Cross Country Rally: Day Two

The Tesla Team, January 31, 2014

A headline from this morning's Denver Post: "Winter storm pounds Front Range overnight."

Tesla's Cross Country Rally team can attest to the veracity of the report. Last night, the crew members and two Model S sedans were subjected to a good old fashioned Colorado dumping. More than 12 inches of snow. Winds up to 60 mph. White-out conditions. Interstate 70 over Vail Pass was closed, then re-opened, then closed again.

"I've been on a lot of ski trips, perhaps a hundred times to Lake Tahoe, and those were the most treacherous conditions I have ever been in," said Christ Ford, a member of the Supercharger team, who would end up pulling a 12-hour shift behind the wheel of one of the Model S's last night.

But as Tesla owners who drive in sub-zero temperatures know well, Model S takes conditions like these in stride. The traction control system in Lightning and Thunder performed flawlessly as the team pressed on. I-70 was opened just in time for the two cars to attempt a crossing of the pass, starting from about 10pm.

The temperature dropped to 9 degrees. Fat snowflakes flew at the windshield like flat bullets. Big rigs slid off the slick surface. Traffic crept up, and then down, the mountain at 30mph. Lightning and Thunder didn't seem to mind, however. They drove on as if it were a Sunday outing on the Pacific coast. At each Supercharger, they still had plenty of energy to spare. Parking lots filled with half a foot or more of unplowed snow were navigated without incident. The Tesla team emerged from the mountains with their hopes of earning a GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS achievement for least non-drive time for an electric vehicle traveling across the U.S. still intact.

And then they found that the major highway to their next stop was closed.

Interstate 25 from Fort Collins to Cheyenne, Wyoming, was icy, and numerous accidents had kept it closed for six hours by the time the Model S cars approached. Scrambling to find an alternate route, the team called traffic hotlines, scoured local news websites, and pried apart the pixels on Google Maps. They found there was one open, but still icy, alternative: US 85.

In fair weather conditions with minimal traffic, the original route from Grand Junction, CO, to Cheyenne, was calculated to take six hours and 20 minutes, measured from time of arrival at the Superchargers at each end. Instead, 12 hours and 40 minutes after leaving Grand Junction, the team arrived in Cheyenne. The drivers on this leg of the journey had just done double overtime shifts.

The rally team had implemented a system to help minimize any ill effects of over-tired drivers while still being able to complete the trip in record time. The team members had been working in shifts: eight hours driving; then eight hours in the passenger seat, navigating and keeping the driver company; then, eight hours sleeping in one of the two support vans -- or as much as can be done on a thin mattress in the back of a fast moving vehicle with two unwashed bodies pressed in close beside you.

But as the cars progressed into Wyoming, the sun came out and the thaw set in. The roads opened up, and Wyoming showed off its best cowboy country: weather-beaten grasses; barren hills with crumbling crowns; wide open skies. It stayed cold, but the sky and the roads stayed clear. By nightfall, the team was deep into South Dakota. Next will be Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois.

Road closures, detours and traffic delays as a result of the snow storm ended up costing the Tesla team a total of eight hours. Instead of getting to New York on Saturday evening, they're now looking at early Sunday. If everything goes smoothly from now on, they'll still make that world record achievement. But there's a lot of work to be done.

In the mid-afternoon, as Lightning and Thunder dashed across the South Dakota plains, an email from Tesla's Palo Alto headquarters arrived. Another winter storm warning. This time in Illinois, on Saturday morning – right about the time the Tesla team expects to be passing through.