no structural or mechanical modifications of any kind were to be made to the vehicle, presumably a directive from the U.S. Treasury. Also included was the request to run the first fuel-less auto race, which NASCAR officials originally greeted with a sense of humor. Upon learning the sincerity behind the request, those same officials produced multiple rounds of unrehearsed spit-takes, said to involve sponsors: A&W Root Beer, AMP Energy and Crown Royal Black.
Attorneys for NASCAR pour over the contract, admitting the definition of what constitutes a 400-mile race was vague in its wording. The race agreement had been signed before NASCAR could find out what was in it … According to GM, the Volt travels 25 to 50 miles on its lithium-ion battery. Software restricts the battery from ever fully charging or discharging, in order to maximize life. When the battery discharges to approximately 25%, the gas engine kicks in.
With no fuel, this ends a driver’s day.
DAY 1 — Thursday, February 10, 2011
Lawyers take to the track. Nissan Motor Company files a lawsuit demanding its 100% electric LEAF be an option for drivers, with its range of 100 miles per charge … NASCAR files a motion against DOE — seeking the use of Sunoco fuel, the Official Fuel of NASCAR — also against General Motors to force the race be run continuously, without breaks, or ended … Ford, Dodge and Toyota file breach of contract suits but quickly settle with NASCAR, allowing all drivers to participate … The FCC jams broadcast signals shortly before race time and have not returned multiple requests for comment as to why.
“Gentlemen, start your GM Voltec Electric Propulsion System Drives!”
The 150 hp Chevrolet Volt, replacing the Car of Tomorrow — 16 laps around the 2.5-mile oval at Daytona. Reaching speeds of 100 mph (pure electric, wide-open throttle), a driver reaches the checkered flag in 24 minutes. In All Electric Range, however, that type of acceleration will drain a battery by mid-race.
Seconds off the start, pole sitter Jeff Burton is pushed by Greg Biffle but manages to keep the wheels of the #31 Volt on the road … Not so lucky, Biffle ping-pongs the Roush-owned #16, screaming (at an estimated 28 mph) the wrong way up pit road before ditching in the middle of Victory Lane … “I saw someone get in my left rear. I didn’t see who hit me,” Burton said, “but we had a good restart and it opened the door for Clint (Bowyer) on the outside” … Biffle would later say the accident was a result of not being able to communicate with his pit crew or spotters.
Leading with an 87.59 mph lap speed after 16 miles, Bowyer takes the first pit, opting to give the #33 Cheerios Volt new Goodyear tires and a four-hour charge … Joey Logano forges ahead in the Home Depot #20 but by Lap 10, drivers recall the old Benny Parsons saying, “if you throttle hard, you drain the 16 kWh capacity lithium manganese spinel-based cathodes hard” … Logano falls behind as speeds decline … Todd Bodine is first to stall on the track … Topping off at 46 mph, cars riding high on the 31-degree banks of Daytona soon discover how gravity reacts to a heavier object, with a smaller wheelbase, at a lower rate of speed.
“Sad day for NASCAR. We lost a lot of good people that day,” team owner Richard Childress said, “and we couldn’t have done it without the Chevy Volt” … Childress was later fined $50,000 for his comments.
**LEADER: Carl Edwards, 54.33 mph
DAY 2 — Friday, February 11, 2011
With no understanding of who’s in charge, Helton is unable to end the race … President Obama forms a bipartisan commission to look into NASCAR crashes, specifically rollovers, and determine what can be done to avoid them … NASCAR secretly authorizes the disconnection of A/C units in order to focus maximum power to the wheels … All drivers switch to Extended Range Mode and plan to hug the low groove close to the apron in order to minimize slope … Despite severed outside communication, social media rumors send flocks of the curious to Daytona Beach. By day’s end, nearly 17,000 fans have gathered. None gain entry.
The #17 Volt is left unplugged all night, leading to a heated exchange between Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig … Mark Martin’s #5 Go Daddy Volt is disqualified after it’s learned that, overnight, his crew reinforced the engine block, replaced the Volt engine with a 421 Super Duty Pontiac V-8, plus swapped the heads and intakes, added full combustion shanks and a fiber-reinforced splitter to produce downforce. “It was a bit much,” Martin later admitted.
A moment of silence is held to honor those lost on Thursday … With the exception of Ryan Newman, the field stays tight in a pack traveling 52-55 mph, consuming energy at a rate of 36 kWh per 100 miles … Newman has the #39 Army Reserve Volt pacing between 40-65 mph, consuming 52 kWh per 100 miles and seemingly taking out drivers sponsored by Toyota. Seven Volts knocked out through four laps and all Toyota drivers, with the exception of a very unhappy Juan Pablo Montoya … A local news helicopter in search of an aerial view returns home safely and escapes damage after two competing stations have their choppers shot down.
**LEADER: Kasey Kahne, 59.85 mph
DAY 3 — Saturday, February 12, 2011
NASCAR announces that Daytona 500 practice sessions will continue next week as planned … An emergency White House conference call with various agency heads seeks to know who is in charge of the race and if the problem can somehow be fixed by naming a “NASCZAR” … Denny Hamlin vows a tortoise approach in the #11 FedEx car. “All day, 25 mph, cruise control. Should take an hour and 36 minutes,” he said. “I’ll see you when I see you”… DOT Secretary Ray LaHood stands by his claim that “EPA” is an acronym.
An estimated 35,000 people cram the gates. RVs block the streets, grinding The Birthplace of Speed to a halt. Despite appeals from above, the mayor of Daytona Beach orders the Speedway opened so that the city may function … Unprepared for a crowd of that size, service and hospitality at the track are initially overwhelmed but as staffing improves, the situation is quickly resolved.
Those lost in Friday’s helicopter accidents are remembered with a moment of silence … Also honored, “The Intimidator,” the late Dale Earnhardt, as fans hold up three fingers for the entire duration of the third stage. Said one fan, “My arm went numb and started to cramp in the second hour, but I made it.”
Green flag still waving, Ryan Newman takes out race leader Kasey Kahne, another Toyota driver … Without the safety features of the Car of Tomorrow, Newman chews up Volts with ease, sending eight back to the garage after just three laps … Seeking a wingman, Trevor Bayne misses an opportunity to dump Newman into the wall on Turn #2. “I looked to Denny from behind but he wasn’t keeping up. It actually looked like he was watching a movie on his iPod” … Jimmie Johnson takes Carl Edwards for the overall, however it’s suggested the rankings reflect a driver’s average lap speed, so as to not snub drivers still trying to catch up.
A complaint about food temperature leads a Florida health inspection team on a surprise visit to the track, only to find the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has already intervened … EPA informs NASCAR that its office is closed weekends and that, yes, each individual letter is sounded out … Health and Human Services (HHS) orders restrictor plates installed on all Volts plus the HANS Device, in the hopes of slowing speeds and protecting drivers in the event of collision … “We need spotters! We need to communicate with the car.” Helton remembers asking, “what good is the HANS device without a roll cage to put it in?” … Attorneys for NASCAR remind HHS that no structural or mechanical modifications were to be made to the vehicle. HHS assures NASCAR that this rule has been revoked.
**LEADER: Bobby Labonte, 55.57 mph
DAY 4 — Sunday, February 13, 2011
“Motor Trend Car of the Year? This thing is a disaster. Look at what’s happening here!” Waltrip pleaded. “It’s killed what, 20 people — not counting the guys in the helicopters. This race is a nightmare, just like the car — well-intended, but who’s buying it? This car only exists because of subsidies, GM could never put out the Volt on its own because it costs too much to make if you want to do it right.” Waltrip was later fined $75,000 for his comments … Asked: “would you recommend the Volt?” Waltrip eased. “It’s a nice product. I was impressed by how quiet it is. You barely know the engine’s running, it’s so quiet.”
Nashville recording artist Jamie Lee Thurston performs the national anthem as an additional 11,000 flock to Daytona, bringing the total inside to 46,000 … Prior to the race, a moment of silence is held to honor the members of the Truex team. Also, pole position in the 2011 Daytona 500 is won by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Another day of bumping and banging finally catches up to Ryan Newman. Several sponsored Volts work together to quell the torment with (NSFW) precision: it started with 5-hour ENERGY Drink, then Miller Lite, ExtenZe, Sprint, Target and Rheem. Long John Silver’s finally put the slide job on him and stuffed him in the wall.
Topping off an amazing day, Earnhardt, Jr., wrestles the lead from Johnson in the final lap, saying, “I didn’t get too excited because I expected some ridiculous scoring system would be put in place later and they’d give it to somebody else.”
United Auto Workers (UAW) demand pit crews be unionized, noting that the Truex electrocutions would not have happened had proper supervision been in place … International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers (IBEW) issues a simple four-word: “Oh no you di’int” … DOT admits yesterday’s decision to alter the daily leaderboard was silly, replacing it instead with a simple calculation of a driver’s average lap speed in relation to tire wear.
**LEADER: Jamie McMurray, 2742.73 microns
Cold overnight temperatures freeze six Volts, unable to start, including #27 Paul Menard and #7 Robby Gordon … Snapping up souvenir T-shirts, stranded fans are generally self-sufficient and in good spirits. The main complaint being the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s snack bar options of carrot sticks, dried fruits or a hummus plate combo … UAW pit stops every four laps, strictly enforced … HHS denies it authorized mechanical modifications beyond restrictor plates and the HANS device. Staffers then line up to pose one-at-a-time for photos behind an extra-wide podium that literally covers their entire ass.
“We’re enjoying what we see, is there any way to get the audio?” recalls the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., watching on spy satellite from Beijing. A diplomatic call was placed to the State Department for the purposes of ordering more episodes of the race. When a spokesperson explained that’s not the way it works, his words were said to be followed by an awkward silence.
Satellite imagery of the Volt 400 races have apparently been featured throughout the Pacific Rim as advertisements for the Nissan LEAF since Friday … A new labor agreement mandates 24 members per each pit crew, up from six — including one staff licensed Master Electrician, responsible for overseeing the preparation and hanging of stage lighting fixtures … UAW boasts that the time and attention given to each vehicle has improved from a disgraceful 14 seconds to roughly 10-12 minutes of care and patience, providing the pit stop doesn’t interfere with mandatory scheduled breaks or vacation time.
Close to 55,000 fans watch Denny Hamlin creep slowly into the Top 10, while at the same time learning Portuguese with the aid of a Rosetta Stone audio companion … Carl Edwards retakes the lead, however it’s decided that there can’t be a race leader until all cars have completed the average of 40 miles a day. Volts which finish less than 40 miles are allowed to make up laps on a practice track with a gasoline-powered car. It’s still not known who’s making these decisions.
The mayor of Daytona Beach refuses to resign after breast implants attached to a dancer at the Bottom’s Up Club in New Smyrna Beach are found to have been funded by campaign donations. “They want me out because I let in thousands of potential witnesses in a civil trial, which seems more likely every day,” the mayor said. “Leave Chesty Sapphire out of it, this has absolutely nothing to do with her” … Anti-coal group “TheDirtyLie.com” takes to the Budweiser Party Porch to protest the race, pointing out that coal is burned to create electricity so there’s no perceived difference in using a solid fossil fuel versus a liquid. Realizing most everyone at the race already knew this, the protest falls apart before lunch — one of many whole hog BBQ infield tailgates.
Richard Petty Motorsports reprograms the algorithm used by the Volt’s inboard computer, allowing the battery to generate power all the time and boost charge capacity to 100%. A.J. Allmendinger drafts teammate Marcos Ambrose and the pair shatter a Volt record (average speed of 79.22 mph for 40 miles) … In front of a record 63,000 Volt 400 fans, Ambrose finishes the race in 30 mins,17 secs, lapping a Sudoku-playing Denny Hamlin four times each trip around the oval.
One fan who came to the track simply to purchase Chevy Volt 400 collectables, was irritated at the policy that cost him his cellphone and civil rights, in exchange for 40 T-shirts. “Have you seen what these are going for on Ebay? I can buy another phone, I just want to go home,” he said. “I signed the gag order but I only went to the gift shop, I wasn’t anywhere near the race. I didn’t see anything.” Asked if he’d recommend the Volt: “it’s a nice product, surprisingly quiet,” he said. “You hardly hear the engine running.”
DAY 7 — Wednesday, February 16, 2011
UAW grants pit waivers to Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports … Several high-ranking NASCAR officials report waking up in the middle of the night, soaked in motor oil, tossing back the covers only to find a severed cylinder head at their feet … NASCAR sticks to its guns, even after discovering that a traffic light has been installed in the middle of the back straightaway, designed to temper yesterday’s blistering speeds. A rotary was also said to have been considered.
Slicing the brisk morning air, a news chopper climbs above the horizon. Believing airspace restrictions have lifted, it’s promptly fired upon by a FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missile and returns safely to its helipad … About 30 minutes earlier, a military transport had flown above the infield, leading a handful of displaced fans to believe help might finally be on the way. After four straight days of growing crowds, overpriced health food and inadequate sleeping and bathroom arrangements, some fans admit “not being themselves” … The helicopter delivers a contingent of dignitaries, spotted entering the Sprint Tower luxury suite, high atop the finish line … One fan recognizes one of the VIPs, and a rumor circulates about a concert by The Who directly following the race. Everyone is very excited.
The Ambrose and Allmendinger batteries won’t hold a charge. Richard Petty says, “if I knew we were racing tomorrow, I’d lease a couple of the $80,000 American-made batteries GM wanted to use but had to go with the cheaper South Korean model. It invalidates the warranty, you have to weigh that” … Ambrose senses foul play, having heard from a well-placed source a few days earlier that “no driver under contract with Ford or Toyota was going to win this race.” Adding: “they sent in the Army Reserve to take out Toyotas, now Ford drivers are few and far between. This might not pass the smell test.”
Todd Bodine agrees, “this whole thing is an embarrassment. I bet you no federal agency goes on record. Deny, deny, FOIA, deny. My crew chief — I kid you not — my crew chief said, ‘Onion, mark my words: I give you 90 days and I bet they get Bin Laden — make this entire thing go away.’ That’s what he said, ‘don’t be surprised if they get Bin Laden.’ Look how that worked out.”
“The Who’s in town” rumor catches up to the fan who started it, senselessly beaten by those craving a break in the action with such classics as Magic Bus and Long Live Rock. During the assault, one of the assailants snaps, “couldn’t have been The Who. Them fellas from the helicopter looked Japanese.” The pummeled fan corrects them, “Chinese. I said Hu Jintao, not Who’s in town. HU-JIN-TAO.”
A new leader emerges, coincidently still stuck in Victory Lane since Day 1.
**LEADER: Greg Biffle, 0.42 kWh per 100 miles
DAY 8 — Thursday, February 17, 2011
Rain washes away yesterday’s rubber … First called when trouble erupted a week ago, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) finally arrives on the scene, requesting that everyone remain calm … Carl Edwards backflips victoriously despite finishing 19th … Greg Biffle is treated for dehydration and is in good condition after surviving a week without food or water in the 3M car. Doctors expect Biffle to make a full recovery in time for Sunday’s Daytona 500 … If the Volt 400 continues, it’s announced that the use of Sunoco fuel will be permitted, mainly to help recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost gasoline tax revenue.
Ford beating Chevy, not an acceptable end for some. Mike Helton has been on the phone all morning … The contract for the Volt 400 has clearly not been fulfilled, only 280 miles complete … NASCAR is told, in no uncertain terms, that stopping the race will be catastrophic … NASCAR is hurled into a rushed decision — offered tax incentives, a series of postage stamps featuring Hall of Fame drivers as well as a private concert by Kenny Chesney at the Lincoln Memorial where guests can take turns sitting on Abe’s lap … When the voices turned angry, the Daytona 500 was threatened with cancellation, by the President himself.
Asked if he recommended the Volt to the Chinese president, “of course,” Helton said. “It’s a nice product. It’s amazing how quiet it is. You’d swear the engine isn’t running, it’s very, very quiet.”
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