HONOLULU, HAWAII — His nickname is “Monster,” which he got not because he’s bigger than most Japanese guys (which he is) but because of his wild driving style. Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima is one of the most respected race drivers in Japan, and he’s just gone electric.
In June, Tajima (below) won the electric class at the fabled Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in a fearsome carbon fiber-bodied battery car he largely built himself, with support from a Japanese business man worried about global warming.
I encountered Tajima, in full race regalia, at the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit in Honolulu. He’d brought the winning car with him, too. Tajima is a seven-time winner of Pikes Peak in gas cars, mostly Suzukis, and in 2011 he managed to do the 12-mile course in less than 10 minutes. He started racing his E-Runner Pikes Peak Special last year, and this year he beat his gas car record with a time of 9:44 and — despite pouring rain on slick tires — speeds of up to 130 mph.
“I have built many cars, and knew what was important for Pikes Peak,” Tajima said. “You lose 40 percent of your power at the summit.” The car has two 200-kilowatt electric motors, and a 50-kilowatt-hour battery pack. “I was very happy,” he said. “The image of the battery car is that it is slower than a gasoline car.”
Here's a closer look at Tajima and his car on video. One minor caveat: this racer doesn't have wheel motors, but the next iteration will:
Electric race cars have met some headwinds, because, frankly, they’re so quiet that fans don’t get pleasantly deafened. “Quiet is better than noisy,” Tajima told me. “The Lexus is a very quiet car.” So far, electric drag racing has had some success, and a new Formula E season should increase the profile of vehicles with batteries instead of V-8s under the hood.
And this hill climb thing has legs. With his patron, Shoichiro Fukutake of Benesse Holdings (nearly 20,000 employees in language schools, education, elder care), Tajima plans to stage an electric race on the road through Maui’s Haleakela National Park. It’s a steep climb (to 10,000 feet above sea level) ending in a volcanic crater, and, if the race can win approvals, would be a dramatic showcase both for Hawaii and for electric cars.
“We need to leave a clean and beautiful Earth for our children, so I began promoting electric vehicles,” Fukutake said, through a translator. “The most serious problem we face is climate change.” His new electric vehicle company, SIM-Drive, is setting up to do electric conversions of conventional cars, and is pioneering open-source research on technology such as in-wheel motors. SIM-Drive has also built a series of fanciful electric prototypes.
Hawaii is already plugging in, with something like 1,700 battery cars on state roads now. It’s one of the initial markets for the Nissan Leaf, and islands are competing to get wired, supported by such groups as the Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance and the Big Island EV Association. Even better, Hawaii has the option to recharge its battery cars on pure renewable energy, a big priority on the islands now. For more on the state of charge in Hawaii, see the “Electric Vehicle Paradise” report, issued this month.