designed to be ditched in a pinch. Lakesters, so-named because
they raced on dry lakebeds, are rolling symbols of a world with
fossil fuel to spare. Rick is making his tenth attempt to beat the
world record in the Flying Pickle’s class: 263 miles per hour.
On the five-mile-long course, the Pickle burns thirteen gallons
“This is gonna be my year,” he says.
It’s late afternoon by the time Bob and I find the Triplets, hovering over their streamliner in matching turquoise t-shirts and
turquoise Converse sneakers. The Saline Burner, parked between
two RVs, is the same shade of turquoise. In fact, their whole encampment is color-coordinated. The car’s sculptural fairing has
been removed, and in its rear end we can see what looks like a
pair of oversized scuba tanks. It’s a non-Otto engine, all right.
There are four Triplets—“like the Three Musketeers!” they
point out. This seems a little subtle for the context. Also, they
don’t look like gearheads. Tanned, dark-haired crew chief Gilles
Pujol looks a little like Jean-Paul Belmondo. Frank Figuls is impish and slight. Jean Caillou has the floppy hair and goatee of
a bassist in an emo band. Yann Bruneau, sporting a buzz cut,
looks the least out of place, but even he doesn’t really fit in. They
speak some English, but they’re shy about it. They summon
their American spokesman, Shiva Vencat, to do the talking.
The crew, Shiva tells me, is making some last-minute safety
adjustments requested by the SCTA o;cials. Tomorrow, he tells
me, they will go to Tech, where cars are inspected and cleared for
racing. They expect to make their first run on Monday.
“We think we’re going to be able to get to 150 miles per hour,”
he tells me. The car has been tested once, on a French runway. It
got up to around 70.
I ask Shiva about the compressed-air motor. Is this technology something he believes has promise for mainstream use?
“This is the future of the automobile,” he says with conviction.
In fact, he heads the U.S. arm of the French company Motor
Development International, one of the car’s sponsors. He points
out the MDI logo on the car’s side, near the logos of MasterCard
and Retrodor, a French baguette maker. MDI already has several
compressed-air cars in development; its latest concept car is called
the AIRPod. Later, I look it up on the company website. It looks
like a Smart car reinterpreted by Dr. Seuss. If an AIRPod showed
up on the Salt, the motorheads would probably tear it to bits.
“We plan to market it as a short-term rental in cities here and
in Europe,” Shiva tells me. He believes that setting a land-speed
record with the Saline Burner will generate much-needed publicity for compressed air technology.
I give Shiva my mobile number so he can text me when the
future of the automobile is heading for the starting line.
A CENTURY AGO, the car of the future was electric. In 1900,
nearly one-third of the cars produced in the U.S. ran on electricity. Improvements in range and performance came quickly.
In 1910, after two electric cars with batteries built by Thomas
Edison completed a thousand-mile endurance test, the New York
every few minutes a race car
flies past on the course, parachute
unfurling in its wake. The place is
Mad Max on meth.
Times declared the trip “merely a forerunner of greater achieve-
ment the electromobile is bound to make.” By 1915, ten U.S.
companies were making electric cars. In 1917, electrical engineer
Charles Steinmetz told the Wall Street Journal that the electric
car’s future was “assured.” “We have seen electricity supplant
other forms of power in the street car, the driving of machinery,
the railroad,” he said. “I believe it is destined to do the same
thing for the motor vehicle.”
But by then, the first electric era was about to go bust. After
World War I, eight of the ten electric car companies disappeared.
By the end of the 1920s, electrics were a negligible percentage of
the American auto market, and despite hype for the Chevy Volt
and the Nissan Leaf, they remain so today. Theories about why