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Tesla Model 3, Model S find success in America's toughest street-car race

Two teams not only became the first EVs ever to compete in the Tire Rack One Lap of America, they scored impressive results, too.

Tesla Model 3 at One Lap of America
Both Teslas predictably excelled when it came to bracket drag racing and skid pad challenges.

A pair of Teslas have become the first electric cars ever to compete in the Tire Rack One Lap of America. The weeklong rally race is widely regarded as being among the toughest street-car motorsports challenges in the country. 

The two teams' 2018 Tesla Model 3 and 2017 Tesla Model S P100D not only successfully completed the event on Saturday, both EVs notched impressive showings in the event's Alternative Fuel and Stock Touring categories, including a class win for the Model 3 in the former.

Better known simply as "One Lap," this annual seven-day event is the direct descendant of the Cannonball Run, the fabled outlaw coast-to-coast New York to Los Angeles race. In contrast to its forebear, One Lap is decidedly more legal in nature, consisting of time trials at race tracks around the nation. Legendary for its grueling long-distance transits and for its variety of on-track challenges, the seven-day rally event varies its route and tracks each year, a formidable durability test for both driver and machine.

This Model 3 is one of two Teslas that became the first EVs ever to race in One Lap of America.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

This year's One Lap involved driving over 3,500 miles and competing in no fewer than 18 on-track timed events at 9 locations in 7 days. The week included everything from time trials on world-class tracks like Wisconsin's Road America to drag racing and autocrossing. While the annual rally race event attracts a wide variety of automobiles, it is most commonly contested by high-power sports cars, with popular contenders including race-prepped Porsche 911, Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper and Nissan GT-R models. 

This year's overall winner was a highly modified Audi TT RS, which beat out exotics, including a Lamborghini Huracan Performante and a McLaren 720S.

Hybrid and diesel vehicles have competed in the event's small Alternative Fuel class regularly over the years, but no one has ever attempted to field a fully electric car. This year, these two teams took up the challenge, and they went about it in very different ways:

No. 72 Tesla Model 3

Chad Martin and Andrew Dekoning of Minnesota, drivers of the No. 72 Tesla Model 3, seemingly knew they wanted to run an EV in One Lap of America from the beginning. They started with Martin's wife's daily-driven Model 3 Performance and executed a series of mild but important modifications for improved track performance -- primarily upgraded front brakes (pads, rotors), racing brake fluid and stickier Michelin tires on aftermarket wheels. "We attempted to do the same on the rear [brakes], but we had a pretty hard time getting hold of parts. There's not a lot of aftermarket support. At least for on-track, real heavy-duty on-track work. At least right now," Martin told Roadshow.

Despite a shortage of track-tested third-party parts, Martin and Dekoning were clearly pleased with their car at race end. The drivers, who cut their teeth on Mazda RX-7s and Miatas, were consistently impressed with the way their Model 3 performed on track, especially when wet weather played to their vehicle's all-wheel-drive advantage. "Overall, the car's fast. The car as so much more potential with a little more development," said Martin. The team also noted how easy it was to get ready to take to the track: "All the other guys are trying to warm up stuff, we don't have to warm up anything. Put the Track Mode on, let it sit for a couple minutes, and go flog it," said Dekoning.

"Team Panel Gap," as they dubbed themselves, gave particular credit to the thermal management capabilities of the Model 3's powertrain made possible in part by the inclusion of Track Mode: "Once you turn Track Mode on, it's a different kind of beast…this was designed with this [racetracks] in mind, and it shows. The only issues we had were the [aforementioned] brakes," said Dekoning.

This year's 3,500-plus-mile One Lap of America route was decidedly Midwest in flavor.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

The pair kept fastidious track of their charging as they drove across the country. According to their notes, they charged at 27 Superchargers, plus 22 times at the track or hotel, for a total of 49 plug-ins and 1,500 kWh of energy. The No. 72 Model 3 logged 3,830 miles in total, which included an estimated 100 to 150 extra miles driven off-path to get to Tesla's Superchargers. 

As far as problems encountered during the week, the Model 3's Autopilot malfunctioned, leaving them without cruise control for about half of the trip (a failure likely unrelated to the car's competition use). The team's Tesla also experienced momentary power reduction "a couple of times" on track, but neither driver seemed to believe those brief incidents materially impacted their vehicle's place in the standings.

When the dust had settled, the No. 72 Tesla Model 3 landed in 17th place overall, an impressively strong finish in a field comprised of 77 entrants. The team also won the aforementioned Alt Fuel class and collected a second-place trophy in the Stock Touring class.

The owner of this Model S is the founder and CEO of a company developing electrified big rigs.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

No. 23 Tesla Model S P100D

In contrast to the No. 72 Model 3 team, Thomas and Brian Healy of Texas pressed their No. 23 Model S into service last-minute. Their planned entry, a Factory Five GTM supercar blew an engine during testing and couldn't be repaired in time to make One Lap's May 4 start date. On short notice, the two decided to run the event in Thomas' stock daily driver, a 2017 P100D. Despite those earlier plans to run a very different, altogether analog sports car, Thomas is a particularly big believer in electrification. He's the founder and CEO of Hyliion, a startup developing hybrid Class 8 semi trucks.

Healy told Roadshow that he felt his team enjoyed "an extremely successful week." Their 2017 Model S successfully completed all of the challenges, even garnering some top-five results in events like the wet skidpad and during the bracket drag races at Minnesota's Brainerd International Raceway.

Despite having more power and range than the No. 72 car, Healy's somewhat older Model S did not come with the additional thermal protections of the Model 3's track mode. As a result, cooling-related issues became a handicap in competition. "After a lap or two, the battery would start to heat up, and the car would de-rate, so we didn't have as much power as we had started off with," said Healy. 

The condition cropped up regularly on track, so the team quickly adjusted their driving style in an effort to avoid tripping the car's thermal protection until the very end of each track event. The goal became to cross the line essentially as the car began to lose power. "It's faster to limit yourself around the entire track for the few laps, as opposed to going out as fast as you can and getting the batteries to overheat," Healy said.

Tesla Model 3 at One Lap of America

Both Teslas predictably excelled when it came to bracket drag racing and skid pad challenges.


What did Team Healy learn by driving their Tesla around the country for a week? 

"The most surprising thing was the abundance of Superchargers that are out there in order to keep the car charged. We weren't sure going into the event how manageable it was going to be, getting from one track to the next, and being able to do it in the allotted time… Tesla's done a great job of getting these Superchargers located around the US, where finding a destination to stop at and charge up for 45 minutes is a really feasible thing. The only downside compared to a gas car was it took a couple of extra hours every night, just since you did have to stop and recharge. But, when we were charging, were grabbing dinner, or sleeping. It was pretty manageable."

The father-and-son team's week was generally trouble-free, with the most noteworthy issue being that their Model S "didn't know where it was" when it was unloaded from its trailer after being hauled to the start of the race in Texas. The team had used the car's driverless 'summon' feature to load the vehicle on the trailer using a smart phone, but when they attempted to unload the car in South Bend, the app and navigation still thought the car was in Texas, so the system disabled the summon functionality.

That momentary hiccup aside, the Model S performed well on track all week long, and Autopilot was a boon on long transits.

Will Team Healy race their Tesla in One Lap of America again? Father and son plan to bring the gas-powered car they were initially prepping next time, but they're more than open to the possibility of going electric: "We would not hesitate to do it again... ultimately we'd love to do it in something like the Roadster that's going to come out, which is more designed for the track. I think this week proved that electric is extremely feasible, so now we're at a point of, 'How can we get electric to be on the podium here?' 'How can we get it to be as competitive as possible?'" he said.

Competitor Thomas Healy expressed interest in entering a future One Lap in Tesla's forthcoming Roadster.


When how he felt about having electric cars competing in One Lap of America, event organizer Brock Yates Jr. told Roadshow, "I'm a big believer in electric vehicles." When asked if EVs are the future of the race, he responded: "I fully expect that if One Lap goes for 100 years, at some point, the cars will all be electric." 

When pressed about how long it will take for an EV to win the whole event, Yates responded: "It's a while. It's a while. It's like self-driving cars -- it'll ultimately happen, but not in my lifetime."

Tesla fans, that sounds like a bit of a challenge. Elon Musk, are you in?

Note: Author Chris Paukert is a longtime member of the One Lap of America timing and scoring crew. He has been staffing the event since 1997.