Despite not having a driver’s license, Drew Barrymore made it around the course in 54 seconds. Green Car Challenge, which pits electric car-driving celebrities against each other on a short track just outside NBC’s studio, will be a regular feature on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Jay is, after all, a major car freak with a stable that includes both ancient Detroit electrics and a steam car. In designing the Green Car Challenge, he’s adapting a segment from the flamboyant BBC program Top Gear and adding a green tinge. The car is an electric Ford Focus, with considerable tweaking for top performance around a winding and very short (just 1,400 feet) course. The Focus on the track is unique, but Ford will be selling a similar plug-in car by 2011.

Tom Cruise is going to be a contender, and one would imagine someone with Top Gun training could take contestant Rush Limbaugh, who will suffer a weight penalty. Sportscaster Bob Costas is up this week.

Justin Bell, the British race driver who is preparing the celebrities, complained to me that they forget everything you teach them when the cameras roll. He said that male contestants are likely to suffer from “no shortage of testosterone” when the checkered flags come down. “It may not be that easy to beat Drew’s times,” he said.

Andy Slankard, a Ford racing engineer, helped get the European Focus ST (there are actually two of them) ready for the track. “I think Barrymore took a few liberties cutting corners,” he said, “but her time was pretty good. I heard tires squealing.” Slankard himself made it around a facsimile track in Michigan (without the Al Gore and Ed Begley Jr. cutouts as obstacles) in 52 seconds. Despite the appearance of terrific speed, the cars don’t go much faster than 30 to 35 mph.

“We made a fun car for Jay’s event,” Slankard said. The cars, which started life with turbo engines, get a pair of battery packs and a drivetrain from Ford partner Magna International, roll cages, racing harnesses, stiffer springs and really high rear tire pressure. They’re not street legal, so Jay can’t take them home to the garage.

NBC is playing up its green credentials, and slathering the track with “Green is Universal” signage. The company has produced a manual for greening TV and video productions. The first Green Car Challenge was more about celebrities than spreading the green message, but that should change, especially if they let Al Gore or Ed Begley Jr. drive.

MNN homepage photo: Justin Lubin/NBC

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Jay Leno's guests compete in electric cars
The Tonight Show's "Green Car Challenge" puts celebrities in Ford battery cars in a parking-lot race course.