Erik Buell on the 1190RS, IBM moon suits and the future of the American sportsbike

Dailies -

By

Erik-Interview

This weekend, Erik Buell and I both found ourselves in Germany, at Oschersleben’s Biketoberfest. Watching Harald Kitsch and Pegasus Race Team use their EBR 1190RR to dominate the final race of a championship they’d already won two races ago, it suddenly seemed like a good opportunity to talk to Erik about where he’s going post-Harley. He pulled himself away from the swarms (seriously) of German autograph seekers long enough to do just that.

On Erik Buell Racing
“I was just trying to come up with a brand name and I was like, ‘OK, there’s AMG and there’s BMW, so EBR, maybe someday people won’t even know what it stands for.”

“I’ve been there before, started from zero, and now I just have to do it in a much faster pace. Because we’re knowledgeable about it, we can do it in a pretty lean fashion. But it’s still a huge amount of work, and there just isn’t enough time.”

“We’ve got eight full time employees and I think two part time. Then the race team, a couple fly in guys. I think Bimota is 22 or something. Smaller than them, man.”

“Fundamentally, we need people to believe that these aren’t jut a bunch of goofy guys that hotrod Harleys. We do innovative ideas that compete against anybody in the world.”

On the 1190RS
“It’s going to be low volume production. I mean tiny. I just don’t have the money to buy anything. But we can get the [1125] engines from Rotax, we’re going to have to convert them into an 1190 ourselves.”

“It actually takes quite a few parts because it’s a different crankshaft. It has to be re-valved, the connecting rods are different, the cylinders are different, the pistons are different, the head has to be slightly changed to match the bore. Titanium valves, actually a ton of stuff. But none of it really affects the fundamentals of the base motor. You know, is the oil pump good? Are the crank bearings good? Is the rod size good? Does the cooling system work? You know, those things. So all the stuff we’re doing is sort of hot rod style. Titanium valves, different cam drive, different pistons and rods because it can spin up to 12,000 so I need really, really good rods. The motor was originally an 11,000rpm motor, but is spinning up to 12,500, so those sorts of things. But they’re all bolt in.”

“We’re using very high-end things like Del West valves. The first street bikes will be built to that race level. That’s partly because I want to be able to take the street bike and convert it into a race bike economically. In short, a guy could buy one, put a race pipe and a race chip on it and go pretty fast. It’ll be as good as what Harald [Kitsch] is riding and better than what Geoff [May] is riding. That’s pretty good.”

“When you’re doing small volume anyhow and the price is kinda high, you should give a guy premium stuff. Will most owners run them that hard, at the limit? No. But it means that if they run them hard and do a lot of trackdays, it’ll just hold up forever basically.”

“It’ll be much like if you get a 1098R or a bike like that, it comes with a lot of good stuff. It’ll have Ohlins suspension, it’ll be very light with some carbon fiber, it’ll be a nice bike. They’re going to be hand built”

“Distribution: I know people are interested in buying, but I’m not going to sell direct, I’m going to go with somebody, but until I know what my final cost structure is, I can’t take orders. So it’s better for me not to talk too much about it, then I get deluged and with this little team I just can’t spend the time answering the phone. When it’s done it’ll  really be done, it will really be legal, there will really be a dealer network.”

“I don’t want to deceive anybody so I don’t want to give specifications that I’m not going to deliver. So right now, we’re just working through the last steps of a few things that have to be finished: emissions, sound testing and that kind of stuff. Until that’s done, we can’t have the weight, we can’t really have the horsepower.”

“We’re hoping to start sales this winter so we can have something out in time for spring.”

On Rotax supplying the engines
“They will produce it as long as we want them to. They own it, it’s theirs now. They have all the tooling and whatnot. The issue for them is it’s going to be small volume production. Basically, they like us a lot. We’re lucky to have good people like that.”

“They’re willing to do something like this because the payback is, ‘Yeah, it’s really a pain in the neck for us, but we really, really like you guys and we know you’re trying hard. You’re going to race our engine and show how good it is.’”

“They’ve made engines for BMW and stuff, but those engines don’t get raced, so for them to have a bike out there with their engine running at the front? It feels good. It really jut boils down to that they’re just good people who are going out of their way to help us.”

On innovation not always having meant improvement
“Things like the ZTL brake. It’s hard to make, it costs more, it’s not a common part so it doesn’t run down the same production line as all the other Nissin calipers.The physics were always there, but one of the things we dealt with was refinement. We’re the only guys doing it, so there’s no one to ask questions of. As we refined it, we realized the things we needed to do and it always got better.”

“Now, the one that Geoff’s running is as good as any brake in the world and it’s about six to seven pounds lighter, total unsprung weight. That’s cool, and it takes less assembly time to put together. It pays off for everyone; the engineers get to be innovative and, because there’s not so many pieces, the quality is better because the stack up of tolerances and the number of things that can go wrong as a result, those things go away.”

On being famous in Germany
“I’m not really a celebrity type person. I like to play rock and roll because I just like to play rock and roll. I don’t ask for blue M&Ms in the bowl in the green room at all. I don’t think people look at me like that, I think people like me because I’m like them, they feel like I’m a friend. A few people are a bit weird about it, but most just say, ‘It’s great to meet you.’ I’m not anybody super, I’m just somebody working and trying hard.”

On the 1125R
“If we had raced the 1125RR as an 1190 superbke first and then come out with the 1125R, with the higher higher handlebars and the bigger fairing and the saddlebags — which is really what that bike was, a sports touring model, but things got mixed around by management — would it have sold better? No freaking doubt. I will go to my grave believing that we made a mistake.”

On the 1125RR “cheating” scandal
“That was a shame. That might have been the killing blow because it really hurt us in sales. But, what really got hurt in that was American racing.”

On AMA/DMG racing
“It used to be that Mat Mladin would lap up to seventh place and everyone was, ‘Oh, Mat’s a supreme god!’ Mat’s a great rider, but he’s no the greatest rider in the world. Then they changed the rules and he had a battle for the last race in which he was falling down, which he never did before because he always had a killer advantage, his bike always had such an advantage with parts that no one else had access to.”

“The AMA racing that’s going on right now is the best racing that I’ve seen in 20 years. It is a great show. We’re just on the fence going ‘Oh my god, did you see what he just did?!’ These guys are just at the ragged edge, and it’s so close.”

“So this company [DMG] comes in and takes over and fixes racing. Except, there were a couple of factories very angry. Actually, not even factories, just a couple individuals employed by factories at very high levels that made a big stink about it. People listened to them rather than just going to the show. It’s not bullshit racing, come and see it. It’s still high end racing, but it’s not out of reach. It’s close enough that privateers can do it, but it isn’t boring. There’s no more $200,000 traction control systems.”

“Literally, lies were told that hurt our industry. And you go, ‘What are you people doing? You’re ruining a wonderful show, messing up the lives of people that have dedicated themselves to the industry, all for your own ego.’ It was some specific individuals that did that and it was their personal egos not being in control anymore. They really hurt the industry, it was a tragedy. What a shame. I’m drawing a Blank on who that was.”

“Hopefully it’ll work out in the long run. People are coming back and the racing is wonderful. Thank god DMG is involved and putting money into it. They’re not making any money at all, AMA wouldn’t have survived this long, it’s a good thing that they sold it.”

“I wish we didn’t have to run 10 extra pounds, but I understand it. Stop whining, start riding. Less lawyers, more riders and engineers, that’s what we need.”

On the relationship between sales and racing
“I don’t think Giovanni [Castiglioni] is right. Certainly not all street bikes are race bikes, but i think the idea of, ‘Does this technology really work?’ I don’t think there’s any question, racing really does truly improve the breed. It exercises parts to an unbelievable level and the proof is in the hands of the guys with incredible talent like Geoff.”

“Even though you’re a good rider, way above the average person, guys like Geoff and Harald are staggering and they really work the bike. I think that matters to people because advertising is such a pile of BS. There’s just too many lies. Let’s go see a bike perform, let’s have somebody prove it.”

“Do people only buy racebikes? No. But does someone that buys a Honda lawnmower pay a little more for that Honda lawnmower because he believes that the technology is a little better because they’re racing in all kinds of venues? The answer is ‘Yes.’”

On the chaotic 2010 AMA race season
“It was very difficult because the team was disbanded, we lost everyone. We lost all the riders, the team manager, the engine builders, they all went off to different places. Buell was shut down and people were like ‘I gotta go.’ So that was difficult. I had to find new people and they had to learn the bike from scratch. But, by about the third or fourth race we did, lap times started to go down, Geoff started to move forward and we really began to understand what was happening. Then, the last race of the year, we actually led briefly, so everybody felt good. We definitely made progress.”

“We’re hurting a lot with the 1125 on horsepower compared to everything else out there, but we did OK. We got a lot of life out of the race engines, which is something we needed to learn. I know the motor has some more potential in it, but it gets more expensive the faster you spin it and the harder you work it. The motor we had before Barber had 1,500 race miles on it and it was still running. It was down on power a little bit, but 1,500 miles with Geoff May? Yeah. The other guys replace them every day. This is a strong motor.”

On intellectual property
“All the original patents I have belong to Harley-Davidson. They may license some to me, we’re still talking about it. With the [EBR 1190RS] I’ve got two parallel paths going on right now, depending on if they give me the patents or not. Because they’re our designs and patents, then I have ways that don’t violate the IP, changes to the design.”

On the future of motorcycles
“I’m a huge believer in motorcycles. The amount of material it takes to make a bike, the amount of garage space it takes to store it, the amount of parking space, the amount of space on the road that it takes up, it’s so green it’s ridiculous. There needs to be more motorcycles out there.”

“People should feel guilty about driving big, fat SUVs. Whether it has an electric motor or a gasoline motor, you know, if you’re riding in luxury with multiple screens around you and air conditioning and it’s padded and you’re driving by yourself, you should be embarrassed.  I think people are going to start thinking, ‘This is stupid, we shouldn’t be doing this.’ There’s plenty of other things to be using our resources on, we should be using them to go to the moon or feed the world instead of cranking out more freaking Hummers.”

“I’ve been thinking about electric for years and doing designs on them for years, but the math says that they’re not really there yet. They’re getting close and it’s definitely something we’re thinking about. One of the issues is that we may be socially forced before it’s real. It would be such a shame to do inefficient electric vehicles just because they’re subsidized.”

“I don’t necessarily believe that a 1,000cc sportsbike is practical transportation, but compared to a Hummer? Maybe it’s not the most green thing on the planet, but it’s not bad. I hope we don’t come to a world where we’ll all wearing IBM suits and riding Segways to work. God help us. The bikes I want to build, I want them to be fun and capable and cool and work. I don’t want to be in the mundane transportation business.

On prototype racing
“I kind of like racing what we’re selling. I don’t know that I’d even build a bike for a class like [Moto2 or MotoGP], because all of a sudden you’re building some sort of wild thing just to carry a banner around a television set. It’s an advertisement. If you’re using your engineers to build an advertisement then you’re wasting them.”

On Daytona
“Daytona’s a special race for me, it was one of my first races in AMA. I remember going there as a novice on a 250, going out on the banking never having been on it before and I remember going down to the banking and shutting off for the corner because I didn’t know. Doing that, then going all the way up to running TZ750s up there and sliding and wobbling and the wall’s coming right at you. Oh shit. It’s a fun race track.”

“If we get the new RS done and get it homologated and get everything ready in time, we’re going to be at Daytona. That’s one of the goals. I’d like to be there for DMG because I think they’re putting on a great event.”

“The beach scene really isn’t my scene, but the racing’s good.”

On the future of the American Sportsbike
“I want to succeed for the same reason anyone else wants to succeed. I want to see people get jobs and make cool products and just have some hope back. Real jobs, real excitement, fun things. There’s too many negative things out there.”

“Do I feel pressure? Yeah. Anybody who’s raced, it’s kind of hardwired, I want to deliver from a core level. It’s not an ego thing, it’s just that someone needs to do this and I happen to be in a position where I have this ability.”

“I can’t quit, I feel that it’s important. Every little story like this is important for our country right now. You’ve got to be hopeful and work really, really, really had. There’s no easy road anymore. But so what? Working hard is OK. I’m excited.”

  • http://tcmechwars.com Rocketboy

    EB for president!

    • nicktp

      Mr Buell, if elected, what would you do about our Hummer situation?

      • brad1445

        Clinton Knew!

  • dbqfan

    The best thing about this new Buell is it doesn’t have the horseshit harley motor to hold it back.

    • nicktp

      yeah it isn’t perfect and it makes funny noises when I start it, but EB took a crap motor and made it fast enough for me to beat a tuned BMW M6 yesterday at 3/4 throttle, and isn’t that what really matters? :)

      • MikeD

        Yes IT IS. WAY Less Paying, More Entertainment. Talk about “BANG” for your $.

  • Peter88

    I’ve only owned in-line 4′s but it seems that a lot of people like the Buell with the Harley motor. As for for Mr. Buell himself? Awesome! And thanks Wes, this is why I come to your site.

    • nicktp

      I poke fun, but to be honest it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike. The torque curve is nice and usable and the noise it makes under power is intoxicating. Very easy to pull an unintentional wheelie from a stop light. Mine is a Lightning so you sit pretty high up, but the center of gravity is so low it feels like a street luge.

  • MikeD

    Danm, i wish i was that focused and passionate about Goals in Life like that guy.
    I want him for President too.

    Still, i don’t like his “Unconventional Looking Bikes”, a shallow comment/feeling w/o riding one before but i can’t help it. Things are Wierd Ugly. Take that ZTL Brake to the Woods and shoot it on the forehead, OR…make it double with smaller/lighter components. I think i have issues with non-symmetric “things”…(awkward (O_O)’ )lol.

    Im in love with that 1190 Rotax Engine tho….(^_^ )

    • MikeD

      I forgot, GodSpeed to EB and his Team with the new task at hand…Hope this is just the Tip of the Iceberg.

  • rider33

    Looking at what he managed to do and under the circumstances under which he did it, I have little doubt that Erick has great things in store. Win, lose or draw you can be damn sure it won’t be boring.

  • http://houstonrider.com crawl

    Great interview, I really hope he does well next year with both the streetbike and racing. I also wish I had bought one of those six grand Buell 1125 they were giving away last year!

  • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

    Cool interview. Very enlightening and a great read – cheers!

    I never knew that the bikes they race were so durable. Maybe I’ll consider an EBR as a track bike one day… that’s what I want – just to be able to change the oil and clean the Scotts Filter and keep on riding…

  • brad1445

    Did you ask him why the 1125 was a leaky electrical nightmare that looked like an abortion and only sold when the price was $5,000

    After 5 new Buells the 1125 cured me to go buy the competition.

    • mluddyjr

      Show me on the doll where the Buell touched you.

  • Liquidogged

    Awesome interview.

  • Zack1125R

    Still grumpy Brad?
    Ya shoulda bought that 1125R, she’s got 26k very happy miles now.
    Even with “Fire Sale” prices, I don’t regret dropping $13k for that bike(Loretta).

    I did pick up a Ulysses to share the commuting chores and love it.

    Thanks Erik.
    Zack

  • http://papasanphoto.com Papasan

    I haven’t ever riden a bike like my 1125CR. It reminds me of the 2 stroke power ranges of the 70′s Jap bikes, just a lot more poneys at the top end.
    I look forward to many more Buells in my garage.
    You can’t argue with success and the $7000.00 price tag.

  • RanDryRacer

    I’ve met the Dude. Incredible person, incredible vision. I have 2 Buells. The torque is the fun factor. Great track day bikes on smaller tracks. I like litre bikes, but they are really for the race track or to perch on and look cool.
    When in doubt gas it !

  • http://www.forrestmfg.com Steve781

    Thank you to both Erik and Wes for this interview. When not playing with and riding motorcycles I own and run a company about the same size as EBR. We design and build machinery, though not as cool as his stuff, still fun to work with. This interview is an inspiration. I’ll be printing this out and posting putting it on the wall next to my desk.

    Among the many things he is right about is the brand halo effect. After 50k+ miles on an 01 VFR, plus 100′s of thousands on two Honda cars and an Acura, when it came time to buy some generators I went straight to Honda and gladly paid the premium.

    Again, thank you Wes and Erik.

  • Kavs

    This guy is the real deal. What a treat to hear him now compared to the last video he did when H-f*ckin-D pulled the plug on his baby. I’d love to work for a guy like that.

  • xb1125r

    I love my 1125R.
    like my other 2 Buells.
    Buell = Reliable and Fun.
    I take my 1125R on the track and have no problem lapping the Japp or 1198 bikes.
    I can’t wait for the 1190RS.
    I think AMA is going to be fun with EBR and BMW puttign the heat on the Japp brands