Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Trials and tribulations of motorcycle journalism

I noticed a little surge in the traffic to my 'Searching for Spadino' post over the last couple of days, and it hit me a few days late that the fourteenth anniversary of the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire had passed without my noticing it. (I have an excuse; Saturday was a big day in my little household, but that's another story.)

I feel that my search for an understanding of what motivated Pier Lucio Tinazzi's courage on that fateful day was one of the stories of my career as a motorcycle journalist, but I'll always be a bit resentful that it took me about five years to pick up his trail. By the time I got to Val d'Aosta, there was an official conspiracy between the governments of both France and Italy to prevent the true story of the tunnel fire from seeing the light of day.
Pier Lucio Tinazzi was the bravest motorcycle rider in the history of our sport. Cycle World's editor David Edwards didn't think his life was worth a story in Cycle World. I guess it would have displaced one of CW's indistinguishable features on custom street trackers.
I did manage to piece the story together, but I'd have known a lot more if I'd arrived in Italy within a few days of the fire, before the various authorities involved realized that no one would have to shoulder the blame if no one talked. And I could have arrived there within a few days, because I was aware of the fire while it was still burning, and stories of "that guy on the motorcycle" were coming out within hours.

At the time, I was working full-time in an ad agency in the Canadian Maritimes. I'd written a couple of magazine stories that had been well-recieved, and I'd written a book, 'Classic Motorcycles' that was selling like hotcakes. So while I was not famous amongst motorcycle journalists, I was no neophyte.

I realized the magnitude of the story right away, and something told me that if I didn't cover it quickly, it would get buried. So I pitched Dave Edwards - then the editor of Cycle World - on the idea of me getting to Italy ASAP. I sent clips of writing samples and a bio; I explained that I'd grown up within sight of Mont Blanc; I spoke fluent French, the language spoken at one end of the tunnel, and had decent comprehension of Italian.

In order to ensure that the pitch actually reached him, I did something that I've never done before or since. I spent $40 to overnight the query via FedEx. I enclosed a cover letter making it clear that I was sending it this way to ensure that he actually got it and opened it. I made the case that it was worth spending $40 on the query letter because this was the most important story, maybe ever, in motorcycling.

I was right about the significance of the story. The FIM posthumously awarded Tinazzi its Gold Medal, and the Italian government also awarded it's highest civilian honor. I never even got the courtesy of a response from Edwards.

That wasn't the only time I was fucked over by him, either. I pitched the story of the 1939 British Army motorcycle racing team's escape from the Nazis to to Cycle World's then-Features Editor Mark Hoyer. Hoyer agreed that story would make a great feature, and we agreed it was worth a couple of grand. (An incomprehensibly large writing fee by today's standards; there's been catastrophic deflation in this business.)

I was so desperate to write it that I spent the entire fee on travel and research, gambling that I could turn a profit on subsequent sales. I spent a week in England at the British Library, the National War Museum, and the official Army archives, gathering a ton of great raw material. Although at the time I had only a handful of photos from the 1939 ISDT, I got lots of other great supporting graphics, including photos of the bikes, photos of other military trials competitions, and photos of several key players in the story.

I returned from England, wrote it up and sent it in to Hoyer. And, in grandiose and typical Cycle World fashion, I heard... nothing. After several months, I wrote to Hoyer and asked him what the plans were for my feature and he told me that Edwards had basically killed the story. "Dave says there aren't enough photos. He wants more action pics from the event," and this really took the cake, "preferably in color."

Color photos. From 1939.

What a fucking ridiculous thing to say. In 1939, the ratio of B&W to color photography was probably 1000:1. The only color films on the market had ASA ratings of less than 25, and were entirely unsuitable for action photography. It's doubtful that there was a single publishable image shot in color at the entire 1939 ISDT, and the odds of finding any now are asshole-tronomical.

As for the trail of emails in which I pitched the story, and we agreed on a price for it; as for the fact that based on that agreement I spent close to $2000 researching it; as for the fact that I then delivered the story that I'd promised to deliver... None of that entered into Dave Edwards' calculus.

I eventually recouped some of the expenses when Classic Bike ran the story, and the research trip provided the basis for a screenplay that I wrote about it - and that is, maybe, finally, getting some traction now. So I don't regret writing the original feature, I guess.

Still, if you're wondering why Cycle World issues were completely indistinguishable one from the other for years, you can probably blame the difficulty that the lower-ranking editors and staffers had pushing stories through what they called 'the Dave filter.'



As for the Spadino story... I finally got around to writing it five years later, while I was living in Paris. I sent it to Mitch Boehm who was then the editor of Motorcyclist and never heard back from him about it. But a year or so later I moved to Southern California and got a job Motorcyclist's staff. One day, I asked him why he'd never published that story, and he told me, "Well, it was about searching for that guy, and you never really found him."

Uh, Mitch... he was dead. I wasn't literally looking for him. In the end, the story ran in magazines all over the world, including Bike in the UK which, at the time, was the foremost English-language motorcycle magazine. They've never stopped getting reader mail about it.

Every now and then, riders ask me why I no longer write feature stories for motorcycle magazines. The main reason is that writing's my job, not a hobby; I can't make enough money from it any more. But another factor is that (while neither Edwards nor Boehm are currently heading an editorial staff) I'm sick of dealing with editors who just don't get it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Remembering a Clash in the pan...

As we approach April 1, I’m put in the mind of World Moto Clash. When I first read about this upstart racing series - on Motorcycle.com in December of 2010, I checked the date to see if it had originally been posted on April Fool’s Day. It was presented in a totally deadpan way, if you didn’t actually watch the video embedded in the story, which was a little over the top.
After my eyes had stopped rolling, I took a second look at the Google search results for the phrase, and realized that the first postings related to it appeared right at the end of March, 2009 and that the story had been uploaded to Superbikeplanet.com on April 1, 2009.
It was a pretty elaborate spoof, complete with a website combining a Leroy Neiman-esque illustration on the clash page, er, make that ‘splash’ page, crap Photoshop work, and enough umbrella girls to offset the conspicuous lack of technical detail...
The breathless account of a racing series that would offer a $1 million purse per event mentioned that it was being promoted by NewGuard Entertainment. Googling that phrase led me to a LinkedIn profile of NewGuard’s CEO Stanford Crane, which except for the fact that the guy was named ‘Stanford’ and supposedly lived in Silicon Valley, could almost have been a legitimate profile. (By which I mean that the profile was just fatuous enough that a bunch of entitled trust fund babies and accidental tech millionaires really might hail such a buffoon as a new media guru. Maybe 'CEO' was short for Chief Elaboration Officer.)
It’s the curse of our times that even the most preposterous spoof runs the risk of paling before things that actually happen. (And yes, I’m still talking about World Moto Clash. I haven’t switched topics to the Republican primaries...) So, for example, WMC talked of the riders as the ‘cast’, and essentially presented the series as little more than fodder for a reality TV series about racing.
Gosh, Stan, those pesky Canucks have just stolen your idea. Argh. Racing is compelling because it’s an end in itself; it’s real. Turning it into ‘reality TV’ is the absolute worst idea ever.
But, back to WMC. The thing that really had me going is, the primary investors mentioned were filmmakers Ridley (Blade Runner) Scott and his brother Tony (aka “One More Take Tony”.) Now I give Ridley, the genius who created Blade Runner, more credit. But, I actually know Tony and wouldn't put this profoundly bad idea past him. 


OK, I guess I don’t really know him; but I spent a week hanging around him about 20 years ago. At the time, I was working as an ad agency Creative Director up in Calgary. Some friends of mine on the local film production scene got wind of a huge commercial for Marlboro that was going to be shooting in the Rockies nearby. The production company was RSA - Ridley Scott Associates, and the ad agency was Leo Burnett. I knew that there was no chance I’d get any closer to a really big time shoot in my career, so I convinced a friend, who was in charge of hiring local talent, to make me a production assistant. 
RSA and Leo were openly describing it as the most expensive commercial shoot ever. I heard that the budget was $8 million - at a time when I was shooting commercials for anywhere from $50-150k. For the part of the shoot I worked on, the entire crew stayed at Jasper Park Lodge. For the handful of readers who know what that means, I’ve just said plenty about the wretched excess that characterized big-budget ad work in the last, glorious days of cigarette ads.
My job was driving, and my assignments usually allowed me to stand quietly where I could watch the crew working. When it became apparent that I knew the mountain roads between Banff and Jasper far better than anyone else on the crew, and that I was the best driver (and after Tony had a few close encounters with elk on the road) I was assigned to the director's car.
At the end of the week, the production company offered to keep me on the payroll for the next location, which was in the red rock canyons of Utah, but frankly, by then I’d seen enough. 
Actually, I saw almost enough on the very first morning when the entire 80+ person crew and agency entourage was in cars and waiting to head to the first location for a 4 a.m. call and then we sat in the cars until we realized that no one had woken up Tony. The next day, we had another 4 a.m. call -- magic hour comes very early, in Alberta, in June -- and we waited again. This time, Tony was ready but at the last minute he realized he’s forgotten his cigars in his $1,000/night cabin. Nobody rolled until an assistant had found the cigars and run back with them.
So, you might imagine that to me, it was entirely plausible that Tony Scott really believed he could create a major motorsport championship out of thin air. He knew all about racing; he’d filmed Days of Thunder. (Janet Maslin, of the New York Times just about nailed it when she wrote, “It's one thing to market a film solely on the strength of its star. It's quite another to go ahead and make the film that way.”)


All of this post, so far, has just been a tip of my hat to whoever created the World Moto Clash spoof. Olly olly oxen free... you can now reveal yourself. I'm betting that whoever you are, you remember the days when Southern California did, in fact, spawn a wild motorcycle racing series in which a cast of larger-thatn-life characters rode a crazy mix of bikes - everything from full-on factory MotoGP racers to radical shed-built tire-shredders. It was less than 20 years ago. It was the first iteration of Formula USA. 


World Moto Clash? You gotta' be kidding me. Bring F-USA back, though? Fuck yeah!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Terrorism in France: the motorcycle connection

For the last few days, France has been transfixed by an attack on Jewish school, in which a terrorist on a scooter rode up, and shot a rabbi and several kids. Security camera footage showed the killer chasing one girl down and grabbing her by the hair. When his 9mm handgun jammed, he put that gun down and drew his backup piece, a .45 and shot the child in the head.

Within a very short time, investigators had linked this crime to two other murders, the first of which took place a little over a week earlier. In both of those cases, the shooter was also scooter-borne, and dressed similarly (black leather, full-face lid.) Suspicions that the killer was, in all cases, the same person were strengthened by ballistics evidence.

A few months ago, I wrote about a motorcycle-riding (Mossad agent?) assassin targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. I'm not sure if the French killer, a 24 year old French citizen of Algerian descent named Mohammed Merah, was simply using his own and only personal vehicles on his one-man jihad, or whether he'd specifically chosen that mode of transport for all the same reasons we dig scooters ourselves - mobility in congested traffic, tight turning radius, etc...

Scooters and motorcycles were really central to cracking the Merah case. The first victim, a French paratrooper, was killed by someone (Merah) who arrived to look at a Suzuki Bandit the soldier was selling on the French equivalent of Craigslist. (Bandit 1200s, and other big naked/standard bikes are very popular in France, where there's a huge culture of hopping them up and customizing them.) Witnesses identified the killer as riding a Yamaha T-Max scooter.

There was speculation that the first killing was racially motivated, as the soldier was also of North African descent, and he was a member of a unit that had been in the news a while back, because a few soldiers in that unit had been discharged when it was discovered they were part of a right-wing neo-Nazi movement.

Three more soldiers were shot (two of whom died) while using an ATM, and witnesses again described the scooter, French cops were desperate to solve the crime, and started to throw some resources at it. They didn't act fast enough to prevent the worst tragedy, which was still to come.

Witnesses couldn't agree on the color of the scooter between the two incidents, which made cops suspect that someone might have repainted it. Sure enough, a local Yamaha dealer told investigators that someone had been in his shop asking about doing just that.

Meanwhile, cops were digging into the servers of the web provider where the first victim had advertised his bike, and identified 500+ computers that had clicked on that link.

As I write this, Merah is holed up in an apartment in Toulouse - a ratty industrial city in the south of France that, by and large, has seen better days. He's surrounded by a French SWAT team, and I'm sure that all of France is hanging on the TV, waiting for the denouement of this series of crimes, each of which was a sort of escalation of awfulness.

But once it's over, you can be sure that France will begin to wonder, as the U.S. did after 9-11, whether they shouldn't have caught Merah sooner.

When the cops looked at all the Internet Resource Locators of the computers that had looked at that first Suzuki Bandit ad, they highlighted one - a computer owned by Merah's mom. This should have been a real "sainte merde"(holy shit) moment, because Merah was a known terrorist who'd been arrested for planting roadside bombs targeting Canadian troops in Af-ghastly-stan. (Canadians? I'm especially mad now. Where's my hockey stick?)

He was one of the guys who escaped in that massive jail break about a year ago, after the Taliban engineered a tunnel (into, not out of!) a prison in the town of Ohfuckitsbad. OK, maybe it was on the outskirts of Kandahar.

But seriously... How did Mehar get back into France? Where did he get (several) guns? And once the cops had an accurate description of the scooter, how on earth did he move even a block on it without being picked up? Don't be surprised when it emerges that French cops failed to connect the dots because Mehar was a jihadist and they had their hearts set on catching a right-wing terrorist whose killings were motivated by ethnic, not religious hatred. Or if it turns out that they actually knew where Mehar was before the Jewish school shootings, but were hoping that he'd lead them to co-conspirators.



One thing that should surprise you, though, will be if GoPro (the official camera of AMA Pro Racing) starts running ads that it's the official camera of psycho-serial killers...

I guess it's a small cause for cheer that, at least, the French cops found Merah before he could upload all his murder videos to jihadist web sites, where they'd add insult to injury and possibly inspire others. Or would they have had that effect?.. Ironically three of the four soldiers Merah shot -- he'd targeted soldiers because of France's participation in the Afghan conflict -- were of North African origin and whether they were practicing Muslims or not, definitely had that religious background. And even most radical jihadists would be aghast at the images of small children being grabbed and shot at point blank range.

I wish I had a snappy ending for this post, but I don't. Good news to follow, I hope...

Monday, March 19, 2012

March Madness, marketing ‘badass’

Now that I live in the Midwest, even I can’t avoid March Madness. (Yes, there was something else happening last weekend, besides Daytona.) Last Saturday night, I found myself out with friends at a sports bar while KU -- or was it K-State? -- played Detroit. Since I don’t actually own a television, I can’t tear my eyes off one when I am exposed to it, even if it’s just showing basketball -- a game that I have such a rudimentary grasp of, that I still think refs should call traveling infractions.

One cool thing for me, though, about March Madness is that its a pretty attractive advertising opportunity. As a once-and-still-occasional advertising creative director, I like to see what’s being run in high-profile, expensive advertising slots. I paid extra attention when I saw this ad run, for the Can-Am Spyder ‘Roadster’ trike...


Grudgingly admiring glances from badasses at a road house. "Look, I'm balancing on the fence rail, so I obviously could balance a real motorcycle if I wanted to." Harley-types 'flipping hands' as they pass on the road... It's all about convincing potential Spyder buyers that, yes, they'll be real bikers, whether they lean into turns or not. 

The ad, produced by Cramer-Krasselt, a Chicago agency with a strong creative department which also crafts Corona’s “Find your beach” ads, is notable for a few things, not the least of which is, simply, that it’s running. At a time when motorcycle sales are still, overall, pretty much swirling in the toilet, the Spyder’s the only really outstanding success story in the whole motorcycle industry.
“Wait a minute,” I can hear you saying... “That thing’s not a motorcycle!”
Just what the Spyder is, or isn’t, has been the subject of debate since it first appeared for the '08 model year. Steve Thompson, blogging on the Cycle World site, concluded not so long ago that it was a motorcycle. To his way of thinking a motorcycle’s not defined by its single track and the way it leans into turns, it’s defined by the exposure of the rider -- to the elements and to risks that car drivers, ensconced in their air-bag-equipped cages, don’t face. I suppose you'd support that claim by pointing out that a Ural with a sidecar is obviously a real motorcycle, albeit a strange one. But I can't help but wonder if Cycle World would have put up a blog post that branded Spyder riders as feckless wannabes. I'm pretty sure I've seen ads for the Spyder in CW.

As a motorcyclist of a certain age, I can remember when Can-Am was without question a motorcycle brand. Although it was mainly emblazoned on dirt bikes, Can-Am flirted with road bikes, too. There were even a handful of 250 GP bikes made (with fore-and-aft parallel-twin two-stroke Rotax motors.) 


I don’t know why Bombardier’s experiment in motorcycles low-sided while its Skidoo and Seadoo brands fared well. The fact that Can-Ams are now highly sought after by the vintage MX set is evidence that bikes offered competitive performance; perhaps they were ahead of their time and were only appreciated later on.
With that in mind, I was bummed when the brand was resurrected for the Spyder trike, and not a proper bike. I grudgingly admitted that Bombardier Recreational Products had made the right strategic choice when I started hearing rumors within a few months of the launch that sales were an order of magnitude better than projections. (Actual figures for this new category are hard to come by. Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) is not a subsidiary of the much larger, publicly traded Bombardier company. BRP is, if you can believe it, actually 50% owned by Bain Capital. Yes, that Bain Capital. Anyway, they don’t issue an annual report.)


You may not recognize him under that helmet and behind those shades, but that's Mitt Romney.
It’s safe to draw two conclusions from this rumination... One is that whether Bain -- and by extension Mitt Romney -- are vulture capitalists or not, the success of the Spyder in the marketplace probably created a few jobs on the Can-Am assembly line up in Valcourt, Quebec. And another is that judging from the comments posted on YouTube videos of the Spyder, the acceptance of the trikes by ‘real’ bikers will be slow in coming.
That won’t affect Spyder sales, though, since BRP’s not targeting motorcyclists as a primary audience, but rather the vastly larger market of would-be bikers. And if ads like that one can make them feel like real bikers, Cramer-Krasselt have done their job. Now, if only a real motorcycle company would invest this heavily to attract new riders...

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Venus Rising: Elena Myers can still totally kick your ass

I was hanging on my AMA Pro Racing app a few minutes ago, as the second Daytona Supersport race laps clicked off, and I breathed a big sigh of relief when Elena Myers avoided the problems she had in Race 1, and scored her finest win yet. It's been close to two years since she made history by surviving a crashfest at Infineon, and becoming the first female to win an AMA Pro Racing road race national. (Yes, I know about Sherry Friduss.)


Before the 2010 season, I wrote a profile of Myers, knowing that as soon as that first win came, I'd be able to sell it to magazines all over the place. She came through for me, and versions of the following story ran in Australia, the UK, and in the old Road Racer X mag, here in the U.S.


The next couple of seasons weren't particularly easy ones for her, and there were times -- I have to admit -- that I thought maybe I'd been wrong in pegging her as 'The One'.


Anyway, I was glad to see her get that second win, and in honor of that occasion, I dug out the Elena profile that ran in MCN back in the spring of 2010. It's a bit dated now, but it will give you a pretty complete background on the fastest female road racer, well, ever.


Elena Myers can kick your ass

When a 16 year-old girl won the AMA SuperSport race at Infineon Raceway last week, history was made. Until this year, no female rider had ever even finished in the top ten at an AMA 'national.' But at least three people weren't surprised: John Ulrich, the man who discovered Ben Spies; Kevin Schwantz, who has mentored all the American riders in the Red Bull Rookies Cup; and Elena Myers. Here's her story so far...
Elena's racing for John Ulrich, one of the cagiest talent-spotters in the AMA. He's the publisher of the influential U.S. magazine Roadracing World and the owner of one of the longest-standing privateer teams in the AMA Superbike paddock. Ulrich told me, “She has as much talent at her age as Ben did, or John did.” Those would be Ben Spies (perhaps you've heard of him) and John Hopkins. They were two of his earlier proteges. 
MotoGP, take note: Elena Myers is the world's fastest girl. Readers, take not: Whether or not she gets to MotoGP, rest assured that she can kick your ass.
She hit my radar three of four years ago because I have several friends who are track day operators and expert racers in San Francisco's local club, the American Federation of Motorcyclists (aka the AFM, it's one of the three or four most competitive club scenes in the U.S., and it regularly spawns AMA pros.) They told us that they were used to being blitzed by a diminutive 12 year-old girl. Hmm... 
Her name came up again a couple of years later when Kawasaki's U.S. press maven Jan Plessner, who has long been a supporter of women's motorcycling in general and racing in particular, arranged for a backdoor support program for her; Team Green provided a 650 twin and then a ZX-6R and arranged for Cary Andrews whose shop, Hypercycle, had tuned for several top AMA privateers to build them. Hmm, again.
Elena has much in common with the other young guns who are currently shooting for MotoGP stardom. Her dad, Matt, was an ex-racer who put Elena on a tiny dirt bike when she was seven years old. There are differences, too; some of her rivals' parents have spent well into six figures on equipment and specialized coaching. 
Elena's dad's a motorcycle mechanic at a mom-and-pop shop in the small California town of Stockton, so their equipment budget's been tight, but Matt also worked part time at a local kart track and ran a pocket-bike racing series, giving Elena almost limitless track time at an impressionable age. 
“When you're a parent,” Matt said simply, “you naturally want to find things to do with your kids. At first, that's all it was. We didn't have the delusions that a lot of other parents have. I'd meet them at the track and their kids were five or six, and they had their whole lives planned out.”
No kidding. Kevin Schwantz who was the coach for the short-lived U.S. version of the Red Bull Rookies Cup, told me, “In the last few years, I've seen a lot of kids who were racing because it was what was expected of them, it was what they'd always done growing up and it was driven by their dads. Elena's not like that; the motivation is coming from her.” 


Although she was fast enough, and having fun, on pocket bikes and tiny supermoto bikes those first couple of seasons weren't a revelation. Her initial breakthrough came when, during an off-season, Matt fitted her tiny RM85 with bigger wheels and slick tires and she began to ride it in a road-race style. “One time, we were on track with Tommy Hayden (Nicky's brother, and a top AMA Superbike racer in his own right.) He was on his supermoto bike, training,” Matt recalled, “and I watched Elena ride right around him on the outside of a turn. That's when I thought maybe she could really go somewhere.” Hmm...
Towards the end of 2004, they took Elena and her 85 to a track day at Thunderhill; her first trip to a full-sized race track. The event organizer offered her a ride on his 125 GP bike. It was a bigger, faster track and a much faster bike than anything she'd ridden. One thing that's emerged in her career to date is that when the bike gets bigger and faster, she gets better. Matt found a used Honda RS125 and Elena became the youngest rider ever to petition the AFM, to allow her to get a race license. The AFM turned them down.
Not to be denied, in early '05, Matt convinced OMRRA (the club that races out of Portland International Raceway, in Oregon, about 600 miles to the north) to allow Myers to come up and take their new-racer course. Elena took the course, raced – and won, twice – against local experts. At the end of the weekend, they gave her an expert license.
Her Portland results paid off by attracting the interest of John Ulrich, who publishes Roadracing World magazine and runs one of AMA Pro Racing's longest-standing and most-successful privateer teams. 
“I'll never forget meeting her,” Ulrich told us. “She walked right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, 'Hi, I'm Elena Myers.' She had a firm handshake, and I thought, I haven't met many 12 year-olds like this. We had a conversation like the one I had with John Hopkins when he was 14.”
Based on that first impression, Ulrich told us, “I thought she was The One,” the first girl with a viable chance to become a really top-tier road racer. Later he added, “Having raised two girls myself, and having always told them, you can be whatever you set out to be, I almost felt there was a moral imperative to help her.”
Ulrich arranged for her to get a better 125, and laid out – right from the start – a plan that led to her arriving at Daytona as soon as she turned 16 and was eligible for an AMA Pro Racing Expert license. Elena's road racing education continued as she raced that 125 in the USGPRU series, and then Kawasakis in WERA events (two second-tier national series.) Although she wasn't utterly dominant, she usually shared the podium with much older and more experienced competition. 
Cary Andrews attended a few events, but most of the time it was just her and her dad going to races. At the end of the season, when Elena went to the WERA Grand National Final at Road Atlanta, Ulrich dispatched one of his own team mechanics, Michael Tijon, on a bit of a spy mission. He was to see how well set-up Elena's bike had been. Tijon reported back that there was a lot of room for improvement.
Elena's pretty much in charge of her own rider-development program. She sticks to herself at the track, though she's benefitted from some coaching with Jason Pridmore, an ex-AMA pro who runs a track school called STAR. Her dad, Matt, was mid-pack club racer back in the '90s, who never scraped together the funds to run a whole season. He told me he didn't really know where his daughter got her speed. Interestingly, when he talks about her there's a measure of parental pride but there's also a lot of respect; he talks about her as if she's an adult, not his kid. “She's a straight-A student at school, and takes a very methodical approach,” he says, struggling to rationalize her success. “She just seems to understand how things work.”
She comes across as a pretty normal 16 year-old girl in conversation, which is to say – despite the fact that she's more articulate and confident than most kids – that she's not completely capable of explaining her success, either. Like any number of young riders I've spoken to over the years, she's got lofty goals. “I'd like to win an AMA championship,” she told me, “and then go to MotoGP.”
“I'm light, and that helps, but on the heavier bikes I need to be stronger, so I've been lifting weights,” she told me. She seems more comfortable talking about the physical side of racing than the psychological side, or her own motivation. But she's perceptive enough to add, “Being a girl, I get a lot of extra media attention and that helps.”
Again, no kidding. One of our conversations took place after she'd spent an afternoon doing three back-to-back live radio and TV interviews. “It's fun for me,” she said. “I don't think about what I'm doing; that it's live and all those people are seeing me.” 
At the beginning of this season, Ulrich's long-term plan reached the end of its first phase when, right on schedule, Elena rolled into Daytona with a newly-minted AMA Pro license and a GSX-R600 from Ulrich's stable – the bike that Jason Disalvo rode last year (he's riding for ParkinGo Triumph in the World Supersport Championship this year.)
“It took the first part of the day to get over the steepness of the Daytona banking,” she told me. “I wasn't scared but... nothing could have prepared me for that. Then the AMA week was amazing; I've been waiting four years for this to come and I was a racer and part of the show.” 
Ulrich found room for Elena under the Richie Morris Racing awning. So far, 'The Elena Project' has picked up support from Lucas Oils but it's still a pretty grassroots effort. A San Francisco lawyer and track-day addict has bought a few airplane tickets; a motorcycle journalist has put up enough money to buy a pair of tires. Her dad works as a general assistant in the pits.
Being part of a real team, with better equipment and a real crew chief, was great. “I love having a team-mate,” she told me. “I use all of his settings!” 
Although the SuperSport class is no longer the lion's den it was when Miguel Duhamel raced a full-factory Honda in it, it's still insanely competitive. Cameron Beaubier returned to the U.S. from a full season in the world championships, and Jake Gagne, J.D. Beach, Joey Pascarella, and Tommy Puerta are or were all front-runners in the Red Bull Rookies program. By barring factory teams and placing an upper age limit on riders, the AMA's turned SuperSport into the class you enter to make your bones. So far this season, fewer than half the races have gone full distance; red flags have flown far more often than chequered ones. It's intense.
Elena's pair of seventh-place finishes at Daytona weren't exactly a disappointment; she was the fastest Suzuki rider and the results seemed to suggest that the current class rules slightly favor riders on Yamahas. At the next meeting, she was caught up in a first-lap melee and – worse luck still – crashed on spilled fluids on the warm-up lap of the first race at Atlanta. That crash left her with a purple foot, but she limped to her bike the next day  and survived two more stoppages for a top-five finish. 
Her tough-mindedness isn't in question. Ulrich – a real hardass himself – told me, “I've never seen anyone with more of a race face. You should see her come in and look at the fucking monitor, especially if she's having a little trouble!”
“This year, she's really stepped up,” Kevin Schwantz observed after that Atlanta event. “There's still a gap to those front three or four guys but she's closing it. I think Road Atlanta would have been a good track for her, if she hadn't been so banged up.”
Her luck had to change, and at the series' fourth round, Infineon Raceway outside of San Francisco, it did. In the first of two SuperSport races that weekend, one of her rivals crashed, causing a stoppage and taking himself out of contention. On the restart, Elena was in a lead pack with Cameron Beaubier, who had been fast in qualifying, and Joey Pascarella.
Just past half-distance, Pascarella highsided himself into outer space. Elena and Beaubier swapped the lead over the next few corners, but Pascarella's crash brought out another red flag and ending the race. The order had been Pascarella-Myers-Beaubier on the last green-flag lap, but since Pascarella had caused the red flag, he was dropped to last, as per AMA rules. Despite the confusion surrounding the end of the race, there was a crush of paddock insiders around the podium, and a profound sense that history was being made. Myers said, "When they told me the race was called, they said, 'You got second, but wait, Joey crashed and you got first,' and I looked at my Dad and he was crying." 
A win is a win, and that was the first one ever by a female rider in an AMA road race 'national.' And in the fullness of time it will settle in on Elena Myers that there is no such thing as an 'inherited' victory. But, no real racer wants to win by a technicality; Elena Myers still wants to beat the guys to the chequered flag. Her plan to do that is simple: rider harder.
“I was talking it over with my dad and I need to charge every single corner,” she told me. “I need to make the bike wiggle on every corner exit and get more comfortable with it moving around.” Interestingly, she actually looks more comfortable on the bike than ever. “When I see photos of myself from the last couple of races,” she said, “I look like I'm on a Sunday ride.” So she's riding harder, against tougher competition, and getting more relaxed. That bodes well.
Kevin Schwantz told me, “She's got one thing that every great racer has, and that's a huge heart.”
Will she win more at this level? Almost certainly. Championships? Don't bet against it. Is she The One? Will she be the first woman to race in MotoGP? Maybe. But this much is already certain: Elena Myers can kick your ass.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

A modest proposal for AMA Pro Racing: homologate EVs now


In the last few weeks, we've seen another round of press releases presenting nice-looking (or at least, nicely lit) EV race bikes. First, there was the Mugen Shinden -- Honda's back-door entry into the 2012 TT Zero race.

Then, the BRD Redshift MX broke cover. BRD's been one of the tougher-talking EV makers of late, and the company has pretty much said that this bike has the performance envelope of contemporary 'Lites' class ICE motorcycles.

Now, you can talk all you want about 'race performance.' The only way to back that up is to actually race. And not just against other EVs. (After all, there are races for solar-powered cars that obviously offer 'race performance' in their own class, but so what?)

The first time any EV maker that actually does offer race-level performance -- at a true national-championship level -- it will provide a huge boost to that builder, and the EV moto industry as a whole. I'm talking, like, finishing mid-pack in a 600 Supersport race on the Mugen (or similar.) Or putting the Redshift into the Main at an AMA SX Lites race, or qualifying for an outdoor National (and surviving it.)

Doing so wouldn't just make those bikes a hell of lot more interesting, it would make those races a lot more interesting, too.

So here's my modest proposal to AMA Pro Racing: Eliminate technical restrictions and homologation requirements on EVs in those classes. Let them be wide open to EVs.

There would need to be some basic rules to ensure safety. But we could adopt/adapt rules already devised by organizations like TTXGP. And, to ensure that the EVs weren't dangerously uncompetitive, they'd obviously have to meet the same qualifying standards that the rest of the (ICE) competitors meet. It's not as if there aren't some very competitive riders who'd be happy to twist the rheostat for any EV entrant; Tommy Hayden leaps to mind. And, to prove that they've got enough battery life to last a real race distance, EV entrants could be obliged to show up at one of the AMA tracks used last year, at their own expense, and lap at or above qualifying pace for race distance plus a couple of laps.

We can worry about tightening technical standards to ensure that ICE bikes aren't disadvantaged, or worry about instituting homologation rules re: number of units sold, etc., if and when EVs start showing up on podiums (podia?)

If any EV builder can actually do that: prove his bike will last the race distance at the race pace, pass a basic safety tech, and qualify with the ICE bikes, I think they should be allowed to race in AMA national events. Frankly, I don't think anyone can do it, but if they can, they should be allowed to.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A year after the tsunami, whither Japan?

A year ago, shortly after the tsunami, I put up a post entitled, Do something good for Japan. And yourself. Buy Honda stock.

For what it was worth, my stock-picking advice hasn't beaten the market as a whole in the intervening year. Honda (ticker: HMC) has fluctuated between $28 and $40 over the last year, and is currently trading about where it was the day before the tsunami hit. Over the same period, the Dow climbed about 11-point something percent.

In the past year, there's often been a sense in international business reporting that Japan was dealt a sort of final blow by the tsunami, but that it was a failed economy even before that. Much has been made of the country's recent trade deficit, which was the first in decades.

We've recently read of Hero - an Indian motorcycle company - forming a strategic alliance with Erik Buell, and touted as a potential buyer of Ducati. Hero is freed to make such investments because the terms of a longstanding strategic partnership with Honda were allowed to lapse. Motorcycle industry observers might conclude that Japan's significance as a motorcycle manufacturer is destined to shrink while India, China, and Korea are all rising moto-makers. I too have been one to point out that at least in the U.S., the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers' sales are moribund and that the Big Four's American divisions seem conspicuously devoid of imagination.

All that admitted, I recently read a great article on the Globe and Mail's web site which argues that the Japanese economy is in far better shape than most investment experts (or motorcycle experts) acknowledge.

The author, George Abonyi, states...

Seeing Japan’s first trade deficit in more than 30 years as signaling the end of its sustained export success is misleading. Japan has had a current account surplus since 1985 – the widest measure of trade that includes financial inflows such as dividends, interest payments, and royalties – standing in 2010 at $196-billion (U.S.), a more than threefold increase since 1989, during which Japanese exports to China grew more than 14-fold. This helped turn Japan into the world’s largest creditor country, with net international investment position (total domestically owned assets minus its foreign owned assets) estimated in 2010 by the IMF at over $3-trillion. Japanese export performance thrived in spite of an appreciating yen that, paradoxically for a supposedly failing economy, strengthened during global (and domestic) economic crises from more than 120 to the US dollar in 2007 to around 80 today.

By contrast, the U.S. has had a current account deficit since the early '90s, and our historical chart looks downright alarming. So, if you're an American who's worried about Japan's economic indicators, my advice is to dig a bunker, baby, and invest in precious metals - including plenty of lead and brass, if you get my drift.

To read more about the state of the Japanese economy - which still has an enormous impact on every aspect of motorcycling and motorcycle racing - go here.

Luckily for all of us, it's not over, over there. And, while my Honda advice hasn't been too valuable in the year since the tsunami, I still say, hang on to it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Two Wheel Drive, Part All. Oops, make that All Wheel Drive, Part 2

In my previous post, I described Rodney Aguiar’s ‘Christini’ 2WD 450cc road racer. It occurs to me that I never actually explained how Steve Christini’s system, which is pretty cool, actually works.

 
Christini-equipped bikes have a second drive chain, running from the countershaft to a point high on the frame. From there, a shaft transmits power under the fuel tank. A pair of counter-rotating bevel gears in the steering head transfers power down the steering stem to the lower triple clamp. Two small drive chains in the clamp transfer power out to a pair of telescoping shafts that run parallel to the fork legs, down to the front hub. The key feature of the Christini system is those twin shafts, which spin in opposite directions.

At the front hub, a Sprague clutch–similar to the freewheel mechanism in a bicycle’s rear hub–transfers power to the front wheel when rear-wheel speed exceeds front-wheel speed by more than a prescribed ratio.

Any system that applies positive torque to the front wheel in a turn makes the bike lean in. That ‘steer-torque’ complicated handling enough, so Christini decided to minimize the torque effects of his own system by using counter-rotating shafts that canceled each other out. Those two shafts also provide a second, unexpected benefit: they act as gyroscopic steering dampers, dramatically reducing the ‘bump-steer’ effects produced by other front-hub motors.

The first 450 SuperSingle prototypes were fitted with forks from street bikes. But it turns out that the stock motocross forks can be converted (revalved and set up with reduced travel) with results every bit as good. The one catch is that since the stock MX fork legs carry the front axle ahead of the fork axis (instead of directly under it as in street bikes) the converted bikes have almost no trail. This results in poor front grip.
The solution, if you’re building a conventional RWD SuperSingle, is to fabricate triple clamps with a negative offset. That would be a major machining and fabrication job for a bike fitted with the Christini system, since the lower triple clamp contains two chain drives. The last time I spoke with him (which was years ago) Rodney Aguiar told me he was going to convert his 2WD SuperSingle into a street bike, since he’s tired of losing the front on the track. (No, I don’t mean he’d rather lose the front on the street, I mean he won’t push it as hard on the street!)

Battle of the Boffins... 

Despite the fact that the ‘hydraulic’ versus ‘mechanical’ 2WD system camps are quick to point out each other’s disadvantages, it was interesting to hear Öhlins’ R&D Chief Lars Jansson and Steve Christini agree, almost word-for-word, on some things.

For example, both of them realize that one of their problems is that all manufacturers’ development riders are experts and ex-racers. “A lot of new motorcycle technology is geared towards the top riders,” Christini lamented. “Our technology is different; the worse rider you are, the more you benefit. There’s no reason to think that it will be different on the street.” And both men concluded that in road bikes, 2WD must be marketed as a safety feature, not a way to boost performance.

In a performance-driven marketplace, where most of the people with media access are expert riders, that’s a problem. Back when I was actively researching this, I called a handful of respected experts and asked them what potential they think there is for 2WD in road bikes. It would be an understatement to say that, on balance, they’re skeptical. Here’s what they had to say… 

Tony Foale is the author of ‘Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design.’ When I last spoke to him, he was working as an R&D consultant to the Segway Corporation.
Tony Foale told me, “I can’t see it being much of an advantage in a racing situation, since under acceleration, when the extra grip would help, there’s no weight on the front wheel anyway.
“Now in the dirt, that’s totally different; there, I can see immediate advantages, because in sand or mud, only a little power, maybe 15%, would need to be transferred to dramatically improve handling. All you need is enough power to prevent the front wheel from ploughing; all it needs to do is lift itself up out of the sand or mud.

“On tarmac, there would need to be a lot more power transmitted to the front to make a difference. Maybe in the context of much longer, lower machines, something like Gurney’s ‘Alligator,’ there’d be an advantage.” 

Kevin Cameron is an ex-GP mechanic, ex-AMA technical inspector, author of several books including ‘Sportbike Performance Handbook,’ and ‘Top Dead Center 2.’ He’s the technical editor of Cycle World.
Kevin 'I'm not as angry as I look' Cameron said, “It’s especially well-adapted to any situation where there’s significant weight on the front wheel; either when it’s too slippery for a motorcycle to gather all its weight onto the rear wheel, or in some longer-wheelbase design. A longer wheelbase could be tolerated with two-wheel steering, but even at that... where traction is good, I just don’t see the advantage.

“If I were going to market this I’d go straight to BMW. Their buyers are that funny-hat crowd; they love to have features no one else gives a shit about. Put me down as a stick in the mud.”
James Parker is an independent industrial designer. He created the RADD suspension system used on the Yamaha GTS1000, and has continued to develop it. He is currently working on a RADD Moto2 proof-of-concept.
James Parker, who once actually patented a 2WD system for motorcycles said, “It’s a lot easier to get drive the front wheel of a hub-center steering system. If the GTS had caught on, we’d have more two-wheel drive motorcycles–not a lot of them, but more of them.

“If you look at really good ABS, like the Hondas now have, or traction control like some of the new Ducatis–those things can offer significant safety advantages on the street, but they’re trying to eliminate them on the race track. So if racing is the way we introduce new technology, does that mean consumers won’t want those things on street bikes?

“I live in Santa Fe, at 7,000 feet. We get a lot of snow here, and people who have four-wheel drive cars have confidence in situations where they shouldn’t. That might happen with two-wheel drive motorcycles, too.

“One of the great strengths of motorcycles is their simplicity. When you make them more complex, they become a different animal. That said, my new suspension system has less weight, less unsprung weight, less steered mass and lower steering effort than either a conventional fork or earlier RADD prototypes. I suppose if I find a manufacturer that wants to use it, I might revisit my 2WD system and see if I can make corresponding improvements.” 

Damian Harty is a vehicle dynamics specialist at Prodrive, and an expert on the advantages of all-wheel drive in automobiles, he’s also an avid rider and has studied motorcycle dynamics. 
Damian Harty told me, “At less the 20 degrees of lean angle, in a racing situation a motorcycle is basically a unicycle, but between 60 degrees and 20 degrees, in the ‘early corner exit’ phase there’s an appreciable amount of weight on the front wheel, and any advantage in acceleration you get in the early part of corner exit is carried all the way through the acceleration zone; all the way down the next straight.

“Bear in mind that in racing, at the end of 30 laps if you’re half a bike-length ahead, you win. As long as it was allowed under the rules [highly unlikely at a time when all sanctioning bodies are desperate to cut costs–MG] advantages wouldn’t have to be that great for everyone to adopt it, and soon afterward, manufacturers would be offering it on road bikes whether it was an advantage on the road or not, since it would be something they could charge for.

“In rallying, where driving is very unrehearsed and reactive and where grip is unpredictable, all-wheel drive is a huge advantage, and I think it’s got a rosy future in road bikes for many of the same reasons.”
Neil Spalding, the author of MotoGP Technology, said, “Everyone says it’s marvelous in the wet, no one says it’s marvelous in the dry. Reduced grip is the obvious thing about wet conditions, but everything changes–rider inputs, for example, are much less violent.

“What hamstrings motorcycle development is, you develop some great new two-wheel drive system, or radical new suspension and it’s got to be completely transparent; it’s got to feel exactly like a conventional front fork or whatever. That’s why I think it’s toast, unless it’s an electric motor in the front hub, as part of a KERS system. Then, you’ve got the thing sitting there, you might as well use it.”
If you want my opinion, or even if you don’t… There’s a popular expression, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” In fact, it would be more accurate if people said, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” In short, the reason we haven’t already seen it is mostly that our industry experts aren’t really expecting to find a benefit there and, given strapped development budgets, manufacturers don’t want to. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Links to three amazing photo sets that have just come online...

I think there's some 'rule' about updating your blog on the weekends, but what the hell... In the last day, I've been made aware of three amazing photo sets that have recently been posted online.

The first, which I got to by following a link on RoadracingWorld.com, is Life Magazine's coverage of the 1948 Daytona 200. That photo set is here. It's probably the best photo essay I've seen from the days when the '200' was run on the beach.

While I was on the Life site, I saw an even cooler photo essay shot about 20 years later, when a Life shooter and writer spent a few days hanging with the San Bernardino Hells Angels. This photo-essay, which the editors of the magazine ultimately killed, is by far the best of its kind.

Last but not least, regular readers will know that I've long had a 'thing' for the 1939 edition of the International Six Days Trial, which I wrote about here.

For years now, I've been pushing a screenplay based on the escape of the British Army motorcycle team from the Nazis, after WWII broke out during that event. Some day, I'll tell you a funny story about the roundabout route that project's taken, but the reason it's top of mind for me right now is that the Austrian Museum of Technology recently scanned and uploaded a fantastic set of images shot during that event, which was held in Salzburg, Austria. These recently uncovered pics give a much better visual sense of what the event was like. (Thanks Liesel, whoever you are, for the heads up!)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Is two-wheel drive still crazy, after all these years?

AWD evangelist Steve Christini
A year ago, at the Indy trade show, Steve Christini told me that he was shifting emphasis from his 'all-wheel drive' motorcycle kits towards building and selling complete bikes. Now, I see that Steve's company is offering a road-legal supermoto-style 450 that incorporates his system for delivering power to the front wheel. That makes Christini the first OEM I know of with an AWD motorcycle intended for use on asphalt.

Personally, the road-legal Christini model that fascinates me the most is his dual-sport machine, which has huge potential to open new terrain to casual off-roaders -- both because you don't need a dedicated transport vehicle or trailer to get to the trailhead, and because AWD is a huge boon to less-than-expert riders. (Steve: That's a hint. Get me one for a long-term test!)

But, I've long been interested in AWD in road motorcycle applications. My curiosity was piqued a few years ago, when I managed to interview a retiring Öhlins engineer about a secretive test program the suspension gurus had conducted, that involved fitting a Yamaha R1 with Öhlins' patented hydraulic '2-trac' drive system.
It was clear that the engineer, a guy named Lars Jansson, really regretted that Ohlins had abandoned the idea of AWD road bikes before really determining whether or not they'd be significant improvements over conventional machines driven at the rear only. 
A while after interviewing Jansson, I also chatted with L.A.-based custom builder Rodney Aguiar, who'd installed one of Christini's drive systems on a 450 'SuperSingle' road race bike.

Aguiar's experiment was hampered by a steering geometry problem that would have been very expensive to correct, so the results were inconclusive. Still, I remain personally convinced that conceptually, AWD offers as much of an advantage to motorcycles as it does to cars. The problem is that the benefits of AWD are mostly conferred to riders of average skill levels. Professional motorcycle testers and development riders are less quick to notice the advantages.

Steve Christini's latest announcement spurred me to go back and dig out a major two-part feature that I wrote a few years back on the future of AWD motorcycles in road applications. Here it is again...

Standing water, wet leaves, manhole covers, diesel spills. Ask yourself one question: Are you more afraid of losing the back on that crap, or the front? If you answered, ‘Front,’ you’d like a motorcycle that could, in a split-second, transmit power to the front wheel. So, why don’t you have one? 
A rare image of the 2-trac R1 test mule
Yamaha and Öhlins devoted thousands of man-hours and millions of bucks developing a hydraulic motor capable of driving a motorcycle’s front wheel. KTM has patented a system that uses an electric motor in the front hub, but there’s no reason to think it will show up any time soon at your local dealer. The most viable two-wheel drive system is the one produced by Steve Christini here in the U.S. In many ways, it’s the most old fashioned; it relies on a system of chains and driveshafts that any gearhead can easily understand.

So far, the two-wheel drive research & development manufacturers have conducted in the open has mostly focused on off-road applications. The results have prompted most major sanctioning bodies to ban two-wheel drive from the sport of motocross. [Although Christini's bikes have been allowed to compete, with impressive results, in Endurocross events.]

What about road bikes? A review of patent applications suggests that several manufacturers have unpublicized two-wheel drive research & development projects. They’re looking to improve handling and safety under conditions of low grip, to gain traction and increase outright performance, or to capture energy that’s now lost in braking and increase efficiency. Occasionally, they drop their veils to test at a public race or tease us with a concept bike, but they’re not eager to talk about their findings. 
All-round cool guy Rodney Aguiar with his Christini-equipped SuperSingle. I lost touch with him after shooting this pic and interviewing him, so I don't know how much further the machine was developed.


A few years ago, Rodney Aguiar–who works with  Roland Sands–fit a Christini two-wheel drive system to one of Sands’ 450cc ‘SuperSingle’ road racers. That was probably the least closely guarded two-wheel drive road prototype though ultimately that experiment failed to determine whether two-wheel drive is Next Big Thing in road bikes, or another dead end.

But the question isn’t, “Would 2WD be the biggest safety advance for real riders on real roads since ABS?” Frankly, I’m already sure that’s true. The question is only, “Will you see it in your lifetime?” 

Before WWII, several manufacturers converted conventional bikes to 2WD for use in trials competition. The use of same-size front and rear wheels, and simple girder forks, made it relatively easy to use a couple of additional chain drives to drive the front hub off the countershaft.

The challenge of getting power to the front wheel became more complex when telescoping forks became the de facto industry standard. Still, dozens of inventors have cobbled together systems using various combinations and permutations of shafts, chains, and cables, or hydraulic drive.

The most (commercially) successful was a Californian named Charles Fehn, who created the Rokon. It’s hardly changed at all in 50 years. The large disc wheels are hollow, and Rokon points out that they can be used to carry extra gasoline or water. If left empty, they apparently make the bike float. Off-road? Heck, you can use this thing off land.

The success of the Audi Quattro automobile in the early ’80s was probably the impetus for Suzuki’s two-wheel drive Falcorustyco concept bike, shown at the ’85 Tokyo Motor Show. It had hub-centre steering and hydraulic drive. The Falcorustyco was purely a concept, although the following year, Suzuki showed the Nuda. It had mechanical drive to both wheels and looked tantalizingly close to something they could build and sell.

In the early ’90s, Yamaha took the slightly less farfetched GTS1000 into production. It’s been reported they planned to produce a two-wheel drive version. They licensed James Parker’s RADD suspension technology for the GTS, and that system was well suited to 2WD. In fact, Parker had patented a 2WD version of his own. 
James Parker, with the president of Yamaha’s U.S. arm at the launch of the ill-fated GTS1000. “I was only a consultant, with no veto power,” Parker lamented to me. Yamaha made adjustments to the hub-centered steering layout that hampered handling, and the rest of the bike was too heavy. Even so, the UK magazine Bike named it one of the coolest motorcycles of all time.
I reached Hiroshi Takimoto, who was one of the key designers of the GTS at Yamaha, via email. He was utterly dismissive of the 2WD GTS project. Tantalizingly, though, he mentioned that Yamaha researchers had studied 2WD long before the 2-Trac/Öhlins project. He told me that while the advantages in the wet were always obvious, any conclusive advantage in the dry remained elusive. 
“It was something we talked about, but that was all,” Parker told me. “There were always two factions at Yamaha. One group that wanted to experiment with new technology and their ideas came thick and fast, but they were in the minority. Another more conservative group made it clear that if the GTS wasn’t an immediate commercial success, development would be stopped.”

2-Trac, developed by Yamaha’s Öhlins subsidiary, has probably generated more publicity than any other 2WD system. Yamaha sold about 400 2-Trac enduro bikes, and there were plans to incorporate it into several KTM models. But in the end, it was another commercial disappointment.

From what Lars Jansson, Öhlins’ research & development manager on the project has to say about it, 2-Trac might have been better suited to road bikes. The Swedes fit a hydrostatic drive to a Yamaha R1, and when they tested it in wet conditions at Karlskroga, it was (unsurprisingly) five seconds a lap faster than a stock one.

Even in dry conditions, the 2WD bikes were slightly faster at mid-corner, but slower overall. The added weight of the 2-Trac components (about 20 pounds in total, of which seven are unsprung) hampered the bike, especially in high-speed transitions. It also takes a few horsepower to maintain the system’s high hydraulic pressure.

But, maybe it just wasn’t given enough of a chance. Jansson also told me, “If you have a rear-wheel drive bike and you give it too much power, the rear will start to slide but the front end will automatically keep pointing in the right direction. If you have power going to the front wheel, as you approach the limit, you have a drift angle at the front, too. That went against our riders’ natural instincts. But all of them were convinced that with more practice, they could have gone faster in the dry, too.”

Only a little power needs to be delivered to the front wheel. Just overcoming the front tire’s rolling resistance makes a big difference, especially in the wet. At that point, all the available traction can be used for turning forces. In addition, wet tarmac is analogous to a flat turn on gravel. Kurt Nicoll, a KTM test-rider who rode both mechanical and hydraulic-drive prototypes told me those were the precise conditions under which the bikes excelled. The front drive doesn’t just kick in when the rear-wheel spins up, it also kicks in whenever the front loses traction, pulling you through your turn after a split-second hesitation.

Although the R1 was the only bike Jansson would discuss, over the course of our conversation it emerged that Öhlins had made 5 different 2WD sport bikes, including two at the request of other manufacturers.

Right about the time that Yamaha was shutting down its expensive 2-Trac R&D program, Steve Christini was filing his patents for a mechanical 2WD system. If his system ends up becoming the industry standard, it will prove that patience is, indeed, a virtue for inventors.

From his perspective, selling the kits wasn’t a business in itself, it was more a way to prove his concept works, and that there’s a demand for it. His long-term plan is to license his system to major manufacturers. I suppose by becoming a manufacturer himself, Christini's saying, If the mountain won't come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain (and, with AWD, Mohammed will be able to ride right to the top...)

Christini’s product works best in terrible weather, but he admits it’s not particularly easy to sell in a stormy economic climate. “If the [industry] hadn’t taken a dive, we might already be talking about some kind of cooperation with one of the big manufacturers,” he says. “Instead of talking about 200 units, we might be talking about 2000 units.”

Right now, the world of 2WD motorcycling can basically be divided into two enemy camps: the hydraulic (aka ‘hydrostatic’) drive camp, of which Öhlins has the most developed technology, and the mechanical drive camp, of which Christini is, by far, the most sophisticated. The third force is electric drive, which is in its nascent stages but which offers the prospect of regenerative braking (aka ‘KERS’.)

The last time I spoke with him, Christini was circumspect about projects for road bikes, but he admitted to confidential discussions with several Japanese and European manufacturers that have current 2WD research projects in the works, and that have talked to him about testing his system. “Although it will need to be refined for the street, we know there will be real benefits there,” he told me. “That’s where Rodney’s bike comes in. He’s helping us out by putting it on that bike and playing with it.” Since the ‘SuperSingles’ class mandates stock frames, it was easy for Aguiar to ‘plug and play’ with a two-wheel drive version.

The end result was that Aguiar's bike was almost the first time anyone had made an open, extensive, apples-to-apples comparison between a two-wheel drive sport bike and its conventional sibling. Aguiar’s had to retune the Sprague clutch to begin transferring power to the front at much slower rates of rear wheel spin; in the dirt, the Christini system allows the rear to spin 20% faster than the front before it kicks in, and spin ratios rarely get that high on tarmac. He tuned it to engage when rear-wheel spin hit about 5%. He experienced that ‘gyroscopic steering damper’ effect, noting that the front-wheel drive bike was much more stable, even though the Christini kit reduces trail.
I don't think Aguiar's experiment really reached a conclusion. Maybe the Christini Supermoto bike will eventually prove what Lars Jansson and Öhlins came to suspect after their tests: That 2WD gives an immediate, massive advantage in wet conditions, and–once riders have time to adapt to it–a slight overall performance gain in dry conditions, too.

But we won’t see 2WD in any high-profile racing series in the foreseeable future. They’re all desperately trying to cut costs, not introduce new technology, and several organizations have already preemptively banned it. So this is one new bit of bike tech that won’t take the homologation route into the marketplace. That means the first 2WD road bikes probably won’t be race reps.

The best we can hope for is to see a few dual sport and adventure bikes with this option in the next few years. They’ll prove to be way more surefooted in real-world/real-rider situations, and may create enough demand to get manufacturers thinking.

In concert with best of breed ABS (i.e., Honda) and traction control (Ducati) a real-time 2WD system would give motorcyclists unprecedented control and confidence in bad weather. It’s all tantalizingly close, but in the words of Paul Simon (whose first hit song was, appropriately, ‘Motorcycle’) “ You know the nearer your destination. The more you’re slip slidin’ away. 

Sometime n the next few days, I’ll try to shed some more light on why this promising technology faces an uphill climb to the market.