Interview: TTXGP Racer Tom Montano Talks About Racing Electric Bikes At The Isle of Man TT

Tom Montano began racing motorcycles in the early 1980s in California, and his career highlights include being WERA D Superbike champion, a 9th at Daytona, and AMA Pro Thunder champ in 2001 on a Ducati 748. At the Isle of Man he finished tenth on a privateer 600 in the Junior TT, and 13th twice, in 2003 on a Ducati 998 and in 2005 on a MV Agusta, both in the Senior TT. He has been an instructor in several racing schools and has continued to race endurance events in Europe. In 2009 Tom rode the first TTXGP aboard the Mission Motors electric motorcycle. I spoke to Tom in December, 2010, about his experience on the e-bike.

MM: Did you get much time on the Mission Motors TTXGP bike before you arrived at the Isle of Man?

Montano: Infineon Raceway said we could come ride the bike between 5 and 7pm any night we wanted, because the bike was quiet and Infineon was one of the sponsors of the bike, so they provided track time. I probably rode it five times just trying to figure out battery and motor usage, that kind of stuff.

MM: What were your first impressions of the electric bike, having ridden gas-powered bikes for so long?

Montano: One thing that came to mind for me was a transformer for a train set, when you're a kid. You know, you turn the transformer up the train goes faster, you turn it down… But the thing that really struck me about the Mission Motors bike was that the throttle response to the rear wheel was everything you would want it to be. There were no gears, and no compression braking. Instead it had ‘regenerative' braking as they called it, you could adjust it so it acted like a 2-stroke, like a 4-stroke, or none at all.

MM: Did you set that in the paddock or on the fly?

Montano: At that stage they set it in the paddock. At first they asked me about it and I said "There isn't any" but they got it to work one day, and then it could lock up the rear wheel almost. So I said, "Yeah, it's working now!" So then they started playing with it and sorted it out. But that was all new then. But the control [of the power] was one of the bike's advantages. Very user friendly. We all know how a motorcycle feels, you give it the gas and it goes. Of course fuel injection has made that better, because with carburetors that connection is sometimes very abrupt at certain revs and screws you up. That's where the tuner's jetting [is important] or injection or mapping and electronics all come into play. [The Mission Motors bike] worked really well. As far as how long the batteries last, how many miles you can go vs. how fast you can go, that is still a work in progress.

So it was good to ride, but of course, there's no clutch. It's direct, or reduction gear drive. So if the motor stops spinning there's no clutch to pull in. So you're going around at 85mph and you think, What is that sound? But there's no clutch to pull if you're worried. And that happened in first practice, I think. I was just cruising, seeing what was going on with the bike, and one of the guys came flying by and I thought, He's using it up early. When I got to the bottom of Bray Hill I started smelling something, that nasty electric motor burn. His bike had locked and thrown him off. And I imagined him thinking, "Where's the clutch!?"

MM: So that must add an element of suspense to riding the electric bike.

Montano: Yeah, for sure. With no gears and no clutch, one of your other instincts is you come up to a corner, get out of your tuck and start banging down the gears, but there's no gears. We used to coast race down Claremont [a local road in the Berkeley hills, long and winding for several miles] and every now and then someone would accidently jam it in gear and eat shit. You know, in the heat of the moment, forget [the engine was not running] and downshift. [mimics being thrown over the handlebars] In a coast race you want to brake just enough to make the corner and hope you didn't brake as much as the next guy. The e-bike was similar in a way, except you didn't have to worry about accidentally grabbing a gear when you shouldn't.

Another thing is the weight doesn't go away. You start the race with a full tank of gas and that's how you finish. So that's one racing problem gone. The only thing that happens is the tires wear, but at those speeds the tires don't really wear that much.

MM: So how was the race itself?

Montano: Going to the Isle of Man, by the time it came to the actual race we figured it could go 85mph and if we tried not to go over, we could do 85 for the entire lap. They set up three different pyramids on the—I call it the fuel gauge but it's the battery gauge, and if you're below the first pyramid by the time you get to this spot you've used too much, and so on. So I had to manage it. When I got to the first checkpoint at Glen Helen I'd used too much. Second was Ramsey, and when I got there I'd not used enough, so I thought, "This is great, I'll have plenty of power to go over the mountain and bring it on home."

In the end they said I'd used everything. They said as soon as you come out of Governor's Bridge just give it everything it's got. So I went over the line at about 100mph and they said there was nothing left [in the batteries].

MM: So having ridden as many laps as you have on gas-powered motorbikes, how different was it riding the electric, having to manage the batteries with the gauge, instead of having all the power you'd otherwise get from a full tank of gas? How did you change your approach to the actual ride?

Montano: Yeah, it was a lot different. You're used to going as fast as you possibly can and then braking so you make the corner. But now I can only go so fast because I don't want to use up all the energy. So you start thinking, ok, if I don't go all the way to the last brake marker, and then gas it out of the corner as I normally would, if instead I roll the corner, or coast it, or hold the throttle in one position and keep the speed up… On the Isle of Man there're a lot of places where you're flat out anyway, or you're playing with the throttle in fifth gear or sixth gear, trying to keep it flat out and sometimes you can and sometimes you can't do it. But on the electric bike you're going around at 85mph, waving to the crowd, "Hey, how's it going?" thinking of having a beer, maybe smoking a cigarette, and then suddenly you have to slow down for a turn. You really had to concentrate on momentum, trying not to use the throttle.

MM: So from that perspective does it seem more like energy management than a race?

Montano: Yeah. When I was there they'd come up and interview you and ask what we thought about this being the first race of its kind, you're making history. And I said, there are a lot of guys who could ride the bike but there aren't many who could build it. At this stage it still has a lot more to do with engineers than it does a rider being able to do it.

MM: So you finished fourth. How far behind the first three riders were you?

Montano: Not that far, really, on time. For some reason we had the number 1 [on the bike] so we went down the hill first. And one of the Brammos came by, then the Agni came by, which was a Suzuki chassis with a bunch of Agni motors and batteries in it. That was one of the things about the Mission Motors bike, they built the whole thing from the ground up. And [these were] guys who didn't really know that much about motorcycles, to boot. There were some flaws with the chassis, but I liked that better than just bolting some stuff onto an existing chassis. That made it more exciting for me.

So the Agni came by, and all week they'd had a good 8mph on us. And I think the Moto Czysz was there, he had some good speed too, but he burned up a couple of times and once was in the race. And I think another bike came by so I thought, Okay now I'm in fourth. What can I do? It's the Tortoise versus the Hare. Sure enough I'm going along and… [Montano sniffs] What the hell is that smell? Well I know what that smell is. It's like a burnt drill or something. And there was another bike lying on the road, burnt. He's used [the motor] up, so I thought, Great! So then I catch up to another bike at the mountain and pass him going up, but that the top of the mountain, that's when the power really starts coming into play, so we started going back and forth, and coming down he'd pass me, I'd pass him, he'd pass me. But I got back by him just before the start/finish and led him over the line. But he had made up the time. And someone who'd started father back but not caught up had made up the time, too. So I just missed out on a podium. But I don't think I could've ridden the corners any faster. I felt it was mainly about how much battery, what configuration of weight and so on.

MM: So if you were offered the chance to ride the Isle of Man one more time on either the latest electric bike or a 600, which would it be?

Montano: [laughs] That's a hard call. [Thinks for a minute.] I'd probably have to do the electric bike just because I've ridden the 600 so many times. Electric bikes… The sound is totally different, there is no sound, or rather there's a different type of sound. Some people think it's the end of the world, but at the end of the day it's just another form of racing. And when something changes it's always the same thing. "What do you mean, two-stokes? What do you mean, four strokes? No way! Fuel injection? Control tires? Whatever. There's always going to be issues at the get go. It's something new. And you can only watch so many Suzuki 1000s go around a racetrack.

There are a couple of interviews with Tom up on YouTube:

And at least a couple about the Mission Motors bike preparing for the 2009 TTXGP:

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I love combustion engine racing. I love the sound, the smell, the raw power, everything. But no doubt, within a few years, the performance and sensation electric bikes will bring is going to be mind blowing. We all loved Galactica, right? Let's not be too afraid of the future.

. . . for the interview with Tom. I first met him a few years after he started racing with the AFM in the 80's, he didn't have a crew cut and gray hair back then. In fact, quite the opposite as he had long wavy dark hair that made many women jealous. He's a great guy and one helluva racer. He's competed in a variety of classes over the years and always done so with class and dignity, whether he was winning the title or running mid-pack instead of at the front, depending on the series or race. It's great to see him participating with Mission Motors at the Isle in the first TTXGP there.

In only 2 years of racing, they have improved their performances as much as ICE bikes did in...20 years!

TT Zero 2009: 87 mph, equivalent to TT record in 1938
TT Zero 2010: 97 mph, good enough for second in TT 1957 (the year where McIntyre broke the ton)
TT Zero 2011: most likely to break the ton, let's see about that in a few hours...

Then it took ICE bikes almost 50 years to gain 20 mph.
20 mph is all that electric bikes need to be at the same level as current many years would they need? Probably much much less than 50...

Mission Motors designed a beautiful bike but it was disappointing to see they did not do much racing...on the other hand Motoczysz won the TT Zero last year and are on their way to break their own record today!

Electric bikes are not only about pure speed and catching up with the ICE (check out Chip Yates eating alive all these ICE bikes, that's speed He also recently set a land speed record over 190 mph!
Electric motorcycles are also about developing entirely new concepts, check out the Motoczysz 2011 it is gorgeous and a wonderful piece of engineering (200 peak horsepower, under 500 pounds, top speed over 150 mph...would be much higher if not for the need to conserve energy)
engine located in the swingarm, carbon fiber frame reminiscent of the Ducati GP11, original suspension setup and so on

The progress of this class is amazing, and entirely carried by "amateurs" (Chip Yates) or let's say small manufacturers (Brammo, Zero, Mission Motors, Motoczysz, Lightning Motorcycles).
When big manufacturers enter the game in a couple of years, expect another boost in performances!

Comparing progress of ICE and electric is apples to oranges. In the 30s-40s racing was developing engine technology because ICE technology was in its infancy. What electric motorcycle constructors are doing today is adapting mature electric motor controller and battery technology to a motorcycle. There will be a few percent improvement as these systems are tweaked to the specific use patterns of a motorcycle but there won't be magical leaps in performance because these systems are already above 90% efficiency due to decades of optimization in the industrial motor control industry.

What will enable mass use of alternate power source vehicles will be the ability to replenish the energy supply in 5 min or less. Current and projected battery technology is not be able to do this. Battery manufacturers know what they will be making in 5 years and it is only about 5% better than what we have now. That means no weekend trips over 200 miles. No cross country adventures. No leaving your bike parked on the sidewalk at night like many city dwellers do. That eliminates a lot of the reasons a motorcyclist rides. Even if some new battery technology that can be recharged quickly is somehow developed and put into volume production in the next 10 years where will one get the 100A+ of current needed to fast charge the batteries? That about the same as what most houses are wired to handle.

TTXGP and the other electric series are cool and needed to help push the technology forward and make people aware of it but in the end they are just users of other people's technology. The development of new battery technology is where the advances are needed and that is happening regardless of how many cars and bikes are electric. The cell phone and laptop computer industry have been driving demand in battery development and will continue to do so. Making any race motorcycle go fast is a challenge and I don't want to disparage the effort these guys are putting forth but the advancement of electric motorcycle technology is largely out of the hands of the people building them.

The unmentioned aspect of racing electric bikes is the cost. Its why the grids are so small and that is especially telling as green vehicle technology is the current darling of gov't grants and private investors. All of these teams burn money in batteries and still have very limited testing time because of their shortcomings. A battery goes and it is gone, unlike an ICE where it takes a pretty bad failure to make an engine a complete writeoff.

Admittedly I am building an ICE and am biased towards the performance it provides but I am an engineer and the reason for my bias towards an ICE is that it is currently the best solution for a motorcycle you want to sell to people who will want to use it a lot.