First Race of 2021 - AFM at Buttonwillow
From the start of the Lightfighter project, running with the fastest, race-prepped Supersport class bikes in club racing has been the goal and this is the year we finally made it happen. I started attending AFM race events with the Brammo race team back in 2013 as some of the "international" electric series like TTXGP and FIM ePower were falling apart. We had some decent successes with our prototype bikes and I really enjoyed the vibe in the paddock, but I always went away most impressed by the lap times and speed of the Supersport bikes. If I ever had the opportunity to get back to this form of racing, I vowed, I would focus on proving that an electric bike can compete with these bikes. It was my "moon shot". Other goals I've mentioned for Lightfighter (lightweight, geometry-first, serviceable by a club racer) flowed naturally from this target.
Fast forward 8 years (wow - time flies!) and we're getting our season started in April with round 2 of the AFM series. After presenting to the AFM Board of Directors on a Zoom call a couple of weeks prior to the race weekend, we received unanimous approval to race our little garage-built electric bike in Formula 1 and 750 Superbike - exactly what I had dreamed about! We knew we'd be ratcheting up the level of competition a notch due to larger grid sizes, incredible progress in bike technology, and some very fast riders that included a couple of pros (namely MotoAmerica champion Rocco Landers and podium finisher Cory Ventura, among others), but this was a very meaningful step forward for our program.
As a quick recap - We're campaigning our "version 2.0" bike that was completed, tested, and raced in a very limited fashion amidst the chaos of 2020. Following on a review article in CycleNews by Rennie Scaysbrook at the end of the year, I got a call from an old friend at Dunlop Racing that offered to sponsor the Lightfighter - an awesome offer for anyone familiar with how hard it is to land a tire sponsorship. Great news for the program, but a challenge for our rider Troy Siahaan, who has spent his career on the softer compounds and carcass that Pirelli tires offer. This race event would be only our second outing with the bike on the Dunlops, but at least we had suspention guru Bobby Loo on hand to help us get the bike setup right...
We attended the Friday AFM racers only trackday, qualified for the Formula 1 race on Saturday, and raced our 2 races on Sunday. The ambient temperature made it up around 80 degrees F, which made for a much more pleasant weekend then the 100+ days we experience there in the summertime. Running in Friday practice was the first time in awhile we got to test the pace of the Lightfighter against some seasoned racers and fast bikes in AFM. Overall, we were feeling pretty confident that we weren't about to be embarrassed, but we did have some areas of weakness to focus on. The dreaded brake vibration we faced at the start of last year came back, so we lost a bit of time chasing that, but I finally resolved it with a new set of rotors we purchased in the off-season. I think a good scouring and re-bed in on the original set will eliminate the issue based on past experience, but it was nice to have a spare set of rotors to swap on. Troy was riding well and once the braking issue was resolved, ended Friday's practice session with the fastest practice times we've run at Buttonwillow - dropping to a 1'54.0 in the 4th session. We ended the day feeling relatively confident that we could shave a couple more seconds come race time.
One of the challenges with switching over to the Dunlop tires was simply getting accustomed to the available compounds and temperature ranges. With the butter smooth delivery of the Parker motor, we can usually get away with making a soft tire last, so we naturally gravitated towards the softer end of the spectrum in the Dunlop catalog. Unfortunately, those soft compounds like really hot track temperatures, so we kept cold tearing the rear during the morning sessions prior to the track temperature reaching the requisite levels to make the super-soft tire live it's best life. I was skeptical on a recommendation to try the medium tire in the morning, but in hindsight, this probably would've been the way to go. Instead we got a hold of a soft to run the morning practice sessions on and then swapped over to a qualifier for Formula 1 qualifying run in the afternoon when the track was much warmer.
Sound on for the video below...
Qualifying for Formula 1, Troy got down to a 1'53.3, which would be our best lap on the weekend. This is the fastest lap we've run thus far, but off our target of getting into the 49-50s we both felt the bike is capable of and the lap times required to hit the top 5 in the 750 Superbike class. That said, Troy was comfortable out there and the bike certainly looked competitive, so all we could do was charge up and get ready to race!
Start of the 750 Superbike race where he was gridded towards the back of the field (based on points). Troy needed to dodge a bike that botched the start but then got moving through field... look for the orange bike about mid-way through the pack.
And here they are across the line to start lap 2 (or 3). The racing was close and competitive throughout the full race distance, something we had been missing in many of our previous races. It was great to see where the LF held an advantage and where we were losing time.
Troy had a great battle over the last couple of laps with bike 728 in the background of the photo below. The rider (Grant Cowan) came by later to check out the bike and tell us how blown away he was when he realized during that on-track battle that the bike he was racing was electric!
In the end, we finished with a top 10 (9th of 20 competitors) and certainly proved we belonged to be out running with this class. The nose to tail battle with several bikes showed that we had the drive off the corner and the top end to compete, we were just losing some time in the quicker transitions.
With our first race done and dusted, I got the bike charging for the Formula 1 race later in the day, where we'd see even bigger grids and fiercer competition. The F1 race saw MotoAmerica champion and up-and-comer Rocco Landers on pole with a couple of regular fast guys directly behind him. We were hoping to take a top ten again, but knew it would be more challenging.
I managed to get the bike topped off on charge and the previous race proved we had plenty of energy left in the "tank" to take the warm-up lap. Troy got a decent start and found himself in about 5th place heading into the first corner. Unfortunately, the race was red flagged due to a crash after the first flying lap and the riders headed back to their pits to get on warmers. This is really the nightmare scenario for an electric bike as there's really not enough time to charge to replace the energy lost, so if the race restarts at full length, you could be in trouble. After about 10 minutes, they announced first call back to the grid and the race would be run at full distance... crap.
The video above is actually from the restarted race, where Troy got held up a bit compared to the previous start, but still managed to make up some good positions heading into Turn 1. Like the 750SB race, the bikes were nose to tail throughout the race distance and we were narrowly beaten to the line by Chuck Sorensen on a beautiful Honda engined Suter Moto2 bike. He pulled us on the front straight to the line, which was the only sign that the red flag cost us just enough volts to limit our top end on that final lap.
While not the position or lap times we were hoping for, we finished in the top half of a very competitive field (14th from 30 bikes) and showed we could run an electric with the fast kids over a full club race distance.
Overall, I was really pleased with the way the weekend went. Yeah, we wish we could've shown a bit more performance, but there are very few that left that weekend feeling like they didn't have more to give. That's the addiction of racing... there's always a reason to go back and try again. The electrical and mechanical gremlins stayed away and the bike ran flawlessly the whole weekend.
I've had life throw some additional challenges and opportunities my way recently, but we'll keep pushing the program forward as best we can. We've got a test at Laguna Seca coming up and another race at Buttonwillow in mid-June with a new race series called CRA. Poke around on their website and you might see a familiar bright orange bike... ;)
Thanks to all who continue to watch, like, and support our efforts. Hearing about this project inspiring others is the fuel that keeps us going when things get tough.