Electric Boogie – Into the Record Books
MO completes first 24-hour roadrace on e-bike
It’s 4am. My eyes are heavy and the pillow beside me is calling my name. Instead, cold and sleep-deprived, I cinch the straps on my Bell, throw a leg over Jeff Clark’s Zero FX, and head out on the Willow Springs kart track for another stint. The bike had already been racing nonstop for 14 hours. All I had to do was last 30 minutes.
Even with adrenaline and Red Bull, it took an abnormal amount of concentration to ride that motorcycle for the next half hour, battling wind, cold, and fatigue. Not to mention the other riders. I was clearly tired. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter, not even in college, so it seems strangely appropriate my first would come during a 24-hour motorcycle race. On my birthday, no less.
When Clark and I began talking about the M1GP 24-hour super endurance race it seemed like a great idea. Each team was required to donate to charity in order to compete and from a racing standpoint, I had always wanted to race for 24 hours. I’d done some endurance racing in the past, even bagging a championship in 2011, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Not to mention the two of us were teammates at Pikes Peak, where he won and I got third in class. We liked racing with each other and it seemed like a fun event. But I still had my reservations.
Never mind this would be my first outing back on track since crashing at Pikes Peak and fracturing my foot three months prior. Or the fact my injury forced me to sit on the couch for much of that time instead of sweating in the gym. Nope, I was doing this, and for one simple reason: I wanted to be a part of history.
No electric motorcycle has ever finished a 24-hour roadrace. Seeing a glaring hole in the e-bike history books, Clark wanted his Zero FX, the same bike he took to victory at Pikes Peak, to occupy that gap. Ultimately, having my name alongside his in this historical moment was a major motivator to give it a go.
For the past four years, M1GP, a Southern California-based mini-motorcycle roadracing organization geared towards grooming the next generation of racing stars, has put on this grueling 24-hour race. The race is typically for small-displacement bikes, but Young Lee, M1GP’s owner, saw the future of electricity in motorcycling and was kind enough to grant us special entry into this year’s event.
Motorcycle racing, no matter the level, isn’t easy or inexpensive. As mentioned earlier, this race is unique in that each team must donate a minimum sum to charity. In its own small way, this donation is a reminder to everyone participating just how lucky we are in the big scheme of things.
A maximum of 24 teams are allowed and each team must have at least four riders. Only one bike is allowed to race, though another is allowed for parts. Coincidentally, our parts bike was the same FX I lobbed into the Colorado mountainside three months prior. This year 12 bikes entered the race. Most were on Honda NSR50s, but there was a sprinkling of Honda XR100s, CRF100s, Yamaha TTR125s, and even a Honda Grom entered by Young himself.
The mix of riders was as diverse as the bikes. From kids to adults, seasoned racers to first timers, some riders flew all the way from Japan and Taiwan just to take part in the festivities.
Of course, two people don’t make a 24-hour endurance team. It takes a lot of help, which surprisingly comes easy at the grassroots level when food and beer are offered in return. (To be clear, adult beverages were consumed after the race was over.) While the chance at history was important to Clark, having fun and being surrounded by a group of friends would be the cherry on top.
Apart from myself, here’s the rest of the team Clark enlisted to ride with him:
- Aaron Wilson. The Michigan native met Clark in Mexico during a Baja race event they both attended. The friendship grew quickly and they do everything from ride motorcycles to cliff jumping to “drinking too much beer together as often as we can,” Clark says. “I’m actually officiating his wedding next spring. I’m not joking.”
- Aaron Guigar. Coincidentally, another Michigan native. Clark mentions, “We get together to do all the stuff mentioned above, only he drinks whiskey, not beer. He’s also one of the smartest people I know.”
- Brian Randleman. Clark’s former roommate and a naturally gifted athlete. Wickedly fast on two wheels, motorized or not, Clark notes. “He landed on his feet the first time he ever tried to do a standing backflip on flat ground.”
- Jeremiah Johnson. Former AMA racer turned e-bike pioneer, “Jay” was the second-place finisher between Clark and myself at Pikes Peak. Says Clark, “He’s actually quite a character off the bike but gets super intense once the helmet goes on.” Clark turned to Johnson for advice when he started racing, “but when I finally stood above him on the podium he told me he’d never help me again.”
- Adeyemi Bennett. A last-minute addition to the team from the advice of a mutual friend. “I didn’t meet Adey until the morning of the race,” says Clark.
For pit assistance, the only other team member for the first 10 hours of the race was Clark’s father, Dwight. The man was gracious enough to bring his camper trailer and portable barbecue, even though, according to him, “My only duty this weekend was to make sure none of you guys go hungry.”
Later in the night, further assistance would come from Hollywood Electrics owner and e-bike wizard, Harlan Flagg, and e-bike mega-distance rider, Terry Hershner, who was making the trip south to Willow Springs directly from Zero headquarters in Santa Cruz, California.
The original plan was to split us into two groups, allowing one group to rest while the other races. Each group would pull two stints each, rotating every six hours, with each rider’s stint lasting 30 minutes — a conservative estimate of battery life. My group included myself, Clark, and the two Aarons. The second group of Johnson, Randleman, and Bennett continued on the half-hour rotation without a fourth rider.
Using the Zero app on Clark’s smartphone, torque output would be dropped to its lowest setting to conserve battery life, while regenerative braking would be turned off to keep motor temps down. Clark would then mount a phone on the handlebar to run the Zero app in real time to get instant feedback of the bike’s condition, allowing us to ride accordingly. If things were going well, we would change the length of stints.
The main reason why the FX was used for this race is its ability to swap battery packs quickly and easily (see video of pit stop below). Simply unsnap the bracket keeping the batteries in place, knock the old batteries out, put the new ones in, pop the bracket back on and continue. During a few practice runs we were able to complete the stop in less than 30 seconds. This was quicker than the gas bikes took to refuel, but we had to pit at least twice as often.
We would have a total of six batteries and numerous quick-charge systems. The plan was to have two batteries in the bike, two fully-charged units ready for the next pit stop, and two on the charger. The six batteries would rotate through that cycle over the course of the race.
Of course, plans hardly ever go as scheduled. When I arrived on Saturday morning, Clark and Johnson had a look of concern on their faces. We were missing a set of batteries and chargers, leaving us with only four batteries, one quick-charger and the on-board charger on the spare FX. This was bad.
After numerous phone calls, Wilson left the track and met Flagg somewhere in the middle of Los Angeles, 90 minutes away, for the extra batteries. Flagg himself had to find the extra chargers and connectors, but couldn’t make it to the track until 10pm at the earliest. The race started at noon. We knew we’d have to monitor the batteries very carefully if we expected to keep running by that time.
Being the owner of the bike, Clark started the race. I would go second, Guigar third, with Wilson to follow whenever he got back from L.A. A dramatic drum crew performed their own rendition of what looked like the Olympic opening ceremony before the green flag dropped and the Le Mans-style start to the race was underway. Clark darted away quickly, reaching second place by the first turn, but in the haste of figuring out batteries and chargers earlier, we didn’t wrap the Pirelli Diablo Rosso tires — the same pair I used at Pikes Peak — in tire warmers.
No mystery what happened next. Clark became the first crash of the race, a victim of cold tires. “Who crashes 10 seconds into a 24-hour race?!” he yelled to himself. Now desperate to make up time, he chased the group, only to fall again five turns later. He came back to the pits to make some minor repairs and went back out, but the damage was done. We lost a lot of laps and we couldn’t ride to the max for fear of draining batteries.
Finally, Clark came in and it was my turn to have a go. I’ll admit, my nerves were a little on edge. I’d only been walking with normal shoes for two weeks. Then seeing Clark hit the deck twice didn’t do much to ease my worries. Since we clearly had straight-line speed over everyone and about 23 hours to go, I simply poured on the coals every straight and eased her into the corners. Preservation, both for myself and the bike, was key. This time, I left the red mist at home.
It’s interesting where your mind wanders to when you’re simply riding around to complete laps. Mentally, I veered off into several different paths, as thoughts about lunch, my cable bill, and whether or not I locked my front door before coming to the track settled in. It was a strange feeling, as I’m normally so consumed with the race when I’m competing. But seriously, did I lock my door?
When I finally looked down, the clock on the phone app mounted on the bar signaled I had about 10 minutes left in my stint. It also said the batteries had about 75% charge left in them! I didn’t expect the number to be anywhere near that high, so I pushed my pace for the final minutes to add some excitement to my stint.
I came in for my scheduled stop, swapped batteries, and sent Guigar on his way. Things had settled down now after Clark’s frenetic opening stint, and it felt like we were getting into a rhythm.
“Damn!” said Clark. “We only recharged those batteries to 50% for Aaron. He has to ride super easy, and even then I don’t know if he’ll last.” Confused, I told him the charge status on the Zero app never dipped anywhere near 50% during my stint. “Yeah, I don’t know why, but the app isn’t reading correctly either. Both the batteries I was on and you were on went down to 30% after our stints. I just checked. The clock is the only thing working right.”
This was serious, but there weren’t many options. We had already powered down as far as we could. Until Flagg arrived with the extra chargers we’d be riding like grandmas, on batteries with 50% charge. By the end of the first four-person rotation we were in seventh place out of 12.
The good news was we were still running. The bad news was we were using more juice than we could replenish. We had to ride slower still. To make matters worse, it was getting cold and mother nature decided she wanted to join the party, kicking up wind gusts upwards of 40 mph at times. This lasted for the rest of the day and throughout the night.
“I was standing there freezing my butt off, holding down the canopy and having our rider come in for a pit stop,” Johnson recalls. “We had to figure out how to pull off the pit stop and not have our canopy setup get destroyed. That’s the adventure of endurance racing!”
My second stint was hardly memorable as the main objective was saving battery life. As such, I’d roll through the corners and ease on the throttle again. Every input was slow and methodical, not fast and aggressive. Our straight-line speed advantage was our biggest asset over the entire field, so whenever a CRF100, TTR125, or even a brave soul on a NSR50 (all of which I could hear behind me from a mile away) tried diving underneath me, simply twisting my wrist put me back in front again. Unfortunately, I couldn’t gap them enough to stay ahead, and riding in conservation mode meant I couldn’t battle. The superior corner speeds and higher levels of talent from some of those guys meant I had to concede position.
As I finished my second stint, the second group of Johnson, Randleman and Bennett geared up for their rotation. I grabbed a quick bite to eat then tried to sleep in the trailer. I’d need the rest to work the graveyard shift. The winds rattled the trailer, making sleep difficult, so waking at midnight wasn’t easy.
However, there was a different mood in the pit when I came back. The twin H’s – Harlan and Hershner – had arrived! We finally had enough chargers to replenish batteries to 95% capacity. Johnson was the first beneficiary of our newfound rejuvenation, and now with full license to ride WFO he reeled off seriously fast laps in the 57-second range — only two other teams could match that pace.
To their credit, Bennett and Randleman – both participating in their first road race – were putting down consistent laps only two and five seconds slower than Johnson, respectively. “I’ve ridden motocross and raced downhill mountain bikes, but never anything like this,” Randleman said. Their good pace was having an effect, as we were climbing up the rankings.
We kept pushing our pace throughout the night, the FX working flawlessly at this point. However, the crew was feeling the fatigue, as the cold wind gusts were hammering us. Suddenly, just as we were all slumping in our chairs around 3am, somebody noticed Wilson pushing the bike back to the pits. Fearing the worst, we jumped to action and prepared the tools. But everything looked fine except a glowing red rear brake disc. Clark’s fix was simple, “keep your foot off the rear brake, moron!” Sure enough, the bike was problem free after that.
As the night made way for day, our destiny into the record books seemed imminent. We had survived the night, the bike was running great, and we were making up time. With only an hour to go, we had made our way to fourth place, with third, the team of SBALB on a Yamaha TTR125, still on the same lap! Johnson was again riding and setting blistering lap times in the high 56/low 57s.
The problem was SBALB’s hot shoe, Jason Aguilar, was matching Johnson’s pace. Finally, Johnson had to pit for the team’s last scheduled stop and Bennett took over. While Bennett rode hard and was only two seconds slower than Johnson, Aguilar didn’t pit again and the fight was over. Team EXR won the race, completing 1325 laps. Team Wolf Pack placed second with 1297 laps, SBALB third on 1270 laps, and our team, Team Hollywood Electric, came fourth with 1266 laps.
History Will Remember The First
Despite missing the podium, the greater success was seeing the bike cross the finish line. Equally impressive was lasting the entire race on the same set of tires and brake pads. As the checkered flag waved, the significance of what we just accomplished wasn’t lost on anyone and loud cheers combined with sighs of relief filled the air. We did it.
Once again, Zero Motorcycles had entered the record books, and we all got to be a part of it. Sure, we couldn’t help but think of the outcome had our batteries and chargers been where they were supposed to be, but “all the guys did a great job of pulling together to make an awesome race,” said Guigar.
For a bunch of guys racing Jeff Clark’s daily driver – yes, he put the lights and blinkers back on and commuted to work the next day – this was quite an accomplishment. But Jeff is already looking towards the future. What’s next? “I don’t know. I kinda had my eye on Baja…”