Saturday, January 28, 2012

In a slightly different universe, for motorcycle journalists...

Farmer smacked the side of his scratched crash helmet, and his cellphone earbuds cut back in. He talked as he rode, on a freeway clogged with motorcycles of all sizes and shapes. Every now and the bikes would filter around a slow-moving car, and the thought occurred to him that even though his commute to work would take longer in such a vehicle, it’d be warm and cozy, and it would turn his commute into a bit of rolling office time.
Although he had a day job at Marketer Mike’s, a hip grocery store, he thought of himself as a screenwriter. In the narrow niche of movie fans, he was actually pretty well known for it, and once, while he was working the cash register at Marketer Mike’s, a couple of customers came through his checkout line in movie club jackets and, recognizing him, had asked him for an autograph.
The whole movie business had been going away for years though, decimated by the Internet. That’s why he’d taken the grocery store job in the first place. 
Farmer wanted to keep working as a writer, and in desperation tried pitching a feature story to one of the last places you could still make really good money at the keyboard: motorcycle magazines. He had a good story angle, that leveraged his film knowledge. 
The problem, he soon learned, was that just having a great feature idea and solid writing chops was no guarantee that a motorcycle magazine editor would ever even see your story. Oh sure, if you could get a high-powered agent, that guy could maybe get one of the top handful of test-riders to look at your story. If a major motorcycle star agreed to appear in your story, then the chickenshit magazine editors all wanted a piece of you. But as Farmer had learned, in Orange County if someone said, “I’ll read it,” what they really meant was, I’ll toss it on the huge pile of stories my intern will flip through.
He’d pretty much given up actually. That explained the grocery store job. But now that there seemed to be a real chance he'd become the next writer-du-jour, editors weren't just calling back, they seemed eager to bend his ear. Mudlen, in particular, was a real talker.
He drove and listened as Mudlen described the ongoing negotiations with Cycle Pages magazine for his breakout motorcycle feature. Actually, they weren't even negotiating for the feature yet; Mudlen and two other independent editors were still negotiating their respective roles and shares of the fees the story would generate, through a bunch of high-priced Orange County lawyers.
"I'm more than just an agent," Mudlen complained. "All I want is the same Associate Editor status on the story that Henfartt will get. I mean, you and I worked together on the query, and all Henfartt did was make one phone call."
Mudlen wanted to talk about two or three other features that Farmer had shown him, but the truth was that Farmer was desperate to close his first feature-story deal before committing to subsequent stories. He wanted to shout, For fuck's sake, you guys get your shit together and agree on your own contracts before Cycle Pages loses interest! But he couldn't. After all, without Mudlen none of this would be happening.
His own lawyer had agreed to negotiate the story deal for a 5% contingency fee. The total amount of money involved would, inevitably, depend on the final word count, but his lawyer was going to try to negotiate a deal with floor price for the feature of about $150k. "To get that floor price," his lawyer had said, "We'll have to be willing to let them also put in a ceiling. I'll try to get that set at half a million."
Half a million bucks would do Farmer a world of good, and really he didn't begrudge the three layers of editors between him and publication their share of money. He didn't even mind that all of them, even if they'd only made a single phone call to pitch the feature, would make more money than he would on the deal.
"Look, I've got to get off the phone, I'm getting to work," said Farmer, as he stopped in the far corner of the parking lot, at the grocery store where he was a $12/hour clerk.
“Yeah, sure,” said Mudlen in a tone of voice that made Farmer think, really he thinks I’m just trying to get off the phone. That just came from the time Mudlen had spent working with editors and publishers, who were always looking over your shoulder to see if there was someone more powerful they should be paying attention to, or checking their Rimberries to check newsstand sales.
As he walked across the parking lot, Farmer mused for the nth time about his career's timing. He'd been a successful ad agency Creative Director, and come up through the ranks as an amateur film-maker, before pitching it in to devote himself to his real passion, writing for the screen. When he'd made that choice, he knew that he'd basically be taking a '0' off his income. But his timing had sucked; as the internet had thrown the movie business into a tailspin, it became harder and harder to make a decent living writing screenplays. The years he'd spent building up his screenwriting career were years in which screenwriter's fees had dropped; if you weren't totally established in one of the few remaining studios, a salary was out of the question. And increasingly, the big movie websites had embraced the 'Movie 2.0' model in which users provided content for free.
Farmer had managed to make a living as a freelancer but in the last couple of years, even the studios that used to pay reasonable freelance rates had cut them in half or worse. Filmist Studios had gone bankrupt and emerged from it, but Farmer had heard they'd cut writers' rates in half. And Movie World, which had been an old boys club for years had been sold and moved to lower-rent digs. After being asked to write for movie tickets and popcorn, he realized that he needed to take desperate action if he was to make a living at all.
He'd always had an interest in motorcycles, and being an expert in movies and film history, he'd written a spec story for motorcycle magazines, about the influence of movies on the sport of motorcycling. It had been turned down by every magazine he'd shown it to, but when Mudlen discovered it online, he thought it had potential as a feature story.
Mudlen had an acquaintance who'd edited one major feature story, and he arranged for the three of them to meet out in L.A. The editor, a cat named Clint Marqwardt, had initially been skeptical about Farmer's idea for a feature, but he'd agreed that if Farmer rewrote the idea, he'd pitch it. Marqwardt made it clear that all Farmer was really writing was the query for the story.
"If they want to produce it as a major feature story, they'll hire an 'A' list motorcycle journalist to write it," he said.
That was fine as far as Farmer was concerned. Just getting a deal for a story like that could open a whole new career door in motorcycle journalism. That was a field that would add two zeros to his salary as a screenwriter. Maybe, for once, his timing was right.
By the time that thought had crossed his mind, he'd crossed into the grocery store. As day jobs went, it was a pretty good one. They knew and even seemed to respect the successes he'd had as a film-maker and liked the idea that he was a successful screenwriter. They nicknamed him 'Movie Mark'.
As he was clocking in, Christina, one of the other clerks, came up and asked him if there was any news on his deal. He hadn’t told most of the employees that he was that close to negotiating a deal that would make him a real motojournalist. He was sorry that he’d let it slip at all, really. He didn’t want the store management to find out, as they’d obviously know that if the deal came through, he’d be quitting. Until then, he needed all the hours he could get.
During his lunch break, Farmer walked up to Starbucks and called his lawyer, Nate Aaron, to ask whether Mudlen, Marqwardt and Rand Creditt (the third independent editor they’d enlisted to pitch the feature) had finally worked out their own differences.
“They’ve all agreed to the contract,” Aaron told him. “But, Marqwardt wants his lawyer to look it over, and his lawyer won’t get back from Wheeldance until tomorrow.” 
Wheeldance was a huge independent motojournalism festival held out in Tooele, Utah. It had been organized decades ago by Peter Egan, one of the grand old men of motojournalism, as a forum for independent motojournalists to show their work and market it to major motorcycle magazines. Gradually, it had become a huge deal itself, and now most truly indy writers couldn’t even hope to get their work on program there.
“I hate that these guys couldn’t get their shit together so we could actually  start negotiating with the magazine,” Farmer complained. “I mean, what if Cycle Pages sees something they like more at Wheeldance? We’ll be fucked.”
Aaron was also representing Mudlen in the editors’ deal, and he told Farmer that the independent editors’ contract was basically hammered out; each one would negotiate his up front placement fee with the magazine on his own, but they’d agree to identical ‘back end’ payments; if the feature was really successful that was where the money was. They’d thrown in a bunch of clauses like, if one of them got interviewed by Orange County Reporter, the gossip magazine about the motojournalism business, the other two had to be present.
“If I lose this deal because guys were fighting over who’ll get quoted in a gossip magazine...” Farmer started to say, but  the lawyer told him that he’d heard Cycle Pages was still interested in negotiating.
“They’re calling me every day,” said Nate, “asking when we’ll be ready to come to the table.”
Farmer had to get back to work. He got off the phone and checked his email quickly. He still had a couple of regular screenwriting gigs, providing a couple of screenplays a month to the last few clients he had that paid reliably. There wasn’t much time left over for those gigs, but he had to keep them going. Those two monthly deals and the fees he made from people who streamed his own film on Netflix paid about the same amount of money every month as he made at the grocery store. All together, it was just enough to live on. 

To be continued...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What actual rocket scientists think about e-moto racing

My friend Lennon Rodgers - who was an actual rocket scientist before he returned to MIT to lead a team that fielded a bike in last year's TT Zero race - just sent me a draft version of a paper that he co-authored with Radu Gogoana and Thomas German. Their paper, entitled, Designing an electric motorcycle for the Isle of Man TT Zero race, and how electric vehicle racing could be used to spur innovation will be presented in Los Angeles in May. 

Since I'm always on the lookout for an interesting story - especially one that I can just cut-and-paste into this blog - I immediately asked him if I could excerpt it. He said that I could, and in the next few weeks, I'll get into a more detailed look at the MIT team's simulations and data captured during the event. Lennon tells me that some of the material they're presenting will put numbers to and provide explanations for the things that I've felt while actually riding electric motorcycles.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to preview this part of their paper which was primarily written by Tom German, who worked at Penske on both NASCAR and IndyCar projects. German, who is now a fellow at MIT's Sloan School of Management, looks at the role racing might play in the development of EV technology as a whole. 

The cliche is, 'Racing improves the breed.' I was interested to get the authors' take on a role for racing that is not just about improving individual bikes or selling a brand, but is about driving pure research improving consumer confidence in whole categories of vehicle.

Electric Racing

The Isle of Man TT Zero is an example of a new breed of “zero emission” races. The aim of these races is to spur innovation that will reduce the environmental impact of consumer vehicles. Racing has historically been a catalyst for innovation, particularly in the early years of motorcycles and automobiles [8]. New concepts were tested on the track, and the desire to win drove companies to produce superior technology. Consumer demand for better performance motivated companies to transfer the technology from the race track to the mass market.

The fundamental question is whether or not zero emission racing will yield the desired outcome. With the goal of contributing to the success of zero emission racing, this section outlines a set of guidelines for designing zero emission races that will yield relevant innovation. In this paper innovation is defined as the act of generating a product or service that (1) reduces the environmental impact of vehicles and (2) consumers want to purchase.

Drive technology

Many diverse participants, including inventors, academia, and corporate research labs, contribute to generating and developing innovative ideas. Consumer-focused companies choose relevant developments, refine them, and promote them to the consumer market. Identifying which ideas will succeed is a challenge facing all vehicle companies. Resources are often not available to invest in multiple emerging technologies. For example, it is costly for an automobile company to invest in batteries, fuel cells, and super capacitors simultaneously. Racing competitions should be structured to accelerate the transition from ideas to mass production and simultaneously facilitate the development of multiple technologies.

Provide valued entertainment

Any repeated event that the public finds entertaining will draw a large number of spectators both in person and through the media (e.g. internet, TV, etc.). Spectators and media drive advertising, which creates an influx of funds through team, rider and event sponsorship. These funds help finance the teams, who in turn develop the technology. Thus, valued entertainment is drawing in extra research and development funds that would otherwise not be available for that purpose (Figure 24). For example, an energy drink manufacturer might be indirectly funding battery research. This could translate into millions of dollars spent on zero emission innovation [9].

The influx of available sponsorship also reduces the risk that the team with the most personal wealth will win. In other words, sponsorships are typically chosen based on which team is likely to win; if the teams generating the most innovative vehicles are more likely to win, these teams would be rewarded through sponsorship funds to develop even better technology. 

Figure 24: Valued entertainment can produce millions of dollars in research and development funds. 
Consider the historical context

Gasoline vehicle racing has evolved dramatically over the last 100 years. Because of this, caution should be used when copying a modern gasoline race with a zero emission equivalent. Zero emission racing might require a different approach, and lessons may be learned from looking back into the beginnings of gasoline racing.

Patience will also be required when directly comparing modern gasoline and zero emission racing. It is easy to forget that it took decades for gasoline engines to make dramatic improvements. For example, it took 50 years for the first gasoline motorcycle to reach a 100 mph average lap at the TT. The electric motorcycles will likely reach the same milestone within 5 years.

Utilize the power of regulation

Regulations should be used as the fundamental tool to engineer a race for a desired outcome. For example, assume that consumers want to refuel their vehicle quickly; if winning a zero emission race is dependent on fast refueling, then the regulations are successfully guiding development. A successful racing innovation platform must focus on technology relevant to the consumer market.

Inspire consumer demand

It is critical that the races inspire consumers to purchase the technology that is found superior on the race track. Otherwise, true innovation will not be achieved through racing, and the objective of reducing the environmental impact of vehicles will not be achieved. One way this can be accomplished is through styling, and ensuring that the race vehicle has brand identity. For example, a motorcycle company should use styling that is distinct and that connects their race vehicle to their commercially available vehicles.

Secondly, inspiration can be found through education. The race should strive to inform the consumer of the environmental affects and implications of the various technologies.

Finally, races can inspire consumer demand by building confidence in new technologies. For example, racing could prove that rapid charging is feasible, which might convince the skeptical consumer that the technology will satisfy their needs.

It's clear that the organization and evolution of EV racing is, like EV technology itself, still in flux. Right now, there's a little too much posturing and rock-pissing going on, and not quite enough effort to actually create a racing series (or series, plural) that provide a rational forum for both competition and R&D. 

What we need are rational rules and a comprehensible 'ladder' from local series through a World Championship. Small-scale innovators need a place to prove concepts, and major sponsors need a potential return on investment. To the extent that proving the merits of EV motorcycles as practical road machines are one racing goal, the TT course remains a very relevant test - but it will never be recognized as such by the FIM or other international organizers. 

That said, what Lennon et al learned on the TT course was more relevant than anything that they could have learned on some short circuit. I'll delve into that in more detail in coming weeks.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Meeting Steve, 10 years on...

Although it's in the 20s here this morning, so far, this has been the winter that wasn't, in Kansas City. All of us motorcyclists are still riding. So it doesn't feel like the middle of January. Maybe that helps to explain the mild surprise I felt the other day when I realized it was ten years ago that I moved to the Isle of Man, with the goal of qualifying for and riding in the TT.

Last night, Mary and I had dinner with two friends, Jim Carns and Bill Jeffreys, who were on the Island with me when I raced there. We ate in a KC brew pub. I had a beer and fish & chips; sat in crowded booth with good company; left after dark in the cold. It brought back some memories.

Getting to know the Island; learning (or at least scratching the surface of) the Mountain Course; racing in the TT... in many ways the first half of 2002 served as a (the?) major milestone in my life. Whatever my experiences on the Isle of Man might have been, they were shaped by one person more than any other -- Steve Hodgson.

This is how I described meeting Steve, in Riding Man...

On the spur of the moment, I wander into the Padgett’s shop in Douglas. It’s a quiet day. There are a couple of guys clattering around a dank workshop, but there’s no one at all in the showroom. Up on the wall, a TV endlessly replays a highlight tape from the 1999 TT races. There’s a little office, off to the side of the entrance. I introduce myself, and Steve Hodgson, the manager of the business, does the same. We start talking, and for whatever reason, my story (“Here I am. I quit my job, sold everything I owned, and moved here to ride the TT,”) strikes him as rational. He’s laid-back. (In the end, I will get to know him well before I ever see flashes of the young Steve–a brain-out two-stroke racer, with a room full of trophies and Barry Sheene in his sights.) He first came to the Isle of Man as a fan, with his friend Phil Mellor. They stood in the front garden of a house on Bray Hill, right at the spot where a sidecar crash came to its gruesome, fatal conclusion. “That’s it!” Mellor said, “I’m never going to race here!”

Steve didn’t want to race here, either. He thought of himself as a circuit specialist. He did come back and race in the Manx Grand Prix, under pressure from his sponsors. The plan was to quickly qualify for a TT berth the following year. That all ended with a massive crash at Aintree, broken femurs, and a sudden desire to get a regular job. Still, like so many motorcyclists, he knew once he’d been here that it was his spiritual home. Mellor eventually rode here and stayed too–he killed himself at Doran’s Bend in 1989. He was fast, no question about that, but the way he rode, everyone had seen it coming.

All this comes out in a long, rambling conversation, uninterrupted by even a single paying customer. Padgett’s main shops are in Yorkshire, where they do enough business to bankroll a major race team. At one point, Steve interrupts his train of thought to point to the television. “Are you really sure you want to do this?” he asks, adding “Just watch.” The video shows a motorcycle (ridden by a guy named Paul Orritt) accelerating down Bray Hill. At well over a hundred miles an hour the handlebars suddenly begin to shake, violently throwing the machine and rider to the road. Orritt’s like a rag doll. We both laugh, rather cruelly.

I ask if Padgett’s still leases bikes for the TT. “Sure,” says Steve. In fact, they have a race-prepped R6 down in the shop right now. “Some American guy leased it in 2000 but he didn’t qualify.” I tell him that I’ve got my heart set on a Honda. We call Clive Padgett, who runs the racing side of the business. Clive tells me I can lease the brand new CBR that they have in the showroom here on the Island, break it in on the road–which will help me learn the course–then we’ll pull off the lights and race it. This’ll cost me £3,000. I could wait and see if anything materializes at Motorcyclist, but I realize that this uncertainty just weighs too much. I put £1,500 on each of my two credit cards, and in two minutes, I’ve got a deal. Although I’m spending money I don’t really have, it’s a huge relief to think that the bike issue has been resolved. 

That's Steve at right. The other two guys are Paul Smith, my Canadian mechanic and my nephew Kris Gardiner. Peter Riddihough, who shot the documentary film One Man's Island, took this photo when we were out on a deserted stretch of Manx road, trying to figure out how to bring the CBR's handling under control. We never did resolve it; we didn't have the right shock spring; we didn't have the right tires; we didn't have right fork mods. Any one or maybe two of those problems could've been over-ridden if we'd had the right rider, but I was stuck with me.

Over the course of the next few months, there was scarcely a day that I didn't drop into the Padgett's shop for a coffee; hardly a day that Steve and I didn't go to The Terminus for a beer after he closed up the shop. Steve was my guide and interpreter, my sponsor, and my friend. We lapped the TT course on motorcycles, and he even accompanied me on a bicycle lap that was nearly the death of him (but his doggedness in completing that lap gave me some real insight into the competitive fires that had burned in him as a racer.)

After I'd gotten to know Steve, I realized that he could be utterly brusque in dismissing people looking for favors. I saw a couple of guys rub him the wrong way, and he just about throw them out into the street. On one of those days I told him, "Wow, you really have your New York head on today," which made him laugh. But it made me realize that on a different day, I might have got that treatment, and my time on the Isle of Man would have been totally different.

I think that at some level we were drawn to each other because -- while we were both in the only place we really wanted to be -- we were both lonely. Both of us were, at the time, in relationships that failed. I'd overthrown my career. Steve's quit his job at Padgett's a few times, but always come back after a couple of weeks and the Padgetts always take him back; they love to hate each other.

Since leaving the Isle of Man, I met and married the right wife. Steve's divorced, met someone new and, in his fifties, now has two new kids. I hope they keep him young. I know that I'm infinitely happier in my home life, and I think he is, too.

Every motorcyclist who makes the pilgrimage to the TT will find that the Isle of Man is his spiritual home. Some, like Steve, will find a way to stay there forever. Most, like me, will leave but be reminded of the place every day of their lives. I'll be on some little stretch of road that reminds me of part of the TT course, or I'll eat fish & chips, or I'll step out into the cold (especially if it's drizzly, too) and I'll be transported back there. And whenever that happens, I wonder how my friend Steve is.

It wouldn't have been the same without you, man.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Motorcycles are dangerous. Especially the Iranian ones

Your mom was right of course, motorcycles are dangerous. But according to this CBC news report, if your mom is Iranian, what she probably means is, they're dangerous even if you're not on them.

Tehran's traffic is notoriously snarled almost all the time, so it's easy to imagine Mossad whacking a target in his car -- a sitting duck. The Farsi word for gridlock like this is 'Sholouq.'
Yesterday, an Iranian scientist involved in that country's nuclear program was stuck in Tehran's notoriously bad traffic when a motorcyclist pulled up beside his Peugot 405 car. A passenger on the bike attached two magnetic bombs to the car. The motorcycle sped away - disappearing into traffic - and the ensuing explosion killed the scientist, injuring two other passengers in the car. The Iranians pretty much came out and said, it was Mossad's handiwork.

That was worthy of minor note, but the article reminded me that in the last couple of years, there have been two other assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists that involved motorcycles. In one, a bomb-laden motorcycle parked near the target exploded, and in the other, a passenger on a motorcycle shot the victim who was, again, stuck in traffic.

I guess there's some Mossad hit man who realizes what millions of third-world up-and-comers also know: motorcycles provide mobility in traffic that brings cars to a halt. I wonder if he's a real biker? What does he ride at home? Is he staying in Iran between hits, and if so, is a motorcycle part of his cover?

Iran has a pretty substantial domestic automotive industry. Over 8 million motorcycles are currently registered in the country, with new registrations increasing that total by about 1,500/day, so tracing the hit man's motorcycle will be difficult. The situation is further clouded, literally, by the fact that motorcycles produce about a third of Tehran's equally noxious air pollution. If there's a Backmarker reader with any direct experience of motorcycling in Iran, please contact me. I'd love to know what bikes are popular and/or domestically produced.

My advice to surviving Iranian nuclear scientists: I suppose it might be time to consider a new line of employment, perhaps in another country under an alias. I'm guessing that the CIA will put you in some kind of witness-protection program.

But, if you insist on staying in your current job, get your own motorcycle! At least that way, you'll be a moving target.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bubba Stewart, idiot savant of physics

Red Bull just released a promotional video of Bubba Stewart. It's the sort of hi-def, ultra-slo-mo stuff you'd expect. Bubba narrates it, providing a pretty bland and dull commentary. What interests me about it is his discussion of his greatest contribution to motocross, the 'Bubba Scrub'.

The scrub move gave Bubba a huge advantage coming up as a motocross racer. In the long travel suspension/SX era, speed over jumps is an important factor in race success, especially in SX races. Course designers make the challenge harder, by contouring landing areas or locating corners in places that make it more complicated than just hitting the takeoff ramp at a higher speed, flying further and higher, and landing with a higher retained speed.

I remember watching Bubba as a young 125 racer, and he was so much faster through the air than other riders that it seemed as if a different set of laws of physics applied to him. Time after time, he'd pass people in mid-air, on a visibly lower and faster trajectory.

While no one really seemed to know just how Bubba's trick on the takeoff ramps worked, all his rivals quickly realized that it did work, and before long it was part of every motocrosser or supercrosser's arsenal. On a big outdoor track, the scrub allows riders to hit takeoff ramps at higher speed without launching themselves into space; they get back to the ground faster, where their rear wheel can again begin transmitting power. On a supercross track, where landing areas are typically tighter, they can hit the jump harder without over-jumping.

The Red Bull video doesn't really have great shots of the key moment in the scrub -- which is when the rider essentially does a whip on the takeoff ramp, virtually crashing his bike into the ramp at the moment when it goes ballistic. But there are any number of great videos illustrating the technique, such as this one...

Bubba's own narration makes it clear that he has no idea how it works. He claims that it works by reducing aerodynamic drag in mid-air. That's why he's a motorcycle racer and I'm a frustrated genius. (Trust me, Bubba, you'd rather be you. Geniuses don't have groupies who'll boink them in their motorhomes. In fact, we don't even rate motorhomes. Put that way, I'd rather be you, too.)

But, the Scrub's got nothing to do with aerodynamic drag, for several reasons not the least of which is that with average SX lap speeds of about 30 mph, drag's minimal and that there's no reason why drag would be lower with the bike horizontal compared to vertical. If you watch the video clip above, you'll see that in fact during the mid-air recovery phase, his bike's turned broadside to the direction of travel, for maximum aero drag.

So why does the scrub actually work? It's all about getting a lower trajectory off any given launch ramp.

As noted, all else being equal, lower trajectory is faster for two reasons: It will get you back on the ground, with your rear wheel driving forward, ASAP. And/or, it will allow you to hit a jump faster without over jumping the landing area.

Pre-Bubba, motocross racers pretty much always ran up the launch ramp with their bikes straight up and down (or as straight as they could get 'em.) That meant that their bikes' center of mass left the jump on a trajectory parallel (and a couple of feet above) the angle of the launch ramp. (I'm simplifying ever so slightly here, and describing a sharp-edged ramp. It's more complex but the same principles apply over a jump with a rounded profile. Also, amateur physicists please note that I'm using the term 'bike's center of mass' but really mean, 'combined bike and rider center of mass.') (God, can I get one more parenthetical comment into this paragraph?)

Bubba himself accidentally gets part of the scrub explanation right in the Red Bull video when he says that you have to crash the bike as you leave the jump, and have faith that you can gather it back up and land on the wheels. That's pretty much what happens.

When a rider does the scrub, he's basically pushing his bike's center of mass down towards the track at the moment that he breaks contact with the ground and takes to the air. The path that the center of mass is taking through space at that moment defines the bike's ballistic trajectory in the air.

It's critical to understand that if the rider grossly mis-timed his scrub, and scrubbed well before the takeoff lip, he'd simply crash his bike into the ground. I've seen videos in which riders actually drag their cases off the jump. IE, at the moment they go ballistic, their bike's center of mass is at least a foot lower than it would be in the normal riding position. Considering that that one-foot drop happens on the launch ramp -- and as long as it's in progress at the moment the bike goes ballistic -- it effectively reduces the ramp angle by several degrees.

Anyone who remembers the days when Bubba first rode the 125 class (often posting times as fast or faster than the best 250 riders!) will recall seeing him pass many riders in mid-air; going a gear faster while magically traveling on a much lower trajectory.

Given Bubba's tendency to over-ride his bike, I imagine that this technique was simply discovered when he realized that he was on a takeoff ramp and committed to the jump, while traveling at a speed much too high for the situation. Either he'd carried too much speed out of the last corner and was still turning the bike on takeoff ramp, or he realized he was about to over jump a landing area followed by a corner and attempted to start turning the following corner before even leaving the jump. Regardless, he basically low-sided at high speed over the lip of the jump. Once in mid-air, his instincts took over; he'd already landed hundreds of show-offy whips, and this was no different. The Bubba Scrub was born.

Now, I presume that Bubba knows that, sometimes, you can break the law and just get away with it. I guess that's what he was hoping would happen last year, when he was arrested after impersonating a police officer and attempting to pull over... a real cop.

But the laws of physics are not like the law. You not only never get away with breaking them, you just can't break them, period. The flight trajectories of things like motorcycles -- with no appreciable lift or motive power in the air, it's a projectile -- are clearly defined by simple equations that can be found in any high-school physics text. The rider can do things that will adjust the bike's pitch, roll, and yaw in mid-air, but there is nothing he can do to prevent the motorcycle's center of mass from following a ballistic trajectory that is defined by simple physics.

Bubba can't break those laws any more than I can, but he did (probably accidentally) find a way to redefine his launch trajectory. Until he came along, motocross racers had always launched off a jump on a trajectory defined by the jump itself.

Realizing that he'd found a way to change that trajectory was Bubba's genius. I guess it doesn't matter whether he knows why it works or not.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

My wife forwarded this interesting video to me, which shows work in progress on a gyro-balanced, fully enclosed electric motorcycle made by an upstart company called Lit, in the Bay Area. They call this model the C1.

I think it's pretty cool, although whether it should be thought of as a motorcycle or not is one of the questions that go unanswered in the video. It's sort of a cross between a Segway, a BMW C1 and a Quasar, tweaked to run on batteries.

20-some Quasars were built in the 1970s in England.
The bodywork for the BMW C1 was built by Bertone. Users commented that they'd have liked a more enclosed design for improved weather protection.
Unlike either the C1 or Quasar of course, it's fully enclosed. The female model's seen hopping out of it sans helmet. BMW had originally hoped that countries that homologated the C1 would allow riders to operate it without a helmet, too. The C1 'bubble' was actually a pretty strong roll cage that BMW claimed provided protection comparable to most ultra-compact cars, and C1 riders sat in car-like seat equipped with a four-point seat belt.

Some countries did allow C1 users to go without helmets, although one reason it 'failed' was that one key market, the UK, maintained that it was a motorcycle and as such users needed a helmet. In fact, there was some concern voiced about the weight of a crash helmet exacerbating whiplash injuries in frontal or side collisions, assuming the operator was tightly strapped in. Sweden ruled that C1 users did have to wear crash helmets but didn't need to use the seat belts.

I've read that BMW sold about 20,000 C1s (there were two versions, one with a 125cc Rotax single and a nominal '200' that actually displaced 176cc.) I'm not sure what the years of production were, but the run was short (2-3 years) and ended in the very early 2000s. That made it a failure by BMW standards, although of course 20,000 units would be a wild success for any existing e-bike manufacturer.

If there's a cautionary tale for Lit here, it's got less to do with helmet regulations than the pitfalls of trying to market a vehicle that's neither car nor motorcycle. (And that it's highly unlikely they'll bring their vehicle to market as the 'C-1', a trademark that BMW will surely challenge, since it harbors its own ambitions for an electric version.)

The whole is-it-a-car-or-a-motorcycle question isn't just a marketing pitfall. One reason there are as many e-bike startups as e-car startups in the U.S., despite the fact that the car market offers vastly more commercial potential, is that motorcycles face far fewer regulatory hurdles. While Lit chose to show us a 'fender bender' which its virtual C-1 survives unscathed, the fact is that as a motorcycle it won't need to undergo a multimillion dollar crash test prior to U.S. homologation. That's a huge advantage for an upstart company, but it comes with an offsetting disadvantage, which is that only a tiny fraction of U.S. commuters are licensed to ride motorcycles.

There are plenty of motorcyclists who might be talked into (literally) a fully enclosed vehicle, although few motorcyclists will be swayed by Lit's gyro stabilization system. We already know that falling over, per se, isn't the problem. (Though I suppose that a combination of full enclosure and gyro stabilization might add up to a two wheeler that was practical on snowy winter roads.)

I note that the prototype is fitted with a steering wheel and not a handlebar. It's not that obvious to me whether the Lit C-1 would need to be countersteered like a motorcycle or simply steered like a car. In the slalom portion of the video, it seems to handling like a motorcycle. But their little proof-of-concept seems to be fit with two gyros. That, along with the C-1's spinning wheels, would mean that it presumably has gyros spinning on the x, y, and z axes.

They wouldn't need to spin all the time; motorcyclists keep their bikes on two wheels with no trouble at all once underway. But the gyros would inevitably have a spin-up delay that's not visible in the crash simulation, which leads me to think that Lit intends that the gyros will run all the time. If they do spin all the time, then, I don't really know why the C-1 needs to lean into turns.

Does anyone from Lit care to get in touch with me and explain the Lit system in more detail?

Until then, I have to say that - style wise, anyway - the vehicle's kind'a cool and aerodynamic. I've argued to 'bring back the dustbin' before, as a way to differentiate between Superbikes and MotoGP bikes. Oh well. As MotoGP moves towards production motorcycles, I guess I'm really a lone voice in the wilderness arguing that MotoGP designers should at least have the option of fielding bikes that are fully enclosed/streamlined. Longer, lower feet-forward designs would inevitably face cornering clearance issues, but throwing a few gyros into the equation might reduce cornering lean angles, or even eliminate them.