First U.S. TTXGP at Infineon Raceway
A diversity of machines compete according to a common vision
One day you might remember this most recent race weekend. Motorcycle history was made, and some say an altogether new age for American racing was also born, with the running of the first sanctioned electric-powered motorcycle road race on U.S. soil at Sonoma county California’s Infineon Raceway on May 16.
The 25-mile TTXGP competition, in which 12 teams initially entered, 10 started and eight finished, was won by Shawn Higbee on the Zero Agni machine – the same converted GSX-R600 which last June won the Pro Class at the world’s first TTXGP electric motorcycle race held at Britain’s the Isle of Man.
AMA pro racer Higbee beat his only close competitor, fellow AMA pro Michael “Barney” Barnes on his Lightning A&A Racing, custom-chassied machine.
Higbee and his DC-motor-powered bike took 25 minutes and 33.6 seconds to complete the 11-lap race. His best lap time in the race was 1:56.948 – about 20 seconds off the 1:36-range times turned over the weekend by the fastest AMA Pro gasoline-powered bikes. Higbee’s quickest lap would put him on pace to run with front-runners in local AFM Formula Singles competition.
"I think this could turn into something big,” Higbee said after the race. “It’s going to introduce a whole new industry to motorcycling. The engineers are a whole new breed. I’m surprised at how close we are to gas bikes already. The lack of vibration is a new experience, you just glide along."
Higbee bested Barnes, who finished a lap down after electrical faults caused his AC-motor-powered machine to shut off around the ninth lap, costing him about 45 seconds before he got moving again.
Previously Higbee and Barnes had duked it out in a battle of two very different machines that had begun when Barnes rocketed off the starting line, leaving the field in his dust.
Higbee pursued, and he and Barnes subsequently locked horns in a classic match of ill-handling heavyweight brute force versus welterweight finesse.
Barnes’ bike is the same machine that ran 166.388 mph last fall on the Bonneville salt flats. It weighs about 100 lbs more than Higbee’s machine but has about twice the motor.
As such, he dominated Higbee on the straights, but Higbee’s well-sorted, and proven GSX-R-based racer would catch up and trade places in the corners.
The two won handily over third-place finisher Mike Hannas, who piloted a DC-motor-powered, lighter-weight, TZ250-chassied bike with half the battery power of the top-2 finishers.
But this was no ordinary race, and traditional race coverage would not describe the real story very accurately.
In fact, this race could have been likened to a run-what-you-brung free-for-all, with broad rules of engagement allowing all sorts of machines to compete.
The TTXGP has but one class, and this gathering was as much an experiment and sorting-out process as it was an actual race. Some bikes had been hastily put together in the last couple weeks. Some had never been run before the race weekend. All the teams said they were poorly funded.
The whole show was in its own special category, and while this was a competitive event held at the otherwise AMA-sanctioned West Coast Moto Jam, the electric bike teams were cordoned into their own pit row in the infield section.
They were fully separated from the colorful tents belonging to the established AMA Pro gasoline-powered teams. Between the old guard and the upstarts stood the physical barrier of Infineon’s front straight, drag strip, chain-link fence and concrete barriers.
These lines of demarcation might well have been symbolic, because the gas and electric bikes were even more separated by their respective teams’ competitive ideology, motivating factors for being there, and of course, technology.
The e-bikes drew a variety of reactions – from mild mockery and disrespect overheard by a few joking gasoline-powered aficionados, to cheers of admiration and congratulations from fans with a different perspective.
Overall, there was far more respect heard than unkind remarks, and all kidding aside, seasoned motorsports journalists, industry people, and racers who might laugh at a cracked joke would also admit of electric racing that “this is the future,” or at least they mouthed the words, whether fully believing it or not.
But respect was there also because the phenomenon of electric motorcycle racing has been widely known for almost a year now, and the jury is still out on where it will go. No one was found who would go on record saying it was a wasted exercise.
We asked one highly successful pro team owner his opinion, but he asked to remain off the record, admitting he did not really know much at all about electric motorcycles yet. Although he was witnessing their first – stumbling – race, they had apparently not significantly penetrated his consciousness or that of many traditional competitors.
We stood next to Josh Herrin, one of the top racers in AMA Daytona SportBike competition, as America’s first electric motorcycle road race began. The top teams were reasonably quick, but Herrin casually kidded with a peer about the extremely slow pace of the backmarker teams.
So we asked Herrin if he would ever find himself on an electric bike. He said he did not think he’d want to, adding, “It looks boring.”
But maybe also it was because he did not know a lot about what he was looking at, and could not therefore see things with the same visionary perspective held by some very knowledgeable techies hailing from Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
These are the people pushing to make electric motorcycles competitive, and they know things about making motorcycles a whole new way that have them excited, even if their sensibility is not quite yet fully contagious.
In all, there was also an underlying sentiment among race watchers that seemed willing to give this upstart technology a chance with the implication that it was too soon to tell.
And those who can recall history also know there was a time a little more than a century ago when people placed bets on horses racing against motorcycles, and we all know what happened later.
Those who laughed last, laughed best – when their technology taught lessons in due time.
No one knows yet whether history will repeat itself and today’s techies will truly create an electric paradigm. But idle naysayers aside, more people than not were heard saying they will.
Speaking of technology, the first generation electric bikes at Infineon were as different in design as they were in performance – as indicated by the spread in their qualifying lap times on Saturday evening.
The best qualifying time was Zero Agni’s 1:56:868 with an average speed of 77.626 mph. The slowest qualifying time was Pril Motors’ 2:49.553 at an average 53.505 mph.
In any other motor race, a 53-second difference between first and 10th place would have demanded these competitors be placed in separate classes, but TTXGP is in “its infancy,” and therefore all were welcome to run the same event.
The bikes did have some things in common though: All were powered by similar lithium-ion batteries. Most were conversions of fairly modern sportbikes. Further, they looked like gas-powered bikes, except they had no exhaust, whished past with a high-performance, whining whir, and underneath the bodywork was a whole other world.
About half had AC induction motors, and the other half had brushed DC motors – most notably the 30-plus-hp Agni 95 air-cooled brushed design – often mounted in pairs to double output – as was found on the bike that dominated the Isle of Man last year, and still powered the winning Zero Agni this year.
The main difference from last year’s “Agni” bike, to this year’s newly-sponsored “Zero Agni” was the bike had been modified with forced air cooling by Zero, according to Zero’s CEO Gene Banman.
This “Zero” bike does not have Zero batteries as other written reports have indicated. It has Kokam Li-Ion batteries, and is otherwise the exact same machine that smoked everyone at the Isle of Man last year, according to its maker, Agni’s CEO, Arvind Rabidia.
But before anyone might say that last year’s winner also being this year’s winner might prove that progress is coming slower than the hype, Rabidia says he is now building second-generation bikes in the UK that are 15% faster.
When was the last time you saw the state of the art jump 15% in a season, with similar or much better year-after-year progress predicted?
Further, other bikes show great potential, but for one reason or another did not have it all together this inaugural weekend.
Otherwise, the various electric bikes also shared in common motors fed power by microprocessor-monitored junction boxes, called “controllers.” Rules additionally mandated emergency shut-off switches for all competitors, but apart from a few common denominators, a diversity of design approaches could be seen.
Some bikes’ AC motors were air cooled, and did suffer from inherent heat issues associated with their design.
A notable exception was the second-finishing Lightning/A&A machine which used an oil- and liquid-cooled AC motor. This 100 kilowatt (134 hp-rated ) motor had been rescued out of a General Motors EV1 that was headed for a mandatory early retirement in a scrap yard (Note: see the recommended movie documentary: “Who Killed the Electric Car”).
The Lightning’s GM motor has water jackets, a water-cooled controller, and a water pump routes coolant through hoses to and from a big radiator up front. Its makers estimate it has “in excess of 100 hp” as this bike is set up.
It is powered by A123 brand nanotech lithium-ion batteries of a design similar to the Killacycle drag bike that has run 7.8-second quarter-miles. These batteries are said to be hard to get by privateers unless one has the right friends, and some say they are among the most potent batteries available.
If this race could have been likened to a free-for-all, the Lightning was the Mike Tyson of the bunch in an event in which the kid from the high school boxing team was also allowed to participate.
Preventing the big guy’s heavyweight punch, however, was the Lightning’s tubular chrome-moly chassis – loosely modeled on a Ducati, but CAD-designed in-house and built as a one-off – which lacked cornering clearance.
Contrary to speculation, however, this bike was not only built to run Bonneville but was intended as an all-around racing prototype for an eventual line of production sportbikes that Lightning team owner Richard Hatfield is preparing to introduce this year.
This notwithstanding, Hatfield consulted over the weekend with Race Tech suspension services to try to remedy his racer’s cornering issues. Techs hiked the back of the bike up by installing a taller shock, and lowered the forks into the triple clamps as far as they dared to.
Even so, in Sunday’s race, Barnes had to square-off corners and point-and-shoot as though he were not on the most sophisticated bike in the paddock, but instead on a late-‘70s-early ‘80s superbike. He might have won anyway, but unknown electrical “nuisance faults” stopped him.
The fact that Barnes lost 45 seconds and still placed second is very telling of the Lightning’s AC/A123-motivated potential, not to mention an indicator of the disparity of the state of the art and others competing in this very new form of racing.
Electric Motorsports’ Todd Kollin and others in the know predict AC motors have the most potential.
At this juncture, they need further development he and others say, but it is noteworthy that AC power is what also moves the Chevy Volt, Tesla Roadster, and other well-developed electric vehicles.
Although many competitors copycatted the Agni air-cooled motor for its reported reliability and comparative simplicity – and for the fact that it still dominates and promises to keep dominating – some say the future may see more AC successes when engineers get the bugs out.
Kollin’s bike is AC-induction powered and based on a late-model converted Yamaha R6, albeit the electric motor is air-cooled.
It was hastily put together in an around-the-clock cram session for two weeks prior, and in the race it suffered a failed encoder – the part that tells the position of the AC motor in lieu of brushes. Kollin says it could have been heat or vibration or both that disrupted it.
Even so, Electric Motorsports rider Jason Lauritzen pitted in the 11-lap race, got the problem fixed, and still finished eighth.
Other bikes of note included a converted 1966 Norton Featherbed frame stuffed with a 72-volt AC motor and Kokam Li-Ion batteries, rolling on Honda RS125 wheels and slicks, with a modded Ninja 250 front end.
It was made in a barn by Brian Richardson, a very nice and seemingly big-hearted, self-described country lawyer and sheep farmer from Bluegrass, Va., with assistance by a VA Tech engineering student.
All weekend long, the new/old bike was doing great in practice – and was one of the few turning consistently swift laps. It qualified fourth on Saturday evening despite rolling on a chassis more than four decades old and shrouded by a 1972 John Player Special Norton fairing.
Unfortunately, the bike named after a vintage Norton Electra (with permission from Norton) did not finish Sunday’s race, due to a reportedly minor mechanical failure.
Another bike that competed was a mid-1990s Ninja 600 that had been converted by a Tesla employee as his personal commuter, then entered on a whim under the name Pril Motors as a race bike.
This old red Ninja may have been like a tortoise against more sorted and sophisticated entries, but like the proverbial slow-mover that once beat a hare, its reliability was enough to place it sixth in Sunday’s race.
On the other hand, another bike that looked like it might have placed in the top three but had “teething problems” was Werkstatt Racing team’s pricey Mavizen TTX02 – rented and brought over a couple weeks ago from the UK.
Like the Zero Agni bike and a couple others in the paddock, this bike had twin opposed Agni motors. It was further controlled by state-of-the-art electronics, motivated by high-kilowatt-hour (kWh) private-labeled “Mavizen brand” Li-Ion batteries housed inside a sanitary looking carbon-fiber box.
Mavizen is owned by TTXGP founder Azhar Hussain of the UK.
To make one, Mavizen buys a new KTM RC8 rolling chassis and electrifies it. The finished bike weighs about 350 pounds, according to rider Jennifer Bromme, and makes about 80 hp, although she said she did not get a chance to dyno it at her shop yet.
It, as did a few competitors, ran on street tires, compared to full-on race slicks with which other more competitive machines were shod.
On hand to see how things were going with the TTXGP in general, and to lend support to the Mavizen effort in particular, was KTM’s Director of Logistics and Operations India, and long-time Motorcycle Industry Council Member Selvaraj Narayana.
Even so, the Mavizen had problems all weekend and never finished a practice session Friday or full qualifying time allotment Saturday. After Sunday’s race, Bromme’s Werkstatt team was still unsure what had caused the bike’s difficulties.
A new controller was the most likely culprit. It had been pulling too much current and blowing fuses through the weekend, hindering Bromme from getting any meaningful track time.
The Mavizen shut down on the first lap of the race, but she got it working again and began to handily reel in competitors on the $40,000-plus purpose-built racer. She finished fourth, 12 seconds behind third-place Hannas on his converted TZ250.
Hannas’ bike was a lot like the other Zero bike, a converted Zero S streetbike entered by Kenyon Kluge, an engineer for Zero. The bike has a GSX-R front end grafted onto the stock frame, a full GSX-R race-style fairing, and an extra 1.5 kWh worth of batteries to add to the stock Zero 4.0 kWh battery.
Both the Zero and the converted TZ250 weighed in the neighborhood of 330 pounds, and both had about 5.5 kilowatt-hour (kWh) total power, contrasting to the 10.5 kWh Kokam batteries in the approximately 400-lb Zero Agni, and the 11 kWh A123s in the 500-lb Lightning.
The Zero ran out of juice about 200 yards from the finish, and was pushed across the finish line by Kluge to 7th place.
A day of firsts would not be complete without a first crash. Spencer Smith of Volt Motors unfortunately gets that honor, dropping the bike without apparent injury. After the race, his teammates were looking over the fence, and we asked about it. They did not know he’d fallen.
Like we said, this was a different kind of race.
It was really a quasi-privateer effort, run largely by hard-working visionaries. The rewards for winning were as different from those of gas-powered teams as the motivations for their wanting to participate.
Conspicuously absent, however, was Brammo, which along with sponsor Best Buy was an integral part of the Isle of Man TTXGP last year.
Brammo’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Adrian G. Stewart explained briefly why no presence was seen this year.
“Brammo loves motor racing, and it was a very tough decision not to fully participate in any of the zero-emission race series or on the Isle of Man this year,” he says, “However, like Honda before us, our priority is always to build a strong commercial base from which we can race. That said, Brammo fans will not be disappointed with what we are developing, both on the race circuit and on the street.”
Others said Brammo should have been there regardless.
The electric teams that did participate did so largely for their shared dedication to the electric vehicle cause, a desire to be part of a groundbreaking U.S. racing initiative, and with hope also for improving electric motorcycles through racing development.
”When you have the first of anything, you never fully know what to expect, but the bikes were fast, the racing was competitive and the spectacle of speed with no engine noise was truly remarkable,” said Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon Raceway. “Who knows where this can go as the technology develops, but we will always be proud to have hosted the first event and hope we’ve planted an acorn that can help grow the concept of green performance throughout the industry.”
But while many environmentalists and techies are leading to what they hope is a new non-petroleum paradigm, TTXGP founder and CEO Azhar Hussein is adamant he wants this new race league to stand on its own merits as a show worth watching.
“We’re not here to push the green message,” Hussain says. “We’re not here to save the planet. Our pitch is we are the next generation of motorsports.”
This notwithstanding, the TTXGP and its participants are working according to a way of doing things as different as their machines, and at this stage are as much collaborators as competitors.
Even the rule book is open to any person’s input, and is amendable by anyone on a wiki page.
In October, Hussain says TTXGP takes the suggested input, decides what changes to adopt, and amends the rules for the following year. He says he welcomes all opinions on how to make the TTXGP series more exciting and to put on a better show.
Not likely to be welcome, however would be antics by bloggers who borrowed an electric supermotard and Twittered their drunken exploits in real time as they did electric donuts and burnouts in an Infineon women’s’ room in the wee hours of Sunday morning, causing maybe a couple thousand dollars worth of damage.
On the other hand, as Hussain was talking, a racer spun an electric motorcycle’s rear wheel as the bike was on its work stand, making the characteristic chain-on-sprocket plus electric whirring noise.
“There you go, the sound of the future right there,” Hussain quipped. “It’s not the worst sound in the world.”
No doubt, he hopes many more will agree.
The next TTXGP race will be June 3-6 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
TTXGP competition is also happening in Canada, Italy and the UK. The TTXGP Grand Final (world championship) is scheduled for Oct. 23-24 in Albacete Spain.
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