Tom Montano began racing motorcycles in the early 1980s in California, and his career highlights include being WERA D Superbike champion, a 9th at Daytona, and AMA Pro Thunder champ in 2001 on a Ducati 748. At the Isle of Man he finished tenth on a privateer 600 in the Junior TT, and 13th twice, in 2003 on a Ducati 998 and in 2005 on a MV Agusta, both in the Senior TT. He has been an instructor in several racing schools and has continued to race endurance events in Europe. In 2009 Tom rode the first TTXGP aboard the Mission Motors electric motorcycle. I spoke to Tom in December, 2010, about his experience on the e-bike.
MM: Did you get much time on the Mission Motors TTXGP bike before you arrived at the Isle of Man?
Montano: Infineon Raceway said we could come ride the bike between 5 and 7pm any night we wanted, because the bike was quiet and Infineon was one of the sponsors of the bike, so they provided track time. I probably rode it five times just trying to figure out battery and motor usage, that kind of stuff.
MM: What were your first impressions of the electric bike, having ridden gas-powered bikes for so long?
Montano: One thing that came to mind for me was a transformer for a train set, when you're a kid. You know, you turn the transformer up the train goes faster, you turn it down… But the thing that really struck me about the Mission Motors bike was that the throttle response to the rear wheel was everything you would want it to be. There were no gears, and no compression braking. Instead it had ‘regenerative' braking as they called it, you could adjust it so it acted like a 2-stroke, like a 4-stroke, or none at all.
MM: Did you set that in the paddock or on the fly?
Montano: At that stage they set it in the paddock. At first they asked me about it and I said "There isn't any" but they got it to work one day, and then it could lock up the rear wheel almost. So I said, "Yeah, it's working now!" So then they started playing with it and sorted it out. But that was all new then. But the control [of the power] was one of the bike's advantages. Very user friendly. We all know how a motorcycle feels, you give it the gas and it goes. Of course fuel injection has made that better, because with carburetors that connection is sometimes very abrupt at certain revs and screws you up. That's where the tuner's jetting [is important] or injection or mapping and electronics all come into play. [The Mission Motors bike] worked really well. As far as how long the batteries last, how many miles you can go vs. how fast you can go, that is still a work in progress.
So it was good to ride, but of course, there's no clutch. It's direct, or reduction gear drive. So if the motor stops spinning there's no clutch to pull in. So you're going around at 85mph and you think, What is that sound? But there's no clutch to pull if you're worried. And that happened in first practice, I think. I was just cruising, seeing what was going on with the bike, and one of the guys came flying by and I thought, He's using it up early. When I got to the bottom of Bray Hill I started smelling something, that nasty electric motor burn. His bike had locked and thrown him off. And I imagined him thinking, "Where's the clutch!?"
MM: So that must add an element of suspense to riding the electric bike.
Montano: Yeah, for sure. With no gears and no clutch, one of your other instincts is you come up to a corner, get out of your tuck and start banging down the gears, but there's no gears. We used to coast race down Claremont [a local road in the Berkeley hills, long and winding for several miles] and every now and then someone would accidently jam it in gear and eat shit. You know, in the heat of the moment, forget [the engine was not running] and downshift. [mimics being thrown over the handlebars] In a coast race you want to brake just enough to make the corner and hope you didn't brake as much as the next guy. The e-bike was similar in a way, except you didn't have to worry about accidentally grabbing a gear when you shouldn't.
Another thing is the weight doesn't go away. You start the race with a full tank of gas and that's how you finish. So that's one racing problem gone. The only thing that happens is the tires wear, but at those speeds the tires don't really wear that much.
MM: So how was the race itself?
Montano: Going to the Isle of Man, by the time it came to the actual race we figured it could go 85mph and if we tried not to go over, we could do 85 for the entire lap. They set up three different pyramids on the—I call it the fuel gauge but it's the battery gauge, and if you're below the first pyramid by the time you get to this spot you've used too much, and so on. So I had to manage it. When I got to the first checkpoint at Glen Helen I'd used too much. Second was Ramsey, and when I got there I'd not used enough, so I thought, "This is great, I'll have plenty of power to go over the mountain and bring it on home."
In the end they said I'd used everything. They said as soon as you come out of Governor's Bridge just give it everything it's got. So I went over the line at about 100mph and they said there was nothing left [in the batteries].
MM: So having ridden as many laps as you have on gas-powered motorbikes, how different was it riding the electric, having to manage the batteries with the gauge, instead of having all the power you'd otherwise get from a full tank of gas? How did you change your approach to the actual ride?
Montano: Yeah, it was a lot different. You're used to going as fast as you possibly can and then braking so you make the corner. But now I can only go so fast because I don't want to use up all the energy. So you start thinking, ok, if I don't go all the way to the last brake marker, and then gas it out of the corner as I normally would, if instead I roll the corner, or coast it, or hold the throttle in one position and keep the speed up… On the Isle of Man there're a lot of places where you're flat out anyway, or you're playing with the throttle in fifth gear or sixth gear, trying to keep it flat out and sometimes you can and sometimes you can't do it. But on the electric bike you're going around at 85mph, waving to the crowd, "Hey, how's it going?" thinking of having a beer, maybe smoking a cigarette, and then suddenly you have to slow down for a turn. You really had to concentrate on momentum, trying not to use the throttle.
MM: So from that perspective does it seem more like energy management than a race?
Montano: Yeah. When I was there they'd come up and interview you and ask what we thought about this being the first race of its kind, you're making history. And I said, there are a lot of guys who could ride the bike but there aren't many who could build it. At this stage it still has a lot more to do with engineers than it does a rider being able to do it.
MM: So you finished fourth. How far behind the first three riders were you?
Montano: Not that far, really, on time. For some reason we had the number 1 [on the bike] so we went down the hill first. And one of the Brammos came by, then the Agni came by, which was a Suzuki chassis with a bunch of Agni motors and batteries in it. That was one of the things about the Mission Motors bike, they built the whole thing from the ground up. And [these were] guys who didn't really know that much about motorcycles, to boot. There were some flaws with the chassis, but I liked that better than just bolting some stuff onto an existing chassis. That made it more exciting for me.
So the Agni came by, and all week they'd had a good 8mph on us. And I think the Moto Czysz was there, he had some good speed too, but he burned up a couple of times and once was in the race. And I think another bike came by so I thought, Okay now I'm in fourth. What can I do? It's the Tortoise versus the Hare. Sure enough I'm going along and… [Montano sniffs] What the hell is that smell? Well I know what that smell is. It's like a burnt drill or something. And there was another bike lying on the road, burnt. He's used [the motor] up, so I thought, Great! So then I catch up to another bike at the mountain and pass him going up, but that the top of the mountain, that's when the power really starts coming into play, so we started going back and forth, and coming down he'd pass me, I'd pass him, he'd pass me. But I got back by him just before the start/finish and led him over the line. But he had made up the time. And someone who'd started father back but not caught up had made up the time, too. So I just missed out on a podium. But I don't think I could've ridden the corners any faster. I felt it was mainly about how much battery, what configuration of weight and so on.
MM: So if you were offered the chance to ride the Isle of Man one more time on either the latest electric bike or a 600, which would it be?
Montano: [laughs] That's a hard call. [Thinks for a minute.] I'd probably have to do the electric bike just because I've ridden the 600 so many times. Electric bikes… The sound is totally different, there is no sound, or rather there's a different type of sound. Some people think it's the end of the world, but at the end of the day it's just another form of racing. And when something changes it's always the same thing. "What do you mean, two-stokes? What do you mean, four strokes? No way! Fuel injection? Control tires? Whatever. There's always going to be issues at the get go. It's something new. And you can only watch so many Suzuki 1000s go around a racetrack.
There are a couple of interviews with Tom up on YouTube:
And at least a couple about the Mission Motors bike preparing for the 2009 TTXGP: