After many hours of testing and preparation, the entire TTXGP Championship came down to the final race.
Until being thrust into the position firsthand, one doesn’t realize the amount of pressure that comes with trying to win a national-level sporting event – I sure didn’t, not until being there myself; especially in the high-stakes world of motorcycle racing. This is further compounded if it involves a series of events/races that culminate in an overall championship, which can then be multiplied by the number of people involved to get there, the final fates of which are in your hands and your hands alone. In fact, I don’t care if it’s bowling, salsa dancing, or freaking professional checkers – when competing to be the best the United States of America has to offer in any given sport, no matter how loosely the word ‘sport’ is used, brings with it an amount of pressure that I had yet to experience in my 29 years on this planet.
Thankfully for me, this apparently brings with it butterflies the size of pterodactyls; the ones that sit in the pit of your stomach and induce instantan nausea. I didn’t know such immediate uneasiness existed either — not until sitting down on Delta flight 702 to Salt Lake City, Utah the Thursday before the final round of the 2011 TTXGP North American Championship. Exactly what someone with a chronic digestive autoimmune disease like Crohn’s needs going into a high pressure and physically draining weekend… If it was easy everyone would do it, right?
I had been so busy between the previous race at Laguna Seca until this point that I simply hadn’t put any thought of what the stakes of these eight laps truly were, and how easily it could all be lost. Thoughts of the countless overtime hours the crew had put into the project and the sheer number of people behind the project jumped into my head and were just the tip of the iceberg. And I thought racing in front of 50,000 people at Laguna was nerve racking. Looking back on it, this explains that can-we-get-you-anything-so-you-don’t-pass-out look I kept getting from the middle-aged couple sitting next to me on the plane. They probably thought I was massively aerophobic or something …
Steve Atlas: “When it’s taken a whole team of guys putting in countless hours of blood, sweat and tears to get to that point, but it’s only you who can add what is needed to make all the payless overtime worthwhile, it takes things to a totally different level.”
I’ve been in somewhat similar championship situations as a kid playing hockey, as well as at various levels throughout my amateur road racing career. But until now it’s always been a relatively solo pursuit – my parents or a few junior high school kids being the only other people really invested in the outcomes. Definitely never one seriously hard-working seven-man crew or, for that matter, an entire motorcycle manufacturer; even if it is a new and relatively small one like Brammo.
When it’s taken a whole team of guys putting in countless hours of blood, sweat and tears to get to that point, but it’s only you who can add what is needed to make all the payless overtime worthwhile, it takes things to a totally different level. Let’s just say I have a serious newfound respect for Valentino Rossi and all the MotoGP guys – or any top-level athlete with the weight of a nation on their shoulders. By no means am I classifying our situation in said category, but even getting to the point where we sat brought with it a whole new kind of pressure, as well as a whole new level of respect for those really popular athletes.
Between Laguna Seca and the finale they had scheduled a test at Thunderhill to finally put the gearing/tire size debate to rest and test every combination back-to-back, as well as further fine-tune suspension and just plain keep me on the bike and fresh going into the big race. Those keeping up with the series (see Brammo Part V) know that we have been swapping around tire and wheel sizes as well as gearing in an effort to find the ideal combination, something the single-speed, clutchless motorcycle is very sensitive to.
Task number one was to run the smaller 4.5-inch wheel with 160-size rear tire combination back-to-back with the 5.0-inch wheel with 180-series tire combination and compare lap times, both using the same gearing. The big difference here is the weight and size, with the 160/4.5-inch combo coming in almost four pounds less, which should be quite a bit faster. The downside is that the tire is a slightly older design as well as being much smaller with noticeably less contact patch, which reduces grip and confidence at full-lean and under corner-exit acceleration. As it turns out, the weight advantage only equated to a slight advantage in terms of speed and acceleration, thus the confidence gained from the larger and newer 180-series rubber became the tire of choice.
Next on the agenda was figuring out the ideal gearing, starting off with the 69-tooth rear sprocket we left Laguna with, which also happened to be what Dan’s calculations said would be ideal for the test, as well as Miller. After a few sessions of trying various other sizes, both smaller and larger, a couple of which I had sworn would be faster, we ended up right back where we started with the 69 Dan had predicted would work – no surprise there, as his ‘calculations’ seem to be right an impressively (and also sometimes annoyingly) high percentage of the time.
Brian also got his hands on a 3D GoPro onboard camera setup, which he then made a special tail-section mounting rig to be able to position it roughly two feet behind and one foot above the back of the rider’s head. We used the final hour of the day to have some fun and mess around with this and the end result was utterly amazing (check it out at www.Brammo.com/3d). It gives an awesome sense of depth and elevation, not to mention a never-before-seen camera angle that looks almost like something akin to a low-flying helicopter.
Set up on the Empulse RR was mainly geared toward corner speed and late braking for the final round at Miller Motorsports Part’s West Course.
With an open trackday at Miller the Friday prior to the race weekend, finally track time would be ample for a TTXGP race weekend; we would be running alongside the Masters of the Mountain club racing series, using a camera crew provided by the TTXGP people. This was a nice change compared to Laguna, where we ran alongside MotoGP as well as AMA and it meant we played not second, but third-fiddle. While it was rightfully so and just being able to run with a world-level series like the GPs in front of a crowd that massive is a great thing, the extremely limited amount of time on track makes bike set-up very challenging.
Coming into Miller we had hit a plateau power-wise, extracting everything humanly possible from the motor we had at the time (there’s a totally new version in the making, but due to time constraints will first be seen in the 2012 race bike). Taking advantage of corner speed and late braking, areas our relatively light weight bike greatly aids compared to our competition, would be key at Miller and thus was the focus during the majority of our set-up. We would be running at Miller Motorsports Part’s West Course. It’s a layout I had ridden before, but as it had been a few years a refresher course was definitely in order.
And this was exactly how Friday went, going just as planned – too good probably. This is racing, after all…
First off, I’ve got to add that I completely forgot how fun the West Course is. Only using half the track, which excludes some of my favorite corners from the outside full course, I was a bit disappointed on the layout going into the weekend. Two laps into practice and I flipped a 180 and had a smile on my face big enough the corner workers could probably see it as I buzzed past. It flowed extremely well throughout; at no point does it ever feel like an afterthought or compromise, a trait quite common with split-tracks, as most are the result of expansion or modification and rarely designed to be used that way from the onset. Not MMP. Designer Alan Wilson did an excellent job with this jewel of a track. Not to mention that by using only the west half it cut out quite a bit of the massively long front straight, which would help us to not have nearly as big of a power disadvantage – or so I thought…
During the initial practice session changes were made to the gearing and suspension. Steve Atlas also learned some tricks from local MMP riders who were choosing different lines.
Getting acclimated to the flowing, 2.2-mile circuit saw times continually drop by 2-3 seconds per session throughout the day, starting in the high 1:50-range and ending the day hovering around the 1:44 mark, as the shaving off time turned from full seconds into tenths and then hundredths. Several gearing and suspension changes were made, most notable being a significant raise in rear ride height to quicken up steering through more aggressive geometry. Time was also spent following some of the local fast guys who showed a few tips and tricks and a couple different fast lines in places, several of which lended themselves well to the high corner-speed style in which the Empluse RR needs to be ridden in order to be competitive. Day 1 was in the books and it couldn’t have gone better; it wasn’t over yet though…
A nice dinner at a local Thai restaurant capped off the day and it was off to bed to get ready for Saturday qualifying. If only it was that easy. Of course something we ate set off my stomach, and with Crohn’s disease this was only multiplied. As a result I slept for, maybe, 20-30 minutes the entire night. Had you asked me at 3:30 a. m. that morning if I would be riding the answer would have definitely been no. Thankfully, it started to clear up around 6:00-7:00 a.m., and while I didn’t feel up to the first practice session at 8:00 a.m., by the second round at 9:30 a.m. I was feeling well enough to give it a run. While I couldn’t walk more than 20 feet and not feel nauseous or go more than 15 minutes without a trip to the facilities, it was time to once again test my life philosophy: Speed cures all.
Besides some minor hallucinations (I swear someone played a practical joke and half the brake-markers were backwards) and brief flashes to extreme tunnel vision, by the third lap I was not only on pace but going faster, finally dropping to the 1:43s by the session’s end. While we were quite happy with this, very few other electric bikes had taken to the track yet, with Czysz’s million-dollar missile having seen the track for maybe five laps tops on Friday and was yet to go out Saturday morning. Even with their limited running time, hired gun local pro Shane Turpin had already been clocked in the 1:39s and it looked like they had more to come – so much for less of a power disadvantage. That MotoCzysz bike is so unbelievably fast that Turpin commented that it accelerated off the corner faster than his liter-class Superbike!
During qualifying Atlas misjudged the session time and failed to snag pole, but he was still running faster than his rival.
Beating MotoCzysz, while a future goal no doubt, wasn’t needed to win the championship, however. With Mission Motors not showing up (unfortunately, word is the bike has been parked for good and funding for the project cutoff), our only real worry was second-place Thad Wolff on the MotoElectra machine. With an eight-point advantage going into the race and a field of only six riders, as long as we finished the race, no matter where, we would be champions. And though the small size of the field ensured the championship would be ours as long as we completed the race, it also meant that if for any reason we were unable to finish, this same small grid also meant that no matter where he finished Wolff would take the championship.
Qualifying rolled around at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon and after one seriously needed nap, which helped to pass whatever horrid Thai stomach virus I had, everything had died down and a piping-hot new set of Pirelli slicks waited. The plan was to do an early 2-3 lap run to get a good time in the book, come in and see where we were at and then go back out after a quicker time if needed. And with my first flying lap being a 1:43 followed by a 1:42.273, I pulled in after two flyers to try and keep the battery as charged as possible for a second run. This put me easily into second position, a fair bit behind Turpin, while Wolff was some three seconds further back with a quick lap in the 1:45s. Even though it wasn’t needed, feeling well and curious to see just what we were capable of, after a short break I shot back out for another run. Only what I thought was a 30-minute session was only a 20-minute session, which meant I got the checked flag sooner than expected. Pole was out of the question anyhow and we had a bit of time on Wolff, so all was looking well for Sunday.
One curveball was the addition of the Lighting Racing guys. Due to their bikes and crew showing up at the 11th hour Saturday night, they had missed qualifying. Despite this the folks at TTXGP let them enter the event, helping to boost grid numbers, though they would be starting at the back. Even so, this only meant the third row. One of the bikes is the same machine which Michael Barnes rode to third-place at Laguna Seca, which was consistently the fastest in a straight line all weekend. In fact, they had just returned from the Bonneville Salt Flats where it had set a new electric motorcycle record at over 215 mph! Quite impressive. They had also built a second, identical bike that they entered. Local racers Tim Hunt and Ted Rich would be piloting the monster-motored pair, as regular rider Barnes had other commitments racing in New Jersey that same weekend in the Harley XR1200–spec class, and this was the first weekend they had ever fielded a second bike.
A wonderful full night’s sleep was exactly what I needed; I woke up the next day fully dressed, TV blearing and lights fully on. I had been so exhausted that I returned from dinner at 9:00 p.m. and passed out the second I hit the bed. Now all
Steve Atlas: “The debate now was: how hard should we push to go for a podium and end the season on a high note while still not risking what the weekend was really all about: The Championship.”
that was needed was to finish the eight-lap race to cap off what had been an incredible season.
Morning practice times revealed that an easy podium was no longer the case, and if we wanted to be up on the box it was going to take some hard work. The main Lighting machine, with Hunt riding, was into the 1:42s in only his first time on the bike and, while the second bike wasn’t quite there, it spent most of the session being worked on, so no doubt both would be a handful come race time as their Mondo motors did well to get them on pace quickly. After spending a fair amount of time behind both of them I can tell you braking and corner-speed aren’t their cup of tea; those bad boys are all about going fast and doing so straight up and down.
So the debate now was: how hard should we push to go for a podium and end the season on a high note while still not risking what the weekend was really all about: The Championship. When asked if he wanted a podium finish or a for sure title, Brian simply said “both.” He had a point, and as this is what I was hired to do, this is exactly what I was going to try and accomplish.
Bless he who set the schedule and placed the TTXGP as the second race of the day, which put us on track just before 11:00 a.m. This meant we didn’t have to spend all day sitting around thinking, as the more I played various situations through my head the bigger the butterflies in my stomach grew. I barely had enough time to replenish my fluids and eat a quick bagel and the second call to grid was echoing across the paddock. Time was upon us. Eight laps left to decide who would be the 2011 TTXGP National Champ.
Steve Atlas: “The more I played various situations through my head the bigger the butterflies in my stomach grew. I barely had enough time to replenish my fluids and eat a quick bagel and second call to grid was echoing across the paddock.”
After a spirited warm-up lap getting the tires fully up to temperature and brakes bedded in, we lined up for the final with pole-sitter Turpin to my right and third-place qualifier and my title rival, Wolff, to my left. One-board out, then quickly sideways, the green flag flies and the final race of the 2011 TTXGP Series was underway. For the first time all year I got a solid initial jump, staying in front of Wolff on the run to Turn 1 for the first time this season. I didn’t, however, stay anywhere near Turpin, as the MotoCzysz bolted out of the hole like a scolded dog. Hunt on the Lighting A-bike came past like I was chained to a post about halfway down to Turn 1, which was a fairly short run, while his teammate on the second Lightning bike followed suit just prior to the braking area. But despite getting several bike-lengths on me, Rich sat up quite early under braking and I dove back past him into third.
The first three corners link together to start the lap and I was right up to the rear tire of Hunt in third on the opening lap, initially thinking I could get by and possibly finish second. Then we hit the short straight between Turns 4 and 5 and in a matter of a few hundred feet that yellow machine was nothing more than a tiny speck in the distance; the speed difference was massive. I would then make a bit of time back up through the tighter infield sections, but by the front straight all was lost again.
I was solidly in third for the rest of the opening lap, or so I thought. Out of nowhere, coming into the final corner, Rich on the second Lighting bike pulled a trackday-novice-no-talent-move if I’ve ever seen one, attempting to out-brake me around the outside, nearly taking the pair of us out, missing my right arm by mere inches with a serious head of steam. Unless his brakes failed, that will go down as bonehead move of the year, as his bike made well over double the power we did and, not only was it the first lap and the championship was on the line, it was the last freaking corner. All he had to do was wait one single turn, maybe 200 feet, and go flying past down the front straight. Instead, he nearly put us both on the ground, running wide and barely getting it gathered back up as I dived up the inside to retake third position. Even after running into the marbles and nearly off the track, a twist of the right grip had him back past me into third before we even got to the start/finish line. This podium wasn’t going to be easy.
During the final Atlas was nearly taken out on the opening lap as local rider Ted Rich tried to steal third place.
Turns 1-2-3 allowed me to easily close back on his rear tire, so much so that I thought about showing him a wheel into Turn 3. Running in such close proximity almost had a disastrous result, however, as exiting Turn 3, hard on the throttle, his bike shed its chain, which sent him back at me like he had slammed on the brakes. At this point, thankfully, I wasn’t yet fully in his draft, running slightly off line at the time, giving me just enough space to swerve around and avoid a massive accident; the kind of accident that would have surely featured a very ugly result. But boy was it was close! I swear I could feel the wind off his body as I flew by.
This was followed by my eyes nearly popping out of my head and missing half of my brake markers for Turn 5 from being in a state of temporary shock. But I quickly snapped out of it and by the end of Lap 2 the excitement levels finally simmered down to somewhat normal levels. For the next five laps I pushed in an effort to make up time on Hunt in second spot. And while getting second really made no difference, it gave me something to shoot for so as not to get wrapped up with the championship and overthink things. But he was able to keep the gap the same, matching any increase in pace I was able to achieve.
One final surprised remained, as the flagger, who was used in the seven-lap club races going on all day, messed up the flags, giving us the while flag a lap early. And because my onboard lap counter had picked up the warm-up lap without me realizing it, as I completed Lap 7 I sat up, saw an ‘8’ on the dash and proceeded to celebrate the third-place finish and championship a full lap early. I was cruising around, sitting up and waving after crossing the line. Thankfully coming out of Turn 4 I took a look around and saw Thad coming in the distance with some serious speed and Hunt still hunkered down and on the gas half a track ahead of me. Quickly realizing what was going on, I tucked back in and pushed to the finish.
Besides giving a few of the crew members near heart attacks, as they thought something must have gone horribly wrong for me to slow down so much to start the actual final lap, it was a no-harm-no-foul situation. We held on to finish out the season on the podium, a third-place trophy and National Championship in hand, exactly what we set out to do. A
Steve Atlas: “Simply being able to say you designed and built a motorcycle from scratch, one which is propelled completely by electricity, is an awesome feat. But to do so and enter it in a three-race series against the best prototype machines North America has to offer and end up on top is truly amazing.”
fitting end to what was an amazing year in so many different ways. This petrol head has been officially converted to one who sees the light, or should I saw sees the voltage, with two national-level wins and one podium, plus a career-first professional championship to show for it.
The really impressive feat, if you ask me, is what Brian, Dan, Aaron, George, Paul and all the Brammo crew accomplished. Simply being able to say you designed and built a motorcycle from scratch, one which is propelled completely by electricity, is an awesome feat. But to do so and enter it in a three-race series against the best prototype machine North America has to offer and end up on top is truly amazing. You know what else I though was pretty amazing? That we were able to go all season, which included at least half a dozen tests and three full race weekends, and the bike never so much as tipped over in the gravel, let alone had a big crash. I came plenty close countless times and rode with the red mist at some point during all three races, yet the rubber stayed glued to the ground – goes to show how well the chassis was set-up and the linear manner in which the power is produced (I can say this now that the season is over and in the books, as any sooner would surely have been a curse…).
And, sadly, with that 2011 comes to a close. Does that spell the end for us or is there more, you ask? What’s left to do? What fun would winning a title be if you didn’t come back the second year to defend it and proudly wear that big No. 1 across the front of the motorcycle, right? Especially if the second version of the Empulse RR is projected to make almost double the power! Thanks for tuning in this year and here’s hoping 2012 can be half as good as 2011!