Thursday, August 18, 2011

Some of the deets on Paul Thede breaking 200 barrier on the Lightning e-moto

As I wrote this post, it was early in Speed Week out on the Bonneville Salt Flats (although at least one day's racing was washed out.) I'm finally getting around to posting a partial account of a long phone chat with Paul Thede, who has just become the first person to top 200 mph on an electric motorcycle.

Last Saturday, I got a cryptic text from my friends at Falkner-Livingston Racing, noting that Paul Thede, the Falkner-Livingston crony and suspension guru, had just become the first person to ever top 200 miles an hour on an electric motorcycle. The next day, I got another text to the effect that Thede had 'backed it up' with a second run that averaged out to a new record of 206 miles an hour and change. That is, as far as anyone seems to know, an outright land speed record for any two wheeled EV.
L-R: Crew Chief Jeff Major, Thede, Lightning Motorcycles' Richard Hatfield.
The bike Thede rode was the very same Lightning motorcycle - designed and built by Richard Hatfield - that had a less-than-electrifying outing at the Isle of Man TT Zero race earlier this summer. [Paul Thede told me that this was the bike that raced on the IoM; I'm not sure if it is also the one that finished third at Laguna Seca. Others have suggested they're one and the same machine. - MG]

The Bonneville Salt Flat (or 'Flats', even the U.S. Bureau of Land Management can't pick one name and stick to it) in particular and land speed racing in general is a pretty good environment for EVs. Bonneville's high altitude and chronically thin air asphyxiates internal combustion motors but of course it has no effect on electric motors. The weight of battery packs isn't a problem; conventional ICE bikes often add ballast, in fact, to improve traction. And since runs only cover a few miles, batteries' low energy density is not much of a handicap. (John Burrows finished the 37+ mile TT race under his own power, pushing the 500-pound Lightning across the finish line on Glencrutchery Road.)

Anyway, the Lightning redeemed itself at Bonneville, and weather permitting there may be more to come later this week.

I called Thede, who took a break from working on the bike to talk to me on Monday evening. Thanks to Falkner-Livingston, who know all the right people, Thede, Hatfield, and crew chief Jeff Major were able to work on the machine in a hangar at the old Wendover airport. The very hangar where - brace yourself - the Enola Gay was stationed prior to the Hiroshima bombing mission.

"Yeah, I say we dropped a real bomb on the competition," said the irrepressible Thede. He was giddy at the thought that after several years of trying, he'd just become the first person to top 200 on an electric motorcycle.

Thede's relationship with Hatfield/Lightning goes back a few years. In 2009, Motorcyclist's Aaron Frank was scheduled to ride the Lightning at Bonneville. Thede was roped in to cure some handling ills. When the racing was weather-delayed, Frank had to go to his next assignment without ever riding the bike. Hatfield asked Thede if he'd take over land-speed-racing riding duties and he was only too happy to oblige. He set a speed in the 160 range in '09 and upped it to the 170 range at the 2010 BUB meet.

"Richard built an all-new bike for this year," Thede told me. "The motor, the battery packs, it's all new. He wants to be a manufacturer, and to create a viable sport bike. People only want to know two things really, 'How fast will it go?' and 'How far will it go?' So it's important to get the answers to those questions up where conventional sport bike riders will be impressed." Thede was definitely impressed with the build quality of the new bike. Earlier Lightning prototypes looked cobby to me, but he said that under the skin, the current bike is beautiful.

The skin is almost the only thing that has really changed, since the bike was raced on the Isle of Man. Thede told me that the salt is rough this year, and that he softened the suspension. "Actually, there are some limitations with the road-race suspension, which is too stiff.," Thede told me. "The salt is different every year; sometimes it's rough and it will pound the shit out of you; sometimes it's smooth, sometimes it's the texture of cane sugar."

Other than changes to suspension settings, the chassis is identical. Hatfield has reprogrammed the power controller - obviously, since a record run is a fraction of a TT lap. The power controller is water cooled, and the AC motor's armature is cooled by an oil spray. Thede was in awe of the motor itself, which he describes as a cylinder about six inches across and six inches thick, putting out 140 horsepower.

The bodywork was not specifically designed for the Lightning; purpose-built bodywork would have a smaller frontal area, permitting at least a little higher top speed.

The bike ran as an Altered Partial Streamliner under SCTA rules, so the rider's body has to be visible from the side (although his arms can be obscured by the fairing.) The bodywork creates a lot of sail area, and a crosswind on one of the Thede's runs was a cause for concern. "I was probably only five degrees from vertical," he told me. "But at that speed, it felt like I was about to drag my knee!"

But, I'm getting ahead of the story...

Thede told me that they'd only just gotten the bike out of customs, after it's return voyage from the IoM. They had to fit the fairing and reprogram the controller with the goal of getting through the SCTA technical inspection last Friday. Thede and the Falkner-Livingston crew know from experience that you need to be ready to race as soon as possible at Bonneville, because the weather can - and frequently does - put the kibbosh on racing long before the scheduled end of Speed Week. As it was, the SCTA tech guys stayed open late Friday to see them through, and Paul Livingston was still applying sponsor stickers as they pushed the bike up to the start line.

According to SCTA rules, new bikes have to make a first pass at under 175 miles an hour, as a shakedown run. Since you need to go over 175 to qualify for a run on the long course, that meant the first two runs had to take place over the short (7-mile) course. Thede was in a hurry to get in a fast pass, since although he hadn't seen either Czysz or Mission around, he was aware that there were other bikes that could - at least in theory - attempt a 200 mile an hour run. So after an initial shakedown, he made a second, full-power, run on the short course.

Despite bumps and the crosswind, Thede and the Lightning recorded a flying mile at 205.238 mph. That easily qualified them for a record, and the bike went into the impound lot in anticipation of a ratifying run the following day (Sunday.) That run went down at 206.921, for a new record of two-oh-six and change.

Thede laughed as described the wave of torque the electric motor produced when he opened the 'throttle' at about 150 miles an hour, and the smooth power delivery. After years of tuning suspensions on high-end ICE bikes, the Race Tech proprietor is now an EVangelist, for sure.

On the second day, the salt was a little wetter, which produced it's own excitement. "There was a little bit of a weave," Thede recalled, adding, "People think, '200, what's the big deal? I went 165 on my 600,' but first of all, their speedometer was lying to them, and they were on asphalt. If they think it's easy to ride 200 on salt, they should come and do it."

"When I broke the record, it was more a feeling of relief than excitement," Thede told me. "I'd been worried that someone else would be the first to go over 200. There are a few guys who were potential threats; Mission's been out here, Czysz has a fast bike. Kent Riches, who own Air-Tech [aftermarket bodywork] has a bike he's working on..."

At the end of our conversation, he told me they were making some tweaks to the bike. Fitting taller gearing, narrowing the fairing a bit, and that they'd hang around another few days and try to go faster still. The bike probably has 220+ in it, with even minimal development.

"I don't know if anyone else is going to show up, or how fast they'll go. Eventually, every record falls. But no matter how fast they go, only one person can be the first to go over 200 miles an hour, and that's always going to be me."

[MG NOTE: There was more to come. Thede upped the record to nearly 216 mph two days later, with a top speed of over 218.]


  1. "In fact, it pretty much traveled straight from customs to Bonneville." Isn't this the bike that came in third at Laguna Seca last month?

  2. Others have asked the same thing, Harry. I transcribed Paul Thede's comments on the fly, and I was pretty sure that's what he told me. I assumed Hatfield had built two Lightnings, one for the TT/Bonneville, and one for Laguna. But I defer to your expertise on that subject, Thanks for pointing out that error.

  3. He does indeed have two bikes - one is a smaller bike for the TTX75 class - so far, no appearance by it this year. I'm pretty sure that the IOM bike and the Laguna bike and the Bonneville bike are the same bike. Notice: "pretty sure."

  4. Yes, this is the same bike that ran at the IOM and placed 3rd at Laguna Seca.