Successfully finishing both nine-laps races of the opening round of the 2011 TTXGP Series at Infineon Raceway marked the completion of a goal that took quite a bit longer, and surely cost a heck of a lot more, than any of the guys at upstart electric motorcycle manufacturer Brammo had ever expected. But now, with the event in the books, I’d wager not one of them doubts whether it was worth the countless hours of hard work and staggering amount of money spent (except maybe their accountant). I sure don’t, but then again I had the easiest job on the entire team: Sit in the seat and twist the throttle!
Click on the link to see a video: Racing-Brammo-Empulse-RR-at-TTXGP-Video.aspx
Readers of the first two parts of this on-going racing feature know that the last couple months have been fairly hectic, devoted to testing the Empulse RR racebike in preparation for its public racing debut, during which time the team has logged two frantic days at the track and endless more back at the shop. But for the core group at Brammo, led by Product Development Manager Brain Wismann, the guys that go back to the project’s beginning, it’s been a much longer and more painful struggle than the standard pre-season testing headaches. In fact, it’s been over a year of long hours and sleepless nights now, as the original goal to “quickly build” a racing version of the company’s upcoming production model, the Empulse, and race it at Laguna Seca last July turned out to be a bit more than expected. Quickly build? Sorry guys, this isn’t PlayStation, this is motorcycle racing, and only the school of hard knocks can truly prepare you for what’s to come. Oh and it sure did…
Brammo had aimed to unveil its all-new Empluse model to the public at Laguna Seca last year. So the plan to build a modified version of the Empulse and race it at Laguna was a sound one in terms of idea, but the three-month window available to convert a prototype street machine to a racer proved to be too narrow. Designing and building a completely new motorcycle is a an on-going major project on its own, but then develop it for a full-fledged track assault in a matter of months is, well…more or less impossible. Brammo did somehow managed to build the new RR race machine in next to no time flat, even finding a way to test prior to the event, but teething problems with the motor unit brought their hopes of racing at Laguna to an abrupt end, only a couple laps into the first practice session.
Due to the mechanical issue at Laguna, Brammo was forced to wait quite a while for its second crack at racing glory. The Empulse RR’s on-track public debut was pushed back further and further as they continued to try and fix the motor issues, eventually making headway with the unit’s producer Parker as the 2010 season was coming to a close. This meant that the earliest they could go racing would the opening round of the 2011 TTXGP Series. Once racing started to look more and more likely, this meant they needed to find a rider that was crazy, err… stupid, err… brave (yeah, that’s it) enough to sit aboard the hand-built prototype machine while they pushed it as close as possible to the point of meltdown. Using parts originally designed to power mundane production line robots that are now attached directly to the rear wheel spinning at 100mph-plus? Hmm, sounds like a daring part-time job.
After reading my racing feature on running AMA Superbike with Yoshimura Suzuki last year at Laguna Seca, Wismann said he was impressed with my ability to overcome adversity to race and thought I would be the right guy for the job. I think he figured if I had lost enough of the gray matter in my brain to race a 200-hp Superbike six weeks after having an operation to remove a third of my intestines, being an electric-powered guinea pig would seem relatively safe; possibly even mundane? Wismann approached us with an offer to ride the electric bike in pre-season testing, and if I liked it, compete in the first round of the TTX series as well.
Always fascinated by trying new things, especially in the two-wheel world, and having seen photos of the impressive looking bike at Laguna last year, I jumped at the opportunity. I have always had a soft spot for those up-and-coming companies who are truly devoted to progressing the sport of road racing and motorcycles as a whole. (And, let’s be honest, I’m a motorcycle racer; if there are new tires, a mechanic to change them, and the machine at least somewhat resembles a bike, there’s a chance I will ride it for you. Especially if it’s something unorthodox…)
The amount of races would remain open-ended, though; the plan was to test and develop the bike in the off-season for a full-bore assault on the first round at Infineon Raceway, after which Brammo would reassess the situation to see if they had achieved their desired goals and look at possible participation in future rounds. But with the motor unit’s reliability issues still requiring a good deal of attention, not to mention several significant new modifications having been performed since the RR last turned a wheel, pre-season testing was of the utmost priority. Two jam-packed days of on-track work, plus countless hours for the engineers back at the manufacturer’s home base took place over these past couple months. It was mad dash to get ready, and you can check out full breakdowns in Part 1 and 2 of the on-going Brammo racing feature right here at MotoUSA.
This brings us to Thursday, May 12. The wait was finally over. While every loony doomsday fanatic and his cousin may have been professing that judgment day was going to be May 21, 2011, that was not the case for the Brammo team. Our judgment day was actually an entire weekend, and it began Friday, May 13 (yes, that’s correct, Friday the 13th). We had done all the testing that time and money would allow, and before we could blink an eye the race weekend was upon us.
If you’ve read either of the two previous features (if not, be sure check them out), then you know one big question still lingered heading into the event: What was causing the low-speed acceleration shutter when at full-throttle? This had us scratching our heads coming into the weekend and the guys spending many more late nights to isolate and resolve the issue on the dyno. A potential fix was discovered, but would it work under the extreme conditions racing produces? Only one way to find out.
The race weekend would consist of a single 45-minute practice Friday afternoon, followed by a second 30-minute practice Saturday morning. Saturday night would feature 30 minutes of open qualifying, while Sunday would be made up of two, World Superbike-style nine-lap races, one at 11:30 a.m. and the other at 4:30 p.m., aimed to add incentive to have not only a fast machine, but one which can be fully recharged in a reasonable amount of time — in this case roughly four hours when factoring in all the other pre- and post-race preparations.
Coming into the race there had also been a fair amount of hype floating around the media. A few new and bigger names had announced their intent in joining the series with some properly fast riders on board. These included Lightning Motors, who took second at the event last year, returning with 2010 TTXGP champion Michael Barnes on a totally new machine, one which some big power were being claimed. The other big name was San Francisco-based Mission Motors, who have a totally-new and very expensive-looking machine. Mission had posted some lofty horsepower and performance numbers. Adding to the allure, proven AMA professional winner Steve Rapp, a fellow Northern California native, was set to be the rider. With these two pre-race announcements it looked like some serious competition was shaping up — and we embraced it all. Solid competition only breeds better racing and improved fan interest.
Unfortunately, before we even pulled our bike out of the truck a press release popped up on our computers announcing Mission Motors would not be racing, a lack of testing the stated reason. Mission did come out to the track to show off the new machine, where they informed us the new model had only been on the dyno without any on-track time, so racing wasn’t quite in the cards. They will be at some of the upcoming rounds though, including Laguna Seca (more on that later as well…), a race that will be held in conjunction with the MotoGP boys during the Red Bull United States Grand Prix. Also a bit concerning was that Lightning Motors did not show for first practice, as the “all-new” machine was taking longer than expected to be built. In fact, they planned to enter the TTX75 class with last year’s third-place finisher Michael Hannas in the saddle. But would they be able to get even one of the bikes together?
As for the first practice, finally getting some quality time in the saddle on an open track without any traffic was exactly what we needed. But once again racing proved invaluable in product development, as although Brammo though it had the on-throttle shutter fixed, my second flying lap out of the pits revealed that while it was improved slightly, it was still there. Otherwise, everything worked exactly as it had done in the previous test: quite well. We were into the mid 1:56-range within a couple laps (for reference, Shawn Higbee’s official lap record from last year’s event was a 1:56.8 and was set during the race), and by lap four a 1:56.4 had rolled across the dash.
Mid-session we came in to make another change to the percentage of power the controller was delivering to the rear wheel to try and isolate the shutter. We had been running at 95%, so they backed it down to 90% to see if the problem got any better or worse. The shutter had gone, but the bike felt like it was starting to lose a charge rather quickly. The team quizzed me to find out my thoughts and after letting them know I could feel the power change and was then informed that instead of pulling it back to 90% they went to 65%. I guess it was a combined bike and rider testing session; those pesky engineers…
And in a mere 30 minutes Day 1 was in the books — with the current set-up AMA doesn’t exactly have a ton of time they can allocate the TTXGP class, so practice and qualifying time is at a premium. But we had high hopes and things were looking bright, as we were already under the previous year’s race and qualifying lap records (the outright quickest was set during the actual race), and the bike had completed 12 laps without any new issues. The big question that still remained was would the guys from Lightning Motors show up Saturday morning, as riders Michael Barnes and Michael Hannas were already there waiting. All that was needed was the team and bikes and…
The rider’s meeting Saturday morning revealed a new plan of attack for the weekend. As a 90% chance of rain was forecasted for the entire area on Sunday, and Infineon does not allow motorcycles on track in the wet for safety reasons, the TTXGP Series amended the schedule to move qualifying up to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, with Race 1 to take place that evening at 5 p.m. where qualifying had originally been. Race 2 stayed scheduled for Sunday, and would be run in the place of the original Race 1. This allowed at least one TTXGP race to be held for sure, as the original plan of doing both on Sunday looked impossible.
Though this took away the emphasis placed on the teams’ abilities to charge their machines in a reasonable amount of time, it guaranteed at least one race would see the green, white and checkered flags. And with the series getting a TV deal this year on the Speed 2 network, it would ensure the weekend wasn’t a total bust. It was a good call, without question, and nice to see that the series, despite only being a year old, possess the ability to think on its feet and act on the fly to make the most of difficult situations.
This upped the stress level ever so slightly for the team, but with 30 minutes at our disposal in qualifying we knew he had time to try a variety of changes prior to the race. And with Lightning Motors not showing up, the field continued to thin out. As for qualifying itself, we put in a quick three-lap first stint to get a time in the books to make the field and check to see if the problem had gotten any worse. Everything felt right on par and with the second flying lap being a 1:56.5, we knew pole was easily ours and spent the rest of the session playing with various engine settings.
We did have a small snafu with the Dunlop tires we were sent. The Brammo machines works best on their 165/65-17 slick, which was designed for the previous 250cc GP class. But with that dissolving several years ago, these tires are relatively limited in quantify and some are quite old. The two sets we had been shipped were made back in 2007, and the first pair we tried to mount wouldn’t bead up and hold air. Even if the second pair would bead, using a four-year-old tire just didn’t sound safe. With Dunlop on hand they were able to swap a set out for new tires, but the smaller tire they had on the truck was a 180/55-17 slick. So we opted for the bigger tire, but soon found the only way to make it fit in the swingarm was to use a two-tooth smaller rear sprocket. This meant we were now limiting acceleration with the bigger and heavier tire as well as the gearing. And while this would probably be only a half second loss on a gas-powered machine, the limited power on tap from the electric bikes puts these things at a premium. We would soon find out how much.
In no time the first race was upon us. With the likes of Lightning Motors, Mission, Zero and MotoCzysz not making it out, strategy for the first race had changed. With a fair bit of time separating us from second-place qualifier Thad Wolff (slightly over six seconds actually), the plan for Race 1 was to be smart, run consistent and quick laps, but keep the risk to a minimum and get a big ‘W’ in the books to reward these Brammo boys for all the hard work this past year.
And this was exactly what we did. Wolff got me with a quicker jump off the line but a pass on the brakes into Turn 4 on the opening lap was the extent of the on-track ‘racing’ that would take place. But there were still seven laps to go and with these bikes being hand-made and quite unproven, anything could happen. Thankfully for the next six laps everything was perfect. We kept our pace in the low-1:58 and high-1:57 pace every lap as a result by the time we took the white flag we had over 20 seconds in hand over Wolff in second. But then things started to feel more and more strange, as the corner-exit hesitation we had been experiencing all weekend progressively got worse and worse, and by Turn 5 the bike was ticking constantly as I applied any throttle at all. The acceleration was also getting slower and slower as the lap wound on. It started to feel like it would quit at any time, so as I tucked in and tried to baby the throttle I said a few prayers. Something to the effect of, “Lord, please get this bike to the finish in and lead and I promise I’ll start going to church…”
A few rubs to the tank and a couple more prayers later we were crossing the line. Victory was Brammo’s, and if you had seen half of the work these guys had done to make it here, you would know they deserved it. A nicely slipped up swear word or two on the podium for thousands in the stands to hear (sorry to all those with kids), and some champagne sprayed, and the opening TTXGP was in the books. It belonged to the Oregon-based electric motorcycle manufacturer. And with what looked like a 100% chance of rain the following day, we were already talking about the changes we would make prior to our hopeful second race outing at the Laguna Seca in July.
To my surprise when I work up Sunday morning and looked outside and it wasn’t all that wet. It had rained overnight but a break in the storm allowed a good amount of drying to take place. Shortly thereafter I got a call from Brian telling me to head down to the track, as we were racing at 11:25 a.m. as scheduled. But did our bike even run? While I was hitting the snooze button the crew were there bright and early working on the Empulse RR, changing out the motor controller to try and get rid of the problem.
Brian had also decided to try and fit the second 165/65-17 rear slick, which in this case did take air and bead up. This allowed for our optimal gearing, so despite the tire’s age we decided to give it a run. With a win already in the books we figured a little gamble wouldn’t hurt and wanted to nab an official new lap record – looking to beat Higbee’s 1:56.8 from last year during the race (I had done a 1:56.5 already but it was in practice). This would also provide us with a better idea of where we might stack up if the rest of the competition (and hopefully others) makes it out for the Laguna Seca round.
Thankfully, despite a quick shower just before the race, a break in the weather came and we hit the track a hair after 11:30 a.m. It was totally dry and the sun had even started to peek out. Although it did look like it could rain at any moment, so things under way and before I had a chance to even fully wake up, I was buzzing up into Turn 2, diving up the inside of Wolff for the lead once again (he got the holeshot, but I didn’t even wait until the second corner this time).
Because the track was still a bit green from the overnight rains, I decided to take things easy on the opening lap and feel out grip. Despite pushing noticeably less in various spots, crossing the line for the first time on a flying lap my MoTec onboard timer flashed up with a 1:56.5! The best we had done while trying far more in the previous race was a 1:57.8, quickly showing just how sensitive the bike is to tire size and gearing. Just like that we had broken the previous lap record, on the first lap. But I knew the bike had the potential for more, so for the next handful of laps I pushed harder than I had all weekend.
The end result was a shaming of the pervious lap record, clocking 1:55.1 on the fourth lap, while curtailing that on either end with three other laps in the 1:55-range. In fact, our lap average for the race was under the lap record from last year. While I had personally wanted to get into the 1:54s, to be able to run this quick of a pace showed the true potential of the Brammo Empulse RR. It should go a long way in showing people how far the electric motorcycle industry has progressed in just a single year.
In the end it turned out to be a prefect weekend: pole position, led every lap, two race wins and demolishing both of the previous lap records by a healthy margin. Yes, it would have been nice if a few more riders had made it and the other big teams came out to play, but all we could do is beat whoever shows up to race. Hopefully by Laguna Seca, the rest of the teams are ready to come play in the sandbox.
Despite a lack of competition, the guys from Brammo really do need to be applauded. I was merely the lucky one they picked to sit behind the windscreen. To design, develop, build and produce a racetrack-ready motorcycle from scratch, which is propelled without a single drop of any fossil fuel, is extremely impressive. But to make a machine capable of getting around the extremely technical and demanding 2.32-mile, 11-turn Infineon Raceway within 18 seconds of the fastest Superbike lap of the weekend, fast enough to out qualify three of the Harley XR1200 Series machines (and based on average lap times beat two of them in the race as well), and to do this for two, eight-lap races at full speed with relatively no issues… It’s downright amazing if you ask me. All this from a single-speed motorcycle that is yet to feature a transmission of any kind. Just think what it could do if it had a few cogs for the rider to select between….
Without question prior to the project I was one of the bigger skeptics of electric motorcycle. But that’s partially why I was keen to try it. Internal combustion engines and I have been very close friends since I was knee-high to a midget, having started racing dirt bikes not long after I learned how to walk. But after spending several weeks testing and one wild weekend racing this voltage-powered vehicle, I must say that my views are quickly changing and the boys at Brammo are getting extremely close to having a motorcycle capable of producing all the same smile-inducing emotions as their petrol-powered brethren. And all this from a machine that runs off the same stuff as your refrigerator. And the really scary thing is, the Empulse RR only continues to get better and better every time I ride it.
So what’s next? From the onset the plan was to develop and test the Empulse RR in the off-season with the primary objective to race and finish the opening round of the TTXGP Series, after which time the guys at Brammo would re-evaluate the project to determine if future racing was warranted and worth the additional budget. Even though we completely dominated at Infineon – pole position, led every lap, double race winner, plus decimating the previous electric bike lap record by nearly two seconds – because the other previously mentioned big players in the electric bike world either elected to not show up or failed get their bikes ready for the race, the powers that be at Brammo quickly made the decision to green light racing Laguna Seca in July!
So with phase two of the plan signed off on by the big boss man (thanks, Craig) and now in motion, you can expect to see us in action if you plan on heading out to the MotoGP races at Laguna Seca in July. Let’s hope that all the other bigger teams (and maybe even some new guys) are ready to rock ‘n’ roll by then so we can finally put some of the big lingering questions to rest once and for all. Combine what should surely be a ‘shocking’ (sorry, I had to at least once) electric racing showdown with a couple additional top-secret adventures yet to come for the Empluse RR, and there’s still plenty of kilowatt hours left to be generated by this high-frequency feature. Stay tuned…
To learn more about Brammo, please visit www.brammo.com