Cover Story

Born in a Barn

From humble beginnings in a Blue Grass sheep barn, Moto-Electra LLC rode into electric vehicle history.

by Brian Richardson, Contributing Writer

 


Thad 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 garages. 

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 it all.

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 quarter-mile.

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 event.


Brian Richardson with his record-setting electric motorcycle in the barn where the vehicle was created.

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 main event.

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 days.

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 ...


The 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 knows?

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 database.

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.

Challenging Perceptions

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 of time.

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 brichardson@htcnet.org. 

 

 

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