The Electrifying Birth of ‘Plasma Boy’

The “Plasma Boy” moniker was forever granted to John Wayland in a post by Mark Bahlke to the EV Discussion List on March 5, 1998.

Well, I’m back at work after a long evening, and busy morning. I wish I was going to the races, like SOME people I know. Last evening, I had the pleasure of entertaining Mssrs. Wayland, Meland, and Bryan at my home, and a nice French Vietnamese restaurant here in town. We had a good old time talking EVs, looking over the remnants of the White Zombie and hearing the stories to go with. What’s that about? Well, I’ll leave it to “Plasma Boy” Wayland to fill in the details, but I will say for those of you who might have been nervous about racing the Zombie Saturday night… remain nervous. This car is killer! Yeah, there was a small thermal incident during race prep, but the men in (soot) black have remained confident that they will race, and that they will be victorious. And they have proof. Even though it’s all over the inside of the Zombie.

One of the special moments for me in the evening was listening to my son question John about his plasma handling techniques, and how this is done in one’s garage. My son is now at the part of seventh grade science where they are talking about this stuff, and suddenly it INTERESTING! And now, here comes John, with a nice new suntan, and some great stories of his own exploits. He had asked me about anitmatter just a couple of days before, but I think
John’s information was alot more informative, and current.

John elaborated on the “small thermal incident” in a later post:

By now, many of you have heard stories about our pre-race excitement, where we had a slight mishap with my drag car ‘White Zombie’. In the interest of sharing the information, and in the sincere hope of helping others prevent such a catastrophe, plus for the entertainment value of the whole thing, I offer the following tale…

As is usually the case, there was a lot of last minute work to be done on the race vehicles, and they were far from being race ready. Besides these two specialty vehicles, I had also been working on two other EVs, and with the shop filled with race stuff, I was forced to work outside in the weather…rain, hail, wind, and cold…what fun!

With only two weeks before race time, I unfortunately caught that bad flu/cold bug that was going around (is it any wonder?), and it hit me hard and knocked me out of commission for five days straight, effectively wiping out a whole week of work time. This left one week to get everything done, and all during that week the remnants of the flu continued to plague me, as I coughed and hacked while trying to build race machines.

The afternoon of Tuesday, March 3rd, John Bryan arrived in Portland, after a long drive from his home in Boise, Idaho, and he was ready and excited to join Bruce Meland and I on what would prove to be an electric odyssey of exceptional EVents. Bruce and I had already put in a long day, and John’s arrival was a welcome one, as we both knew he would jump right in and get his hands dirty.

The plan was to have the work done on both race vehicles and have them loaded up on the trailer by 5:00 PM on Tuesday, so that we could all get in a restful night’s sleep, and be off early the next morning at 5:00 AM, for the long road trip that would take us from Portland, Oregon, through Sacramento, then on to Palo Alto, and eventually on into
Phoenix, Arizona and the NEDRA Saturday Night Electric Desert Drags.

I had worked on the Zombie’s latest improvements all week, but at 6:30 PM the eve before we were to depart the following morning, we were still hooking things up. While Bruce was slaving away on his motorcycle, John Bryan and I were both inside the the Zombie putting the final touches on the 336 volt Genesis battery pack. We had removed the racing seats from the front of the car, so that we could get at the rear seat area battery compartment easier.

Frank ‘the Metal God’ and I had designed the main power lead connectors for the potent, high voltage array, so that they could be easily accessed and worked on in a safe manner, away from the multitude of solid copper bus bars that interconnected the 28 high current AGM batteries. Since these batteries are very small, they are placed like so many
bricks, one against the other, as they snake their way around the battery box. The batteries’ terminal connections often pass within inches of each other, so all the solid copper buss bars are necessarily closely spaced….this makes for a great low resistance current path, but it also makes the likelihood of a short circuit with something like a dropped tool or even a large washer very easy to occur, again, due to the tight confines and very short distances between terminals. As such, whenever I worked in the battery compartment, a thin mat of dense foam rubber was laid over the batteries, to offer a safety insulating barrier while using tools in the area. A clear Lexan cover completes the package and it covers the entire battery compartment (once it is all connected and ready to go), both for insulation and to protect me from molten lead and acid spray, in the event of a blown battery during a high current blast down the quarter mile.

With my trusty companion John Bryan at my side, and with both of us crammed inside the small car working together, the moment had finally arrived to make the last connection…the twin 1/0 negative power leads. In all the excitement of the moment, I had a temporary brain short circuit, and instead of utilizing the safety aspects that I had
designed into the connector system, I instead attempted to make the connection inside the battery compartment…..wrong thing to do!
I held a solid brass clamp bar (I had painstakingly created at the metal shop) in one hand, and a T handle Allen wrench in the other, and was slipping the bar under the negative-most battery terminal support bracket so that I could tighten the gold-plated screws that secure the twin ‘StreetWires’ 1/0 cables, when I essentially lit the fuse that
would start a chain reaction melt down! Maybe it was because we had worked non-stop, perhaps it was total fatigue, or maybe just plain stupidity on my part, but whatever the reason….it happened.

In a surrealistic situation that is still vivid in my mind, all hell broke loose….and I mean HELL! I fumbled and lost control over the brass clamp bar, and in a moment of horror, it tumbled away and onto the tops of the Genesis batteries. As is usually the case in situations of this kind, it all seemed to happen in slow motion……

Ca-Clank…Ca-Chink….

Hey, maybe it’s just going to flop around and come to rest in a safe place….

Ca-SNAP!

Oh Oh, this is not good!

Then….another Ca-Snap….then CAAASSHHOOOOOOOSSHHHH, as an intense arc appears!

Oh No!!!! This is REALLY not good!

As I reached towards the arc in a futile attempt to ‘fix’ the problem, the light was so intense that I couldn’t look at it. Looking over at John, his mouth was wide open, and we were both in a state of shock, when the next phase of the ‘melt-down’ began.

Suddenly, the arc flashed into a higher state, and a brilliant blue plasma ball, maybe 6 inches in diameter, formed and seemed to float just above the batteries….it was as if an alien being had taken over the car, and it was scary as hell!

At this point, there was an intense heat radiating from the intruder, as one of the interior side panels began to melt and the car filled with smoke. Looking over at JB again, he was so brave and courageous, and it was as if he was the captain of a sinking vessel, determined to go down with the ship!

With our skin about to peel from the heat, I shouted at him, “GET OUT, GET OUT OF THE CAR!” At that point, Bruce was also screaming at us, “HURRY UP, GET OUT OF THERE!” In what had to look like a choreographed exercise, we both bailed out with a synchronized panic leap.

Now a safer distance away, for a brief moment, we were totally dumb-founded as we stared in disbelief, as the Zombie was being devoured by this demon from within. All I could think about, was that all the hard work and years of nurturing this car into a race vehicle were going up in smoke before my eyes, and that I would be letting a lot of people down who were counting on us being at the drag races…..it was all being destroyed right in front of me!

Bruce had grabbed a nearby towel and had soaked it in the standing rain puddles, then threw it over the plasma ball, but like an insatiable monster, it quickly ingested the fabric and the was towel was vaporized in an instant.

Minutes before this all started, I had talked with John about the warning labels atop the stout little Genesis batteries ‘Extremely High Current, Do Not Short!’ Now I was thinking that at any instant, the plasma ball should go away, and that the little 16 ahr batteries would surely be exhausted at any minute, but the quasar continued, and the strong Genesis batteries indeed, seemed to be creating a whole new entity inside my burning car!

I ran for the fire extinguisher, and as I passed through the house (no extinguisher out in the shop!) I yelled to my fully-assembled family, “The car’s melting down!” Running back to the car, I unloaded the contents of the extinguisher into battery compartment, but the plasma ball refused to quit and kept on plasmasizing (Is that a word?). It was relentless and unaffected by our attempts to kill it, and it continued to flare for about two straight minutes.

Finally, it went super nova, and shrank back to a white dwarf….but then, FLAMES erupted! With my family now gathered around the inferno, I exclaimed, “God, now it’s on fire!” My daughter in her classic teenage sarcasm, looked at me totally seriously and said, “Why…are you an idiot?”

Taking instructions from my wife Cheryl, my daughter’s close friend Heather dialed up 911 and summoned the fire department. I could see thick black clouds of smoke pouring out of the front windows, and the flames were licking the headliner, causing it to drip into the flames and refuel them. I doused the fire with the entire contents of a second
extinguisher. Cheryl arrived with two boxes of baking soda, and I dumped the full contents on the flames, but they bounced right back. A garden hose was running water, as containers were filled with water and thrown at the blaze….but it just kept on burning!

Bruce and Cheryl were thinking much more clearly than I at the moment, and they began taking action to get the burning Zombie out of the shop, for fear of the whole shop going up in flames as well. There were two non-running EVs behind the Zombie in the shop driveway, plus another gas vehicle behind them, and they all had to be moved in order for us to be able to push the Zombie out of the shop. There must have been a lot of adrenaline flowing in everybody, as the cars were moved up and out the driveway in seconds, and with a clear path, we were able to shove the well-done Zombie out of the shop. With all the commotion, and with my concerned neighbors as well as a few onlookers were now present, I was into a total overload state of mind.

Within minutes of the call, the sounds of a siren and bright flashing lights signaled that the fire truck had arrived. The firemen immediately began to take action, and after they learned just what they were dealing with, one of them donned on protective equipment, including a gas mask, and bravely climbed into the interior of the car that was enveloped by the thick, dark smoke. Through the blackened side windows, I could see him ripping loose the specially-made bridging copper bus bars that Frank had expertly formed with the metal brake, and it was terrible to see these items that Frank had so carefully shaped, being destroyed by the fireman. Just as fireman take their axes and chop through expensive or ornate front doors of a burning house with more regard to saving lives than in not ruining the door, this guy was simply trying to save the car and my home, without any regard to the hand-crafted connectors and the terminals of the expensive batteries….it made me sick to watch our work being mutilated! The fireman talked to me as he tried to figure out which jumpers to remove, and with his gas mask on and the sound of the pressurized oxygen supply, he sounded like Darth Vader….”Caushhh……Caushhh……Luke……..Caushhh……I’m your father”….OK, he really didn’t say that, but it is how he sounded!

Finally, the flames disappeared, and the fireman emerged from the Zombie. In an attempt to put a little levity on the situation, one of the other firemen asked me if I knew Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor…..my wife wasn’t laughing! Yeah, it was a pretty awful!

It was getting late, and we were all past our dinner time, so we went inside the house. Bruce had gone back out to check on the hulk, when he came back inside proclaiming, “It’s on fire again!” Back outside we all went, and with flames again leaping out of the charred battery compartment, I held my breath and went inside with a ratchet wrench to remove a few more jumpers. I found the one that was still passing current, and removed it.

This seemed to slow the reaction, and when I poured another amount of baking soda into ‘ground zero’, the smoking mass finally had given up.

I was devastated by what I had done, and felt completely drained. All around me were sad faces, and the reality of what had happened was really sinking in. One fatal error, and all had been ruined! Why did I do something so stupid?

We returned to the house and had something to eat, as we all talked about the incident, and counted our blessings that no one had been hurt, and that the shop was still standing. The look of disappointment on everyone was tearing me apart, and for about a half hour or so, I was pretty much speechless (hard to believe, huh?). Then, it hit me……..I wasn’t going to let this get the best of me, and I blurted out, “We’re going racing!”

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