Monday, August 29, 2011

Indy fallout: Is this a note from the Dept. of Kicking Rossi While He's Down?

Two weeks ago, a wind gust toppled a concert stage at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. That resulted in the cancelation of the Indy Mile flat track race, and ratified my decision not to go to the MotoGP race. For me, that weekend is a great racing event, with some bonus racing at a nearby track during the day before and after the Main event.

But, I kept an eye on Indy from afar. If Valentino Rossi's ever had a more dismal qualifying, I can't bring it to mind. Rossi and Ducati's struggles this season have almost made Corse's MotoGP effort an exercise in anti-marketing. Surely people must be thinking, "If Jeremy Burgess can't make that thing rideable, and if even Valentino Rossi can't be competitive on it, it must be a real turd."

So far, it doesn't seem to have had a negative impact on Ducati sales, but you have to wonder where they'd be without the as-far-from-MotoGP-as-you-can-get Multistrada model.

In some ways, it's been interesting to watch the process of Rossi's devolution to 'human' status. That was underlined when he qualified six positions behind Nicky Hayden. (For the first time in a few races, they were on what appeared to be functionally identical bikes.)

On Saturday afternoon, Rossi's near-last grid position prompted Matthew Birt to post this brief story on the heavily trafficked UK website associated with the weekly MCN newspaper. [Full disclosure: I'm also a contributor to MCN from time to time. -- MG]

If you don't live in Europe, you may not realize that MCN is probably the most influential (not necessarily accurate, just influential) English-language motorcycle industry news source. It's closely read by everyone in the business.

Within a few minutes of Matthew Birt's story going up -- and it should be noted that Birt merely reported Rossi's rough qualifying session, quoting Rossi extensively; he didn't criticize Rossi's performance at all -- this comment was appended to MCN's post...

I quickly scanned it, thinking it was evidence of Rossi's falling from fan favor, then I did a double-take on the user name. Elbowz11?? Was that really Ben Spies?

I clicked on the Elbowz11 hyperlink only to find this...

Holy crap, eh?.. I have no real way of knowing whether MCN user Elbowz11 is really Spies or just some spotty fanboy. [Actually, I probably could just email friends on the MCN staff and confirm it, but rumors are so much more fun that facts. -- MG]

But, I assume that this really did come from Spies. The nature of the post suggests it; a terse message shortly after qualifying, still in the heat of battle, delivered via smartphone without much punctuation or second thought.

That a class rookie -- even one as talented as Spies, who was forged in the crucible of the Yosh team with Mat Mladin as 'mentor' -- would openly, publicly diss Valentino Rossi...

It shows how human the once-alien Rossi has become.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Isle of Man TT organizers put the 'zero' in TT Zero

A friend just emailed me to note that the 2012 Isle of Man TT practice and race schedule's posted on the TT's website, and there's no mention whatsoever of practice or racing for electric motorcycles.

I was going to knock out a quick post earlier this week, when the TT organizers announced a new 'Supertwins' class for 2012. This would be for bikes like the Kawasaki Ninja 650 or Suzuki SV650, among others. It'll be a great 'entry-level' class for TT newcomers; all in all, it's a development I support.

I guess that -- unless the TT Press Office quickly issues some kind of correction -- some of the 'track time' taken up by the new twins class are, in fact, the times that had previously been reserved for the TT Zero.

I won't say, "I told you so." But I did, sort of.

When none of the 2011 TT Zero competitors topped 100 miles an hour to take the vaunted 10,000 quid prize, I wondered whether they'd bring the class back again. I guessed they probably wouldn't; my only mistake was that I thought they'd introduce a time trial class for rally cars in its place. After all, that car demonstration lap really generated a lot of buzz.

Notwithstanding a documentary film about the TT Zero race -- and in spite of the fact that electric motorcycles may still represent the long-term future for my sport -- the sparse field in last year's race, the uneven quality of entries, and the underwhelming performance of even the top machines don't justify a TT class -- even one accorded the bare minimum of time in the schedule. By contrast, the Supertwins class will draw lots of entries. It will give fans another chance to see all the top riders in action. And since those machines are bread-and-butter models for Suzuki, Kawasaki, and possibly others (depending on how the rules are written) there's a good chance the class will attract some manufacturer support.

Since the TT organizers didn't see a lap average speed with two zeros, and didn't give out their prize with four zeros, they have decided that they don't want any zeros at all. Do I blame them? Nought right now. Now when electric motorcycles get some major manufacturer support, I'll revisit my opinion...

Monday, August 22, 2011

I guess it was inevitable I'd wake up to this, someday...

Some fucking dumbass smashed the ignition of the Triumph open last night and tried to hotwire it. This morning, it was on its side, with broken clutch and shift levers to boot.

The thief's tools, a bent screwdriver and cheap set of channel-lock pliers, were on the ground.

It occurs to me to wonder, is this the shittiest bike anyone's ever tried to steal? Since the fuel petcock sells for $125, I don't want to learn what a new ignition will cost. And talk about a fussy, frustrating repair to make. I guess if I have any consolation, it's that it didn't happen on a morning I was leaving at 0430h to go to work.

The eerie thing is, I got up in the middle of the night to piss, and without my glasses on I peered out the window towards the bikes and thought, 'Some night I'm bound to look out and see someone moving around out there.'

My next thought was, I really should have a rifle handy...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Some of the deets on Paul Thede breaking 200 barrier on the Lightning e-moto

As I wrote this post, it was early in Speed Week out on the Bonneville Salt Flats (although at least one day's racing was washed out.) I'm finally getting around to posting a partial account of a long phone chat with Paul Thede, who has just become the first person to top 200 mph on an electric motorcycle.

Last Saturday, I got a cryptic text from my friends at Falkner-Livingston Racing, noting that Paul Thede, the Falkner-Livingston crony and suspension guru, had just become the first person to ever top 200 miles an hour on an electric motorcycle. The next day, I got another text to the effect that Thede had 'backed it up' with a second run that averaged out to a new record of 206 miles an hour and change. That is, as far as anyone seems to know, an outright land speed record for any two wheeled EV.
L-R: Crew Chief Jeff Major, Thede, Lightning Motorcycles' Richard Hatfield.
The bike Thede rode was the very same Lightning motorcycle - designed and built by Richard Hatfield - that had a less-than-electrifying outing at the Isle of Man TT Zero race earlier this summer. [Paul Thede told me that this was the bike that raced on the IoM; I'm not sure if it is also the one that finished third at Laguna Seca. Others have suggested they're one and the same machine. - MG]

The Bonneville Salt Flat (or 'Flats', even the U.S. Bureau of Land Management can't pick one name and stick to it) in particular and land speed racing in general is a pretty good environment for EVs. Bonneville's high altitude and chronically thin air asphyxiates internal combustion motors but of course it has no effect on electric motors. The weight of battery packs isn't a problem; conventional ICE bikes often add ballast, in fact, to improve traction. And since runs only cover a few miles, batteries' low energy density is not much of a handicap. (John Burrows finished the 37+ mile TT race under his own power, pushing the 500-pound Lightning across the finish line on Glencrutchery Road.)

Anyway, the Lightning redeemed itself at Bonneville, and weather permitting there may be more to come later this week.

I called Thede, who took a break from working on the bike to talk to me on Monday evening. Thanks to Falkner-Livingston, who know all the right people, Thede, Hatfield, and crew chief Jeff Major were able to work on the machine in a hangar at the old Wendover airport. The very hangar where - brace yourself - the Enola Gay was stationed prior to the Hiroshima bombing mission.

"Yeah, I say we dropped a real bomb on the competition," said the irrepressible Thede. He was giddy at the thought that after several years of trying, he'd just become the first person to top 200 on an electric motorcycle.

Thede's relationship with Hatfield/Lightning goes back a few years. In 2009, Motorcyclist's Aaron Frank was scheduled to ride the Lightning at Bonneville. Thede was roped in to cure some handling ills. When the racing was weather-delayed, Frank had to go to his next assignment without ever riding the bike. Hatfield asked Thede if he'd take over land-speed-racing riding duties and he was only too happy to oblige. He set a speed in the 160 range in '09 and upped it to the 170 range at the 2010 BUB meet.

"Richard built an all-new bike for this year," Thede told me. "The motor, the battery packs, it's all new. He wants to be a manufacturer, and to create a viable sport bike. People only want to know two things really, 'How fast will it go?' and 'How far will it go?' So it's important to get the answers to those questions up where conventional sport bike riders will be impressed." Thede was definitely impressed with the build quality of the new bike. Earlier Lightning prototypes looked cobby to me, but he said that under the skin, the current bike is beautiful.

The skin is almost the only thing that has really changed, since the bike was raced on the Isle of Man. Thede told me that the salt is rough this year, and that he softened the suspension. "Actually, there are some limitations with the road-race suspension, which is too stiff.," Thede told me. "The salt is different every year; sometimes it's rough and it will pound the shit out of you; sometimes it's smooth, sometimes it's the texture of cane sugar."

Other than changes to suspension settings, the chassis is identical. Hatfield has reprogrammed the power controller - obviously, since a record run is a fraction of a TT lap. The power controller is water cooled, and the AC motor's armature is cooled by an oil spray. Thede was in awe of the motor itself, which he describes as a cylinder about six inches across and six inches thick, putting out 140 horsepower.

The bodywork was not specifically designed for the Lightning; purpose-built bodywork would have a smaller frontal area, permitting at least a little higher top speed.

The bike ran as an Altered Partial Streamliner under SCTA rules, so the rider's body has to be visible from the side (although his arms can be obscured by the fairing.) The bodywork creates a lot of sail area, and a crosswind on one of the Thede's runs was a cause for concern. "I was probably only five degrees from vertical," he told me. "But at that speed, it felt like I was about to drag my knee!"

But, I'm getting ahead of the story...

Thede told me that they'd only just gotten the bike out of customs, after it's return voyage from the IoM. They had to fit the fairing and reprogram the controller with the goal of getting through the SCTA technical inspection last Friday. Thede and the Falkner-Livingston crew know from experience that you need to be ready to race as soon as possible at Bonneville, because the weather can - and frequently does - put the kibbosh on racing long before the scheduled end of Speed Week. As it was, the SCTA tech guys stayed open late Friday to see them through, and Paul Livingston was still applying sponsor stickers as they pushed the bike up to the start line.

According to SCTA rules, new bikes have to make a first pass at under 175 miles an hour, as a shakedown run. Since you need to go over 175 to qualify for a run on the long course, that meant the first two runs had to take place over the short (7-mile) course. Thede was in a hurry to get in a fast pass, since although he hadn't seen either Czysz or Mission around, he was aware that there were other bikes that could - at least in theory - attempt a 200 mile an hour run. So after an initial shakedown, he made a second, full-power, run on the short course.

Despite bumps and the crosswind, Thede and the Lightning recorded a flying mile at 205.238 mph. That easily qualified them for a record, and the bike went into the impound lot in anticipation of a ratifying run the following day (Sunday.) That run went down at 206.921, for a new record of two-oh-six and change.

Thede laughed as described the wave of torque the electric motor produced when he opened the 'throttle' at about 150 miles an hour, and the smooth power delivery. After years of tuning suspensions on high-end ICE bikes, the Race Tech proprietor is now an EVangelist, for sure.

On the second day, the salt was a little wetter, which produced it's own excitement. "There was a little bit of a weave," Thede recalled, adding, "People think, '200, what's the big deal? I went 165 on my 600,' but first of all, their speedometer was lying to them, and they were on asphalt. If they think it's easy to ride 200 on salt, they should come and do it."

"When I broke the record, it was more a feeling of relief than excitement," Thede told me. "I'd been worried that someone else would be the first to go over 200. There are a few guys who were potential threats; Mission's been out here, Czysz has a fast bike. Kent Riches, who own Air-Tech [aftermarket bodywork] has a bike he's working on..."

At the end of our conversation, he told me they were making some tweaks to the bike. Fitting taller gearing, narrowing the fairing a bit, and that they'd hang around another few days and try to go faster still. The bike probably has 220+ in it, with even minimal development.

"I don't know if anyone else is going to show up, or how fast they'll go. Eventually, every record falls. But no matter how fast they go, only one person can be the first to go over 200 miles an hour, and that's always going to be me."

[MG NOTE: There was more to come. Thede upped the record to nearly 216 mph two days later, with a top speed of over 218.]

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Official text of MV Agusta statement on passing of Claudio Castiglioni

Varese, 17th August 2011

Claudio Castiglioni, 64 years old and President of MV Agusta Motor S.p.A. passed away this morning in Varese, Italy after a courageous battle against an illness.
Although I didn't know Castiglioni (seen here in an official photo, not mine) we did meet when I tested the first MV Agusta 1000. He was quintessentially Italian; always dapper and perfectly groomed. At an official dinner at a nice restaurant in Rimini, he made the assembled American motorcycle journalists look like barnyard animals. I wrote about it for the old Road Racer X magazine. That's a story that I'll dig up and post some day -- enough time's past that I can safely provide more detail about the brothel under the Grand Hotel, where MV put us up...
The man who personally elevated the Italian motorcycle industry to its current role as world leader and the businessman who excelled with MV Agusta, Cagiva, Ducati and Husqvarna brands has left us.

After his experience in the family business’s specializing in metalworking and manufacturing, in 1978 Castiglioni founded the company Cagiva which continually developed new and innovative motorcycles that have influenced the direction of the Italian and world motorcycle markets through the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Intuitive, tenacious, and a true visionary: these qualities drove Claudio Castiglioni to purchase the historic brands like Ducati, Husqvarna and MV Agusta. Coupled with his vision, diligence, hard work and financial investment these brands have once again become the protagonist of the two wheeled market.

Claudio Castiglioni has given us some of the most important motorcycles ever built, personifying performance, elegance and style: Cagiva Elefant and Mito, Ducati 916 and Monster as well as the MV Agusta F4 and Brutale. Finally, the President crafted the latest jewels in every detail, a testament to his insatiable passion for motorcycles: the MV Agusta F3 and Brutale 675.

Racing has always been one of his greatest passions, and his forays into competition have resulted in success at every level of world championship racing. With Cagiva came the titles of World Motocross Champion as well as the triumphs in the most enduring desert race, the Paris-Dakar. Also with Cagiva were the numerous successes in the 500 GP class. Ducati, under his guidance, dominated entire seasons of the World Superbike Championship thanks to models such as the 851 and 916. Finally, Husqvarna acquired a number of World Championships in Enduro, Motocross and Supermotard.

At the very center of his personal and professional history there is MV Agusta, to which he dedicated over 15 years creating motorcycles which have come to be considered the world wide icon for style and exclusivity as well as representing excellence Made in Italy. With the MV Agusta motorcycles, nothing was ever left to chance, the smallest details were reviewed and revised hundreds of times in order to create motorcycles that are simply unique, personifying perfection. 

Behind every detail, there are the ideas, heart and soul of Claudio Castiglioni.
For the past year, the President has left the guidance of MV Agusta to his son Giovanni, who has been by his side during many of the battles that have formed the story of the manufacture in Varese. These challenges, day after day, constructed and invisible fabric that was so well woven by this truly unique person and businessman. Giovanni, with the same passion and tenacity as his father, from this day forth will continue to create what Claudio Castiglioni described as “the most beautiful motorcycles in the world”.

The funeral will take place Friday August 19th at 14:00 in the Church of the Brunella in via Crispi, Varese (Italy).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Notes from Gary Nixon's funeral

I have a friend in the D.C. area who attended the memorial service for Gary Nixon, which was held in Timonium MD, earlier today. He wrote me a personal email describing the service, and with his permission, I'm posting it here. 

I hate it when journalists rewrite source material in ways that allow readers to think the journalist was on the scene. Rather than edit or rewrite my friend's account, I'm sharing it almost exactly the way he shared it with me. IE, it's not written as a 'story', just as a quick email. 

Still, I think it creates a great impression of the memorial. In life, Nixon was a guy who took racing seriously but life with a dose of humor. (In a second email, my friend noted, "Somebody at the funeral told a story of Gary Nixon taking a horseshoe crab shell and fitting it to a radio-controlled car chassis, and subsequently putting beachgoers into a tizzy. I almost plotzed when I heard that one." It sounds as if the memorial was held in that spirit. My friend's account follows...

The funeral home had about 150 seats set up, and nearly all were full. There were large poster-size photographs of Gary from throughout his career arrayed all along the periphery. They even had one of his old Cub short trackers on display, and they brought it up to the coffin area.

There were several floral arrangements highlighting the number 9.

Don Emde was the first to speak. Talked about how much Nixon hated losing (a recurrent theme throughout the service).

Steve DiGarmo(?) was next. Talked about how Gary helped a lot of young guys get their start in dirt track.

Gary's sister Peggy gave a little insight on their Oklahoma childhood.

Carrie Ann (an absolutely beautiful lady, by the way), his daughter, gave a great speech, touching on some religious aspects, and also about what kind of dad he was.

Stephanie, a young lady who worked as his secretary, talked about how he was the only person to come visit her when she ended up in a psychiatric unit.

Stephanie's brother cracked everybody up while demonstrating how Gary mumbled. Stephanie jumped in and added that she was the official office "interpreter" for customers who couldn't understand Gary at his old shop.

Jay Springsteen was obviously very upset. It was an open casket service; Gary was wearing a riding jacket; the coffin was draped with a checkered flag; Jay, before the service, went up to the casket and he said his goodbyes to Gary, and left the casket very distraught. Jay gave a short speech about how sometimes you just wanted to choke Gary, but you knew that there was no one better to have as a friend.

Erv Kanemoto nearly broke down. He was obviously in a lot of distress, and Mary had to come to the podium to support him. He could hardly speak. That was the saddest part of the whole service. He obviously was quite affected by the whole day.

There was a 15-minute presentation on two big screen monitors. An early picture on the farm in Anadarko. Gary as a kid on a small motorbike. Then a montage of about 100 racing photos. Then a series of family photos. There was a soundtrack throughout, and when the racing photos were going, that Carly Simon song "You're So Vain" started playing, and the family members were actually singing along - it was oddly funny!

I was not happy with the amount of people there from the racing community. No Kenny Roberts. No Earl Hayden. No Gene Romero, Yvon duHamel or just about anybody that he competed against. I think Gary Fisher was there, but I am not sure. Perhaps there were some industry people there, but I didn't see anybody I recognized from Kawasaki, Suzuki or any factory. Dick Mann did send a letter that he wanted read to the attendees.

Basically the whole service focused on funny stories about Gary's antics. I haven't laughed that hard in a long time. Mary, before the service, had envisioned the whole thing as a "roast" - but it was not disrespectful.

Sometime in the next day or so, I'll try to reach the current national #9, Jared Mees, and ask him if his choice of the number was inspired by Nixon, or some other rider.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A note from the Dept. of 'Hmm...'

Yesterday, I saw two unrelated(?) press releases that, together, make me wonder what's up.

First, I read that Yamaha would not field an official factory team in World Superbike next year. The press release actually seemed to threaten more than just the factory SBK effort, with language that suggested a general de-emphasis of racing and a [relative] increase in customer-focused marketing efforts.

Then, Francis Batta, who runs Suzuki's official SBK team released a far more cryptic statement to the effect that if Suzuki withdrew from the World Superbike series in 2012, he would not seek to affiliate with another manufacturer.

Are we about to see the World Superbike Championship suffer a MotoGP-style grid recession?

I haven't been paying too much attention to the European bike market, nor do I know what the implications of a larger European credit crisis would be on motorcycle sales over there. But, it can't be good.

Shifting gears...

I've written in the past about Honda's interesting R&D in the area of mind-controlled machines. Now I see that Toyota has collaborated with a couple of hot shops to produce a bicycle that will shift gears based on the rider's merely thinking about it. Apparently the system -- which picks up the rider's brain waves with a sensor-filled helmet -- then sends those signals to a smartphone via bluetooth which, in turn triggers servos that change gears... phew! -- 'learns' when the rider wants to shift.

You used to describe a really good-handling motorcycle as one that, you just had to think about where you wanted to go, and it would turn.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lane splitting: Killer app for motorcycles, or just a motorcyclist-killer?

I have been writing about lane splitting for years -- it's the 'killer app' for motorcycles on increasingly congested roads. While a few states have considered amending traffic laws to specifically allow motorcycles to 'filter' through slow moving cars, as of now only California lets motorcycles filter. In the rest of the world, it's de rigeur (literally, filtering is a riding skill you need to demonstrate to get your license in the UK.)

My feeling on this is that allowing lane splitting in more U.S. states will drive up motorcycle sales and encourage the use of motorcycles as primary vehicles. When we lane split, not only do we get where we're going faster and with lower carbon emissions -- but by taking a vehicle out of the traffic column, a lane splitting motorcycle also marginally speeds the entire traffic column. And if lane splitting is the factor that encourages a driver to become a rider, then at his destination (in many cases) he or she frees up a parking space, too. So cars spend less time circling the block looking for a spot. Again, reducing carbon emissions and saving time for everyone, not just motorcycles. And, if making lane splitting legal across the U.S. increased the number of motorcycles in daily use, all motorcyclists would be safer. Right now, one reason car drivers don't notice us is that they're not used to seeing us, so they don't anticipate our presence and 'watch for motorcycles.'

The argument against lane splitting is basically that the vast majority of car drivers think it's not a killer app, it's just lethally dangerous. Many U.S. motorcyclists (especially non-Californians) share this misconception. Lane splitting is not inherently more dangerous than riding in the traffic column. By that, I mean lane splitting in a responsible, skilled way -- I've seen plenty of dumbasses lane splitting at speeds that make it dangerous, but those guys ride stupidly when they're not lane splitting, too. If you're an idiot, it's not lane splitting that's dangerous, it's motorcycles period. (The one consolation, I suppose, is that idiot motorcyclists really only endanger themselves. I guess if they were in cars they'd be even more dangerous.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, lane splitting: is it the killer app for motorcycles, or just a killer?

My friends at Aerostich, who created 'Ride to Work Day' in the U.S., recently sent out an email with a link to a study by Steve Guderian (any relation to Heinz? I'm not sure...) that attempts to tease the risks of lane splitting out of existing traffic accident data. You can - and should - read Guderian's study here. I get the feeling that he had a bit of a pro-lane splitting ax to grind, but safety studies going back to the Hurt Report in the '70s have all suggested that the strategy is less risky than it looks to most car drivers.

Back in the day when I commuted between San Diego and Motorcyclist Magazine's offices in downtown L.A., I lane split for hundreds of miles a week, and developed a whole theory of doing so as safely as possible. Basically, lane splitting is not as a riding exercise -- can I fit my motorcycle through that gap? -- but an exercise in data processing. Riding between columns of traffic is, in this sense, like riding in traffic generally: The only safe speed is the speed at which you can see, process, and control for every visible risk. If you can't process the onrush of data at the speed you're traveling, you need to slow down, increase gaps and following distances, until you're back at information equilibrium.

I've long been planning to write about this at length, but last week, MCN (in the UK) posted this excellent guide to filtering - as they call it. If you live in California and want to be a good lane splitter -- or if you live in the rest of the U.S. and are forming an opinion about lane splitting, read MCN's guide to filtering here.