Out behind Great Mills High School last week, Paul Graham finished the last of the wiring for the nine batteries in the front of a Mazda MR2. He looked up, then thumped the front of the car, spread his arms and said, "So this thing is good to go?"
Larry Jarboe, a St. Mary's County commissioner and sometime adviser to the engineering club, lifted his finger to his lips. "Shhhhhh -- " he said, not wanting to jinx it. The students and their advisers had been working all year on transforming an old car into an electric hot rod, a drag racer that they could let loose at a regional competition in Hagerstown this Saturday.
Teachers Allen Skinner and Bryan Craley challenged students -- many of them children of engineers in the booming St. Mary's technology corridor around the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a place where constant innovation is expected -- to create a car that was energy-efficient, functional and lightning-fast. It was a project that required complex thinking and greasy mechanical work, conceptual leaps and the ability to saw through metal.
It was almost done -- they hoped. The car had 18 12-volt batteries, a new aluminum dashboard with control knobs labeled in permanent marker, a fresh coat of shiny green paint and a big yellow hornet decal (the school mascot) on its way.
And the big race was only a week away.
Nick Diaduk, a junior, sat in the driver's seat. The others stood around the car, watching for signs of life. Nick turned the key, and the car made a low wheezing sound.
"Come on baby," said Jon Edwards, a mechanic helping them.
"It's trying to run," Jarboe said.
They crowded around the back of the vehicle, checking for loose connections. Sterling Gorter, who like Paul had just graduated, started duct-taping. Skinner and Paul looked at the diagram, tracing out paths. They had been there hours after school; it was almost 7 p.m. They twisted wires in the back. And then --
"Hey!" Paul said. The wheels were spinning on the right side. They released the parking brake, and all four wheels spun. Paul crouched next to the car -- hands scuffing against the rubber tires as they sped around and around -- and smiled. Members of the student team stood there, sweating in the sun behind the school, enjoying it.
"The wheels turn," Jarboe said. "This is a good thing. This is a good thing."
More Americans have been thinking about electric cars. There has been a sea change in attitudes in the past few years, said Bill Moore, editor of EVWorld, a magazine about electric vehicles. For years Americans had seen small, odd-looking, three-wheeled vehicles that couldn't go very far without needing to be recharged. But now, with Japanese automakers producing energy-efficient, reliable and popular hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, people are taking a second look at electric, he said.
And with gas prices shooting up, there may be some new converts, he added.
Roderick Wilde, one of the forerunners of electric drag racing who started more than 11 years ago, said it makes political sense to reduce reliance on foreign oil. "Whoever has the energy has all the power," he said.
He's made electric racing an in-your-face, no-limits sport -- he calls it "sucking amps," and his juiced-up Mazda can go from 0 to 100 mph in seven seconds.
"I've never been killed, not even once," he said, but he has been scared a time or two. Those times include watching metal melting and sparks flying as the engine blew up from the intense voltage, or when a car started with such a burst of power that he thought it would flip over backwards.
He's addicted to that fast start characteristic of electric race cars. It is something that a gasoline engine can't give.
"The launch on these things is just so incredible," he said. "It feels so good, the G-force -- the same thing you get when you get on rides at the fair, that thrill."
As racers like Wilde push the limits, technology eventually will follow, in more sensible, marketable forms, he said.
The kids in the engineering club don't expect to be driving gasoline cars for long. "Gasoline cars'll probably be gone because of pollution," said Alex Mercado, a freshman at Great Mills.
"Maybe another form of electric cars, like hydrogen cars," Paul said.
When they started on the little arrowhead-shaped MR2 with rust eating through the maroon paint, they stripped out the motor parts they didn't need. They had to figure out where to put all the batteries. They designed cases to hold them in place. One afternoon this year Nick wore safety goggles as he drilled through stainless steel. Anna Mischke, a junior, sawed, braced against the shattering noise. Alex stripped wiring out.
Some bolted the new battery trays into the car as Craley explained that they needed a device to control the voltage, so it doesn't all zap at once. Alex and Sterling got into a waterfight, with suds from the sink, laughing at each other. Skinner walked around answering questions, quietly guiding students when they needed it.
Some were there because they like messing around with cars, some because they thought it would help them get into college, some because they liked the challenge. Paul said he has learned how to solve problems by thinking about them in new ways. Besides, as one of the only club members with a driver's license, he gets to drive the car.
"It's a school event where you get to drag race," Paul said, and flashed a grin. "Seems cool."
Their car won't have the blistering speed (or the risk) of racers like Wilde's. But tonight they'll try the car on the nearby drag strip, at the Maryland International Raceway in Budds Creek, and see what it can do. On Saturday afternoon, they'll take it to the Mason-Dixon Dragway in Hagerstown for the Power of DC, one of a handful of National Electric Drag Racing Association events around the country.
Then the car will go through yet another transformation: Jarboe, who owns it, will use it to tool around St. Mary's on errands.
At Great Mills High School, another old car sits under a tarp, with clover and buttercups growing around it. "That might be our project next year," Skinner said. The next car will be even more powerful.