The final complex of the Texas World Speedway course is a series of increasingly tight corners that culminate in a sharp S bend. Hugging the inside curbing as you exit the final left hand turn allows the rider to exit the course into pit lane and the safety of the paddock. Drift to the outside, however, and you begin the run along TSW's banked and slightly curving front straight. Cracking open the throttle here rewards the rider with a glorious caucophony of sound as pistons hurl themselves across their chambers. Noxious gasses bark as they are expelled from from exhaust cannons, the mad wailing echoing off the NASCAR banking and up into the stadium sections. 'Twix the riders legs the engine screams a banshee's wail as the rev counter rockets to its red line, interrupted perhaps by the urgent burble of overrev before an impending shift of the transmission.
At least that is what you would expect to hear and feel, and on virtually any motorcycle the experience would live up to the expectation. However the Zero Electric Motorcycle is not just any steed. Gone is the ear splitting crack of petrol molecules split and fizzling, replaced instead with an eerie quiet as you are propelled forward. In place of the roar of the engine there is an increasing thrum of rubber on pavement, the rush of wind past the helmet. The experience is different, but in many ways it becomes more than that of its internal combustion counterpart.
She's The Dancehall Queen
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and virtually everyone who saw the Zero on the stand had comments about it. For their free and open to enthusiasts trackday
AF1 brought out some of their RSV4 and Tuono V4 toys to play alongside the Zero, yet the Zero felt neither out of place nor overshadowed in sportier company. In fact the Zero had a constant stream of onlookers, admirers and prospective riders crowding around it throughout the day. At no point (even when food was being served) was the bike abandoned or ignored.
A large part of the Zero's presence is generated by the visual impact that the design team acheived with component placement. The Zero lacks the fairing shrouds of full race replicas such as the RSV4, leaving much of its componentry bare. Like the Tuono V4, the bike uses bikini fairings to tease the eye and strategically divert windflow aerodynamically around the rider and machine. However in areas where the human eye would expect to find evidence of mechanical intrusion and compromise - the bulge of a cylinder head or the crease of a coolant hose - the Zero S presents a backdrop of smooth lines that flow soothingly across the visual plane.
The effect caused by this mechanical absense is simplistic and striking. The minimalist aluminum frame hugs the slim-line Z-Force regenerative battery closely, making the Zero's profile waifishly thin. As with any semi-naked motorcycle, the powerplant dominates the visual area of the bike. While other motorcycles find ways to dress up the engine, the Zero presents an almost mysterious flat surface in the center of the bike that serves to highlight the lines and colors of the frame and plastic. It works.
Then there is the sound - or the lack of it. Few people were able to see the Zero S ride off from the paddock without commenting at least once on how eerie it was to witness. The effect was, without doubt, greatly enhanced by the on track action that served as a backdrop. Between the Guzzis, RSVs, and RSV4s, Texas World Speedway was awash with the boom of open pipes on twins and fours as the exploded across the NASCAR banking, or barked to life in the pits to await their turn. In sharp contrast to this the Zero simply... moved. There was no muss, no fuss. It came to life silenty and then slipped off in the desired direction, almost as a private dance between the the machine and the owner.
The quiet makes for a pleasant, if different, experience at paddock speeds. While you may not wish to engage in any hooligan antics in such close confines, the Zero never the less was noticed as it navigated the grounds despite the lack of the preceding sound. Easy power modulation from the single speed drive train made zipping between stands and among people a breeze, the chassis proving to be compliant at the low to medium speeds required around the paddock and in pit lane.
Yes, I'm Serious and Don't Call Me Shirley
Several people were able to test out the Zero S over the course of the track day and the preceding race weekend, most notably one Ty Howard
who took the bike for a spin the eve before. Reactions to the ride quality of the bike were universal - the S surprised in all of the right ways. Despite any pre-conceived misgivings the Zero felt reassuringly solid, and nothing like the "toy" that other electric motorcycles are portrayed to be - or that its ultra-slim profile implies. Each rider returned the S having enjoyed their time aboard, with comments such as "neat" and "fun
" being thrown enthusiastically its way.
If a short paddock ride wasn't convincing enough, then any notion that the Zero S is limited to an anemic city trawler quickly disappears away from pit lane. What the Zero lacks in outright power it makes up for with instantly available, silky smooth acceleration thanks to the flawless single gear transmission. Seat of the pants dyno testing puts the output on par with Kawasaki's Ninja 250, however the lack of fairing and single gear ration gives the baby ninja the edge in top end power. The Zero makes up for this by being approximately 100 lbs
less portly, tipping the scales at 297 lbs ready to ride. The Zero hit an (unofficially) indicated 95 mph down the banked straight, all the while delivering large amounts of "usable torque" at any speed with a small twist of the rider's wrist.
Past the front straight and into any of Texas World Speedway's sharp or descreasing radius turns the Zero S continued to shine as it showcased its performance abilities. The low weight and smaller tire profile allow the S to carry large amounts of speed through the corner if the rider has the skill and bravery to push it. Flashing around in the track day's B group the Zero was able to comfortably match the pace of the larger sport bikes around the track. Out there it was the handling of the S that stole the show. It is no exhaggeration to say that the side stand was dragged while hustling around the track, a true indication that the stock chassis is up to the task of putting a smile on the faces of even expert riders and exceeding the expectations of novices. Low weight, predictive power and capable chassis combine into a machine that simply loves to be flicked on its side.
One point that became a rider favorite on the track day configuration at Texas World Speedway was turn 7. After blasting down the short back straight the course rises into an up hill banked turn that forms a bowl at its apex before dropping away to an opposing turn. A two dimensional map of the track simply does not do the corner justice, but the Zero was an absolute missile through it. Navigating that - or any of the technical points at TWS - without the distraction of clutch actuation and multiple gears, and the accompanying upset of the chassis, allowed the experience to be boiled down into a simple formula for success: "brake, turn in, roll on, pin it......repeat........brake, turn in, roll on, pin it". The simplified gearing and usable torque provides all of the tools for even novice riders to refrain from using the brakes and instead focus on keeping the throttle pinned to maximize corner speeds. AF1's own Ed put it succinctly when he said, "If everyone took one out for a few laps before their big bike session, they'd learn so much more and be faster at the end of the day."
With all of the talk about how quiet the experience of riding electric is, one may get the mistaken impression that the rider is deprived of the audio cues that become so integral to the experience of riding a motorcycle (and especially riding one fast). This would be a mistake, as all around the Speedway the Zero provided an abundance of feedback to its pilot. While the bump and roar of the engine is notably absent, an abundance of sounds remain that have always been present but in a more muted capacity. The hum of the tires along the pavement remains, as does the whistle of the wind past the rider's helmet. Even the motor produces a notable whine when run at full tilt. The end result is an experience much like that of an internal combustion engine, but with muted tones.
Has the Jury Reached a Verdict?
Though marketed as a city bike the Zero S is, without a doubt, a capable bike at speeds and in situations that would risk your license in urban and rural environments. It's low weight and clutchless, single gear drivetrain mate well to its power output to deliver a machine that is responsive, corner hungry and an absolute blast to ride. This is not to say that it is without its short comings. Long straights like Texas World Speedway's banked NASCAR front straight can be boring without a hypersport's mad lunge deep into triple digit speeds, and riders will left behind by race replicas in a straight line. The lower power output would also mean that pilots would be safest in the C group at open track days where A and B groups are more likely to be occupied by dedicated high performance track machines running closer to race pace. With all of that said it would be up there at the head of the class in C group. It is easily a match for smaller displacement machines in any situation, and even larger displacement bikes in "fun" and more technical settings at the track or your favorite B roads.
It is so good that AF1 already has inquiries in with Zero for the updated 2013 model, that boosts power output by 93% so that they can begin investigating upgrades to the chassis and brakes with an eye towards racing it. Season maintenance would, after all, be a much simpler affair than with a typical ICE motorcycle. There would be no oil changes to worry about, nor any engine maintenance. There'd be no need for the extra hassle of warming up the engine to get it up to speed, and the added wear that it gives. There isn't even any fumes from the gas or exhaust when working on the bike.
If none of that convinces you that the Zero S is a precision tool to enjoyably use on your next track day then consider this last parting shot around that last point of gas. The crew at AF1 estimates that the S could run 12 laps or more at absolute full tilt on a single charge. For the entire track day they were able to run multiple riders in different sessions with no problems; and all they had to do to is charge it up at the electric port in the paddock stand.
How much did your last tank of track gas cost?
Photography by Micah Shoemaker