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What's the secret of Formula E race cars -- in Brooklyn?

Posted August 2

If someone stopped you on the streets of New York City and offered you a chance to see some "Formula E," would you call the cops? The Centers for Disease Control?

I confess that I wasn't that familiar with "Formula E," but I found it in Brooklyn, of all places. And there is no need to call a mad scientist: The E is for electric. Formula E is a relatively new form of auto racing with saving the planet a driving force in the setup.

A native of New York City, I had never been to Red Hook, an industrial section of Brooklyn.

It was in this "gentrifying" waterfront part of town that the organizers of Formula E held the first Formula E race in New York City. Organizers said it was a big dream -- or the final frontier? -- to hold a race in New York City.

I would have liked the 20 race cars to "vroom-vroom" through some of the trendier parts of Brooklyn, but organizers played it safe setting up a track on property which also serves as a cruise ship terminal.

The world's fully-electric racing series

My goal? To learn the secret formula of "Formula E" -- and to see whether anyone would let me drive his environmentally friendly car. The fact that I still don't have a driver's license was an additional pesky hurdle --if it came up.

You don't have to be in New York to catch a Formula E race. The world's first fully-electric racing series has competed from the streets of Buenos Aires to Berlin. Drivers race literally in the streets of Monaco and Hong Kong but, for safety and practicality, Formula E competed here in a closed off section of bespoke track.

The 1.21-mile New York race had 10 turns and, incredibly, no bike lanes, which seem to have sprouted up on every road in the city.

At the heart of the Formula E race is the battery. There are no carbon emissions. Drivers have to switch cars during the race for the necessary electric/battery power to complete the championship contests.

Exploring the New York City waterfront

Arriving via package delivery company

In the days before the big race, I got to hang out in "pit row" where drivers and support crews gather in separate tents. The arrival of the cars themselves was probably the most amazing visual.

They arrive in separate parts packed into boxes shipped by DHL. You feel satisfied when your online-ordered teapot arrives at your door? Here, millionaire owners must be pleased when the components of their vehicles are unpacked.

I am glad I wasn't asked to help assemble a vehicle since technology is not, er, my speed.

"This is the future of racing, no exhaust, new technology and the cars people will be driving in 10 to 20 years," Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag told me.

The sound of steel hummingbirds

Before the race, I was told the cars run silent. Not exactly.

You can start a good conversation describing what electric cars sound like as they zoom by on the track. It's a hair dryer past your face. Someone described it as "steel hummingbirds," a whirring noise quickly grabbing the Brooklyn surface at 140 miles per hour followed by 19 other rushing competitors.

In the pits, you also hear international accents of the traveling crews supporting the electric vehicles owned by big car companies from Mercedes Benz, Renault, Audi and Virgin among many others. Auto racing legendary families like Penske and Andretti are also on pit row.

Brooklyn residents were pleased to host the race.

"I don't know what Formula E is, but I am going to the race," Octavia Robinson told me. Brooklyn is getting more popular so "everybody wants to be here."

New York's home of freaks and weirdos

Getting into the driver's seat

Not one driver would let me sit in his car and drive. I was rebuffed consistently. Many drivers asked for cash. It was hard to tell if they were joking, although there were smiles.

They also rebuffed my attempts to sell them pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge. (If you are under 50 years old, ask an older relative or friend about that business offer.) Didn't these elite visitors know they were supposed to be nice to their hosts?

Finally, Formula E organizers stepped in and wisely allowed me to be hoisted into a seat of an electric racer I had no business being in. I could control the steering wheel, but with no electric power. Instead of juice, all I got was a big push from three car crewmen.

It's a very tight fit. After slapping the helmet on, I started to feel claustrophobic. (That's saying something coming from someone who rides a sardine-packed New York City subway train.)

Staying focused at high speeds

I can't even imagine staying focused at that speed, but the drivers said they wouldn't get distracted during the race despite the stunning summer views of the Statue of Liberty and the downtown Manhattan skyline.

While the debut race in Brooklyn did receive some local media attention, I think organizers should try to broaden the appeal to spectators who live in the city and might want to come to Brooklyn for something new.

However, as the New York dating scene often reveals, going out of your geographic zone in the city can be a pain in the neck. But saving the planet from climate change and watching big time auto racing on a hot summer day might lure newcomers in the future.

Oh, and as I was leaving the track, I failed to recognize a very casually dressed race goer strolling right past me. That would be Formula E investor and climate change advocate Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio. Got your battery running now?

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