Lightfighter Racing nearly 4 years on…
Motorcycle.com is thrilled to announce a new monthly(ish) guest column from Brian Wismann, Co-Founder of Lightfighter racing and a pioneer in the electric motorcycle scene, having helped design and build some of the fastest and most innovative electric racing motorcycles in the world. He’s been a key part of several electric motorcycle racing teams that have competed at Pikes Peak and the Isle of Man, among others. His electric racebikes have competed at the highest levels, won races, and even championships.
These days he spends his days as the VP of Product Development at Zero Motorcycles and his nights and weekends fine-tuning the Lightfighter electric race bike that Yours Truly is lucky enough to race. If you’re not familiar with the Lightfighter, we wrote a series of articles about it (which you can find here, here, and here) that will get you up to speed. Since I couldn’t continually write updates of Lightfighter’s progress, Brian started a website to do it himself. So entertaining – and informative – were his posts that we asked him to contribute here. His monthly contributions will revolve around the latest happenings from Team Lightfighter, occasionally sprinkled with his thoughts on the greater overall e-racing scene. This first piece will set the stage for what’s to come, as Brian delves a little deeper into his own goals, followed by how far Lightfighter has come since we last wrote about it. We hope you enjoy it. -TS
“OK… But, WHY are you doing this?” Ask me a technical question about the Lightfighter all-electric race bike, and I’m happy to discuss our battery cooling strategy, the benefit of a massive flat torque curve, or the challenges tuning suspension for a bike with little reciprocating mass. Ask me this question, however, and I struggle to articulate my reasons. So… Here’s my chance to get this question out of the way from the top… with a story.
When my son was 3 years old, he was enrolled in a Waldorf style preschool that had some animals on the property. One day, my wife and I were approached by the teacher to discuss our son’s behavior. “Oh my god… What did he do? Did he hit another kid?” we asked. “No, No… Your son was caught kicking the chickens.” We were appalled. Later that evening, we confronted him about this questionable behavior and asked “Son, why on earth were you kicking the chickens?!” I received a disarmingly simple response from the little guy: “I wanted to see if they could fly.” Hmmm. Fair enough. While I don’t condone any action that could injure an animal, I was both relieved and slightly entertained to learn that this was one of curiosity rather than aggression. My obsession making electric motorcycles competitive with the incumbent technology is akin to my son’s interest in learning if chickens can use those feather filled appendages the same as the other birds. After over a decade of watching the 600cc Supersports and 1000+cc Superbikes rip around the race track, I simply wanted to know if I could make an electric motorcycle truly fly and be head-to-head competitive in club racing.
I have no aspirations of building the next Honda or even Britten Motorcycles. I’m not out raising money to start a company, and I’m certainly not claiming that Lightfighter is a production motorcycle. Not every worthwhile endeavor needs to be about building a business or making money, a perspective that seemingly confuses most that ask the question. With Lightfighter, I get to explore an area of intellectual curiosity and work on the program with like-minded people that I enjoy being around. A clear win-win in my book.
With that explanation out of the way, let’s pick up where we left off with our Motorcycle.com readers (include links to the V1 articles) and talk about where we find ourselves today. With Version 1 of the bike, we successfully proved that our Lightfighter concept was sound – i.e. focusing on keeping the bike light and leveraging modern suspension geometry yielded a bike that was competitive and responded well to set-up changes. While we had some successes and race wins competing with the fastest classes in AHRMA national race series, we wanted to keep pushing to see if we could be competitive with the full blown race-prepped Supersport bikes (think Yamaha R6s and Suzuki GSXR 750s) that inspired the concept in the first place. So, V2 of the bike was born in late 2020, based on a season of input from Motorcycle.com’s very own Troy Siahaan and expertly fabricated by my partner Ely Schless in Ashland, Oregon.
As a quick recap on the tech, our most recent iteration of the Lightfighter is our own design of chromoly trellis frame, carbon-fiber subframe, 400-volt lithium-ion battery pack, and electric powertrain making just over 140hp at the rear wheel and weighing in at 390lbs (177 kg). These specs allow the Lighfighter the unofficial claim to highest power-to-weight ratio electric motorcycle, even compared to the latest MotoE bike by Ducati racing with MotoGP this season. Unlike some other electric motorcycles, we weren’t aiming to reinvent the motorcycle – just leveraging the knowledge gained from 100+ years of figuring out how to make motorcycles go around a track fast and then adding the benefits of an electric powertrain with smooth, instant torque delivery. After a loose partnership with Kramer Motorcycles USA allowed us to race with their bodywork for a couple of seasons, we finally designed our own through a fun project with Nick Gravely of Claymoto [we did two stories about him here and here - TS] and Fabien Rougemont of Redster Design. The bodywork on the bike today is a combination of carbon fiber from Paul Taylor of Taylormade Racing and Hotbodies custom molded fiberglass pieces. Yup – you can call up Hotbodies and order a full Lightfighter body set today.
After some shakedown races in 2020 (which was largely disrupted by Covid), we got more serious in 2021 as we joined the ranks of the nation’s oldest motorcycle racing club - AFM. Our first race led to a serendipitous pit location next to an aspiring racer who took a strong interest in what we were doing and we soon found ourselves building our first customer bike. We’ve now delivered a second customer bike to a racer in Canada and are working on a third. Builds are slow, but our customers have proven to be amazingly patient…
As our speed picked up and lap times came down with V2, we enlisted more and more support from suspension tuner Bobby Loo of Motorrev Suspension Tuning to deal with a bike that seemed to be perpetually too stiff and lacking a bit of front end feedback. We reached a solid baseline by the end of the ’21 season and had been working on getting the bike a bit more on the nose, raising rear ride height and dropping the front end and clip-on positions. It seemed to be working and we posted our fastest times at Laguna Seca and Buttonwillow.
Side note: The Lightfighter has proven to be pretty competitive against the gas bikes in multiple races at a few different tracks. While we didn’t win every race, we’ve certainly been right there with the front runners in the classes we’ve been racing in…
Race Winner Best Lap
Lightfighter Best Lap
Laguna Seca Raceway
AFM / 750 Superbike
1:33.489* / Rennie Scaysbrook / 2022
AFM / 750 Superbike
1:51.462 / Troy Siahaan / 2021
Barber Motorsports Park
AHRMA / Formula Thunder
1:33.325 / Troy Siahaan / 2019**
Utah Motorsports Park
AHRMA / Formula Thunder
1:38.272 / Troy Siahaan / 2019**
*Crash on lap 1 of race, time set in practice.
**These times were set on v1 of the bike, we haven’t been back since to see what v2 can do…
And then… as things seemed to be looking up for breaking into the top 5, if not top 3, for the gas classes we race with (750 Superbike and Formula 1), we got hit hard with the humility hammer in 2022. Progress is rarely made in a straight line and setbacks are just part of the gig, so they say… or if they don’t, they should. In the first race of the year, at Buttonwillow Raceway, Troy got a great start and made it up to third by the fourth turn with the two leaders in sight. On the following left-hand sweeper, the bike lost rear traction as Troy rolled on the power at 90mph, slid, hooked up, and then sent both rider and bike hurtling end-over-end into the dirt. It was a spectacular crash from my perspective on the timing & scoring tower. I was relieved to see Troy was stunned, but OK… but the bike fared worse and our weekend was over. Our one-of-one, handbuilt bike took the equivalent of the motorcycle walk of shame back to the paddock on the crash truck and once the dirt was blown off, the damage was clear. The powertrain was thankfully intact and functional, but the triple clamps and possibly the front forks were bent and a beautiful carbon fiber rear wheel had been sacrificed to the altar of the racing gods as well.
Troy and I don't exactly see eye-to-eye on the reason for the crash. He places a lot of the blame on the rear tire being the wrong compound. To be fair, it was a different, harder, compound than we'd ever ran before. It was erroneously installed by the same tire vendor who had installed all of our previous tires, so we had no reason to doubt him and double-check his work. I don't necessarily disagree with Troy, but I think we went too far with our overall setup of the bike and it came back to bite us. It took me over a month working on nights and weekends to get the bike back together. Luckily, we had our first proof that our design architecture did well to protect the expensive electric powertrain from any serious or dangerous damage. We had enjoyed three seasons on the Lightfighter crash free, which is quite a miracle, in hindsight, as it helped us to get the program off the ground. In 2022, we had three crashes in close succession, two of which were big enough to require a complete tear-down and rebuild. It’s one of those possibilities that you know is there, but never truly want to acknowledge. But let me tell you – spending thousands of dollars in crash repairs forces you to acknowledge that risk pretty quickly!
As such, we’ve kept Ely Schless and his one-man fabrication shop in Ashland, Oregon quite busy over these last couple of seasons, not only with complete customer bike builds, but also fixing the mess we’ve made after a couple of the crashes tweaked the headtube position on the custom chromoly frame. An aluminum frame could likely be bent back into shape, but chromoly is so stiff that the forces required would be tremendous, so we opted to go the cut and reweld route.
So far, the 2023 season has been about regaining our form from a couple of seasons back prior to the crashes and trying to sort out where we went astray. From my perspective, we took too much weight off the rear chasing quicker steering while simultaneously increasing torque and decreasing the intervention level of our rudimentary traction control. Everything seemed to feel great at practice pace, but come race day and a little added aggression or non-ideal tire temperatures or track conditions and carnage ensued. The fact that we flip-flopped on tire manufacturers mid-way through the season likely didn’t help us in finding a setup either.
Chasing lap times is a game of diminishing returns where each successive second is exponentially harder to reach. While I don’t think we’re near the limit of the Lightfighter’s potential, I do believe we’re starting to see where the development curve gets much steeper. Add to this the fact that we really have no one to compare setup notes or data with, compared to our gas bike brethren who show up in droves on very similar equipment, and you can hopefully understand why it takes us that much longer to find our way. This season will find us back with our long-time sponsors Farasis Energy and Pirelli Tires chasing race results and lap times at Laguna Seca and Buttonwillow for sure, but since we’ve all got day jobs, I’m not committing ourselves too far into the future. If you happen to recognize the crazy electric bike in the paddock this summer, feel free to drop by and say “Hey.” We can always use the encouragement.
And speaking of which, the amount of skill, ingenuity, and commitment I’ve seen in the average club racing paddock leads me to the conclusion that if more people had the opportunity to get involved with electric powertrains and race bikes, the progress would be phenomenal. And hence… perhaps this is Lightfighter’s true purpose that I struggle to articulate - to inspire the interest of the racers and enthusiasts out there who are reading this thinking, “I think I could do better.” I’m hoping that you can and I’ll enjoy watching it! Until you do, I’ll just be over here kicking chickens… (metaphorically, of course)
Hey! If you’ve made it this far, and you still want to know more about Lightfighter, see behind the scenes of the build(s), or even learn about what it takes to run an electric motorcycle at the track, head over to my blog at: www.lightfighter-racing.com.