Way back machine: A (Rabid?) Fan’s Perspective of a TTXGP Race

This blog and podcast had been in the works for a long time before I finally got organized.  But the key event was me attending last year’s NA TTXGP final at Miller Motor Sports Park, as a guest of the TTXGP.   I originally wrote this as a way to pay the TTXGP back, but it never on published on their site.  Them and their trying to run an international series.  Anyway, all this talk about Eli’s bike reminded me I still had this, and it had yet to see the light of day.  I hope you enjoy!

A (Rabid?) Fan’s Perspective of a TTXGP Race

By Richard Dort

The weekend of September 3rd and 4th 2011, I was fortunate enough to be a VIP guest of the TTXGP at the season finale of the North American series at Miller Motorsports Park near Salt Lake City, UT.  When I was first invited I had a flood of ideas and goals I set for myself based off of their offer to run Twitter and a update Facebook for them.  My first thought was to do a live audio broadcast from the track.  But I gave up on that idea as I was going to have to work around broadcasting rights, and I was not confident I would be able to do so.  As it turned out, I am not sure I would have had the Wi-Fi available at a decent enough location to actually pull that off anyway.  Plan B was much more simplified.  Tweet practice, qualifying, and the race, and promptly write a report for each, after each session.  And when I wasn’t doing that, I wanted to grab audio interviews of racers.  Rupal Patel, the media director for the TTXGP, just asked that I make sure I have a good time, and this request rang in my head as soon as I arrived at the track.

How It All Went Down

Qualifying

Right off the bat, things didn’t go according to plan.  After missing my flight out of Atlanta I had to take the morning flight on Saturday and ended up missing morning practice.  I got to the Salt Lake City airport at about 11:15 and John Wild was kind enough, and very fortunately for me, free enough to come pick me up.    John is the machinist/mechanic for the Moto Electra team, and the former team principal of Square Wave racing. He has some experience in vintage club racing, and had offered to let me be his roommate for the weekend.  Once we got to the track he introduced me to the team, and they have to be the nicest people you have ever met.  In a matter of hours I felt like I was part of the team.  I even had a hat to look official.  A little while later was the riders’ meeting that was surprisingly absent of riders.  Thad Wolff (rider for Moto Electra), Ely Schless (rider and principal for ProtoMoto), and Shane Turpin (from all accounts the go to guy at Miller, and riding for MotoCzysz that weekend) were there with reps from all the teams, but that’s about it.  There were two people wearing Lightning shirts, but at that time the Lightning bikes had yet to arrive, and were a reported three or so hours away and going to miss qualifying.  No need to attend a riders meeting for qualifying if you have no bike.  It was a bit of a wait but soon leathers were on and people were heading to the track for qualifying.  Ely told me not to be surprised if I saw him pull in after only 3 laps as he didn’t think he was going to be allowed to charge his bike overnight and wouldn’t have the time to fully recharge the pack for the next day.  As far as I could tell, all the teams had access to was 110v.  Brammo had a big gas powered generator for themselves, so I’m sure they were charging at 220v, or in that range.  I have no idea what the MotoCzysz team had in their spectacular motorhome/transporter rig, but I am sure it was something very much similar to Brammo’s setup.  Isn’t there a solar and or wind company out there that could set up mobile 240v to 480v power stations to supply juice for the e-bikes?  It is disappointing to overhear a team manager tell one of his guys to go to the gas station so they can continue to charge the bike.

Anyway, shortly before qualifying I was asked to take a video camera and record the event as best as possible, and to get some shots of the riders leaving the garage  I did what I could and recorded qualifying from the stands, as it seemed to have the best vantage point.  It was the first time I had seen electric bikes in motion, in person.  It was a very cool moment and all I could think was, “Holy crap these things are fast”.  The things I noticed in qualifying were that you couldn’t hear them until they entered the front straight of the West course. There were only 4 bikes there.  Ely Schless on his Protomoto, Brammo’s Empulse RR, Moto Electra, and the MotoCzysz ’11 E1PC.  The MotoCzysz’s power was what impressed me the most about that bike.  Watching it come out of the slow last turn and onto the straight I swear I could feel the power.  It was unreal and the speed he was doing at the end of the straight was amazing.

The next thing I noticed was just how fast the Brammo was going through turn 1.  Maybe it was the green and white color scheme, but after all that I have read over the years, what I saw at the track, and what I experienced riding a Brammo Enertia in the parking lot, I suspect these Brammo guys know how to build a good handling motorcycle.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they had the best handling bike there.   Speaking of which, considering the Brammo is only putting out in the neighborhood of 86hp its acceleration onto the front straight was impressive.  Even when compared to the MotoCzysz that was probably putting out double the power in a detuned state.  And I didn’t really notice the Moto Electra that much.  But you know what it’s like when you watch a rider that is so smooth, and so good that they make it look easy?  Yes, well that’s Thad Wolff, on a bike that cost maybe a tenth of what the others do, but combined can perform at 80% to 90% of the Brammo.  And, as promised, Ely was off the track quickly.  So qualifying, for me, ended way too quickly, but I was massively impressed.  There was no live twittering and some horrible camera work on my part, but I did manage to get a copy of the qualifying times, and posted a pic of the time sheet on Facebook.

Remembering Rupal’s advice of making sure I had a good time, instead of trying to crank out a story for Azhar I went around and chatted with people.  It was about this time the technical director told me that Lightning had arrived.  I went running to try and grab the scoop, only to not find them.  It turns out I had walked right past them, about 3 times.  There were little to no Lightning signs up.  But this was not surprising as the second they got there they were in full thrash mode putting the bikes together.  For those who don’t follow electric bike racing, this is a normal mode for the Lightning crew, but it seems very typical motorcycle racing behavior, electric or not.  Of all the teams they remind me the most of what I would consider a typical privateer motorcycle race team.  Shortly after announcing Lightning’s arrival on Facebook I was off with the Moto Electra guys to dinner.  What a great group of guys, and I had a blast!  It doesn’t matter that this racing may not be at the same level as MotoGP, WSBK, or even the AMA, I got the same feeling of “how cool is this” as I would having dinner with teams from any of those other series.  There were laughs and stories, and even some mischief to be had.  After a good relaxing time being had by all, we went back to drop Richard (friend of the Brain’s), Brian (Richardson, Moto Electra’s Team Principal), and Thad off at the track.  John was patient enough to let me go check on the Lightning guys before we headed back to the hotel.  They had just finished putting the Bonneville bike together and the first rider had done a test spin in the parking lot.  He yelled for the other rider to come over.  I thought he was upset about something.  The other rider came running over only to be told that he had to ride the bike, because (and I am paraphrasing) that thing was insane.  It was one of those cool moments that I hear ex-racers or team members tell in good interviews years later.  I get to say I was there, and I snagged a picture

Race Day

I slept pretty good, but by the time my alarm went off John was already up and ready to go.  He went for breakfast while I got ready, and then we were off . . . to sit around some more.  When your bike is working right, you do a lot of sitting.  These guys had earned it though, as they had had issues all season of one type or another.  To be honest the morning was a bit eventful as the parking lot testing that Lightning did the night before had ruffled some feathers and put at least one team manager into an agitated state.  This passed quickly and I wandered around the pits with the Moto Electra team looking at some of the vintage race bikes that were there that weekend.  Somewhere I missed morning practice.  But I believe only Brammo and Lightning went out for it.  Most everyone else stayed in the pits to conserve their batteries for the race.

This brings me to one of the bigger differences inherent in electric racing.  As a long time fan of AMA and world level motorcycle racing, I am used to more than one free practice, and hour long qualifying, and then the race.  You’re looking at, what, 3-4 hours of riding before the race?  These guys were out at qualifying for maybe 20 minutes, and hopefully that much Saturday morning for practice.  Then 15 to 20 minutes the morning of the race, which many didn’t even do.  So, most teams had maybe 40 minutes on the track the whole weekend, before they lined up to race.  I doubt anyone got a full race distance in one stint before the race.  The riders simply get very little track time.  If race tracks provided 220-240 outlets, this might not be such an issue because it has as much to do with recharge times as any thing.  However, 110v is what you get, unless you are a big team with a really big Subaru generator.  But, having swappable packs would mean you could get full use out of a 40 minute practice or qualifying session.  Clearly the teams do not find that to be advantageous enough to actually implement.  This whole thing leads to a problem with the “show” aspect of the electric racing.  Motor-heads are used to hours of qualifying and practice, and an hour long race.  I can waste a whole weekend watching all of the Moto2 and MotoGP practices, qualifying, and races.  And lord help me if World Super Bike is on the same weekend.  I’m tied up all week!  Qualifying at Miller was over before I knew it.  However, it may have been a whole lot more exciting if Lightning had shown up on time.  It must be noted that Azhar and crew made a miracle getting this round to happen at all, and the club guys get about as much time as the TTXGP folks did, so club racing fans may not have even noticed.  What I feel this means is that the TTXGP cannot, at this time, be a stand-alone event.  It just doesn’t fill up enough time.  But that is fine with me, because I feel it is better for the electrics to be around the larger, established gas crowds than off on their own.

One can . . . OK, I can only sit and support my adopted team so long when there are lots of cool bikes, people, and things to see, talk to, and talk about.  So I guiltily sneaked off to flirt with the other teams.  I did touch bases with David Herron who is kind of everywhere on the internet.  He is probably the best starting place for news in the EV industry.  He writes for the Examiner.com, is in charge of the V is for Voltage forum, and has at least one blog and a few twitter handles.  I then went and talked to everyone I was too shy to the day before, and at some point got to have lunch with the Brammo team.  Everyone is just so nice.  Who I talked to before vs. after the race is a bit foggy, but I had a great conversation with Michael Czysz, the Pirelli rep answered my questions, Richard Hatfield (one upping Brammo 😀 ) took pictures of me on one of his race bikes, Shane Turpin talked to me about power delivery and traction control.  I got all kinds of cool tidbits from Brian Wismann about the Empulse RR; I did an audio interview with Thad Wolff; Ely Schless went over every aspect of his bike with me; and I ran the camera for Azhar at the go cart “after party” of sorts.   I had a really, really good time.  That’s for sure!

The race itself was surprising, the announcer knew nothing about electric motorcycles (but was nicely upfront about it), and the crowd was clueless.  There were a few things surprising about the race.  The first was the launch the MotoCzysz has off the line.  The second was even though every bike in front of the other was significantly more powerful, or expensive, or advanced, the gaps that opened up were not that big.  I had expected to see the field just blow apart, but it was more like the stretching of a rubber band.  This meant the racing wasn’t a snooze fest.  The black Lightning pulled past the Empulse RR on the straight but the RR managed to stay under it going into the first turn, and then that is about all you can see from the stands.  You can see them in the distance, but to a newcomer it was hard to follow the race action.  It wasn’t until they hit the front straight that it looked like the Flying Banana was going to limit its loss to the E1PC and stay within striking distance.  The, well let’s call it the Stealth Banana, finally got around the Brammo on the straight.  Then everything seemed to fall into place and equal gaps started opening up.  Thad looked fast, but being 20 hp down to the Brammo, he just had to run his race.  I knew not to expect too much from Ely.  He had old tires on his bike that he decided not to bother to change considering he had no competitors.  He later regretted this as the tires acted up much worse than he had predicted, making for a bit of a hairy ride at times.  All of a sudden I didn’t see the Stealth Banana.  That’s a bit odd, I thought.  Turns out he broke a chain.  Of all the things to go wrong, but then again, of all the things that could go wrong I’d choose that.  But there we were again with seemingly equal gaps between all the bikes getting larger every lap.  And here I am yelling at the bikes from the stands.  I hear mutters about my behavior.  I decide to announce that the riders can hear you because the bikes are so quiet.  Well, you should have heard the roar from the crowd that followed when the local boy Shane Turpin came by in the lead, still.  That lasted a few more laps, and then apparently got old.  I think I answered a few more questions

One thing about the bikes I noticed is that the E1PC didn’t seem as forceful coming out of the last corner and onto the straight, and the Brammo didn’t look as fast through turn one, as they did in qualifying.  I suspect that this was all just my perception and that as these professionals got faster over the weekend they got smoother and faster everywhere else.

On the next to last lap everything looked normal.  However, the flagger flew the checkered flag a lap early.  Now I know for certain that Azhar addressed this issue the day before because I was there when he did it.  The confusion came because the TTXGP ran 8 laps, and the club racers run 7; easy enough to understand the confusion.  Anyway, the only person to really get caught out was Steve Atlas thinking the race was over.  What ended up happening was Thad Wolff almost catching him.  Apparently the Brammo rider noticed in time that Thad was in full pursuit.  I feel evidence of this was when the team recharged the pack.  They discovered that Thad had used more juice than in any other race that season; and so ended the race.

The Bikes, Teams, and Riders

Brammo:  That bike is just so cool looking.  As an avid cyclist I see national influence in the aesthetics of the products from the 3 major drivetrain component manufacturers.   SRAM, an American company, is one of these “big three”, as it were.  Their stuff just looks cool and is unique, which I feel is an American aesthetic.  Brammo strikes me as the SRAM of the electric motorcycle industry.  Those guys have worked very hard on that bike for a long time.  Brian Wismann (basically the team manager and director of product development for the company), was telling me how he feels like they are a year behind in development from the set back of last year.  They have worked long and hard with their motor supplier Parker on developing the 86ish hp motor they have now.  And they have not been resting on their laurels since the double win at Infineon Raceway this past spring.  For the Laguna Seca round they had upped the 12.0 kwHr pack to about the 13.5 kWhr range.  The exact size escapes me at the moment.  Brian also told me that they have a new motor that is almost double the power.  This would put them right between the 140 hp Mission claims for their bike and the 200(+?) of the MotoCzysz and Lightning.  It seemed that they had access to the new motor, but decided to play it conservative and run what they knew where all they had to do was finish to win the North American Championship.  Completely understandable, but the conservative theme was a common one in the TTXGP paddock for this last round.

Lightning:  Richard Hatfield seemed really disappointed to not get the 2nd and 3rd spots on the podium that weekend.  It has got to be frustrating but, hey, it’s not like they didn’t set a new speed record for electric bikes at 215.9 mph at Bonneville.  They are the biggest bikes around, and you can buy one for $40,000.  The cockpit controls seemed a little worn out looking, and the fairings were a little ragged looking.  They looked like privateer bikes.  But I got to see under the fairings, and there’s nothing privateer looking about what I saw.  Mind you I am not completely sure what it is I saw, battery box I am thinking, but it looked very high tech.  So the polish was where it counts.  So it’s your choice, an EBR 1190 RS or a Lightning that has more hp (a fair bit more) and is probably faster on the salt flats.  The Lightning, however, will not be faster around Laguna Seca.  And the motor is not a Remy, but uses Remy guts.   I am not sure of the pack size, but then again he may not have told me.  The riders on the Lightning bikes for the weekend were also locals, or at least local-ish.  Personally I think it is great having them in the paddock.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s a vibe about them that is different and from the others that I enjoy.

Moto Electra:  My adopted team had a very smooth weekend and I’d like to think I brought them some luck, but I highly doubt it.  They had to play with sprockets Saturday morning to find the right gearing, but after that it was smooth sailing.  The interesting thing about this team is that they still had the bigger and 30lb heavier AC-50 motor in the bike for the weekend.  They had melted their AC-35 race motor back in July at Laguna the day before the race.  The gentleman who sold them the motor originally (and whose name escapes me) happened to be not too far away and rushed them the AC-50 motor to ensure no more over heating issues.  Well it worked because the motor stayed cool enough.  Now mind you, the AC-35 was repaired by the time they got to Miller.  Apparently the gentleman who supplied the motors was so unhappy about one of his motors melting that he custom wound the melted motor.  This should not only help it stay cooler, but also provide more power.  Much like the upgrade Tesla offered on their Roadster EV car.  Thad would really have liked to have the 30 lbs. gone from the bike, but after constant heat problems this year (and last), the teams decided to play it conservative and keep the AC-50 in the bike and consolidate their second place in the championship.  It makes you wonder if Thad had the lighter motor and it had held up, would he have been closer to Atlas when he made is mistake and been able to get ahead of him?

MotoCzysz:  The E1PC is a gorgeous bike, and man is it fast.  I got to talk to Shane Turpin and asked if he thought that now that electric bikes had 200hp, were they going to need traction control?  He immediately called me over behind the tape (how cool is that!) and showed me the rear tire.  I have to admit while I am very familiar with the concepts of shagged and not shagged race tires; I have no practical experience with them.  Basically I had no idea what he was showing me.  But, what it was, was that he had a lot more tire left than he was used to after a qualifying session.  What he also told me was that the power deliver was so smooth and controllable that there was no reason for traction control.  A further conversation later with John Wild and he explain that gas motors are built to run at a certain speed and in a certain way, and all the throttle and electronics are to force it to run how you need it to in other situations other than WFO.  On the flip side, an electric motor will do exactly what it is told to do by its controller.  So the need for traction control in electric bike will be unlikely in the immediate future.  Another thing I heard through the grapevine and from Shane himself was that the biggest adjustment he had was getting used to the weight of the bike.  I also had a great conversation with Mr. Czysz about various things.  There were a few tidbits I got from the conversation.  The first was that he had the bike’s power dialed back pretty far both for the new rider and as part of his strategy to run a conservative race and do just enough to win.  It seems to me Michael Czysz is a man that really likes to strategize.  The other was that when out for a practice one of Shane Turpin’s buddies was out on the same track with Shane (they had racing on both the east and west courses that weekend) and on a race prepped GSX-R1000.  Now I do not know the level of tune of the bike, nor what class it raced in.  But Michael told me that they lined themselves up in the last corner before the straight and then drag raced down the front straight.  The two bikes were neck and neck down the whole straight.  Now that’s impressive.  He also said something that John Wild believes as well.  The both would like the weight limit to be lifted so that people can experiment and really see where the balance of weight and power truly lies.  Of course the weight limit is 250kg, down from 300 last year, mostly to keep teams who were focusing on small light bikes for Asian and European markets in the series and have a shot at being competitive.

ProtoMoto:  Ely Schless, formally of Barefoot motors, is one cool guy.  He told me he has built something like 80 EVs.  I believe most or all are of the motorsports variety and not cars.  His bike was really cool.  The donor bike is a Honda RS250 GP race bike, complete with the single sided swingarm and everything.  He had probably the smallest AC-(fill in number here) motor you can get.  He couldn’t even remember what it was exactly.  It was by far the lightest bike there at only 350ish lbs.  He had custom cooling for the motor and controller.  For the controller he simply took about ½” thick sheet of aluminum and routered a path for coolant, drilled holes at the beginning and end of the path, taped them and attached fittings, and then he glued it to the bottom of the controller.  He then drilled small holes in the frame and used the frame as a cooling reservoir.  The motor got water sprayed into it via a high pressure pump and a small circuit board that triggered the pump to cycle every few seconds, also with its own reservoir.  He said that with that setup his motor was cooler at the end of the race than it was at the start after the end of the first lap.  There is some serious ingenuity in that bike.  Now, he decided to play it conservative by not putting new tires on as he was the only ttx75 bike.  I have already mentioned how that worked out.

All in all I had the best time I have had in a long time.  Every time someone asks me how it went I just get a big smile and tell them that I completely geeked out all weekend.  I even got two people so excited about the TTXGP while I was on my way home to Tennessee, that they asked me for the web address and to see the pictures I took with my phone.  I wore my TTXGP hat and VIP pass all the way home like a grade school boy.  A big thank you to Rupal, Azhar, John, Brian, the other Brian, Michael, Shane, Richard, and everyone else who was there or involved in the weekend.  You all were just so nice, cool, and fun to talk to and be around.  Thank you for doing what you do, and making it such a great weekend!

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