Lightning Strikes Twice!

By Bill Moore

Posted: 16 Jul 2010

Literally out of the clear blue sky, Lightning struck our house yesterday! No damage was done.

We had just returned home from our first visit to Cape Cod to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, when my cell phone rang. It was Richard Hatfield, the founder of Lightning Motorcycles in California. He was ten miles east of Council Bluffs, Iowa on Interstate 80 and driving through Omaha on his way home. He wanted to know if I had time for a quick cup of coffee. I suggested instead -- with Judy's consent -- that he stop by the house for dinner. We hadn't had time to shop for groceries, so the menu would be grilled beef hot dogs, baked beans, broccoli, and apple carrot salad. Since we live only a few miles off I-80 where it bends southwest towards Lincoln, it wouldn't take him very far out of his way.

He arrived around 5 pm, pulling into the driveway in a big white Sprinter van emblazoned with the Mercedes logo. Inside the van, to my immense delight, was the track-scorching Lightning motorcycle, affectionately referred to by track commentators at the first TTXGP race in Sonoma as the "Yellow Banana." The A123/EV1 e-motor-powered machine had just zapped the competition... again... at Mosport International north of Toronto. After three races in the four race series, Lightning is within just one point of taking the North American series championship, having racked up, to date, 70 points. The second closest competitor, the AGNI machine sponsored by Zero Motorcycles, which won the first race at Infineon, has a total of 45 points, having failed to show for the third race.

As the video from the Infineon race shows, the Lightning machine simply dominates the competition with ejector seat-like acceleration that none of the current crop of competitors can match. While he chomped on his grilled hot dog, Hatfield said the bike can do 140 mph in the straightaways. Not only is he confident he can win the North American TTXGP series, but also the world championship in Spain that brings together the best machine in both Europe and North America. The Lightning is turning in times that the Europeans have yet to match in their series.

Once he has the TTXGP series behind him, Hatfield is setting his sights again on Bonneville Salt Flats and the 200 mph speed record this fall. He also thinks it's now possible to adapt the Lightning to even challenge the gasoline-powered superbikes, qualifying as the fast bike on the track. He mused between bites of baked beans and broccoli, that he could use a lighter battery pack, just enough to complete one to three qualifying laps around the raceway that would put the Lightning in the 160 mph category. He'd just need to shade 11 seconds off his current time to put the bike in the same class as the superbikes. Imagine having the top qualifying machine be electric among a field of all-gasoline competitors, he smiled as he sipped his strong black coffee.

Having watched the video of the race at Infineon, I asked him what had happened to the bike in the corners where the Zero-sponsored machine was constantly overtaking him. Hatfield explained that his team had set the bike's suspension too low and as the bike leaned into the turn, it was scrapping the bottom of the battery cowling. At least once, Michael Barnes, the rider, nearly lost the bike in a turn, and only his skill of riding professionally for 20 years, saved him from disaster. Once the suspension was set slightly higher and the cowling no longer scrapped the pavement in the turns, the Lightning has turned out to be unbeatable, lapping even the second place bike at Toronto.

We talked about his plans to commercialize his bike. There are 20 prototype road machines now under construction at the moment that will offer good highway/commuter performance for under $10,000. These will be used at consumer test vehicles and dealer demonstrators. For the moment, he's holding off taking orders for clones of the "Yellow Banana" -- in part because he has only four more salvaged GM EV1 electric car e-motors available. He intimated to me that he'd found the original Asian manufacturer of the Tesla Roadster's electric motor and he's in negotiations to acquire motors from them that will be significantly more powerful than the EV1 e-motors.

He also has put on hold plans for his electric scooter line and a separate e-bike he co-developed with Bill Dube of Killacycle fame. I got to ride Hatfield's personal model, which was also inside the van. It's a 'pedalec', meaning that you have to pedal the bike in order for the electric assist to engage. A sensor detects the amount of effort being needed to pedal the machine and supplies enough to assist the rider. As soon as you stop pedaling, the assist disengages after 3 seconds. It's different from the thumb throttle system on my TidalForce 750 e-bike, but I like it. Based on a Chinese-made mountain bike frame and using lithium-ion batteries, it's much lighter than my 750. At a price point of under $1000, this could be a great seller, but for the moment, Hatfield has decided to focus on building the Lightning Motorcycle brand, hiring a professional branding company for that purpose.

The next venue at which Hatfield is planning to show off the machine is at the Red Bull 2010 MotoGP at Laguna Seca, where 80,000 people will be in attendance. Once he gets home, Hatfield plans to tear the bike down, inspect it, and rebuild it in time for race. If Michael Barnes and the Lightning can repeat their performance at the last three races, those crowds will be in for an eye opening, history-making event. As the announcer in Toronto told the crowd of some 20,000 spectators, you are witnessing the future. And briefly, Judy and I had a chance to touch it.

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