TTXGP Spec-ulation: can this grid be saved?

TTXGP promotes itself as the “world’s first zero emission motorcycle racing series.” A question being asked these days is whether it might be the world’s last such series. On May 14, 2011, only four electric motorcycles showed up at the starting line for that afternoon’s race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. Rewind to a year before at the same track where TTXGP launched its North American series and 10 bikes headed into turn one after the green light. This article seeks answers to two questions: What made this year so different from last year, and can TTXGP be saved by the counterintuitive step of adding a spec class.

This year’s participants.
Brammo unveiled its new Empulse RR machine, based on the Empulse model announced in July 2010. The bike, ridden by AMA rider Steve Atlas, broke the track record set last year by Shawn Higbee on the ZeroAgni bike. That bike, which had won the original TTXGP in 2009 on the Isle of Man, failed to make an appearance this year. Brammo’s Empulse RR placed first in both races held the weekend of May 14. Team Moto Electra rolled in 25 seconds after the Brammo bike for a second place finish in Saturday’s race on their converted Norton feather bed motorcycle. Team Volt, on a bike piloted by Kenyon Kluge of Zero Motorcycles, arrived over two minutes after the first place finisher, and Ely Schless’ Proto Moto ended up one lap short of finishing.

On-board video from Steve Atlas' record lap with the Empulse RR.

The just for shows.
Mission Motors showed up with their Mission R bike. The lack of the usual pre-race testing videos leaked on YouTube to help build anticipation for the race has many folks wondering if the bike has yet to turn a wheel on the track or street. Mission’s change of direction from an electric motorcycle company to an electric powertrain system company gives weight to the possibility that the motorcycle side of Mission’s shop has lost momentum due to lack of support.

The no shows.
Last year’s North American Champion, Lightning Motorcycles, was expected to race its two new slimmer, faster bikes at Infineon, and many fans anticipated a Brammo/Lightning showdown. Instead, Lightning decided to forego the race entirely. According to Richard Hatfield, Lightning CEO, the two new bikes were still not ready to race. Although TTXGP’s CEO, Azhar Hussain said that Lightning had been consulted about the new weight limit and had supported it, Hatfield offered to bring last year’s bike to the race but could not promise that it would be within the TTXGP weight limit of 250 kilograms (551 lbs). TTXGP would not budge on the weight limit. Lightning is currently focused on getting one of the new bikes to the Isle of Man for the TTZero race on June 8, 2011.

Mavizen is helmed by Azhar Hussain as well. The Mavizen TTX02, which made its appearance in last year’s TTXGP North American Series and European Series, has never had a true “factory team.” Hussain had faced criticism for simultaneously being the head of a motorcycle manufacturer and the racing organization. Although he has stated that multiple safeguards are in place to prevent an actual conflict of interest, but the criticisms continue. Lightning’s Hatfield recently wrote, “[t]o be received as a credible race organization, the TTXGP should avoid any possible appearances of conflicts of interest. Using the TTXGP to promote Hussain’s Mavizen brand will appear to many people as a conflict of interest.”

The Mavizen TTX02 squeezes two Agni 95 motors and 7.5kWh of batteries into a KTM RC8 chassis.

This criticism was one reason behind Hussain’s recent decision to pull back on Mavizen’s involvement with the series. “Although the conflict of interest argument was bogus, it was being used by some to taint TTXGP and was creating a noise beyond racing that was not helpful. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle, so, as long as I could get good grids, it suited me that Mavizen take a step back.”

Although a Mavizen bike raced at last year’s Infineon event as an entrant from Werkstatt Racing of San Franciso, it was not run as a true “factory team.” The team received the support of technicians from Mavizen, but these same technicians were seen in the paddock helping other teams troubleshooting issues with the often-erratic Agni motors used by many of the bikes. Hussain decided to change Mavizen’s focus to service rather than manufacture, in part “because of assurances from teams that they would support our desire to complete grids and service new entrants. We have a full plate of activities so we moved our focus to component supply like the deal with A123.” A123 manufactures lithium ion batteries used by many electric vehicles and became the lead sponsor of the Infineon Round.

With the anemic numbers on the grid at the Infineon race, Hussain reluctantly admits that he may have to take another look at that decision. “Some of our critics are the same as those who let us down when it came to race day. It takes a lot to put on these events, and Mavizen gave us the capability to meet our promoter obligations in the absence of any reliable, consistent, and motivated source of supply. We can’t allow such a grid size to run again under our banner.”

In order to field the TTXGP races at AMA events, Hussain signs a contract with the tracks in which he agrees to a minimum grid size. If the required number of bikes fails to show, TTXGP ends up in breach. More importantly, it makes it even more difficult to promote a return of the event to the venue for the following year. “The grid size undermines our entire industry in front of a skeptical audience,“ according to Hussain.

The void.
With Mavizen out of the picture, a crisis has presented itself. Although Hussain says that the remaining races in the series have “healthy” grid numbers, even if last year’s numbers show up, the problem has been complicated somewhat by the designation of two classes of bikes which was put into place this year. The Formula TTXGP class is joined by the TTX75 class, for bikes with a maximum of 7.5 kWh of stored energy onboard. The TTXGP class bikes consisted of the Brammo Empulse RR and Moto Electra Racing’s cycle. The TTX75 class was filled by Team Volt and ProtoMoto. Proto Moto did not show for the race on Sunday so Team Volt ended up being the only entrant for that class.

Why is it so difficult to fill the grid? One reason, according to Hussain is that “the quality of competition has raised the bar so that performance levels required are higher than expected.” In other words, nobody wants to invest the time and money into an electric superbike only to end up in second place, or worse.

Brian Wismann, Director of Product Development at Brammo said of the race, “a win is a win, and I’ve been involved with racing long enough that you take them anyway you can get them. That said, I am a bit disappointed that the true potential and competitiveness of the bike was lost to ourselves and the spectators with so few competitors on the grid.” Wismann opined that teams competing for Venture Capital may have made a decision “not to race at all rather than risk getting beat by a competitor who you just threw under the bus in front of every VC on Sandhill Road that would listen.”

Still, Wismann said that the race was a great opportunity for the team to test some of the features that might show up in future Brammo products. “The Empulse RR was designed from the start as a circuit racer” but has also been a fruitful platform for product development. “There was still a lot of value in having Steve Atlas out on track cracking off fast lap after fast lap.”

Spec class — a possible solution.


One way that has been suggested to increase the grid size and to continue the vitality and relevance of TTXGP is creating yet another distinct class to fill the empty slots left in the grid. Creating a spec class would allow teams that don’t have the resources to design their own bike from the ground up to buy or lease the same sort of “race ready platform” that Mavizen represented. “This would allow grids to grow but also leave open the possibility of free competition,” according to Hussain. “Teams would have choices and not feel compromised if they had their own tech [working on the bike].” TTXGP would be expected for the time being to combine the classes into one starting grid, just as it did for the Infineon race. A racetrack filled with silent bikes waiting on the green light would be a beautiful thing.

Spec classes are nothing new in the world of racing. The AMA Pro Vance and Hines XR1200 class was recently created in 2010. Steve Atlas, Brammo’s Empulse RR rider, raced in this class in 2010 and finished fourth in the New Jersey Motorsports Park race in September 2010.

Brammo and Lightning would seem to be obvious choices to fill the need for a spec class. Imagine a paddock filled with race versions of the Brammo Empulse or Lightning’s motorcycle. The track versions of these bikes would be a fraction of the cost of a World Superbike (~$300,000?) or a MotoGP bike. (~$2,000,000?) The grid size would surely expand if a team had an opportunity to enter the nascent sport of electric motorcycle racing by purchasing or leasing a spec bike for $20-30,000 along with either a factory technician or their own technician trained by factory personnel. The commercial advantages of a spec class for the manufacturer would seem to be obvious. Exposure at AMA events (and ACU and FIM events in Europe) combined with the TTXGP coverage on the internet and, in certain areas, on the Speed Channel, would all provide value to a company looking for a global stage on which to showcase its products.

“I think the advantages to such an arrangement are fairly straightforward,” said Wismann. “Brammo stands to gain some great visibility and press, especially if the series continues to run with ‘big’ events like AMA or MotoGP races. There would also be some valuable knowledge gained from subjecting the bikes to a racing environment that would help drive further development of Brammo bikes or push improvements through for our on-road customers.”

The biggest downsides, according to Wismann would be “the cost to a small company like Brammo to support such an effort and the resulting distraction from our daily tasks. I’m also somewhat concerned that if the bikes are perceived to go around the track too slowly for a ‘proper’ sportbike, then the product perception with enthusiasts and consumers would suffer.”

Racing would provide an opportunity for the engineering departments of those manufacturers to see their bikes in action and learn how their various systems respond to the rigors of racing. The adage of “racing improves the breed” is not lost on these companies. I asked Wismann to speculate about the cost of a team acquiring a bike from Brammo:

“Let’s say you start with a top level spec’d Empulse at $13,995USD. Then we follow a very Vance&Hines XR 1200 model and sell an upgrade kit to get you legal for the track and race ready at roughly the same cost $3,500-5,000 USD. So you’d be into the thing roughly $17 – 20k. Of course, TTXGP would throw in a season’s worth of entry fees and put up some prize money to make it worth people’s while with Brammo providing track-side support at the 4 or 5 rounds. Dunlop, Avon, or Pirelli might step up with some tires. The motor and gearbox (gasp!) would remain sealed along with the batteries and VCU (vehicle control unit), with the only mods allowed being bolt-on go-fast bits and final gearing. You’d have a professionally built, dead sexy, full electric race bike weighing right around 400lbs (181kg), good torque at the rear wheel, and 50-60 rwhp on the top end to play with. Does that sound compelling?”

The nagging question of “if you build them, will they buy them?” remains. Are there enough frustrated would-be superbike team owners willing to take the plunge to make the effort successful? As Wismann mused, “That’s the million dollar question.”

Harry runs BrammoFan, which, as the name suggests, is an excellent source of daily information on the electric motorcycle company.

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