Born in a Barn
From humble beginnings in a Blue Grass sheep barn,
Moto-Electra LLC rode into electric vehicle history.
by Brian Richardson,
Wolff takes a turn on the Moto-Electra bike
during a race at Laguna Seca.
Electric vehicles have come a
long way in a few short years. Still, pure electrics are in their infancy.
Much of the development is being accomplished on racetracks and in backyard
Moto-Electra LLC started producing all-electric
motorcycles out of a sheep barn in Blue Grass, Va., in 2009.
For some time, I’d wanted to build a type of
high-performance bike called a café racer using a Norton Featherbed chassis
patented in 1949. The goal was to marry that important old chassis
technology with the latest electric vehicle technology.
When the James Madison University School of Engineering
joined the project, a competition team was born. Then Thad Wolff, a former
AMA Pro racer from southern California, agreed to ride for Moto-Electra.
Thad brought the team professionalism, racing knowledge, and the desire to
win. He referred to the team as having an “Old-Bike/Old-Rider” appeal.
Thad’s experience, guidance, and outlook on life were invaluable. A fellow
racer commented: “It’s always a good day, if you’re Thad Wolff.” That says
We entered our machine in the first U.S. Grand-Prix-style
exhibition for electric vehicles in 2009. The bike topped 108 mph on the
short straights, and made a good showing in its first outing. Later that
year, the Moto-Electra team set a world record for its class in the
In 2010 the team took a more serious approach by
investing in high-quality lithium polymer batteries. That’s when Martin
Kobler of StarkPower, our battery supplier, joined the effort, adding
another layer of professionalism. Martin became the energy behind the team.
Moto-Electra raced in the first all-electric U.S. Grand-Prix in Sonoma,
Calif., and then in the first all-electric Canadian Grand-Prix. Of five
starts in 2010, the team found itself on the podium (a top-three finisher)
four times. Our last race of that year was Oct. 9, 2010, at the Barber
Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. It would be the first time in history
that an electric bike raced against gas bikes in a sanctioned event.
Moto-Electra was gridded dead last to “keep it out of the way.” But the
underestimated newcomer didn’t stay out of the way long, as Thad Wolff
picked off one racer after another and rode into history by winning the
Richardson with his record-setting electric
motorcycle in the barn where the vehicle was
In 2011 Moto-Electra made motor and chassis upgrades. We
now had a machine that could top 130 mph. A new team member and professional
fabricator, John Wild, joined our effort. As a result, by the end of the
2011 season, Moto-Electra Racing was ranked second in North America by TTXGP
(the sanctioning body for the all-electric race series). One of
Moto-Electra’s biggest races was undoubtedly during the Moto GP at Laguna
Seca. At that race the team had a good showing against the best electric
vehicles from around the world. Also that year was the team’s first crash.
As bad as it was, the team learned that our design was durable (and that
52-year-old Thad Wolff was, too!). The next day we took second place in the
After the 2011 season, Moto-Electra set an ECTA Land
Speed record for electric vehicles at Maxton, N.C. By that time, our team
had been featured on the Discovery Channel, and had visited Jay Leno’s
Garage and the AAR/Dan Gurney Garage. Unfortunately, Moto-Electra’s tiny
budget was near depletion. All the while, the other teams’ racing machines
were reaching new levels of sophistication, and their team budgets were
growing accordingly. The high-budget teams had developed oil-cooled motors,
and their machines would reach speeds of 200 mph!
Historically, electric racing events have been between 25
and 37 miles in distance. No one associated with electric vehicles really
wanted to talk about the elephant in the room — range. With no race budget,
Moto-Electra wondered if it could move the team in another direction. Could
we take our Grand-Prix bike and drive it from coast to coast in a time that
would compare to a gas-powered vehicle? By this time the team had traveled
that distance by car on multiple occasions, but never in less than four
So in late 2012, we had the crazy idea of crossing the
continent, from sea to shining sea, as fast as possible. The date was set
for June 3, 2013, at dawn. There was only one rule for this modern-day
Cannonball Run: The vehicle had to carry the batteries the entire way
without swapping cells or trailering the bike. The race would be against the
clock, and run 24 hours a day from dawn on June 3, until the team arrived at
the Pacific Ocean.
All races have support vehicles and a crew, and our plan
was to use a chase vehicle with a generator pulled by Highland County
resident Lloyd Bird. The first trans-continental crossings by gas-powered
cars used locomotives to deliver gas and parts ahead of the drivers. This
effort was not intended to demonstrate the adequacy of the power grid for
electric vehicles. In fact, it was just the opposite. We only wanted one
variable in the equation — the vehicle itself.
The first day of the trip, we encountered heavy,
monsoon-like rains in Florida. Actually, it was the rider, Thad Wolff, who
experienced the rain, while the rest of the team sat comfortably in the
chase vehicle. Thad asked if the bike could electrocute him — the answer,
apparently not. Another lesson learned ...
Moto-Electra team included(from left) John
Wild, Storm Karlsen, Thad Wolff, Brian
Richardson, Will Hays, and Lloyd Bird.
In contrast to the searing heat was the cool desert air
at night. It was a welcome relief. Riding silently across the desert at dawn
was enchanting, and a highlight for the rider. Our biggest challenge came 20
miles from the finish, when the bike began cutting out intermittently in Los
Angeles traffic. A quick pit stop, and we pressed on to the finish. A bad
throttle rheostat was the culprit.
On June 6, 2013, Moto-Electra LLC set a coast-to-coast
world record for electric vehicles by crossing the United States in 3.5 days
(84.5 hours). There was no battery swapping, and the vehicle made the entire
trip under its own power. The bike rode out onto the Santa Monica pier, and
the rider threw our student team member into the Pacific Ocean. Then the
student (a wrestler) returned the favor to Thad Wolff — in full leathers. It
was a joyful moment for a tired crew!
Our cross-country record was established using the same
standard motorcycle design used by the Moto-Electra team for all-electric
Grand-Prix racing, land-speed racing and everyday riding. The motorcycle
performed almost flawlessly. We could have done it faster. If we were to do
it again, we would travel farther between charging the batteries, and
increase the speed a bit — something learned.
The technology for electric vehicles may be 10 or 20
years out before it takes hold as a solid, feasible addition to gas-fueled
machines. But in today’s fast-paced world of technological change, who
High praise goes to Will Hays, a sophomore at James
Madison University. He was exceptional. With a laptop and other equipment,
Will captured data continuously including volts, amps, temperature, wind
speed and direction, and GPS location/ speed/elevation. If you wanted to
build the first interstate electric highway along I-10, Will has the
The funny thing is, when we said that we could do this,
many said it was impossible. Now people are saying that they plan to beat
our record. I think that was the whole point — to change perceptions. Once
you do it, you show it can be done.
Earlier in the same week we made our cross-country run,
another motorcyclist traveled from west to east using a different style
all-electric motorcycle. His time was just under 6 days, and the combination
of the two crossings show that the use of electric vehicles for long-range
transportation is on the horizon.
At the turn of the 20th century, gasoline-powered
vehicles were useless for long-distance travel. There were no roads, no
filling stations, and the vehicles were not dependable. Everyone knew that
gas-powered vehicles could never replace the horse for long-distance travel.
Fast-forward 100 years, and our goal is to challenge perceptions about the
useful range of electric vehicles. We did just that. Now it’s only a matter
The Moto-Electra has been a fine
motorbike. A street-legal café racer with antique tags in 2009 became a
winning GP racer in 2010, a land-speed racer in 2011, and an endurance racer
in 2013. Not bad for a bike built in a Blue Grass, Va., sheep barn.
So is this an epitaph, or just the first chapter?
Moto-Electra invites you to join the team for the next big adventure.
So what’s my opinion — as builder/ manager of this
project — about electric motorcycles? You can silently accelerate to 130
mph, or cruise along listening to the birds in the trees. This is an
expansion of the sport of motorcycling. We invite you to visit our quiet
Blue Grass Valley — to see for yourself the future of motorsport.
For further information, email
Brian Richardson at