Between the Races: Chip Yates

Sep 15, 2010

As the electric motorcycle scene continues to gain momentum, a new racing team is preparing to enter the fray. The Swigz.com Electric Superbike—the brain-child of engineer and racer Chip Yates—is loaded with innovative solutions to common difficulties faced by electric vehicles. Yates says his project is pushing the envelope of what battery technology can deliver, in a package that’s designed for one purpose only: to win the TTXGP and FIM e-Power racing series in 2011.

Courtesy Yates

Please start by telling us a bit about your background.
Well, I’m actually an engineer, and then I got my master’s degree in business from USC. So I started my career without racing at all, and the first racing I ever did was in 1999 to 2002. My wife and I raced in the SCCA Pro Rally Championship in a supercharged Toyota MR2 that I built myself. So, that was my first racing experience. In terms of motorcycles, way back in 1991 I rode a street bike around for like a year and then never rode a motorcycle again until 2007. That January I bought an old ’98 Gixxer 750—it was kind of a junker—and I took it to Fast Track Riders at California Speedway. It was the first time I ever rode a race bike, so to speak, and it was the first time I’d been on a paved track of any kind. I signed up as a novice and took the trackday class, and I liked it , so I got my WERA novice license. My first race was in 2007 at WERA Las Vegas. I raced quite a bit as a novice that season in WERA and AFM, and I got hooked on it. In 2009 I turned pro with AMA, then in May 2009 I got my FIM World Supersport license and raced as a wildcard at Miller [Motorsports Park]. I was injured and had a slow bike and everything, but I was the only American to qualify and finish the race, so that was awesome. My plans had been to race the whole season in 2009 in the AMA, but in Topeka at the AMA race I broke my pelvis and that stopped my season. That gave me time to think, and that’s when I started on the electric stuff.

How did you transition from racing to designing motorcycles? And what drove you toward alternative-fuel motorcycles in particular?
You know, I started racing extremely late in life. I had never set foot on a racetrack until I was 36 years old, and I had already established a career designing products. As an engineer I’ve designed everything from, like, toys, all the way to automotive traction control technology that we licensed to some OEMs like Jeep for the Grand Cherokee and stuff like that. So I had built up some patents and had some experience with inventing and developing things like that. Then when I started motorcycle racing, even in the AMA, I was building all my own motors, doing all my own data acquisition, and doing all that stuff because I really like the mechanical side and to tinker. Then when I was out with the broken pelvis, I was reflecting on the AMA—and I love the AMA, they’ve been really good to me—but in Daytona SportBike you really can’t do too much to your motor or to the bike. You know, you can’t use advanced materials and carbon fiber.

Right then the TTXGP championship was getting a lot of press for the 2010 season, and I thought, “Here is a championship where you can do pretty much anything you want.” And that’s really what attracted me at first: the chance to go into something in a pioneering year, when you are starting out and there is no established winning team, no big-guns like Yoshimura Suzuki. It’s kind of like, if you’re the most innovative you have a chance win, and you can come up with ideas and patents, invent stuff, and use advanced materials. All that attracted me to this electric stuff, so it was really the fact that I get to play a role in defining the first couple of years of electric superbike racing. We could fully flex our muscles at inventing, designing, machining—you know, creating stuff from scratch, rather than being hampered by a rule book.

What makes your motorcycle different from the other e-motos in the TTXGP and e-Power racing series?
Well, one thing is that I’m pretty much the only pro-licensed racer who is also the head designer in creating the bike. So I am inventing and designing the bike around what I feel, as a pro rider, I need to go out and win. Basically it’s the most powerful electric bike in the world. It makes 194 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque, so that sets it apart.

It’s also the most technically advanced, which is the third thing. We’ve teamed up with MoTec and we’re using, like, Formula 1-level stuff and pushing it to its max. We have MoTec USA helping us, and they sent us an engineer to help MoTec work with electric motors. We’re using the full capabilities of a Formula 1-level MoTec device; we’re pushing it to the limits to where they’ve had to get MoTec Australia involved on a technical level to help meet our needs. We have lean-angle and traction control and stuff that a normal superbike would have, but we’ve also got race-finishing algorithms and things to make sure we finish the race before the battery pack runs out. We’ve looked at all the competitors, and for sure it’s the most technically advanced and we’re pushing the limits because we’re using 50 percent more horsepower than the top guys, but we’re using the same battery pack.

That kind of leads me to the fourth thing: we’re the only bike in the world with a front-wheel kinetic energy recovery system (KERS). When I hit the brakes going into a corner, the KERS system decides how much of the braking force gets turned into regenerating energy for the battery pack, and how much is used by the normal hydraulic brake. We’re the only people that have that, and we’re filing patents on it. The importance of that is that with everyone else, they charge up the battery pack and they race around the track as fast as they can until it dies. We use about the same size battery pack as everyone else, but we use 50 percent more horsepower, and the way that we can do that is that we get so much recharge benefit when we go into every corner under braking, and it recharges our pack during the race.

The Swigz.com electric superbike • Courtesy Yates

So not only is that going to help us win races and do well, but also we’re pushing the real limits of what these batteries can do. Big brand-name companies are sending us their batteries and saying, “Can you test our batteries on your race simulator?” We have a big battery tester that simulates what I’m going to do in a race, and the tester basically takes a battery and sucks a ton of current out of it and then slams it back by charging current into it, simulating going into a corner under braking. So it’s that slamming back and forth between charge and discharge that no other team can do. They only discharge, they never charge, which is actually nicer to a battery, because it gets to rest while these guys are braking into a corner with their normal disk brakes, while my battery never gets to rest.

What’s neat about that is that we’re getting these big companies who are saying, “Hey, because you have this KERS system on your front wheel that’s harvesting all this energy, and we’re not sure if our batteries can survive in that zone of performance you’re pushing into, here are some free batteries. Can you test them and tell us what’s happening?” We sent a report out today—I can’t say to who because we’re under non-disclosure agreement, but it’s Fortune 500 company, a household brand name—and they’re dying to know how their batteries did on our tester. It’s pretty cool.

With your bike producing that much more power than the others, it seems like weight could be more of an issue. Would it be possible to reduce the power of the motorcycle in favor of reduced weight?
Yeah, that’s a good point, right? For sure right now you could argue that our bike is almost too powerful for the series. We make more power than we need to win. But when I started this project last year, I didn’t start it to try to figure out where everyone else is and just do one better; I started the project because I want to develop a maximum-performance platform. If you take a lower horsepower motor and then next year the batteries get better, and every year they keep getting better, then you wish that you had a more powerful motor. So we went the other way—we picked the best motor that we knew we would never outgrow. Even in World Superbike, you don’t really need much more than 200 horsepower, right? So we’re basically starting with 200 horsepower, and we’ll pretty much never need more. So we’re going to let the batteries catch up. Now our platform is stable: we’ve got our electronics, we’ve got our lean-angle, we’ve got the motor we want, we’ve got the controller and all the networks we want, and we’ve got all this stuff that is arguably the best it can be. We have this KERS system on the front wheel that can recharge the batteries.

We were supposed to race earlier this year, but this project got so complicated—and became so fun, frankly—that I decided that I’d rather miss the races and have this bike turn out awesome and exactly the way I wanted than kind of skimp and reduce the horsepower and get out there just for the sake of racing with a bike that wasn’t the way I envisioned it. So I’m kind of sad to miss some races, but I’m pretty happy to be where we are, to be honest with you.

Where we are right now is with these Fortune 500 companies sending us their batteries, and our test results so far show that they’re getting very hot with the current we’re pulling out of them and with the KERS pumping current back into them, but the ones we just pulled out of the tester didn’t catch on fire, and they didn’t explode! So it looks like we are literally right on that edge of technology. We are asking a lot, and technically it can be done, but it’s going to push us into the next level with these batteries.

So, why do you think this system hasn’t been adapted by other e-moto manufacturers?
Well, I can’t speak for them. I’ll give you some thoughts, though. One thing that differentiates us from like a Brammo is that we’re not trying to sell anything to the public. So we have no desire to produce this bike, to make it feasible or marketable, or to sell scooters or batteries or motors or anything! My only objective was to make the best race-winning package that I possible could in sort of a maximum-performance way. So in figuring out that 194 horsepower is an awful lot of power for today’s batteries, we realized that we had to make a KERS system. When we looked at KERS systems we realized that the other guys have rear-wheel KERS, where as you lift off the throttle, the rear wheel is connected to the chain and to the motor anyway, and so it just kind of bumps along into the corner and you can harvest a little bit of energy that way. So based on data that I collected during my AMA racing, we modeled what would happen if we did the same thing as the other guys, and the answer was that we would need a huge battery pack because that just isn’t enough charge. That forced us to look at the front wheel, which in turn forced us to solve a bunch of problems in terms of how you take power off the front wheel without affecting how the bike steers and handles. So by setting this crazy design parameter that I want the best bike in the world and I want to do lap times like I was doing in the AMA, and setting aggressive objectives, it forced us down a path of innovating. We brought in guys that write control algorithms for unmanned helicopters, so with all due respect to the other teams and the smart engineers that they have, we have MIT geniuses writing the control software and coming up with this stuff. I don’t know if anybody else could have done it or will do it in the future, but we’re filing a bunch of patents, and we’ve got a bunch of smart guys, and we like the direction we’ve picked.

The "500-amp UQM controller" • Courtesy Yates

As a racer, what is your evaluation of the TTXGP and e-Power series so far?
Well, the series split up, right? I think that has hurt the series. Everybody points to IndyCar and CART splitting up and it kind of ruined open-wheel racing in the U.S. and kind of gave NASCAR a real chance to take hold. I think, yeah, that it would have been much better if FIM and TTXGP had joined forces. I don’t point the blame in either direction because I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but when you only have, like, ten legitimate teams in the entire world, splitting that into two series across the ocean is definitely going to water-down the effort. I think we saw that when we had races with less than six people on the grid, which is unfortunate. I think you get riders with different capabilities so far in the series. I think they need to join forces and we need to bring some bigger teams in, and some bigger-named riders, and make it exciting.

That’s one thing that we hope to do with our bike. The fact that it’s this powerful is designed to help people get excited. So if you’re standing along pit wall and this bike comes along whining and screaming, you can hear the chain driving the KERS, and the electric motor controller which makes high-pitched whines—it’s not silent by any means—and you see that coming through, fighting for traction, trying to put down 300 foot-pounds of torque with our traction control…. We want that to kind of give you goosebumps. That’s what I’m aiming for, and I think we’re on the right track to do that.

There are a lot of people in the series right now who are trying to sell electric bikes to the public, so they’ve been forced to take their electric bike that is for sale and try to amp it up a little bit for racing, and that’s not exciting. So you’re seeing real race fans who love 1000cc bikes and the screaming sound they make, and they’re not very impressed by sort of amped-up scooters coming by, and we’re hoping to change that. There are a couple of guys out there like MotoCzysz and Lightning who have done real well, and we consider ourselves in that company at the top of the food chain. Michael Barnes is a good rider, Mike Czysz is a good rider, I’m a good rider, and we all have good bikes. So I think if you look at the teams across the world, there are at least the three of us that are going to have a good shit-fight next year, and it should be really fun. I hope other people come.

When will we get to see the whole package?
October 5-7 in San Jose, and it’s only because of the patent filing that we haven’t been able to show the whole package all at once. All of our pictures have been cropped or cut or modified. Our patents are going to be filed at that time, so literally we are going to unveil the entire thing and be there to explain it. You can touch it, poke it, take pictures, it’ll be fully on display.

To follow the progress of the Swigz.com electic superbike, visit www.chipyates.com or follow him on Twitter at @chipyates89.



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