WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — It's a cold day in early April, rain and sleet are pelting the garages at Watkins Glen International and snow is on the way. Bob Gillespie is undeterred as he puts the finishing touches on the Green Grand Prix.
Rain or shine, the rally will go on for the 15th straight year, which astounds Gillespie, its creator.
"This event was way ahead of its time when it began. Now, it has finally come of age," said the 69-year-old retired teacher and motorsports artist. "I'm feeling a sense of pride and appreciation for all the volunteers involved and all their hard work. It's an absolutely unique event, and the beauty of it is so many of these volunteers and participants are students."
Essentially a fuel mileage rally for alternate-fuel vehicles and hybrids conducted at the storied track in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region, the Green Grand Prix is the only event of its kind in the United States sanctioned and insured by the Sports Car Club of America. The goal is to promote environmentally friendly transportation, educate the public about alternative fuels as the automobile market worldwide shifts toward electric models, and help make the Northeast a center for emerging clean vehicle technologies.
That it's staged at the place road racing came of age in America in the late 1940s — with the blessing of WGI president Michael Printup — makes it even more special. Nobody seems to care that the goal is to average 45 miles per hour.
"I love it," said Bruce Pick, who drove to The Glen from Connecticut and competed with brother Steve in a 2000 Honda Insight, the company's first hybrid. "Oh, really, I can drive on the Watkins Glen track and shoot for fuel economy? I mean, why would I not go?"
In its early years, when the price of gasoline was hovering at around $4 a gallon — it's above that today in California — the Green Grand Prix attracted drivers with all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary vehicles. There was Robert "Chip" Beam and his wood-chip-powered 1988 Isuzu Trooper, Jory Squibb's Moonbeam Microcar , a biodiesel-powered Harley-Davidson motorcycle, even a diesel-powered three-wheeler dubbed the Dirigo .
Bill Buchholz, a boat builder from Maine, helped design and construct the unique Dirigo, which has a metal roll cage encased in quarter-inch planks of western red cedar and has achieved nearly 100 miles on a gallon of fuel.
"I had this feeling that with every generation since the 1960s there's always been some lunatic fringe building interesting cars with progressive ideas," said Buchholz, who parked the Dirigo last year. "It was just my turn — and the rest of the guys I was doing it with — to bring up that message. I think there's just a groundswell of progressive thinking."
The crazy vehicles don't show up so much anymore, and it's understandable. Toyota, whose Upstate Toyota Dealers Association is a primary sponsor of the Green Grand Prix, has sold more than 13 million hybrid vehicles since it introduced the Prius in 1997. Two days before the Green Grand Prix, the Japanese automaker announced it was allowing royalty-free access to nearly 24,000 patents for its hybrid vehicles, a move aimed at increasing the size of the worldwide market for gasoline-electric hybrids. Industry experts predict that sales of vehicles with alternative drive systems will top 2 million next year.
All of which makes the Green Grand Prix very relevant, especially since so many students are now involved — more than 1,000 students have participated in the event. Alfred State Motorsports Technology is a regular and this year brought two bright yellow, all-electric, open-cockpit, single-seat race cars, which finished first and tied for third in the autocross competition after the rally. A 2012 Chevy Volt was second, while a Tesla Model 3 was fifth.
"I think it's a great way to expand the audience and do the education for the public," Toyota's Brian Kiser said. "As a company, we love this direction — help support these initiatives but educate the public on environmental issues and alternative fuel."
Mike DiGiacomo epitomized what Gillespie envisioned when the Green Grand Prix started. DiGiacomo and his team from SUNY Broome Community College used their ingenuity to win the most fuel-efficient vehicle award. They took an abandoned 20-year-old Chevy Metro LSI that had been in a flood and transformed it into a full electric commuter using battery packs from a Nissan Leaf and solar roof panels that still picked up enough of a charge in the awful weather to allow the car to average the equivalent of 179 miles per gallon.
"That was awesome," DiGiacomo said. "It was the culmination of a semester of everybody working together and hard work paying off. We did a really good job. Our little, bitty eight-man team was more efficient than the guys at Tesla."
All of that was music to the ears of Alfred State professor Jason Kellogg.
"We're heading that way (toward electric cars)," he said, "whether you like it or not."