The object of Towns' current automotive affections is a 2007 SL600 Mercedes-Benz roadster, which - after nearly a year of research and development work by Chicago-based tuning firm Speedriven - now develops over 800 horsepower and over one-thousand pound-feet of torque from its biturbo V12. Good enough for 10-second quarter mile runs and a top speed well in excess of 200 mph.
Towns' massively powerful Speedriven SL satisfied his need for speed, then, but Towns still felt that something was missing. "In the IT world, we literally spend hours of every day coming up with ways to do business in more efficient ways and (at HighMount) in more environmentally responsible ways," explains Towns. "So there I am, sitting at lunch one day and the people are talking about natural gas cars, and it suddenly hits me: we should convert the SL to run on natural gas!" "In a lot of circles, green is the new fast," says Speedriven's Jo Borras. "I think that's true, and Bernie is certainly a believer. He'll talk about CNG giving off 80% fewer harmful emissions than gasoline, and he has the resources to figure out flame-front speeds, burr temperatures, and other technical things we need on our end to properly tune for the gas and convert the car. He doesn't just want to do a CNG Benz, though. Bernie wants to break records."
"Audi has the current record, at 364.6 kilometers per hour that they set back in 2009. That's just over 225 mph, which they did in a heavily tuned Audi S4 making about 700 hp," explains Towns. "That wasn't standing-mile speed or anything, that was all they could get out of that car. The Mercedes has a bigger engine to start with, and it's a slipperier car - from the factory at least. By the time this is all said and done, we'll be making at least another 100 horsepower over the record Audi, and Mercedes has already given us a better aero package to work with. 230 mph to 240 mph run on CNG powered fuel. That's the goal, and why can't we do it? We know that Oklahoma and Texas have an abundance of natural gas, and a ready infrastructure of responsibly operating and producing companies that employ thousands of Americans all the way from production to distribution at CNG-filling stations that are already in place and available to the public. This is exciting and this is fun and there is no better and more brilliant use of this type of clean power than in our vehicles."
The next test of Bernie's car is scheduled for the Texas Mile event in March, and the SL600 is already at Speedriven's Chicago facility, getting fitted with a new turbocharger assembly designed to push the boundaries even farther. "The first step to put the 'pedal to the metal' on this project is for Speedriven to get the hardware to where it needs to be," says Towns. "I think 200 in a standing mile, with 240 mph or so as the top speed. Once we're happy with the hardware and with the programming and we're getting the results we want on gas, then we'll convert the car's fuel system and scale the math appropriately for the CNG. That way we're dealing with known quantities all the way through, introducing new variables one at a time. That's how Speedriven wants to move forward and that's how everyone on my end likes to do things as well. Methodical. Step by step."
Bernie Towns and the crew at Speedriven are moving forward and gaining support with each passing week. Towns offers that the group has been in touch with Mercedes-Benz USA, and that the ANGA and NGV America have also been contacted about getting "on board" with the project.
"We're pretty excited. I'm pretty excited," says an emotional Towns. "It's not everyone who gets to go out and do something really exciting with emerging technology and clean energy and break speed records in the same car they drive home every day and still get to call that 'work'. This is great!"