I’m a biodiesel user, so I know a thing or two about kicking the petroleum habit. For starters, you’ve got to find a supplier, and then you’ll probably have to join some kind of user group before they’ll let you fill up. Expect to pay more than you would for regular diesel – as much as $2 a gallon more – even though it costs the manufacturer less to make. Don’t even think about using the diamond lane – or getting a tax credit – since in the eyes of the law you’re still driving a stinky diesel. And if you’re converting a used car to run on biodiesel for the first time, go buy a six-pack of fuel filters and learn how to install one under field conditions, like on the side of the freeway when your ride suddenly stops rolling because all that old dinosaur gack has come loose from the lines. But at the end of the drive it’s more than worth all the trouble because (a) you’re not sending a dime to the Arabs, (b) your carbon footprint is EEE-narrow, and (c) your exhaust smells like Freedom Fries.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s only natural to want to take things up a level. Unless you’re smoking from Jim Mason‘s pipe, in which case you’ll want to take it up eleventy levels, and sign up for his “Escape From Berkeley” race, a mad rally to Las Vegas “by any non-petroleum means necessary.” Though I didn’t enter a car this year, I followed the event with great interest, and even played a role in helping to get the winning team across the finish line.
The first check-in point was in nearby Port Costa, so I decided to have a few Saturday-morning beers at the Warehouse Bar and see what rolled in.
Leading the pack was this team, the “Home School Heroes,” driving a late-model Benz with no visible modifications. One of the race’s key requirements was that all fuel (other than a token amount for startup) had to be scavenged en route, and the Heroes had an interesting approach for this — they networked with church groups along the way, and scrounged used cooking oil from their kitchens.
Next to check in were the “Prisoners of Petroleum,” driving a home-built Lotus 7 replica powered by a three-cylinder Kubota diesel. What a hot rod! Driver/builder Jack McCornack and navigator Sharon Wescott tackled the find-your-own-fuel problem by panhandling for vegetable oil in front of markets. NEED CANOLA – PLEASE HELP!
The third vehicle to reach the Carquinez Straits had already logged a few thousand miles driving out from Alabama to compete. Sponsored in part by Auburn University, the GREEN TEAM was driving a Dodge pickup modified to run on “biogasification,” a process that turns any available biomass into methane fuel. I don’t understand it, I can hardly believe it, but I’ve seen it and it works: this truck runs on scrap wood. Note the trailer full of old fencing slats and the table saw in the truck bed, right behind the drum-burner-thingey. Unreal!
According to the judges there were ten teams entered, but after four hours only three of them had made it to the first checkpoint. This struck me as no big surprise, and in fact a 30% launch rate seemed pretty good, all things considered. Communications from the starting line confirmed that most of the missing entrants either “didn’t start” or “made it to the end of the block and died,” so I decided to call it a morning and head back to the rancho. But wait — what’s that I see on the side of the highway?
Turns out the Prisoners team had some fuel-flow issues. But after a rousing pep talk, directions to the nearest place they could buy a 12-volt heater, and a bit of siphoning from my tank, they were on their way again – and ultimately won the race, along with the $5,000 purse. For my troubles, I got a ridiculous canary-yellow t-shirt bearing the team logo.
Take a good look at that Jetta, my friends. If you’re riding in next year’s race – from Berkelely to Ensenada – that’s the tailpipe you’re going to be chasing all the way to Mexico!