Erik Buell on the 1190RS, IBM moon suits and the future of the American sportsbike | Hell for Leather


Erik Buell on the 1190RS, IBM moon suits and the future of the American sportsbike

This weekend, Erik Buell and I both found ourselves in Germany, at Oschersleben’s Biketoberfest. Watching Harald Kitsch and Pegasus Race Team use their EBR 1190RR to dominate the final race of a championship they’d already won two races ago, it suddenly seemed like a good opportunity to talk to Erik about where he’s going post-Harley. He pulled himself away from the swarms (seriously) of German autograph seekers long enough to do just that.

On Erik Buell Racing
“I was just trying to come up with a brand name and I was like, ‘OK, there’s AMG and there’s BMW, so EBR, maybe someday people won’t even know what it stands for.”

“I’ve been there before, started from zero, and now I just have to do it in a much faster pace. Because we’re knowledgeable about it, we can do it in a pretty lean fashion. But it’s still a huge amount of work, and there just isn’t enough time.”

“We’ve got eight full time employees and I think two part time. Then the race team, a couple fly in guys. I think Bimota is 22 or something. Smaller than them, man.”

“Fundamentally, we need people to believe that these aren’t jut a bunch of goofy guys that hotrod Harleys. We do innovative ideas that compete against anybody in the world.”

On the 1190RS
“It’s going to be low volume production. I mean tiny. I just don’t have the money to buy anything. But we can get the [1125] engines from Rotax, we’re going to have to convert them into an 1190 ourselves.”

“It actually takes quite a few parts because it’s a different crankshaft. It has to be re-valved, the connecting rods are different, the cylinders are different, the pistons are different, the head has to be slightly changed to match the bore. Titanium valves, actually a ton of stuff. But none of it really affects the fundamentals of the base motor. You know, is the oil pump good? Are the crank bearings good? Is the rod size good? Does the cooling system work? You know, those things. So all the stuff we’re doing is sort of hot rod style. Titanium valves, different cam drive, different pistons and rods because it can spin up to 12,000 so I need really, really good rods. The motor was originally an 11,000rpm motor, but is spinning up to 12,500, so those sorts of things. But they’re all bolt in.”

“We’re using very high-end things like Del West valves. The first street bikes will be built to that race level. That’s partly because I want to be able to take the street bike and convert it into a race bike economically. In short, a guy could buy one, put a race pipe and a race chip on it and go pretty fast. It’ll be as good as what Harald [Kitsch] is riding and better than what Geoff [May] is riding. That’s pretty good.”

“When you’re doing small volume anyhow and the price is kinda high, you should give a guy premium stuff. Will most owners run them that hard, at the limit? No. But it means that if they run them hard and do a lot of trackdays, it’ll just hold up forever basically.”

“It’ll be much like if you get a 1098R or a bike like that, it comes with a lot of good stuff. It’ll have Ohlins suspension, it’ll be very light with some carbon fiber, it’ll be a nice bike. They’re going to be hand built”

“Distribution: I know people are interested in buying, but I’m not going to sell direct, I’m going to go with somebody, but until I know what my final cost structure is, I can’t take orders. So it’s better for me not to talk too much about it, then I get deluged and with this little team I just can’t spend the time answering the phone. When it’s done it’ll really be done, it will really be legal, there will really be a dealer network.”

“I don’t want to deceive anybody so I don’t want to give specifications that I’m not going to deliver. So right now, we’re just working through the last steps of a few things that have to be finished: emissions, sound testing and that kind of stuff. Until that’s done, we can’t have the weight, we can’t really have the horsepower.”

“We’re hoping to start sales this winter so we can have something out in time for spring.”

On Rotax supplying the engines
“They will produce it as long as we want them to. They own it, it’s theirs now. They have all the tooling and whatnot. The issue for them is it’s going to be small volume production. Basically, they like us a lot. We’re lucky to have good people like that.”

“They’re willing to do something like this because the payback is, ‘Yeah, it’s really a pain in the neck for us, but we really, really like you guys and we know you’re trying hard. You’re going to race our engine and show how good it is.’”

“They’ve made engines for BMW and stuff, but those engines don’t get raced, so for them to have a bike out there with their engine running at the front? It feels good. It really jut boils down to that they’re just good people who are going out of their way to help us.”

On innovation not always having meant improvement
“Things like the ZTL brake. It’s hard to make, it costs more, it’s not a common part so it doesn’t run down the same production line as all the other Nissin calipers.The physics were always there, but one of the things we dealt with was refinement. We’re the only guys doing it, so there’s no one to ask questions of. As we refined it, we realized the things we needed to do and it always got better.”

“Now, the one that Geoff’s running is as good as any brake in the world and it’s about six to seven pounds lighter, total unsprung weight. That’s cool, and it takes less assembly time to put together. It pays off for everyone; the engineers get to be innovative and, because there’s not so many pieces, the quality is better because the stack up of tolerances and the number of things that can go wrong as a result, those things go away.”

On being famous in Germany
“I’m not really a celebrity type person. I like to play rock and roll because I just like to play rock and roll. I don’t ask for blue M&Ms in the bowl in the green room at all. I don’t think people look at me like that, I think people like me because I’m like them, they feel like I’m a friend. A few people are a bit weird about it, but most just say, ‘It’s great to meet you.’ I’m not anybody super, I’m just somebody working and trying hard.”

On the 1125R
“If we had raced the 1125RR as an 1190 superbke first and then come out with the 1125R, with the higher higher handlebars and the bigger fairing and the saddlebags