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Garage-built electric off-roader finds racing glory at King of the Hammers

A Toyota 4Runner with a Nissan Leaf powertrain was the first EV to run in the notorious off-road event.

Truck No. 2277 is the first EV to cross the finish line at a King of the Hammers event.
Nicole Dreon

Last week marked the first time an electric vehicle ran in the King of the Hammers off-road event in Johnson Valley, California. Racer Kyle Seggelin and his team finished the Every Man Challenge in truck No. 2277, a Toyota 4Runner with the powertrain from a Nissan Leaf EV.

The 4Runner/Leaf rig was built by Seggelin and his team. It started the race with two 20-kilowatt-hour batteries, enough to get it to the first pit stop some 17.5 miles away. There, the team swapped out those batteries for the 62-kWh pack found in the Leaf Plus -- a process that took a mere seven minutes.

The key to quickly swapping batteries? Custom-built sliders. The team divided the battery packs into sections, each weighing roughly 200 pounds. They fit securely into the sliders and connected to the electric motor with a large, high-voltage connection, and one or two smaller Molex connectors, depending on the pack size. All the team had to do was disconnect, slide the packs out and then reverse the process. Easy peasy.

While Seggelin and his co-driver, his sister Dahlia Seggelin, were out on the next 55 miles with the larger 62-kWh battery, the team charged the original, smaller batteries with a 12,000-watt generator. 

It was on this 55-mile section of the race course that the camaraderie of off-road racing really shined. Another team's crew asked Seggelin to carry some parts out to their rig, which was stopped about five miles outside of pits. The KOH rules state that there is no pitting outside of designated areas, but competitors can help each other. But before Seggelin got to his fallen foe, his power steering went south. Seggelin noticed that the other team's tool bag had the part he needed: a simple bolt. Not knowing what was wrong with the competitor's rig, he took a risk and used the other team's part anyway.

Celebratory champagne at the finish line. 

Nicole Dreon

Displaying true sportsmanship, the other driver was ready to give up his race in favor of his competitor finishing, until Seggelin noticed that the other rig just needed a heim joint to get going. Once again, the tool bag provided the solution, and both trucks were able to make repairs on the trail.

The 4Runner, however, was also running on three-wheel drive thanks to a broken front axle, and Seggelin said his truck lost power a few times. The team made the second battery swap in under 10 minutes, but in all, it took him 7 hours, 42 minutes, 9 seconds to finish the 91-mile lap. Preliminary data analysis shows that the truck got more range than the anticipated 1 mile for each kWh of juice, but the team won't know the exact figures until they really dig into the computers.

Seggelin was in a class of one in the Every Man Challenge, only needing to finish the first desert-focused lap of the race to take the podium. Next year he and his team would like to go back in a tube chassis EV with dual motors, solid axles and gear reductions to really get the most out of the power plant. He'd like to see other competitors bring electric competitors, as well, including major car manufacturers.

"If a couple of guys in a garage with a junkyard Leaf and a 30-year-old hand-me-down truck can do it," Seggelin said, "what's stopping the auto industry from giving us some competition?"