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Man vs. mileage

Inside the mind of a hypermiler

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This morning, like most days, Mike Turner — of northern South Carolina — eats a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with brown sugar before he heads to work. After gulping down a glass of apple juice, he opens the fridge, grabs his small blue-and-white lunch cooler and then heads out the door. He's been up 20 minutes (since 4 a.m.), and it's time to get rolling.

The black abyss of the outdoors briefly swallows him as he walks the short distance to his car. Despite his swift cadence, he registers Mother Nature's soundtrack of chirping crickets and the melodic accompaniment of a lone owl. The married 52-year-old electronic technician slides onto the blue plastic seat of his car, and he places his cooler and ID badge on the passenger's seat.

With the click of his seatbelt, it's time to begin his 52-mile commute to the plant in North Carolina. Seamlessly, he swiftly turns the key in the ignition, cuts on his headlights, presses the clutch and gives the gas pedal a measured and deliberate amount of pressure. Then, he shifts back to neutral and kills the engine. At the end of his gravel driveway, he veers left onto the winding, hilly, two-lane country road and coasts for about half a mile. When his speed gets down to just above a crawl, he turns the key in the ignition, accelerates up to 45 miles per hour before shifting to neutral and repeats the process. During the 10 miles it takes to get to I-26, he'll likely cut his car off five or six times.

It's a desolate drive to the interstate most mornings ... other than the voice of the NPR commentator who rides with him through the airwaves. That's not to say, however, that his regular journey hasn't come with its share of occasional excitement. One morning a couple of years ago, Turner collided with a medium-sized doe. He was traveling at about 45 miles per hour at the moment of impact. That's when he witnessed the unimaginable. The animal took flight. Literally. Over the hood, clearing the roof and beyond the trunk, the four-legged creature stared death in the eye and -- unlike Bambi's mom -- lived to do it all over again. When Turner walked back to check on her, she'd already continued on her journey, undoubtedly stunned, not knowing what hit her. But she left no trace. Well, almost no trace. The plastic covering of his headlight was cracked; a repair that would cost him $35. That's a vast savings over his last run-in with a deer, which cost him $700.

But to be fair to the deer, even if there had been a hair of daybreak on the horizon, the doe still wouldn't have recognized what was coming toward her. After all, most people do a double take when they see Turner's 1992 Honda Civic hatchback heading in their direction. Maybe it's the rounded-off nose that acted as a scooper to the benefit of the doe or the boat tail with Lexan glass in the back that helps ensure the best aerodynamic drag; whatever the case, Turner's pimped out ride is something to stare at.

"I've had folks say 'the Martians are coming,'" Turner chuckles. "People take pictures of my car on cell phones everywhere I drive." He's even been stopped by curious cops a few times but never ticketed. (After all, it's not a crime to look crazy.) Turner is unfazed by the attention. What he is fazed by, however, is his mileage efficiency and the gas he saves. Because, no matter what people think or say, his hyped-up hooptie averages more than 70 miles per gallon -- and that's not a figure that can be ignored.

Going under the screen name of "basjoos" on CleanMPG.com, a site that lets drivers track daily mileage and share information, Turner is just one of a growing legion of people who identify themselves as hypermilers. They make up a community of drivers committed to taking the edge off of rapidly rising fuel costs through a combination of practical design and driving-style modifications, and in some cases, controversial techniques. These drivers come from all walks of life, aspire to different hypermiling goals and have varying motivations.

For Turner, her name was Katrina.

"When the hurricane hit and the gas prices went up, that was my 'Aha!' moment," says Turner. "It was a wake-up call. I realized that all it takes is a little hiccup for things to get crazy. I wanted to get myself into a position where I wouldn't be in a bad spot, whatever happened."

Prior to the storm, Turner aggressively hypermiled to save in fuel costs because of his long commute. To do this, he practiced until he mastered the art of gas-saving techniques like coasting, which means his engine is only active 40 percent of the time he drives and runs only two thirds of his traveling distance. After the devastating tempest, however, he felt compelled to go a step (or a few) further.

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