Electric Superbike. If you’re a diehard motor racing fan, such as myself, a word pairing like this seems almost an oxymoron. We motorheads eat, breath and sleep for the opportunity to swing a leg over the highest horsepower and fastest possible internal-combustion machine we can get our hands on. It gets our blood boiling and makes the pit of our stomach tingle; it’s what makes us feel alive. So how can something with an oversized toy train motor do the same? Thoughts along these lines came floating through my head upon getting the invite to race for electric motorcycle manufacturer Brammo at the upcoming TTXGP opening round May 14-15, sharing the racing schedule at Infineon with AMA Pro Racing. But there’s some that think we could potentially see this emergence as a totally new form of top-level motorsport. Brammo does. So I guess there’s no better way to find out than being the one behind the windscreen, right?
But before actually racing we needed to go testing, and this is where the adventure begins – Thunderhill Raceway Park on April 20th. Welcome to Part 1 of our on-going journey into the new frontier of electric motorcycle road racing.
The Northern California circuit of Thunderhill played host to MotoUSA’s first-ever electric superbike track testing – with Oregon-based Brammo Inc. campaigning its Empulse RR at the TTXGP race at Infineon May 14-15.
Unlike some of the one-off, ultra-expensive competition they could potentially be facing, Brammo’s racebike is based on their soon-to-be-released Empulse production model (check out full details at www.Brammo.com), a revolutionary 100-plus mph and 100-mile-range, street-legal and fully-electric sportbike. While the racebike is built around the street model, quite a bit has been done to get it competitive on the racetrack – that’s not to say a good deal of this technology won’t find its way onto the streets and into a consumer’s hands quickly. That’s exactly why Brammo is putting such an effort into racing, as there is no more demanding place to progress development than in the heat of battle. Case in point being the Empulse RR.
Upon arriving to the track and first laying eyes on the Empulse RR we were taken back by the high level of components and the bike’s sheer ‘trickness’ factor. A full MoTec dash graces the cockpit, looking quite ‘factory’ while featuring a full array of data acquisition abilities – a crucial factor when monitoring this level of new technology. This is shelled by a custom carbon fiber and prototype SLA faring, one engineered by Brammo and 3D Systems. The design and manufacturing is top-shelf and in my opinion beautifully styled.
Racing powered via lithium-ion (top), the Brammo Empulse RR has some trick racing components like lightweight carbon fiber BST wheels (bottom).
Housed within the extruded and welded aluminum frame is the massive lithium-ion battery pack designed and made by Brammo for the street-going Empulse, though beefed up for additional output in racing form. The frame also acts as a battery tray, an innovative design that the Oregon-based company is currently in the process of patenting. The race machine gets a beefier box-section style rear swingarm, designed to handle the added loads produced by racing speeds. Handmade rearsets get the rider’s feet off the deck a couple additional inches to increase cornering clearance. For improved corner agility, BST wheels joined in with a set of its full-carbon spinners, some of the lightest and highest quality wheels we have ever tested at MotoUSA (.
A low-slung, specially designed liquid-cooled electric motor, produced in conjunction with team sponsor Parker, propels the rear wheel. The motor features a higher power and torque output and as such also requires additional cooling compared to the street bike. With peak torque from any electric motor made at zero rpm, one would think a good deal of detuning would be needed to keep the bike from looping out when initially touching the throttle. But in this case the weight of the rear wheel and drivetrain, combined with the final gearing, tames the torque enough to allow it to be controlled directly by the rider’s throttle hand – at least that’s what they tell me prior to riding. Here’s hoping they’re right…
Steve Atlas will race the Empulse RR at Infineon, seen here with Brammo Director of Product Development Brian Wissman.
Front suspension is handled by a 43mm inverted front fork, the outer shell from a Triumph Daytona 675, with Traxxion Dynamics gas-charged internals. A fully-adjustable Works Performance shock sits out back. As for braking duties, Brembo has stepped up with full World Superbike-spec binders, providing some of the most impressive radial-mount front stoppers and radial front master cylinder I’ve seen this side of a MotoGP machine. Little did I know that with absolutely zero engine braking, these would prove a very handy feature.
A rider immediately notices the complete lack of a clutch and shift lever. With both the left clip-on and left side rearset featuring little more than a simple grip and a peg, I couldn’t help but be a bit curious as to what racing a ‘single-speed’ motorcycle would be like. Will the tighter corners result in painfully-slow acceleration or would there be little-to-no top-end speed? There’s no way could it have both, right?
The only way to find out was by swinging a leg over for a couple quick reconnaissance laps to see what the electric revolution is all about…
Now you have to remember, this would be the first electric vehicle this side of a golf cart yours truly has ever so much as sat on, let alone piloted. So to say things were a bit foreign at first would be an understatement. My left hand must have swatted at the clutch lever under braking for every corner during at least the first three laps of every session; not to mention I would consistently find my left foot pawing at an imaginary shift lever far more frequently than I would like to admit. You can tell yourself not to until your head spins backwards, but defying 20-plus years of motorcycling instinct is easier said than done.
The Empulse RR tallies laps around the Thunderhill circuit with Atlas at the controls, coming to terms with the new electric interface.
Luckily, the Brammo guys have done an awesome job making just about everything else feel as much like a traditional racebike as possible. They have done extremely well packaging the 470 odd pounds very low in the chassis, allowing the bike to change direction on par with just about any middleweight on the market despite tipping the scales some 50 pounds heavier. This is from extensive engineering on the part of Brammo, designing the RR to feature an extremely low CG (center of gravity), combined with the fact that the low-slung electric motor features very few and lightweight rotational parts. This is an area that hampers internal combustion machines due to far more rotational inertia and gyroscopic forces, both working negatively on the motorcycles agility by being counter intuitive to the rider’s inputs.
As I mentioned earlier, the total lack of engine braking takes time to wrap one’s head around. That’s why the high-end Brembo braking components were a welcome feature and did a fantastic job keeping things in line, shedding speed with equal parts authority and precision. These binders provide the kind of feel and power that gives racers wet dreams, so Thank You Brembo for stepping up to the plate!
The Traxxion front-end and Works Performance shock combination, matched to Dunlop 250cc GP-spec racing slicks, makes for a bike that is extremely at home when pushed hard mid-corner – the Empluse RR begs one to explore elbow-dragging levels of lean-angle. While I didn’t quite push those envelopes during this first test, as keeping the bike intact and testing the basic components was top priority, I think that come Infineon this will be one of the motorcycle’s shining points, as the tight and technical Northern California track puts a premium on handling, something the Brammo has in spades.
Silent running, almost… The Empulse RR hustles up to speed with an audible mechanical whine, making competent laps with just a ‘single-speed’ transmission.
After an initial shakedown run to make sure everything was in working order and a couple hot laps to start feeling out this silent stunner, the bike was put up on the charger to get it fully prepared for longer battery-life testing. This gave me a chance to reflect on the initial experience. And one aspect that is impossible not to touch on is the nearly complete lack of sound from onboard. While it makes a healthy and actually quite cool mechanical whine as it passes by pit-lane at speed, according to the mechanics standing trackside at least, from in the saddle it’s almost eerie how little noise is made. Riding without ear plugs was a necessity to be able to hear anything at all, though once acclimated to the complete lack of any engine-produced decibels, it’s surprising how well it lets one concentrate on their riding; not to mention take note of noises made by the tires and other subtle areas which could never be heard on even the quietest internal-combustion-powered motorcycles.
I was also taken back by how versatile the bike’s overall spread of power was for being a ‘single-speed’ machine. From the slowest corners right up to the fastest sweepers, the bike accelerates off each and every turn with torque akin to a very strong Supersport bike that’s humming along in just the right high-revving gear, yet would only run out of top-end near the end of Thunderhill’s relatively long front straight. The straight is substantially longer than any of those where we will be racing at Infineon, which is why while the gearing may not have been ideal for the first test, it should be calculated about spot-on for our next test and the final event at Infineon – at least that’s the goal. If not it can always be changed, though gauging by seat-of-the-pants feel I think the boys are more than in the ballpark.
To wrap up our first test we had planned on doing a full-power dump, running it until totally out of juice to gauge the engine and battery’s full performance capabilities. Unfortunately, this was cut short as the engine lost magnetic charge after only a few laps. This caused the bike to stop running and put an early end to our first outing. On the positive side, the on-board data revealed that the battery was running right where it needed to be when the issue arose and the overall attitude of the bike’s chassis and brakes were quickly becoming a very comfortable place for myself.
For our next test, May 6th at Infineon, we will have an updated engine from Parker, which is said to run substantially cooler while making equal, if not more power. So hopefully this won’t be an issue any longer – and maybe we’ll even get a little more grunt! We will have a full day to start getting the bike’s base setup to my liking around the highly-technical Infineon Raceway, which is where it’s really going matter. This will be a critical day, as come race weekend we only have two practices and one qualifying session prior to the two 9-lap, World Superbike-style format races on Sunday, May 15. With track time at a premium and teams required to fully recharge their machines within a four-hour window between races, this should hopefully up the excitement level for the fans.
I can’t yet even come close to telling you whether or not electric Superbikes have the ability to be the future of motorcycle racing, as the push to ‘go green’ becomes more and more important. But I can tell you I am far more intrigued to find out than I was prior to riding the Brammo Empluse RR. There’s no question the boys at Brammo have built a
motorcycle that ticks many of the same spine-tingling boxes that an internal-combustion machine does, and we’ll see if come race weekend even more can be crossed off the list.
Did I mention I’ve been getting fully into the “green spirit” by commuting to and from work on one of Brammo’s production Enertia street bikes? Yes, I’m lowering my carbon footprint, thank you very much, and getting my head in the game for this upcoming electric battle royale during the second weekend of May.
So stay tuned for updates from our next test in Part 2 of the saga as well as a full feature on the Empulse RR’s worldwide debut race weekend in Part 3. Hopefully the idea gets you as excited as we are. And if you are planning on coming out to the AMA races at Infineon, be sure to stop by the Brammo pits and check out the machine – you may just be surprised by what you see…