If you want to get behind the wheel of a fully developed, ready-to-run electric race car today, you’ve got about two options. The first: Elbow your way in among the 24 top-flight professional drivers competing in Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile’s Formula E, guys with experience in touring cars, sports-car endurance racing, even Formula 1. You’ll pilot a bespoke carbon-fiber race car fielded by a team with a budget in the double-digit millions and the backing of a major global automaker. If this is a reality for you, you’re probably already on a first-name basis with some Andrettis or Penskes.
Or you can go to Sacramento, Pennsylvania, a tiny rural hamlet nestled in the Appalachians, halfway between Harrisburg and more mountains. Pull up at Entropy Racing, a shop with an ancient yellow firetruck parked out front and no sign, and meet Charlie Greenhaus. He’s the founder of EVSR, the man trying to make EVs accessible and competitive in grassroots club-level racing.
This story originally appeared in Volume 7 of Road & Track.
It started as a lark. Greenhaus spent years running a race-car rental business, providing sorted, ready-to-roll cars for amateur racers who simply wanted to show up at club-racing events and drive. Back in 2013, a regular customer approached him with an idea for an all-electric Lotus 7.
“It’s not gonna be the car you want,” Greenhaus told the customer. “You like your 1200-pound car. There’s not a lot of room for batteries unless I put them in bad places.” Greenhaus offered an alternative. He’d put together a purpose-built, battery-powered single-seat sports racer. The customer put up a moderate sum of money in November 2013. By the following March, the first EVSR prototype took eighth place out of 43 cars at the Sports Car Club of America’s Chasing the Dragon Hillclimb in North Carolina. By May, Greenhaus had two EVs racing in wheel-to-wheel competition.
The concept is clear from the name: Electric Vehicle Sports Racer. Greenhaus, an accomplished club competitor and driving instructor, wanted a budget-friendly EV that could beat a Spec Miata and run a full sprint race without croaking. He started with a common single-seat sports racing chassis and slapped a 170-hp AC motor, manufactured by Hi Performance Electric Vehicle Systems in California, behind the driver’s seat, bolted directly to the differential. Twin saddlebag battery packs hung from either side of the cockpit, 50 lithium-ferrous-phosphate cells in total, originally used in a Zenith electric cargo van. The car weighed 1860 pounds, and on May 11, 2014, it finished first in class in back-to-back 30-minute SCCA races at Pocono Raceway.
More money came in. Greenhaus refined the chassis, and a buddy, club racer and self-taught designer Bill Giltzow, hand-drew the custom bodywork. The body mold crouches in the front room of the EVSR shop, low and sleek like a Sixties slot car. The second-generation car hardly shares anything with the production sports racer that made the foundation of the first mule. By the end of this season, Greenhaus hopes to have seven cars racing.
“This is not an enviro-Nazi project,” he told me, elbows deep in the guts of his EV racer on a Thursday in July. “It’s a project to see viability, to see if we can make it work. People go, ‘Oh, you’re running them on a diesel generator.’ I’m not here to prove my generator is more efficient than your Corvette. I’m beating you. That’s what I’m here for.”
And he keeps beating them. The EVSR was designed for SCCA’s Sprint Bracket racing series. It’s a deliciously simple formula: Any car that passes safety inspection can compete, regardless of drivetrain, suspension, or level of preparation. Cars are classed based on their lap-time potential; drivers who break out of their group get bumped to a faster class. Greenhaus’s EVs are tuned to do a full 20-minute sprint race on a single charge, running lap times competitive with a Spec Miata. (In 2016, Greenhaus was the first driver to lap Lime Rock Park in less than a minute in an EV, notching a 59.75-second lap time. Continued evolution has made the car even faster.) For 2021, EVSR is the title sponsor of the Washington, D.C.–region SCCA Bracket Racing Championship Series. As of this writing, the series points leader is… Charlie Greenhaus, driving the EV sports racer he designed.
What makes EVs a bad choice for road trips also makes them a hard sell for endurance racing: charging. The batteries that power EVSR’s sports racer take about 2.5 hours to fully recharge. To keep it lapping for a 25-hour endurance race, Greenhaus had to design a quick battery swap method that could fit into a four-minute pit stop. Twin battery boxes clip to the top tubes of the cockpit cage, held in place by bolts at all four corners. On a pit stop, the crew removes the one-piece body and unbolts the battery racks. Built-in air jacks (not installed yet) will lift the car, and crew members position wheeled carts beneath the racks. Lowering the car lets the racks unclip from the chassis to rest on the carts. Roll away the spent batteries, wheel a fresh set into position, and another up-and-down notches them solidly into place—just in time for another 28-minute stint on track. Repeat 50 times without hiccups to become the first EV to complete a club-level 25-hour endurance race against gas-powered competition.
Greenhaus is entirely self-taught. I asked him about his education. “None,” he replied.
From across the shop, Jennifer Seraphin, EVSR’s do-everything marketing coordinator, playfully expounded. “He went to clown college!”
Since the project kicked off in 2013, Greenhaus has approached EVs with a racer’s obsessiveness. His shop is nearly overflowing with them. A brace of EVSR chassis, both generations, sat inside and outside the shop on the day I visited. A Seventies Renault, converted to battery power during the energy crisis by NASA (the space people, not the racing people), sat high on a lift, midway through a restoration. A half-finished EV-swapped Ford Ranger awaited its turn to whisper out of the garage door on electron power. Following that, hopefully, will be a battery-powered BMW 2002, its rear seats given over to an AC motor.
The next challenge for EVSR: endurance racing. Greenhaus wants to compete at the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill in December. He figures a full charge will last around 28 minutes at the Northern California track. To make the full 25 hours, he’ll have to perfect a technique that neither Formula E nor Tesla have so far been able to master: the battery-pack hot swap. (See sidebar.) Greenhaus has nine sets of batteries ready to go for Thunderhill, each split among left- and right-side boxes. Depleted battery sets will have four hours of recharge time, roughly double what they typically need to reach 100 percent. If a smooth pit stop takes about four minutes, that’s 50 swaps over 25 hours. Assuming no hiccups, that should put EVSR in the top third of finishers at Thunderhill.
Each cell in a battery set retails around $275, though Greenhaus scrounges up new old stock at a discount. Including the custom-fabricated racks and necessary circuitry, one 27-kWh set of batteries represents roughly $15,000—about the cost of a high-end build on a gas-burning race engine.
And that gets us to the meat of the matter. Greenhaus has been working since 2013 to make his EV racer dream a reality. All in—every car he’s built, every battery cell he’s purchased, every gallon of diesel pumped into his generator or his transport truck, every hotel, every meal, every T-shirt, and every paycheck to his staff—he figures he’s spent about $450,000 over eight years. On the one hand, that’s a small sliver of the cost of one season of Formula E. And look at what Greenhaus has done: six EVSR race cars, eight years of competition, four entries at Pikes Peak, four at Mount Washington. More than 250 races completed, totaling more than 6000 track miles. EVSRs have set and broken EV lap records at tracks throughout the Northeast, competing against full fields of internal-combustion racers with no special concessions and an enviably low DNF tally. By every measure, Greenhaus has achieved his goal. He’s designed and built a reliable, budget-friendly electric sports racer that can hang with the gas-powered competition.
“We’ve been bootstrapping this thing from the beginning,” Greenhaus said. “That’s the wearing part. We’re always asking favors. It gets old.” Dozens of friends have donated thousands of hours of work. Before COVID, he had a small, capable staff. Now, it’s just Greenhaus, Seraphin, and chief mechanic Dale Wiest.
I asked, hesitantly, “Is this making money?”
“No,” Greenhaus said.
“He doesn’t draw a salary,” Seraphin offered. “Dale and I are the only ones who get paid.”
“I live,” Greenhaus said. “I got no complaints. These are all first-world problems, let’s be honest.”
Greenhaus would be happy to sell cars one by one to racers for $100,000 apiece, at the risk of never making a splash. His preference—his ambition, his dream—is to sell the whole EVSR program as a ready-to-run racing series. “If you told me today, ‘I wanna see 20 cars on grid next spring,’ we could do it reliably,” he said. “There’s no development needed.” Ideally, a major racing organizer—maybe IMSA, maybe NASCAR—would buy EVSR as a support series to travel with them as a warm-up act. EVs make great undercard racers. With no crankcase and no fuel cell, even when they crash, they don’t leave a mess on the track.
A savvy businessman (or a shady one) might have promoted a ready-to-race series before the first car was built. Greenhaus, the racer and self-taught engineer, did it the other way. He didn’t launch his website or Facebook page until his car was running. “I hate vaporware,” he said. “I would have been better off not building a car until I had the money. But I don’t see that as a program. I can’t wrap my head around selling smoke and mirrors.”
Until someone comes along and buys the EVSR series, Charlie Greenhaus will keep building electric race cars and winning races. As far as EVs go, he’s got no competition. “Over and over I’d hear, ‘You just stuck an electric motor in a sports racer. Anybody could do that.’ I’m like, bring it on, lumpy! Eight years later, and I still haven’t seen anybody do it.”
“That’s the stuff everybody’s afraid of,” Greenhaus says, gesturing at the batteries nestled on either side of the EVSR’s cockpit. “They’ve all seen a Tesla catch fire. Three fire companies and two tankers later, they’re still watching it smolder.” The EVSR’s lithium-ferrous-phosphate batteries are much more chemically stable than the lithium-ion units found in iPhones and Teslas. (The tradeoff is less energy capacity.) They’re not prone to thermal runaway, where a malfunctioning battery can overheat to the point of combustion. Even if they get hot enough to melt or combust their plastic casings, the batteries hold only a tiny amount of lithium, the stuff that makes lithium-ion batteries dangerous. EVSR added holes in the body to give fire crews a direct shot at the cells, which, unlike lithium ion, can be doused with standard extinguishers or plain water. If it still sounds risky, remember: When conventional race cars crash, they occasionally spray gasoline all over red-hot engine components.