Adventures in the Electric Paddock

I'm no stranger to the frenzy of the roadracing paddock. I raced at the amateur level for eight years. But this past May, I had a slightly different experience. On that sunny spring afternoon at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, I crewed for a team contesting the first-ever TTXGP race in the USA. The difference? Every one of the motorcycles on the starting grid was powered by an electric motor.

In the electric paddock, many experiences were familiar. My fellow team members and I focused on the minute details of our bike and rider. We incessantly fine-tuned tire pressures and suspension settings. We managed time precisely as precious practice-session seconds ticked away. We hustled to mount fresh tires and scrambled to make the starting grid as the final call sounded. Some aspects of the electric paddock were different, though. There was nary a container of gas or oil to be found. There were no carburetor jets to change, nor fuel-injection maps to fiddle with. Instead of valve shims and degree wheels, our toolboxes were filled with soldering irons, ohmmeters and crimping pliers. Instead of 110 octane, our bike required 220 volts.

Our entry was a Mavizen electric superbike (see First Ride, page 55) piloted by Jennifer Bromme of San Francisco's Werkstatt Motorcycles. We tried to maximize our practice time, as we'd taken delivery of the bike only a week prior. Just before our first session, we scrambled to fix a sticky rear brake pedal. Then, only 7 minutes in, our hearts sank as the bike coasted to a stop in Turn 9. After a push back to the pits, we discovered a blown 500-amp fuse in the motor controller! Stanford-educated electrical engineer Patrick Fitzgerald determined that the fuse was too small, so soldered up a 900-amp replacement using heavy-gauge copper wire. Even so, in the next session, the same thing happened again! Patrick finally decided that the fuse was unnecessary, and simply bridged the offending circuit. This was risky, but it worked. The bike finished the final practice session without incident. Later that day, heartbreak struck again as the bike fell over in the pits, completely shattering its DC motor brush holder. Luckily, a representative from Agni, the motor manufacturer, was 15 feet away in an adjoining pit and had a spare.

Besides our team, the electric paddock was filled with other enthusiastic competitors. Zero Motorcycles fielded a roadrace-prepped version of its Zero S production bike ridden by Shawn Higbee. Fellow AMA Pro Michael Barnes piloted the Lightning Motors entry. Sometimes Motorcyclist test rider Thad Wolff raced a vintage-looking Norton Featherbed-framed machine.

The start of the race was surreal in its quiescence. All we heard when the green flag dropped was the turbine-like whirr of motors and drive chains as the bikes launched and spun up to speed. Afterward, Jen mentioned that she could actually hear the track commentary over the loudspeakers as she raced! I overheard multiple spectators remarking how uncomfortably loud traditional Superbike races were after they'd experienced the electric equivalent.

I'll admit I wasn't expecting the close race that occurred between Higbee and Barnes, the two swapping the lead a number of times as they left the rest far behind. Anti-climactically, Barnes pulled off with only a few laps to go and stopped near Turn 1, the Lightning apparently requiring a system reboot. That cost him 30 seconds, but he continued on to finish second. Michael Hannas took third on the Electric Race Bike entry and our Jen took fourth. Out of 10 starters, only two did not finish-no worse than most other races. One rider crashed after his bike's battery ruptured and dumped fluid on his rear tire. Another apparently ran out of electrons. Kenyon Kluge came up just short of a powered finish, but pushed his bike the last few hundred feet across the line, to the crowd's delight. Winner Higbee celebrated his victory with an almost-silent smoky burnout in victory circle.

TTXGP has some obstacles to overcome. Without big purses to offset expenses, teams are hesitant to commit to a national series. There is also the issue of a competing series run by the FIM. Getting spectators excited about electric bikes is tricky, too. If the enthusiastic response at Infineon was any indication, though, TTXGP is off to a good start. Judging by its American premiere at Infineon Raceway, the organizers are making significant headway with their vision of electrifying the motorcycle racing paddock.