Electric Superbike Racing: Brammo Part IV

July 19, 2011
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
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Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

Those of you that have been following the ongoing Brammo racing feature here on MotoUSA know that the opening round of the TTXGP Series was more a race against the clock than a proper on-track battle. Prior to the race several of the other big electric superbike teams had made some rather large claims. When it came time to line up and race,

Steve Atlas puts the Brammo Empulse R race bike through its paces at Thunderhill Raceway.
Steve Atlas puts the Brammo Empulse R race bike through its paces at Thunderhill Raceway. Thunderhill is one of our favorite race tracks. Much like Laguna Seca, T-Hill features a course cut into the natural terrain. The Brammo Empulse gets along well at this long, fast track.
Thunderhill is one of our favorite race tracks. Much like Laguna Seca  T-Hill features a course cut into the natural terrain. The Brammo Empulse gets along well at this long  fast track.

however, grids were sparse and excuses hastily emailed to websites and magazines around the industry.

It was the true mano-y-mano, head-to-head racing that Brammo set out after in its racing endeavors. Competition drives the world we live in. From Wall Street stock trading to the Olympic games, in order to achieve new levels of progress, we must push ourselves, mind and body, to lengths not previous thought humanly possible. It drives technology to new heights and provides the ultimate platform from which to develop new products. This is exactly why Brammo set out on this on-going project in the first place; to pit themselves against other leaders in the electric motorcycle genre to speed up future development for its growing line of EV street bikes. The Empulse RR that we are racing is the basic platform from which several up-coming street versions will possibly be released.

In a sense we had the competition of the stopwatch to pit ourselves against at Infineon, racing the clock in the attempt to lower last year’s lap record set by Shawn Higbee on a Zero-powered machine (a big competitor of Brammo). Dispatching his quickest time by nearly two full seconds, with six of the nine laps in Race Two under the previous record, round one was was chalked up as a ‘mission accomplished’ on all fronts.

Yet it still left some to be desired; that sweet taste of on-track competition, the feeling of winning a truly hard-fought, high-speed game of chess. This is why, with solid confirmation that most of the other big teams would be at Laguna Seca, a full-force effort from Brammo was then focused on Round Two, set to be run alongside the MotoGP boys, July 22-24.

Once the decision to proceed came down from the big boss man following the opening round, (which took all of 15 minutes), Brammo’s project leader Brian Wismann and crew set in motion a tentative testing plan to further prepare. First was a day at Thunderhill, set up to test several new possible performance upgrades, while a second outing at Laguna Seca for an event called ‘ReFuel’ would provide a place to finalize track-specific settings and suspension leading up to the race.

Steve Atlas on the Brammo Empulse is tracked through the Corkscrew by Mission Motorsports rider Steve Rapp.
Atlas and the Brammo Empulse is tracked through the Corkscrew by Mission Motorsports rider Steve Rapp.

And while this sounded like more than enough to get what we needed to go into Round Two with a solid base setting, words like ‘sounded’ and ‘hopefully’ rarely equate to more confidence inspiring ones like ‘complete’ and ‘finalized,’ especially in motor racing. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t exactly the case for us.

The opening test at Thunderhill provided a good baseline for future testing at the Northern California track and helped to get a new shock dialed in, but some software issues popped up toward the end. The details of which, well, aren’t something I can divulge in a public forum at this point with the race still to come. We still had a minor issue, which could potentially become a major one, leading into the ReFuel event at Laguna Seca. Back to the dyno the guys went, logging countless more hours — when I say these guys at Brammo are one devoted and tireless group, I’m not kidding. These guys are as good as any team I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, as well as being more dedicated and harder working than the lot.

ReFuel is an event put on by a group called Speed Ventures and is in its third year. They do primarily car trackdays throughout California and surrounding areas. But ReFuel is for electric-powered vehicles only, both car and bike alike. The event contained two morning practice sessions and one official two-lapped timed event in the afternoon, from which ‘lap records’ for the event could be set; the fastest times from this session would be awarded as class winners (two bike and two car classes; one for production-based vehicles, one for full prototypes).

Only the times from these two timed afternoon laps would count, so getting things dialed in during the two morning sessions was critical. This was also the first time we were able to face off against the Mission Motors boys and their rather expensive-looking TT machine, ridden by journeyman professional racer Steve Rapp. They were one of the teams which didn’t quite make it out for the opening round due to a ‘lack of testing.’

Everything felt great with the Empulse for the opening session with the bike making more power than it ever had and its suspension well in the ballpark. We were only able to do two flying laps due to the short 15-minute sessions, but a best time of a mid-1:47 showed how balanced it was right off the truck. And I had yet to even scratch the surface of the bike’s capabilities.

Speed T.V. talking to Steve about if we could be going green anytime soon in the sportbike world.
Speed TV talks to Atlas about if we could be going green anytime soon in the sportbike world.

With only a couple minor suspension changes for the second session, the plan was to really start pushing and see if any suspension issues arose as the speeds increased and to hopefully dial things in for the timed afternoon session. But as we all know, as this is racing after all, and this would have been far too easy. Barely a lap into the session the bike just shuts down, stopping halfway around the track. After finagling a few buttons I was able to get enough juice to limp it back to the pits, but with the session over by this point we were between a rock and a hard place for the time trial. With such a small amount of time and no obvious reason, we merely had to make an educated guess at fixing the issue for the timed event and see what happened.

The problem with even the most educated of guesses is that, well, it’s still a guess. In the timed event the same problem reared its rather ugly head and I wasn’t even able to finish the warm-up lap. This left things very open and uncertain. Meanwhile, the guys from Mission Motors did a 1:43.7, topping MotoCzysz’s previous lap record of 1:44.6 (from last year’s FIM e-power race) to set a new outright electric motorcycle lap record around Laguna Seca. Son of a …Round One to Mission.

We did have one final practice session at the very end of the day, however. And while we really had no idea what the issue was, we decided to take a shot in the dark and ride the final session anyhow. Because the problem always seemed to happen when we tried to dial in added power, despite knowing it would be rather slow, we decided to pull power back to 75% of its potential to see if it would at least complete the session. A long shot at best, it was better than not taking a shot at all. Needless to say, though, we weren’t very optimistic.

But just as we thought all was bust from the day, somehow it made the entire session. And despite it feeling like an anchor was attached to the back any time a straight-away lie in my path, the lap times which popped up on the MoTec dash as I crossed the Start/Finish quickly changed the day’s mood. Lap 1: 1:44.9; Lap 2: 1:44.6; Lap 3: 1:44.3, set just as the session was flagged complete. The bike handled amazingly well, the gearing was spot-on, and despite being a massive 25% down on power, we were still under last year’s lap record and only half a second off Mission’s new record. To say the mood quickly changed would be a gross understatement.

Gas or Electric no matter what you will always have to have a great team behind you to get into that winner circle.
Whether you’re competing with a gas or electric powered superbike, you always have to have a great team behind you to reach the winner’s circle.

Talk about a roller coaster of emotions: From starting out great the first session, to breaking down the second and third sessions, to then going below the previous lap record and nearly running on pace with the Mission Motorsport bike while using only a fraction of our potential power. But while we put down a mood-lifting lap time, one must not also forget that we still had no idea what the original problem was and if running at full power without breaking down was even a possibility. Back to the dyno and into the firmware the boys went. It also meant another test would be needed, as going into Laguna Seca without ironing out these issues would be like playing two-wheeled Russian Roulette.

An open trackday at Thunderhill was the only option on such short notice, so it would have to make due (private testing sure spoils one quickly). Finding a good set-up and making a motorcycle work, like anything else high performance and pushing the boundaries of our known abilities, is one giant compromise. Give a little here to get a little there; one track you are putting up with a bit of added rear-tire sliding on corner-exit to make the bike steer quicker, then at the next track it’s lessening that flickability for more high-speed stability — the goal is always to get the machine as compliant as possible for as much of the lap as possible.

And this test finally marked the point, a massively grueling year-and-a-half later, where Brammo has finally reached this stage of fine-tuning and compromise with the Empulse RR. Sounds more like a pain in the rear than something to be happy about, right? But to reach the point of focusing solely on minor issues, first the motorcycle’s basic functions have to work nearly flawlessly, otherwise major do-or-die issues consume everything. Until now focusing on the ‘little things’ has been merely a pipe dream, which is why our Thunderhill test, a hiccup-free day of fine-tuning suspension settings and tire compounds, was such a major achievement; especially when you remember that we are talking about a completely prototype motorcycle here, one that these geniuses designed, built and developed from the ground up.

One of the TTX-GP girls joining Steve on the podium.
Will Brammo and Steve Atlas savor the sweet taste of victory at Laguna Seca this weekend? Climb On! with Motorcycle USA to find out.

Brammo is a pioneer, venturing down several uncharted avenues. They (or in a way I guess I can say ‘we’ now that I have been around for a few months) have had to use numerous major components, including the engine itself, that while designed for a variety of uses, motor vehicles wasn’t one of them. So it’s no wonder companies like Parker (motor manufacturer) and Sevcon (motor controller) are now asking Brammo to help them develop future products, those now with vehicle applications as their intended purpose.

What these guys have built and accomplished amazes me. It’s an absolute honor to be the one in the saddle testing and aiding in the development of this glorious machine. It’s pretty damn fun as well! Did I mention we shaved nearly three full seconds off of our previous best Thunderhill lap time? This also had a way of putting smiles on the crew’s faces, as the mood after this landmark day of testing was quite optimistic, to say the least.

But now is when the fun really starts. In a week’s time we face off with what’s shaping up to be one extremely well-stacked international field of the world’s best EV machines, piloted by some of today’s top professional talent, in front of all the MotoGP boys at Laguna Seca. After completing my Superbike debut around the former dry lake bed this time one year ago, with a result that left some to be desired, I vowed to be back this year for another run at that elusive Laguna Seca glory. And that is exactly what I, with the utterly awesome backing of team Brammo, will be doing in only a couple days. Little did I know I would be doing it on a motorcycle powered by a giant computer battery… So be sure to stay tuned for the next installment coming shortly following the race — you won’t want to miss it, trust me!