Monday, December 24, 2012

Three rides, man: Merry Christmas from Backmarker

I haven't posted much lately. I was up in Canada visiting my family and a few old friends, then came back to Kansas City just in time to get ready for Christmas. I didn't have much bandwidth left for blogging.

Last week, winter finally came to KC, about a full year late -- last year, we had a long, beautiful fall that just kept going until we an early spring arrived. Global warming seemed like someone else's problem, until we had weeks of 100 degree-plus highs all summer.

Anyway, we're guaranteed a white-ish Christmas now, since our one good dump of snow so far has not yet melted. Mr. Chubbs, my dog, saw it for the first time and went bananas. That was entertaining.

I'm gambling that, like last year, I can get away without winterizing my bikes; hopefully I'll be able to start them and ride them at least every couple of weeks. That's pretty pathetic, eh? It's not that they don't deserve some seasonal maintenance, but until I get a garage the best I can do is just ride 'em. At least that way fuel will keep moving through the carbs, oil will still circulate, and fork seals will get a tiny bit of exercise.

It's that time of year when people tend to look back, and forward. I won't bother with the looking-back part; we all lived the same year in the grand scheme of things, and although I've got nothing to complain about personally, my year was mostly just a daily grind, leavened primarily by gym time. I must be training for something, but what? I find myself poring over Craigslist and pausing at stuff like trials bikes.

I've got a bunch of stories I want to write up over the off-season, and hope to find the time.

  • My friend, the artist and motorcycle racer Bill Rodgers recently completed an amazing series of paintings and drawings that incorporate track maps. I can't wait to show them to you. 
  • I'm fascinated by the seeming fall of Falcon Motorcycles. The company, it seems might have been more appropriately given another 'flying' name: Icarus.
  • I'm also fascinated by the paradoxical rise of motorcycle print magazines. What's with those Iron & Air guys deciding to go to print? And I'm aware of two newish British 'zine start ups: Benzina, and Sideburn. I'm going to try to interview the publishers of all three.
  • Any week now, I could have great news about my book, Riding Man, and the long journey it's taken towards becoming a feature film. Who's shopping it to who; who's interested in acting in it, writing the screenplay, and/or directing... that stuff's not a secret, but I'll wait until there's an official announcement before I fill in the details.

Is 2013's single biggest 'question mark' how Rossi will fare, back on Yamaha?

I was thinking about him the other day; how for so long he really seemed to be in league of his own. But it can't last, can it? No matter how dominant an athlete, eventually his rivals catch him -- and it's not because the athlete necessarily ages (though that happens too, of course.)

The first really organized motorcycle racing actually grew out of bicycle racing. At the turn of the century, bicycle racers in velodromes trained behind -- and in some events actually raced behind -- motorized bikes. Such a vehicle was called a 'derny'. It was inevitable that before long there would races between the dernies. But that's not the interesting part of the derny story...

The use of dernies was eventually banned in most types of bicycle racing (though they are still used in 'keirin' competition, and is six-days racing, I think.) Bicycle coaches thought, "Hmm... how will I set  my rider's pace if I can no longer just be there, in front of him?" Some enterprising coaches realized they could shine a spotlight on the track, and their riders could use that as a pacing cue. Although the spotlight 'target' didn't confer any of the old derny aerodynamic advantage, the spotlight was such a powerful psychological aid for riders that that technique, too, had to be banned.

Think about that; just having that thing to chase made them so much faster that it had to be banned.

So it was when riders like Stoner (good riddance), Pedrosa (whatever), and Lorenzo (smooth=quick, eh?) came up through the ranks and encountered Rossi at his peak. And, although it took some time, they got as fast as he was.

On the face of it, that should not have happened. I mean, Rossi was in many people's opinion the best rider of all time. What were the odds that, within a decade, several more riders as fast would surface? (Very small.)

But Rossi was that light ahead of them on the track. Ironically, he was the advantage they needed to rival him, and eventually beat him. Personally, I doubt that Rossi will resume his dominant status. Evidently, Yamaha's racing department shares my opinion, but the marketing department seems to feel the old Rossi commercial magic can be rekindled. The truth will out.

For now, though, Merry Christmas, eh?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

There's cops doing amazing things on cumbersome bikes. And then there's this

Who doesn't love to watch the amazing feats performed by police gymkhana competitors? The precise, floorboard-grinding control they display, riding heavy bikes laden with police equipment really can make us wonder, what we gonna' do when they come for us?

Take these cops, who perform near miracles on Honda ST1300s. I definitely wouldn't want to try to outrun them -- at least, not if I had to weave through heavy traffic...

But, this member of Mexico's elite, Presidential-guard security team seems a little more fallible, as he fails to notice one of Mexico City's famous speed bumps. Not even the top cops can nose-wheelie an 800 pound dresser.

No animals were hurt in the making of this video. I can't say as much for that guy's ego.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Moron thought experiments. Oops, I mean 'more on' thought experiments

I expanded on the comparison between MotoGP and 'mere' World Superbike lap times in a recent Backmarker column on When researching that column, I made an embarassing mistake by not realizing that MotoGP and World Superbike run different course configurations at Aragon. Anyway, that edition of Backmarker actually got more than the usual amount of positive feedback, as well as some angry negative and dismissive comments.

Oh well.

The thought experiment of putting a top-flight MotoGP rider on a Superstock-spec (or indeed, production) bike, to see just how close production bikes are to the fastest bikes on the planet, is admittedly probably not something we'll ever really see conducted.

But that doesn't mean it isn't fun to speculate. When I worked at Motorcyclist, I used to fantasize about another experiment that would have been even riskier to carry out, but way more fun.

In this moto-journalist fantasy, I would go up to some place like the Rock Store or Deal's Gap, where dozens of sport bike riders convene on weekends, including  plenty of rich squids on really tricked out top-of-the-line bikes. You know the type; guys who buy the latest Ducati Panigale or BMW HP4, but don't even take it out of the dealership before fitting a full-race exhaust and a swathing it in carbon fiber.

I'd select half-a-dozen of these guys and take them to a race track, where I'd let them spend a day setting their fastest laps. In between sessions they'd endlessly brag up their bikes, citing comparison tests and dyno figures from memory. Once they'd set their best laps, I'd bring out my ringer.

This would be some totally hard core racer, but not just any racer; a guy picked for his ability not just to go fast, but to go fast on shit bikes. Frankly, I'm not sure who I'd pick today, but back when I was having this fantasy, I'd have hired Pascal Picotte for the task. Picotte was a guy they wouldn't recognize in plain leathers, but he combined world-class speed with a knack for extracting speed from less-than-world-class bikes. He came up through the old RZ Cup system, racing Yamaha RZ-350s, and first attracted real attention in a one off ride when the World Superbike series made a rare stop in Mexico. He was blazingly fast on a bumpy, crap track.

The first time I ever saw him ride in person was at my (then) home track of Race City Speedway, in Calgary. That was scrappy, bumpy track, and Picotte set the outright lap record on a Fast by Ferracci Ducati when they brought it up for some testing. I knew the track intimately, having put in several hundred laps at least, and Picotte did things that were, simply, impossible.

Later still, when the ill-fated Harley-Davidson Superbike program brought Scott Russell in as a rider, they added Picotte as Russell's team-mate and Picotte kicked his ass over and over.

I watched Picotte again, riding the Harley Superbike at Loudon. I was racing there, too; it must have been almost the last year that the AMA had it on the schedule. Both the bike and the track were a handful, and Picotte was breathtaking.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the experiment.

Then, I'd set my rider off to record his best lap on, say, a bone-stock 600. He'd go way, way faster than the fastest squid. (In my fantasy, the squids are all watching from the pit wall, with stop-watches.)

After coming in on the 600, I'd send my ringer out on progressively shittier bikes. Like, maybe the second one out would be a Hyosung 650GT. And on down the line until -- hopefully we'd be at a flowing, technical track, maybe Barber in the eastern version of this experiment -- my ringer was lapping faster than the squids, on a shagged Honda Nighthawk 700, or a Buell Blast.

This would be cruel, but if you datalogged the whole thing it would also be enlightening. Of course, no motorcycle magazine would ever do it, because their bread is buttered by the manufacturers of new bikes.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Parsing Jerez: SBK/CRT/MotoGP

I used to think that MotoGP and World SBK went out of their way to avoid giving punters like me a chance to directly compare lap times. But the recent Jerez test, in which the world's two premier classes briefly overlapped, allowed for a nearly apples-to-apples comparison.

Let's call it apples to quinces.

Sure, the fastest SBK lap -- Laverty (Aprilia) 1:40.1 -- was a banzai effort on Pirelli qualifying tires, while Hayden's fastest lap of the test, coming a day later, was a 1:40.090 done in serious testing-for-data mode on Bridgestones. And Superbike Planet may have been correct to point out that "Jerez has never been a sweet spot for the Ducati." (Although when MotoGP raced at Jerez last April, in similar conditions, Hayden recorded essentially the same best lap, and started from third -- wouldn't that have made it his, and Ducati's, best dry qualifying session of the year?)

More to the point, while the fastest SBK bikes and riders were present in Jerez, the fastest MotoGP bikes and riders were not. I'm guessing that Lorenzo and Pedrosa, had they been present, would have put in laps in the 1:39s, just as they did when they qualified 1 & 2 there in April.

What was more interesting to me than any single best-lap stats, however, was that Melandri and Sykes were both under 1:41 on Superbikes as well. I.E., the best laps recorded by three different Superbikes at this test would have qualified ahead of Ben Spies, who was just over 1:41 on the factory Yamaha MotoGP bike last April.

Unanswered question: how much faster are the fastest MotoGP riders than the fastest SBK riders?

My point in all this is, at least in a qualifying-at-Jerez simulation, the fastest Superbikes are at least as fast as MotoGP prototypes (if the prototypes are ridden by humans, not aliens). 

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, eh?

Ten years ago, we were kind of shocked when, during qualifying for the British Superbike Championship round at Donington Park, Steve Hislop set the outright motorcycle lap record on his Ducati Superbike, eclipsing Valentino Rossi's record set on the fire-breathing Honda 500GP two-stroke. Hizzy was a special case, but it's clear that the technological convergence of Superbikes and MotoGP bikes have resulted in a lap-time convergence, too.

Where were/are the CRT-class MotoGP bikes in all this? Last April, the fastest CRT rider was Espargo, who was four seconds off the pole. Over the course of the year, the CRT bikes in general and Espargo in particular closed the gap. At the season finale last month, Espargo was two seconds off the pole. Which is good, for what it is, although I guess the CRT experiment won't be very long-lived if Honda comes through with a promised customer MotoGP bike.

I don't want to say, "I told you so" (OK, I love saying that) but it was obvious that the CRT bikes weren't going to be faster than the Superbikes from which their engines were sourced. It's still interesting that they aren't faster. 

I mean, you're basically taking a Superbike motor and handing it to a bunch of really smart guys and saying, "Throw out the rest of the rule book; give it carbon brakes, go nuts." But at the end of the day, what they make isn't faster than a production-based bike that's fairly tightly constrained by SBK rules.

Unanswered question: How much faster are the fastest SBK riders than the fastest CRT riders, if at all?

Why haven't CRT class bikes improved on production-based SBK lap times?

  • As important as the bike is to the rider, it's not as important as the rider is to the bike.
  • Current production bikes are fucking incredible, and yes, they really are almost as fast as MotoGP bikes. This is crazy, really. Anyone with a reasonable job can afford a street bike that is almost as fast as the fastest prototype. It's as if a showroom Dodge Charger was only a few seconds a lap slower than Sebastian Vettel's F-1 car.
  • Motorcycle chassis are complex, dynamic systems. If you took all the restrictions off the chassis, you could use a Dodge Charger motor to power a car that could lap within 10% of an F-1 car. It's not so easy with bikes.
  • More than anything else, electronics -- it's your choice whether you call them 'traction control' or 'rider aids' -- have become the rate-limiting factor in motorcycle racing.

Now that Dorna controls both MotoGP and World SBK racing, it will be interesting to see how they go about packaging the two racing 'brands'. One thing is sure: the prototype class loses its raison d'ĂȘtre if it is not faster than the production-based class. With cost-control and safety concerns arguing against any changes that will make MotoGP bikes faster, the only solution in sight is making Superbikes slower.

Until they do that, they'd better avoid putting Superbikes and MotoGP bikes on track together.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Vincent desperately tries to stay afloat, circa 1957

The Vincent Black Prince was a fully enclosed version of the Black Lightning; a last-ditch attempt to update Vincent styling as, by the mid-'50s, sales were flagging. Buyers were, largely, unimpressed. But the experience molding fiberglass for the fairing and bodywork was put to use in the Amanda Water Scooter.
In December of 1955, the last Vincent motorcycle came off the assembly line. But Vincent did not finally go into receivership for a few years. Between ’55 and ’59, the company made a several forlorn efforts to stay afloat. They bid on a contract to produce motors for aircraft target drones, but didn’t win it. And, they nearly created a whole new industry, the personal watercraft sector.

I say, they nearly created a whole new industry. They did sell the first personal watercraft -- the Amanda Water Scooter -- in 1957. That was about a decade before before Clayton Jacobsen II ‘invented’ the jet ski. With slightly different luck, the Vincent company, if not Vincent motorcycle production, would still be going strong.

Sorry I can't embed this video, but if you click here,
you can watch four '50s-era vixens throw a new Vincent into the river. 

I’m not sure who had the idea for the Amanda Water Scooter, but I think that it was brought to Vincent for manufacturing by a company about which I know nothing except a name: Aero Marine

Much of the development was carried out by Ted Davis, a Vincent employee who had served in the Royal Navy, and worked at General Motors’ marine division here in the U.S.

The Amanda had a fiberglass hull with sealed flotation chambers, rendering it virtually unsinkable. Early versions were powered by 75 or 100cc single-cylinder two-stroke motors that gave the scooter a top speed of 7 mph. Those motors were pulled from a stillborn Vincent lawnmower project(!) 

In spite of that very modest top speed -- which effectively made the Amanda a children’s toy -- Vincent shipped about 2,000 water scooters to the U.S. Europe, and Australia. However, Vincent had been working on more powerful marine twins since WWII, when Phil Irving designed a very innovative two-stroke ‘twinple’ (my term) for a parachute-dropped lifeboat.

Davis fit a two-stroke twin in the Amanda, which gave it a top speed of about 20 mph. That attracted the attention of the Arnolt Corporation here in the U.S., which ordered 5,000 of them.

Although there were some early production model problems, including engine heat that weakened the fiberglass ‘deck’, they were largely worked out in later models. The Amanda was equipped with a prop and not a 'jet', but it’s obvious that it was the first personal watercraft and that only bad luck prevented Vincent from having a successful second act in a whole new category.

Unfortunately, while Vincent’s Ted Davis was displaying the Amanda at the New York Boat Show, another Vincent employee drowned while testing an Amanda back in the U.K. The drowning story was picked up by the New York Times. The Amanda project was sunk and, a year or two later, the Vincent company finally went under.

Every now and then, an Amanda shows up on Craigslist. Just the other day, one came up for sale in Dallas.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful? Sure...

With the 2012 motorcycling season winding down, you might be at a loss for anything to be thankful for. It's been a year of processional MotoGP races; the premier class was decided before the finale, which is lucky because Valencia was a cluster-fuck. World SBK was decided by half a point. That would be great, except as the season drew to a close, we got news that MotoGP was effectively taking it over.

On the home front, Kevin Schwantz was screwed out of his future role at the new Austin track, and there's no sign that the fad for ironic facial hair will end any time soon so hip motorcycle shops are populated by kids who look like Hutterite carpenters.

Is there really nothing to be thankful for? Well, I can tell you that as a motorcycle journalist, I've compiled a list of things I'm thankful for, and here it is:
10.) Helmet laws, or rather the lack thereof
If there's a silver lining to every cloud, it's that thanks to ABATE, in most U.S. states, it's legal to ride motorcycles without wearing a crash helmet. This is like nitrous oxide injection for Darwinism. Ridding our roads of the kind of people who want to ride without a helmet is the best thing the sport of motorcycling could ever do, to improve our public relations with other road users.
9.) Electric motorcycle racing
We might not have Chip Yates to kick around any more, but as long as national-championship level races have grids of four bikes, with the polesitter qualifying 20 seconds off ICE bikes' pace and a further 20 seconds between each of the other three qualifiers, all of the other races are bound to seem incredibly exciting.

8.) YouTube fails
As long as idiots love motorcycles, and filming each other with camera phones, there will always be a way to kill an idle couple of minutes.

7.) YouTube saves
While you'll only watch each fail once, but I guarantee you'll replay this mind-boggling saves.
6.) The AMA
You might have thought that when the AMA sold off its AMA Pro Racing properties -- effectively outsourcing their main source of controversy and member frustration -- the AMA would have gotten seriously boring. You needn't have worried. As the Nobby Clark Affair shows, the AMA can still provide hours of entertainment, screwing up in ways you've never imagined were even possible. (Then, in a way that might almost make you think they've redeemed themselves, they'll occasionally do the right thing. I'm not taking credit for it, but my contribution to the Nobby Clark affair didn't hurt.)
5.) Print-on-Demand book publishing
Profitable print magazines used to allow enough money to trickle down to freelancers that people like me could make a living writing for them. Those days are gone, but as they say, "When a door closes, a window opens" (or is it, an elevator shaft opens)? Anyway, the rise of web-based print-on-demand book publishing has made it possible to publish, distribute, and sell crap that would never have seen the light of day when I got into this business.

4.) The resurgence of small bikes
With the popularity of updated bikes like the Kawasaki Ninja 250, and the new-ish Honda CBR250 and new CBR500 -- even Erik Buell's getting into the act with his Indian partner Hero -- we may finally have seen the end of the days when moronic bike shop salesclerks steered novices towards 600cc crotch rockets. That sales strategy ensured only that, a.) most buyers only ever bought one motorcycle their entire lives, and b.) that the barely-used bike was resold sans bodywork on the used market a few weeks later, denying the dealership that sale, too.
3.) Flat Track
Dare I say that, despite some great events suffering weather problems, Flat Track is finally making its long-rumored-and-awaited comeback? In 2012 we saw the series return to some long-lost California venues, and the continued rise of interesting new bikes like Bryan Smith's Ricky Howerton-built Kawasaki -- flat out the sexiest motorcycle in the world right now.
2.) Global Warming
You can deny climate change all you want, all I can tell you is, the forecast here in Kansas City is for a high of 70 on Thursday, making this the warmest Thanksgiving ever. Last winter, I never winterized my bikes at all, I just rode them enough to keep the batteries charged right through December, January, and February. Sure it was hotter than hell last summer but WTF, I'm a Canadian; I can always migrate north to a more temperate climate. In the meantime, riding seasons are getting longer every year, which has got to be good for (what's left of) the motorcycle industry.
1.) Readers
But seriously. Writers write for all kinds of reasons. Some write for fame, which is misguided. Others write for fortune, which is positively delusional. But most of us, including me, write to be read. Every month, thousands of you come back to this blog to check in with me, and every now and then one of you decides to buy Riding Man or one of my other books, which allows me to earn about half of the minimum wage on all this. Tens of thousands more of you read my column every month in Classic Bike, or read Backmarker on the first Thursday of each month on the site. By doing so, you guys pay my rent. For that I'm grateful, but really,.. all I need you to do is keep reading.

Thanks, eh?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Who says ESPN has nothing for fans disgruntled by NHL lockout?

A once-mighty movement with deep Southern roots now seems to be slouching towards obscurity, as does its core group of supporters -- 50 year-old blue collar white guys. Bi-coastal intellectuals and marketing strategy geeks look at it and say, if it can't appeal to women, young people, and the growing Hispanic demographic, it's an endangered species.

No, I'm not talking about the Republican Party, I'm talking about Nascar.

Or at least I was, until last weekend. The only time I see Nascar racing is when I'm walking to the water fountain in the gym on Sundays, if I happen to look up at the bank of televisions in front of the cardio machines. That's when I caught a glimpse of the bench-clearing brawl between Jeff Gordon's and Clint Bowyer's teams, at the end of the season's penultimate race in Phoenix.

"Wow," I thought. "The races end in wild fistfights now? Maybe Nascar really is a sport, after all."

Or, maybe they're so desperate to gain back fans that have been trickling away for the last few seasons that the powers that be in Daytona are making a pitch to win over hockey fans who have nothing to watch because of the NHL lockout.

But seriously, folks. This post's limited connection to motorcycle racing is primarily based in the fact that AMA Pro Racing is, after the Daytona Motorsports Group takeover in 2009, effectively a subsidiary of Nascar.

Motorcycle racing stakeholders have had an off-again-on-again relationship with DMG since it took over. On the off side, we shivered at the prospect of another Roger Edmondson dictatorship. On the on side, maybe American motorcycle racing could benefit from a little Nascar marketing magic. Flat track racing, in particular, seemed like a natural brand extension for the stock car series. But it quickly became apparent that the motorcycle properties were not going to get any investment from the auto side of the ledger.

In hindsight, that may have had something to do with the fact that Nascar's bosses took over AMA Pro Racing just as their car racing business hit the skids. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted Nascar's problems.

Talladega used to sell out its gargantuan 160,000-seat grandstands; last September, they were barely half full. Martinsville Speedway's actually removed thousands of seats it can't fill any more. And International Speedway Corp., (like DMG it's part of the France family empire) which owns about half the series' race tracks, has seen ticket and concession revenues fall by 40% over the last five years. Sponsors like Office Depot, Home Depot, UPS, Mountain Dew and (gasp) Dodge are reducing or eliminating their sponsorship involvement.

Nascar's far from dead. ISC recently made a $2.4 billion broadcast deal with Fox that ensures it will be a major entertainment franchise for the next few years (that deal would be a crazy wet dream for any motorcycle racing series.) But racing is not about one promoter getting one huge licensing fee. A whole ecology of sponsors, teams, suppliers, support series, and fans all need to be able to afford goin' racin' -- something that is, at the end of the day, pretty frivolous to almost all of them. Next year, Nascar embarks on a five-year plan to revitalize the sport and rebuild it's fan base, with a focus on youth and the future.

We may not know what the implications are for AMA Pro Racing, although it's safe to say that Nascar bleeding money is not good for us. There's a cautionary tale here, too, for MotoGP; the mighty stumble and occasionally fall. And, to bring this post around for a full lap, I'd say that if Nascar succeeds in broadening it's demographic base, whoever turns it around can expect a call from the Republican Party.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Yes, I will tidy up your bathroom

If just seeing the hilarious cover my friend Mark Eimer created for this book makes you want to buy it, you don't need to read any further. Click this link to buy it right now.
Are you tired of those dog-eared old copies of Motorcyclist and Cycle World that have been sitting on your toilet tank, and that you have been flipping through once a day since 2004? 

Well then, you should buy my Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia, and you'll have 365 new entries to peruse, for example, I bet you've often wondered whatever became of this guy? Flip to Day 193 and you'll learn...

“Wild Bill” Gelbke was an aeronautical engineer who worked for McDonnell-Douglas, before packing it in during the ‘60s to pursue his dream of building an advanced, shaft-drive motorcycle equipped with disc brakes, twin headlights, and an automatic transmission.

Some dream. Gelbke’s bike (he dubbed it “Roadog”) was more like a nightmare. It was powered by a four-cylinder 152 cu. in. Chevy motor and the shaft drive mechanism incorporated the differential from a pickup truck. It weighed over three thousand pounds.

According to legend, no one but Gelbke could ride the beast. Still, ride it he did – thousands of miles on a whim, just to go for a steak or a beer. Gelbke built a second Roadog for a friend.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and madness and no one who has ever seen the Roadog disputes it. “Wild Bill” Gelbke was killed in the late ‘70s in a shootout with police when a domestic dispute took a turn for the worst. The Roadog didn’t turn well, either. 

The Bathroom Book of Motorcycle Trivia is a great way to kill a couple of minutes a day, and clean up the pile of old reading material on the back of your toilet. It also makes a great stocking stuffer for the other riders on your Christmas list. Paperback, 244 pages, $12.95 to U.S. and Canada. (International readers add $10 for shipping and handling.)

Buy the print edition now by following this link.

Or, get it delivered to your Kindle or compatible device in minutes, for just $5.99.

Guaranteed to include at least one factual error!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The other shoe drops at Suzuki, and idle speculation about the company's MotoGP status

It remains to be seen what effect American Suzuki Motor Corporation's Chapter 11 bankruptcy has on its motorcycle business in the U.S. It's possible that freed from the dead weight of the car business in the U.S., Suzuki's motorcycle (and ATV and Marine) segments will flourish again. Of course, it's also possible that Suzuki's car division was helping to defray some of the motorcycle division's overhead. Either way, the motorcycle division will have to live or die on its own.
The latest generation of the Suzuki Swift got generally positive press from European car writers. But, Suzuki's abandoned the U.S. market -- ironically, just as American car buyers are showing renewed interest in small, fuel efficient autos. Suzuki couldn't resist a cheap shot at U.S. regulators on the way out, citing "the disproportionally high and increasing costs associated with stringent state and federal regulatory requirements unique to the U.S. market."
Note that Suzuki's only getting out of the U.S. car business, not out of the car business altogether. It's got high hopes for continued growth in the Indian market. Suzuki owns 50% of Maruti Suzuki, which is India's largest automaker.

Meanwhile, I note that the other day, Dorna told Suzuki -- which had expressed an interest in a testing-the-waters return to MotoGP in 2014 -- that there was no coming back for a single season. It would have to commit to three years (2014-'16) which would bring their contracts into line with Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati. All of them are presumably contracted to compete through 2016.

Leaving aside the questionable strategic wisdom of having everyone's contract end at the same time (which wouldn't be my choice, if I was Ezpeleta) there didn't used to be much leverage in such contracts. Remember that Kawasaki basically blew MotoGP off at the beginning of the recession, and Dorna basically had to take it. Aggressively going after a manufacturer claiming, essentially, force majeure would not make the Spaniards seem like attractive business partners to any future OEMs considering entering the series.

When Kawasaki bailed out of MotoGP, it maintained a minimal presence in World SBK that started to show results last season and which really blossomed this year, with 16 podium finishes. But Dorna's hard line with Suzuki looks very different now that it also controls World SBK.

Ezpeleta hasn't said, "If Suzuki crosses us in MotoGP, we'll fuck them over in World Superbike." But you have to wonder if that's been implied. Suddenly, there really is only one game in town...

Sunday, November 4, 2012


T6, the 'Carousel' at NHIS. The Skorpion had a tendency to understeer, which is visible in this pic.
The recent Ant West 'doping' incident reminds me of my own experiment with 'nutriceuticals' in search of a racing advantage. It was 1999; I raced in the Loudon Road Racing Series club events. So my 'home' track was a 600-mile drive each way.

At the time, New Hampshire International Speedway was basically the home track for everyone in the Northeast, drawing racers from as far as Washington DC to the South, and Ontario and Quebec to the North. On a big weekend, over 300 racers showed up; 1,000+ entries was nothing. The paddock was bigger, and the best-equipped teams were better-funded than Canadian championship races. Donna Karan's boyfriend used to show up with a 40' transporter and mechanics from Fast by Ferracci.

It would have been an understatement to say that I was outgunned. The year that I left my old club, out West in Calgary, I earned enough points to be promoted from Amateur to Expert. But when I showed up at Loudon to register the first time, I told them I wanted to transfer in as an Amateur.

I raced a shit bike, an MZ Skorpion, in three or four classes per weekend, and spent the first season learning the track and accumulating points. The LRRS club was so big that you didn't graduate straight from Amateur to Expert status, you went from amateur to 'junior', and then started accumulating points again towards your e-ticket.

The Junior races were real dogfights. I mean, in the Amateur class there were quite a few backmarkers who really had no aspiration of moving up. But the only people in Junior were young lions desperate to make Expert ASAP. Although I'd never really openly talked about it, at that point I'd already formulated the idea of going to race on the Isle of Man. I knew that step one was to get an AMA Expert license, which meant that I too had to graduate from the Junior class.
Slicks, Chevy sticker on the number plate. This must be an AMA Pro Thunder race, the year after I had an experience with a bark that was worse than most bites...
The bane of my existence, at that point, was a buzzing pack of Honda RS125 riders who populated most of the classes in which the Skorpion was eligible. The big points opportunity (based on grid size) was the GP Singles class, where winning was nigh impossible, given the technical superiority of the 'strokers.

In between races, I had a pretty comprehensive (OK, World Championship-level) training program going, in spite of the fact that originally mild lupus symptoms were worsening for me. I spent many hours a week cycling, alternating between long cardio stints on the road and short, intense burst training on a mountain bike, on a clearcut hillside near my house. I also had a bicycle trials training area in an abandoned quarry. I might've been old, on a shit bike. I felt as if all my joints were full of sand, and the clock was ticking on my racing 'career', but I had a resting pulse of 38.

I needed any and every advantage (or an RS125, not in the budget) so when I noticed an article about high school football players abusing a combination of creatine and some African bark extract -- the combination was said to increase muscle mass and raise testosterone levels -- I looked into it. At the time the yohimbe bark extract was banned in Canada, but available in the U.S. So on my next trip back from Loudon, I stopped off in Bangor ME, and bought some.

There was no measurable increase in my training capacity. (And I did measure everything.) But that's not to say that the bark extract didn't have some physiological effects. It sure as hell did. It made my heart beat incredibly, incredibly hard. Like, seriously, you could see it through my shirt. It was alarming, but I used it a few times because I thought, maybe it really will work.

I was already skeptical by the time of my next race weekend, but I had some of the bark-extract capsules with me, and on the spur of the moment, I took some before the Grand Prix Singles race. My rationale was, maybe a little extra testosterone wouldn't hurt my chances.

You had to take the bark-extract some prescribed amount of time before your workout. (40 minutes? Four hours? I don't remember.) Anyway, while I waited for the race and my physiological kickstart, it rained. That distracted me, as I had to run around and swap to full-wet tires.

From the off, it was pretty clear that rain was to my advantage. I'd had the 'benefit' of several races' worth of experience, running DOT tires in heavy rain on my previous bike (a Yamaha RZ350) and was used to the weightless feeling of hydroplaning. By contrast, the full-wet tires I now had (so did all my principle rivals) felt supremely planted. I always got a good jump on the 125s into the first turn, but usually lost several places as they got up to speed. This time, only two or three got past, and of those one or two scared himself, letting me by again.

I was in what felt like a safe second place, able to close the gap to the leader every now and then but we were pretty evenly matched for pace. I was doing the math in my head and realizing that second would pay well for points, but that first would be all I needed to qualify for my Expert license. I hounded the dude looking for a passing opportunity when he solved my problem by crashing out in Turn 10, a scrappy, slow, 'folded' right hander where the road course drops down a hill and rejoins the oval's infield.

I couldn't believe my good fortune.

Then, the yohimbe kicked in. My heart started to pound so hard it was bone-bruising my sternum from inside. I actually thought, I'm having a fucking coronary right now. When I tucked in, on the straightaway, my redlining heartbeat pushed my body rhythmically up and down on the tank, ba-bump, ba-bump. With about three laps to go, I agonized over pulling into pit lane, but honestly I felt so close to just dying that I thought, there's a good chance I'll pull into pit lane and keel over there. I figured if I was going to die, I might as well die on the track.

If you're in a safe first place, you really, really want to see that last-lap flag. But usually it's because you want to win, not because you're worried that you're about to have a major heart aneurysm. The last lap took forever.

I did, of course, survive. And while I treasured that crappy first-place trophy, I never took yohimbe again. It was not until just now that I Googled the stuff, and read this under 'adverse affects'. [Comments in red are mine.]
Higher doses of oral yohimbine may create numerous side effects, such as rapid heart rate[no kidding], high blood pressure[ditto], overstimulation[already plenty of stimulation in the race],insomnia and/or sleeplessness. Some effects in rare cases were panic attacks[not good in a motorcycle race], hallucinations[ditto], headaches, dizziness, and skin flushing. 
Yohimbine in combination with drugs that inhibit the reuptake of norepinephrine, such as dextromethorphan, tramadol, some antidepressants, and central nervous system stimulants used to treat ADHD, can cause a hypertensive crises. This is due to those drugs in combination with an a2 receptor antagonist leads to too much norepinephrine in the brain, which causes blood pressure to spike to dangerous levels[I wasn't using any of those drugs, but I was experiencing the symptoms of a hypertensive crisis, which include extreme anxiety. Who wouldn't be anxious, thinking they were having a heart attack during a motorcycle race?]
More serious adverse effects may include seizures and renal failure. Yohimbine should not be consumed by anyone with liver,kidney, heart disease, or a psychological disorder[which pretty much describes anyone who wants to race motorcycles].

While I treasured that crappy first-place trophy, I never took yohimbe again. I'm not sure how the second-place guy would've felt if he'd known I was an unwitting (or perhaps merely witless) drug cheat. I doubt that, after all these years, LRRS expunge me, Lance Armstrong-style, from the record books.

I did use the points to move up to the Expert class, gain an AMA Expert license, use that to qualify for an FIM Expert license, and thus meet the criteria to apply for a TT entry. By then, I was taking lupus control drugs that, while they didn't make me feel funny, would have made me medically ineligible, so I did keep a little drug secret until the end of my racing days.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Dio de los muertos

As I write this, it's about 10:30 pm in Kansas City, on Nov. 2, the Dio de los Muertos. I went to the Nelson-Atkins museum for dinner with friends; there was a beautiful lobby display related to the feast. Afterwards, I came home and walked the dog through streets as quiet as a graveyard. (Well, as quiet as a graveyard on any other night; this is a busy one in some cemeteries.)

In the park, in the dark, something fluttered past us and caused the dog to strain at his leash. Some large nocturnal moth, or small spirit.

I thought I'd stay up a while. Perhaps I'll be visited by the shades of Mike Hailwood, or Joey, or Marco. In the meantime, if you can't sleep, I'll refer you to a story I wrote years ago. It was at this time of year and I was, in fact, searching for a ghost, of sorts...

A note from the Dept. of Modest Proposals: I've got a great new name for Sears Point. It's 'Sears Point'.

Early last Spring, Infineon Technologies AG announced that it would not renew it's naming-rights sponsorship of the race track formerly known as Infineon Raceway.

The deal expired in May, so this past season's AMA race was held at 'Infineon Raceway' but the track originally known as 'Sears Point' is now going by the bland name 'Sonoma Raceway'. Of course, the track's owners would love to rename it again, subject to finding another sponsor.

I guess at one time, Infineon Technologies thought of itself as a big-time sponsor.  While the returns on a naming-rights sponsorship are influenced by many factors, it's unlikely that Infineon really justified the investment that it made here.
Buying naming rights is a funny business. Generally, the clients I'd recommend it to are ones that have a consumer brand, not companies that sell business-to-business like Infineon. It makes strategic sense when the venue's located in a city where the brand has real roots. It's easier when the facility is new and doesn't carry the baggage of a previous name. So calling Kansas City's new multi-purpose arena the Sprint Center is reasonable. If you buy the naming rights to an arena or a stadium with existing heritage,  you're going to struggle to get people to start using the new name. But, if it's a venue that is used 200 days a year, eventually people will associate it with your brand.

Infineon's an electronics manufacturer based in Milpitas, near San Jose. So the Sonoma track was kind of a 'home track' for them. Since the auto industry is one of the company's big customer bases, a track with a NASCAR race probably appealed to them. (Sears Point has a storied auto racing history, having hosted Indy cars and the NHRA, too.) But Infineon's stock  dropped by about 50% over the ten-year period that the track was known as 'Infineon Raceway'. I guess the company just figured it didn't make sense to continue the sponsorship, which I've heard cost a few million bucks a year.

Despite all that money, a lot of people kept thinking of it as Sears Point anyway. It was only in the news a few times a year, the track and its signage are off the beaten path (thus minimizing incidental exposure to the Infineon Raceway name). And after all,they'd been racing there for 45 years so there was a lot of built-up 'Sears Point' heritage.

I've never stopped calling it Sears Point or just 'Sears' for short. No one's ever asked me what I meant, or corrected me. That's why I was mildly surprised when the track called itself 'Sonoma Raceway' after Infineon's deal lapsed.

Why create a third name? I suppose the owners' rationale is that they don't want to reinforce the original Sears Point name again, since they hope to create a track identity under the next sponsor's brand. Or, maybe they worried that people would think it was sponsored by Sears, the department store chain. (The name actually comes from a geographic feature.) In any case, denying Sears Points' heritage makes the track less, not more, desirable to a potential sponsor. They should have gone back to the old name. If they find a new sponsor, they can call it 'Sponsorname Raceway at Sears Point'.

I suppose I'd better say 'when' not if they get a new sponsor. It's hard for me to imagine the track continuing in a business-as-usual way, with a multimillion-dollar hole in the annual budget. It's already been shut down at least once -- in about 1970 -- and has changed ownership something like nine times. In the last few years the Bay Area's storied AFM home club and great local organizations like Zoom Zoom Track Days have had their track opportunities diversified as new tracks have opened -- Buttonwillow, Thunderhill, Reno-Fernley. So it's not as if they don't have other places to race. But it would be a tragedy if real estate developers got their hands on Sears Point.

Anyone who's raced Sears Point knows how much the character of the track's defined by it's great elevation changes. That topography was not lost on the organizers of AMA motocross races, either. Here's a great clip of Brad Lackey and Bob Hannah battling in the 1977 Trans-AMA series race held on the hills above the track.

Gridlock, fuel shortages. How do you like your 6,000-pound SUV now?

As the East coast returns to normal, post-Sandy, I'm struck by the same question I had post-Katrina. In the first case, it was watching vehicles idle until they ran out of gas on clogged highways out of New Orleans. This time, it's the stories of gas stations that, without power, cannot pump fuel and of New Yorkers spending four hours to commute by car on trips that would have taken half an hour if the subways hadn't flooded.

Where are the motorcycles and scooters?

While this is probably what most survivalists have in mind when they think of a motorcycle they can use to outrun the Apocalypse, it truth something like my Yamaha Vino's probably a more effective Urban Escape Vehicle.
My Yamaha Vino is perfectly suited to filtering through gridlock, and gets at least 75 miles to the gallon. A five-gallon jerry can filled before the storm -- which most of the vehicles stuck in New York's post-hurricane traffic nightmare would have burned up in the first morning -- would provide enough fuel for the Vino to travel 400 miles.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

In the Ant West case, it's the FIM and MotoGP who are acting like dopes

An Australian guy, named Anthony, tests positive in a random drug test. 

That sounds like the beginning of an old joke, where the punch-line is 'Anthony Gobert'. 

But Ant West's retroactive disqualification from the French Moto2 event (where the sample was taken, in May) and 30-day ban (beginning October 30, in the wake of the recent ruling by the FIM's International Disciplinary Court) are not the same thing as the "Go-Show's" repeated recreational drug transgressions. Here's why...

West tested positive for methylhexaneamine. This 'drug', which is extracted from geranium plants, is a mild stimulant that wears off in hours. It's similar to caffeine. No expert believes it's a meaningful performance aid even in sports like running or rugby. Methylhexaneamine certainly didn't influence the results of the French Moto2 race, in which West finished 7th, almost one second behind Pol Espargo and six seconds ahead of Max Neukirchner.

Methylhexaneamine confers only a trivial advantage, but it's actually a pretty frequent drug 'catch' in doping controls. Want to know why? 

It's a common ingredient in body-building and training supplements. Putting it in training supplements isn't any different than chugging a Muscle Milk shake followed by an espresso shot before hitting the gym. (That, in fact, is my formula.) The makers of those supplements are under no real pressure to even list all their ingredients, nor is there a standardized nomenclature for ingredients. An athlete that wanted to avoid methylhexaneamine would have to look for...

Geranium -oil, -extract, -flower, -stems, -leaves, Methylhexaneamine; Methylhexanamine; DMAA (dimethylamylamine); Geranamine; Forthane; Forthan; Floradrene; 2-hexanamine, 4-methyl-; 2-hexanamine, 4-methyl- (9CI); 4-methyl-2-hexanamine; 1,3-dimethylamylamine; 4-Methylhexan-2-amine; 1,3-dimethylpentylamine; 2-amino-4-methylhexane; Pentylamine, 1, 3-dimethyl-.
...and that's not even an exhaustive list.

West's 30-day ban (which he has until Sunday to appeal) has the effect of denying him a start in the season finale in Valencia. I'm not sure if, according to FIM rules, he can partake in early post-season tests or whether the ban applies to competition only. Either way, though, it's bullshit.

The irony of West's ban, in a sport in which riders routinely expose themselves to deadly risk, and where there is a traveling doctor in the paddock at all times whose main duty is to provide pain-killing drugs to riders who want to compete with injuries, should not be lost here. That irony is doubled by the fact that West's ban is for a mild stimulant. Presumably he'd've been fine if he'd glugged down a Monster Energy or Red Bull, since those companies are major sponsors.

The FIM and MotoGP have voluntarily acquiesced to WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. Thus, the unique drug control 'needs' of motorcycle racing have been replaced by WADA's one-list-suits-all approach. A big part of the FIM's embrace of WADA actually goes back to the chip motorsport has on its shoulder about whether racers are athletes. ("Look, our guys have to pee in a cup just like Lance Armstrong.") 

WADA itself warrants some skepticism. What began as a legitimate and generally-agreed-as-necessary quasi-independent organization supervising doping control at the Olympics quickly became an IOC-style old-boys club of its own. 

To grow, WADA convinced non-Olympic sports governing bodies to sign up; the FIM pays WADA dues and relies on its testing and protocols. (Half WADA's funding comes from sports governing bodies, and half comes from national governments.) Now WADA, an organization that justifies its existence by catching athletes who have an 'adverse analytical finding', has an incentive to create the longest-possible list of banned substances -- and in effect to ban substances on the flimsiest evidence that they could confer an advantage in any of hundreds of sports. 

The range of sports that have now agreed to turn over their doping controls to WADA is so diverse that athletes face the risk of being banned for the accidental use of drugs that put them at a disadvantage. Stimulants are banned across the board, so they're banned in shooting sports. Jockeys are tested for all manner of steroids.

It would be great if common sense could prevail, and the FIM and MotoGP could consult a few experts  and -- once they'd determined that West didn't gain an advantage or even knowingly cheat -- void WADA's finding. It would be great if the FIM told WADA, "Hey, you give us all the drug reports, and let us decide who's cheating." Instead, WADA and the FIM spent five months smelling and tasting West's piss, holding the test tube up to the light, and then announced West's 30-day ban.

The Lance Armstrong debacle (and BALCO before that) proves that in sports where doping can and does influence results, WADA in particular and doping control, generally, is still playing catch up to the cheaters. Motorcycle racing needs to police the use of recreational drugs for safety's sake, and to keep an eye on performance-enhancing drug technology. But WADA's exhaustive list of banned substances and the FIM "court's" decision in West's case is bullshit

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monday morning Crew Chief, Thursday Edition. The six-motor rule blows. Or does it?

For a while, it seemed is if MotoGP's "six motor" rule could have a real impact on Jorge Lorenzo's World Championship bid. As the season wore down, Pedrosa's team had lots of (expected) life left in their six motors. But Lorenzo, through no fault of his own, wrecked one motor half-way through the season. That left the very real prospect that #99 could have to use a seventh motor, which would mean that he'd have to start from pit lane.

"I see your white smoke," said Pedrosa, "and I'll raise you 250 rpm."
The consensus seemed to be that, should that happen, it would suck. I.E., that we were (again!) experiencing the law of unintended consequences as it applies to MotoGP rules. Limiting the number of engines sort of made intuitive sense as a cost-limiting measure (good). But few liked the idea that the rule might actually be the 'outside assistance' Honda and Pedrosa needed to pull championship victory from the jaws of defeat second place.

With only two races to go, it now seems less likely that this will be a deciding factor in the championship. It could still be so, but only if Lorenzo blows a motor and is DNF somewhere, which doesn't seem to happen that much any more. Most feel that if Yamaha had to fit a seventh motor and thus forced him to start from pit lane, that he'd still have no trouble putting enough points on the board to win the title, thanks to his very strong early season form.

I frankly like the added strategic battle that the six-engine rule brings to MotoGP. If there can't be action on track, there's at least intrigue in the pits, and the battle's well-joined by the Crew Chiefs.

It's cool that (by measuring the pitch of Pedrosa's exhaust note at peak revs) geekfans have determined that Honda's been raising the rev limit on his bike. I think that right now, if Lorenzo finishes right behind Pedrosa at Philip Island (which is not a given, since Stoner's resurgent, but still) then Lorenzo would only have to finish 8th or better in Valencia to clinch. That would make for a boring last couple of races except that we may be looking at a situation in which Pedrosa's team can tune a bike for guaranteed wins while Lorenzo's team have to tune for the finish.

I think it would have been even more interesting if Lorenzo had run into engine life issues a few races ago. That would open up the situation in which his team's best strategy was to take a seventh motor with, say, four races to go even though they may have made their six 'legal' motors last.

Yes, that would mean an unnecessary pit lane start -- which seems like a ridiculous choice -- but it might be better to do that and run all the motors at full power rather than start at your earned grid position in that one race, but run all remaining races detuned for reliability.

I wonder if the teams have a computer simulation that allows them to calculate and optimize this strategy?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

FDA to Monster Energy: "This stuff is killer, dude!"

Red Bull set a new standard with Felix Baumgartner's 'space jump', which was watched by 27+ million viewers on YouTube alone.

People who work in the ad/marketing/sponsorship business are used to Red Bull's eye-popping stunts (and skillful exploitation of social media.) But the company's latest and greatest venture has caused a lot of discussion about the future of 'content marketing.' 

First, they said 'Advertising is dead.' Now, even conventional notions of sponsorship may be deemphasized by companies like Red Bull, in favor of stunts like the space jump, in which the sponsor doesn't share the impression with any other brands. Let's face it, the quality of the sponsorship impression made by that jump was vastly superior to any impression made by a logo on a motorcycle, swirling amongst dozens of other logos, often of competing brands.

 I read an interesting interview with Red Bull's CEO, in which he was asked, essentially, Is Red Bull a drink company that produces content, or a content company that sells drinks? His answer was, It's both.

On the face of it, I thought that was ridiculous. Even if, by some estimates, it spends an astounding 40% of its revenues on sponsorships and related activities, I was sure it was still a drink company. That huge marketing budget proved (I thought) only that the cost of production on that shit has to be very, very low.

But the more I mulled it over, the more I began to question my first take on it. Suppose you ran a more run of the mill business... Say, you're Joe the Plumber, with a commercial plumbing business. You might have an Accounts Receivable department (if you were a really successful plumber.) All of the revenue would come through that department, but that wouldn't mean that, when people asked what you did for a living, you'd say, I'm a bill collector. You'd say, I'm a plumber.

Maybe Red Bull really is refashioning itself as a content company, and it's just that the revenue flows in through the division of the company that sells drinks.

Right now, if the energy drink business catches a cold, motorcycle racers start to sneeze. That's because energy drink companies are among the few non-endemic sponsors pumping cash into the sport. And while the motorcycle racing world may have to fear a long-term shift of that sponsorship towards content projects like the space jump, there are short-term risks to the energy drink segment, too.

I noticed a story in today's New York Times, which reports that the Food and Drug Administration has recorded five deaths associated with the consumption of Monster Energy drinks. This news comes out thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request to get the FDA records, filed by the parent of child that died, who* is suing Monster. The company's stock dropped 14% when that was announced yesterday.

Monster's spokespeople have coyly stated that the company is, “...unaware of any fatality anywhere that has been caused by its drinks.” That's perhaps technically true, although they were aware of the reports of fatalities that got back to the FDA.

The FDA, for its part, notes that while correlation doesn't equal causality, it's also likely that they did not hear of all incidents of death following the consumption of Monster Energy. 

According to the Times, the duty to investigate causality would, it seems, actually fall to Monster. I'm sure they're diligently researching it.

In the meantime, the lawsuit may increase pressure from some** legislators, who have been calling for regulation of the energy drink sector, which aggressively markets drinks loaded with caffeine (and related stimulants) to kids, while blithely including a fine-print disclaimer that the drinks are not intended for children. Of course, we all know that energy drink companies would never encourage kids to do anything dangerous. 

Given the size of the energy drink segment, and its profit margins, I'm sure they'll mount a hell of a lobbying effort regardless of the impact of this lawsuit. Or, Romney may win the election and shut down the FDA. After all, the federal government, in his view, is not as good as the private sector at anything. I'm sure Monster, Red Bull, et al realize that its not in their best interest to profit from products that may be unhealthy, and that they can be trusted to regulate themselves. I mean, the tobacco industry was always very responsible that way...

*I mean, the parent is suing Monster; it's not the child suing from beyond the grave.
**Democratic Party, business-hating, job-killing socialists.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

1 + 2 + 3 - $2,490,000 = ?

High-tech battery maker (and prominent EV motorcycle sport sponsor) A123 Battery Systems of Waltham MA is bankrupt. Over the summer, A123 announced that it would give Wanxiang Group Corp., China’s largest auto-parts maker, a majority stake in exchange for financing. But that deal has fallen through, and now Johnson Controls will pick up most of the pieces for $125 million.

Not surprisingly, the apparent failure of another green energy company has been pounced upon by the Romney campaign, which had earlier accused Barack Obama of "backing losers" when he encouraged government investment in tech like EVs, and solar and wind power generation. 

A123 received a $250 million grant from the Dept. of Energy, and has used about half of it. A123 was given $125 million in refundable tax credits from the state of Michigan that it never collected, although it did collect a $10 million state grant. Before Republicans succumb to too much schadenfreude, however, it should be noted that  A123 received U.S. grants in 2003 and 2007 under Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, before the stimulus grant from the Obama administration. A123 has been supported and endorsed by several Republican legislators over the years.

More than it shows any real lack of oversight, the A123 debacle illustrates an often-overlooked truth: the second mouse gets the cheese. A123 was an early leader in developing EV battery tech. It's undoing came when batteries it supplied to Fisker -- and early player in the EV sports car segment -- had to be recalled. 

It's a bit of a bummer for the small players in the EV-motorcycle racing field, since A123 was an enthusiastic sponsor and technical partner. It remains to be seen whether Johnson Controls -- a $10,000,000,000 company -- will even notice such fledgling efforts, much less support them.

I noticed the news of A123's failure on the same morning that my friend Susanna 'Pinkyracer' Schick posted a six-month old Bloomberg story to the effect that electric cars will save users about $1,200 a year on energy costs.

If you plug that savings into the equation for the electric Ford Focus, it's a little disappointing. The base model Focus EV lists for about $40k -- $32,500 after federal tax credit. That's about double the base-model ICE Focus. It would take ten years or more to recover the additional cost in energy 'savings'. 

I think it's cautiously safe to assume the EV's battery pack will last that long, but a Norwegian university conducted a 'life cycle' study that I noticed on, which suggests that when you take into account the energy used to make and decommission EVs, they'll reduce greenhouse gases by no more than 25%, compared to ICE alternatives.

What does all this mean? It's too early to tell whether electric motors will or even should replace ICE in light vehicles. In the short term, the solution is smaller vehicles that we use less because we have better public transportation alternatives, and increased use of bicycles and walking. I use a motorcycle that gets a real 50 mpg for long/highway trips, and a 70 mpg scooter, bicycle, or walk for in-town trips. If I'm picking up 100 pounds of stuff at Costco, I borrow my wife's nine year-old Focus. There's neither an economic nor environmental case for me to even consider an EV.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Mission, uh, 'accomplished'?

If A&R has its facts right, San Francisco's Mission Motors has just laid off most of its staff. It's been an up-and-down few years for Mission, which burned through its founder and $10,000,000+ while producing a handful of prototype motorcycles. A year or two ago (if my blog is to be believed) the company basically shitcanned its plans to actually produce motorcycles and repositioned itself as a specialty engineering company offering its EV knowledge to the auto industry.

So, how do I interpret this new news?

I'd say the venture capitalists who funded Mission have run out of patience. Either they've just decided to stop throwing good money after bad and written the company off, or they're getting ready to hawk Mission's only assets while there's still time -- "I-P!! Get your Intellectual Property now, while it's still warm. Ten cents on the dollar!..."

The fact that it's going down this way, with ignominious layoffs of most of the staff -- including engineering staff -- is an indication that no existing auto (or bike) maker wanted to acquire Mission's IP, expertise and staff even for a few million bucks. It suggests that most if not all potential buyers for a company like Mission have already internalized their EV teams.

So will Mission just be wound down, or will some company come in and acquire the assets? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I went back and reviewed the notes I made in 2009, when I first wrote about Mission and Brammo, in advance of the first TT race for EVs. I made a road trip up the West Coast, first visiting Brammo and riding an Enertia prototype (the company's first race bike was being assembled while I was there.) Then, I went back down to S.F. to spend the morning at Mission and the afternoon at Infineon, where I was one of the first outsiders to watch the Mission race bike test.

The overall impression that I had was, Mission had a lot more engineers and IQ points in the room, but Brammo had a business plan. (To be sure, Brammo's had to revise its plan plenty, but at least they had one.)

The old expression goes, "What you don't know won't hurt you."

What you don't know that you don't know, however, will kill you.

At Brammo, the guys seemed to have a better sense of what they didn't know. At Mission, they were sure that they knew it all. Brammo's still not delivered its first Empulse, but at least it's still in business, so I feel that my first impression was accurate. And, to help you recall those heady days all of three or four years ago, when it seemed we were only, oh, five years away from a viable EV-moto segment that could seriously threaten the ICE bikes, I dug up a few pics from that first Mission visit.

Hacking the world's first (self-proclaimed) electric superbike. Those were the days.
Forrest North, the company's first CEO, didn't have a corner office, but he had a corner. That's his dog, Tonka. A year or two later, North was in the doghouse with Mission's investors.
Tom Montano, Mission's resident test stud, was an American TT racer before that was cool.
Remember Yves Behar's striking prototype design? After hiring a neophyte designer, Mission threw this out and hired James Parker. That, ironically, meant that the final, gorgeous iterations of the Mission R were designed by a guy who still drew on paper with a pencil. Parker was the right choice, but it was too little, too late. He and I had many long conversations in which he bemoaned the fact that there were too many people at Mission who didn't really know -- or even like -- motorcycles.
A closing thought. Back in 2009 (which is a long time ago, in the tech world) people said, "We're five to ten years away from really threatening the fossil-fuel status quo." And today? We're still five or ten years away. What's God's way of telling you that you have a great pitch, but an oversimplified approach that will fail in the real world? You find yourself presenting at TED.