Hybrids a nice way to go | NevadaAppeal.com

Hybrids a nice way to go

Roger Diez
Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist

I don’t know how many of you readers remember the Mobil Economy Run that used to be staged every year by the Mobil Oil company.

The event took place from 1936 until 1968 (with the exception of the WWII years). The idea was to test domestic automobiles on cross-country runs using Mobil fuel and lubricants with the aim of getting the best mileage possible. Various tricks were used by light-footed drivers, including coasting whenever possible and pumping tires to high pressures to reduce rolling resistance, all with the goal of stretching mileage.

The reason I mention this historical tidbit is to talk about today’s mileage-extending technologies, particularly as they relate to hybrid cars. OK, I know that hybrids aren’t what one normally thinks of in the context of Motorsports, but bear with me. A great deal has been written recently in the automotive press about hybrids, including enthusiast magazines like Road & Track and Car & Driver. They compare the current hybrid revolution to the introduction of the Volkswagen Beetle some 50 years ago.

I have to admit to badgering my father into buying a Beetle in 1961. He hated it, so I got to drive it quite a bit. On a college student’s budget, the Beetle’s great mileage certainly was a plus, even in the days of 20 cent per gallon gasoline. Back to the present (and gas once again climbing towards $3 a gallon) I recently purchased a Toyota Prius. So I would like to share some of my personal experiences with the breed.

You find yourself driving differently in a hybrid. You bought it primarily to save money on gas, and so you want to maximize that gain by using some of the techniques those Mobil Economy Run drivers used. That means no burnouts from the stoplights, no hard braking and no hard acceleration. Some of my racing experience comes in handy, because I mostly drove small-bore sports cars with more handling than power.

When racing an underpowered car, it is important to maintain your momentum, because when you scrub off speed it takes a while to get it back. So it is also important to drive smoothly and maintain momentum in a hybrid. Once you’ve ingrained that attitude, you can have lots of fun at the “maximizing mileage” game.

The Prius has a touch-screen display that gives you information on your current and average mileage, so you work the gas pedal and the brakes to get the bar graph on the screen as high as possible. Another nice feature is that a hybrid recovers energy from braking and coasting, using the front wheels as generators to recharge the battery. The display also gives you that information, and the challenge is to see how much energy you can recover in a given trip.

Obviously the most energy is recovered while going downhill, which is good because gas mileage going uphill suffers. So if you’re going over to Sacramento, for instance, you’ll notice that your mileage suffers from Carson City to Emigrant Gap on Highway 50, but improves dramatically as you descend the western slope of the Sierras. On a recent trip over to the Sacramento area and back I averaged a little better than 53 miles per gallon, and I kept up with traffic quite nicely.

And who knows, perhaps some entrepreneurial race promoter will come up with the bright idea of a racing series for hybrids, with a limited amount of fuel to finish the race, ensuring that drivers manage their fuel consumption as well as their speed. Oh, wait. Formula 1, Champ Car, and other series already tried that. Well, maybe the time has come to do it again.

Far from taking the fun out of driving, a hybrid provides a different kind of challenge, and a different kind of fun. One that, by the way, is far less likely to incur the wrath of the local constabulary and a trip to the courthouse to deal with a speeding ticket!