Can this all-electric off-road racer shock the Baja establishment?
Contingency day for one of the SCORE Baja races is always a circus. Large crowds, loud music and hundreds of off-road race vehicles roam the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, on the day before a Baja 500 or Baja 1000. The party has been a tradition for decades, so it is unusual to see anything, well, unusual.
It was a different story this year, as we ambled down the Boulevard Costero and threaded our way through the Contingency Day crowd during the 47th Bud Light SCORE Baja 500 a couple weeks ago. You could classify what we found as a real shocker, although that would be a bit cliché. Besides that, if it were really true then somebody probably did a faulty job of wiring.
Nestled under an awning in the Monkey Business racing team display area was this Hollywood Electrics-built Zero project that the team and Hollywood Eletcrics owner Harlan Flagg hope will be the first all-electric motorcycle to complete an entire SCORE race on the Baja Peninsula. Monkey Business, which produces a line of biodegradeable cleaners and motorcycle care products, is the main sponsor of multi-time Baja class champions Jim O’Neal and Mark Winkelman.
As new as electric motorcycles still are to the market, it’s kind of funny to think that there are would be anyone that specializes in hot-rodding them, but Hollywood Electrics does just that. The Hollywood, California-based shop claims to be one the leading retailers of electric motorcycles in the world, and it is also a one-stop shop for electric motorcycle owners seeking modification options for there machines.
“We are the only performance tuning house for electric motorcycles,” Flagg said. “We have actually been racing these bikes for several years and we understand the technology. That is all we do, electric motorcycles. We know what makes them tick and what we need to do to make them better.”
Hollywood Electrics’ credential include back-to-back race wins in the production electric class at the Pikes Peak Hillclimb over the past couple years. The company also has experience racing electric motorcycles in road races and in Supermoto. However, off-road racing in a grueling environment such as Baja is something entirely new for Hollywood Electrics. The idea was hatched by Winkelman, a merry soul who lives for Baja racing and also likes to think outside the box.
“Mark Winkelman contacted me and said, ‘Hey, we really want to put together an electric race team for Baja. We know how to win Baja, and you know how to win on electric motorcycles,” Flagg said. “Mark said, ‘Maybe we can put our heads together and win Baja on an electric motorcycle.’”
Flagg knew he had the right starting point with Zero’s FX dual-sport model, which he says is light and nimble, and similar in basic geometry to a motocross or off-road motorcycle than the Zero DS.
“There are few different challenges,” Flagg said. “The Zero is an excellent streetbike, but it takes a lot to make it a racebike, whether that is road racing or dirt racing. It’s a well- balanced system; you’ve got the batteries, the motor and the controller. But once you start pushing the limits, any of those pieces could rob you of performance, which isn’t what you want in a racebike. So, we have different upgrades to increase the performance of the motor and offer better sustained performance over a longer duration.”
Some of the changes that have been made include a larger, more powerful motor and an improved speed controller for more precise throttle response. But, regardless of performance, range is still a concern when it comes to electric motorcycles, although Flagg said that is becoming easier to extend as the battery packs have improved. The battery packs can also be swapped in about the same time it takes the traditional competitors to refill a fuel tank.
“We’ve actually raced a 24-hour endurance race on an electric motorcycle, and our pit stops were just as fast as the gas guys’ stops,” Flagg said. “It doesn’t take more than a 10 or 15 seconds to swap the batteries out. They pop out, and we slide the fresh ones in there place. Then we put the used ones on the charger and just rotate them as needed.”
Flagg admits that in its current configuration, the Hollywood Electrics/Monkey Business Baja project is still not quite ready to race Baja—although it could be soon. For now, achieving an acceptable range at the race speeds necessary to be competitive is the main goal, and Flagg is confident that goal can be reached.
“Right now the range is 70 miles if you take it easy, but at race speeds it is much less” Flagg said. “But one of the interesting things about the electric motorcycles is how rapidly the technology is developing. I mean, if you just look at the difference between last year and this year, we are getting 10 percent more range this year. Let’s look at it over the last five years; in 2011 the range of the motorcycles was 40 miles, and now there are motorcycles that can do up to 180 miles.”
Flagg said that electric motorcycles have come a really long way in a relatively short time, and the improvement qualifies more as an order of magnitude than as mere baby steps.
“Now we are in a good time to being this development and try to make the Zero into a competent Baja racer and, eventually, into a winning Baja racer.”