Interview: Shea Nyquist's home-made electric land speed attempt
Land speed racing is rarely a glamorous corporate affair. More often, it's a lone innovator or small team sweating it out in a garage, striving toward a spot in the record books. And that's very much the case with Shea Nyquist, who's working with his fiancée and a couple of friends with a bunch of recycled parts to take his shot at the record books.
Shea is no stranger to the personal risk involved – many years spent as a high level back-flipping BMX freestyler have made him very familiar with how hard the ground is. He's also got the skills to plan and build an extreme machine like a land-speed racer thanks to many years building custom bikes. As far as the electric angle? He's spent the last several years working with EVs at the upcoming industry's coalface in Silicon Valley.
That doesn't mean it's a simple project, though, and over the phone from his home in California, Nyquist talked us through some of the challenges, opportunities and speed bumps between him and a new fully streamlined electric motorcycle land speed record.
What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
Loz: Is this an outright electric land speed attempt?
Yeah, I used to work at a couple of different EV companies in Silicon Valley – SF motors, which is Seres now I guess, and Octillion Power Systems, which built batteries for EVs. Through those, I basically became the guy people would go to, to recycle their batteries.
A lot of people I'd do work for would be like "hey, we've got these old batteries, do you wanna take 'em?" And I'd be like sure, there's about 80% left in them. Through one of the deals, I ended up convincing them it'd cost money to recycle them, even though they were still good. So they threw in a free powertrain, a motor and inverter, too.
Usually I flip stuff like that, but my fiancee and I went to Bonneville that year, and we saw some motorcycles at the Mike Cook event, which is the elite people in the game. I saw some of the bikes, and I'd been a bike builder for like 15 years. I caught the bug, and when I got home I was like "man, I could build an EV one."
And I started looking at the records, and it turns out there's no streamliner motorcycle record. There's Eva Hakansson, who has the sidecar one for streamliners, but there's no real streamliner style one.
Loz: I remember chatting with Mike Corbin last time I was over there, didn't he have an electric streamliner back in the 70s, with stolen silver from the US Army and all sorts of crazy stories going on?
Yeah, that was a partial streamliner. A sit-on type bike, partially streamlined, so it's like PSC or PSL… A little bit different of a class. There's a bunch of classes, obviously. But my goal, after I figured out what I had from this deal, I went and just designed the fastest thing I could do, and it ended up being, with my calculations and a couple other people, it was almost 300 miles per hour.
So I was pretty excited. And I thought "I'm just gonna go ahead and do it!"
Loz: So seeing as there's no current record, you could go out there and do ten miles an hour and come home with it, could you?
Yeah, but I don't want to! I want the fastest electric motorcycle, which right now is Eva Hakansson with her sidecar setup. So that's kinda the goal, and I've been building the chassis and everything to be adaptable for non-recycled materials. So if I can go out and get a respectable 200-plus run, I could potentially then start moving towards trying to integrate other people's powertrains into it and get more power out of it.
Right now, I have a pretty dumb system, it's like 200 kW, 22 kWh battery, all used cells, like iron phosphate. I've already found some replacement stuff, but it's be nice to integrate people's new platform and use it as a test bed to continue furthering the land speed record for electric.
The main goal in the end, years from now, would be to catch up to the gas guys on the two-wheel setup. That's like Ack Attack, and BUB, and people like that. That's totally achievable – what I have right now is pretty dumb honestly. I built it in my garage.
As far as the chassis and stuff, everything's up to code, but the drivetrain's all recycled materials and completely on the cheap. I just got the bug and decided I wanted to go forward with this.
I've been doing it for the last year and a half, coming up on two years this summer, and now I'm getting to the point where I just put the bike on the ground with all the powertrain in it, and I'm tuning the suspension and getting ready…
I was talking to Mike Corbin, he's actually just 30 minutes from me, and I approached him not knowing that he had that electric record. I just just going "hey, you're a guy that does some fiberglass stuff, lemme talk to you." And he brought me in for like a 3-hour meeting, super interested in the project, and was potentially going to sponsor me and build me a full body, but I think he's a little busy right now so he pulled out on that. But you know, I think he's one of the people that'll push forward with it as well.
Loz: He's a man of many resources. That factory is amazing, it's like a little wonderland.
Yeah, he walked me through it. I was really surprised, I thought those guys just did seats!
Loz: Let me back up a bit. I've been talking to some guys lately about recycled batteries, one of them was mentioning that on a lot of battery packs, what happens is that out of say 100 18650 cells, it's often just the ones at the ends that get fried, and if you throw those out, the rest of them in the middle are often in terrific shape. Are you finding that as well?
Yeah, so the pack that I got had one bad string in it. It was iron phosphate, and it was 95S, and one series set was dead, meaning that the whole pack was dead according to whoever that company was.
But I pulled it apart, and all the other cells were pretty good. They'd been abused – it was some sort of dyno setup, so they hammered it real hard, but they're at like an 85 percent state of health. Plenty of energy in 'em.
It's one of those things where there's so many components inside, and everything's so fresh and new as far as the manufacturing process is concerned, that most times a battery will go bad and it'll be something stupid inside, like a non-servicable fuse, or a contact that blew up, and then you've got this pack filled with $5000 worth of batteries, and they'll be like "ugh, just recycle it." It's one of those things.
Luckily the one I got for the bike wasn't bonded. It was all resistance welded. You could unscrew all the terminals and everything. My battery pack is iron phosphate, it's fairly dumb, but it won't explode into flames, it won't propagate, it'll just go dead if something goes wrong with it.
One of the reasons I persisted with that battery is that my life's on the line. This battery's super powerful, even though it's heavy and massive. It's pretty much free, it's safe, and I don't need to spend $3000 on electronics to control it.
Loz: The other thing I wanted to follow up on, you said you had a history of building bikes?
When I was 15 or 16, I bought a motorcycle without my parents knowing. I fixed it in my buddy's garage and I went and rode around, I got the motorcycle bug. I moved to North Carolina, because I was riding BMX bikes professionally. My brother's Ryan Nyquist, if you've heard of him, the X-Games guy.
I used to take photos of him to make money, and sell 'em to the magazines. And during the day I'd go and work at a motorcycle shop where I'd build custom Harleys and Hondas, weird shit. I learned how to TIG weld, mill… You know, early 2000s choppers. Fat tires, big Harleys, extreme colors and stuff like that.
I continued to do that when I moved back to California where I grew up. Just in my garage, and I sold to friends, and I built people bikes. I've probably built 30 motorcycles from beginning to end, whether that's modifying a frame or building a frame from scratch. So yeah, chassis design, sheet metal, weird brake setups, electronics, I'll do all that stuff.
And then I went to school for Aerospace out at San Jose State. After I was done with photography and everything, and my body was all wrecked and tired from BMX, I had to get a real job. So I went back to school and got an aerospace degree.
So I've used that now, as well as a few contacts, to do the aerodynamics on the body, figure out my coefficient of drag, my cross-sectional area, and build the road load equation, which is used to equate how long it'll take you to what speed you'll be doing at the end.
So I'm trying to design this body with a large amount of initial prep going into it. From what I've gathered from other land speed people I've spoken to, a lot of people just build the sexiest, smoothest thing they can do, and then try and control it from there. I'm trying to start from the beginning and make sure it's stable. It's a very interesting problem, I've never encountered such a complex interaction between mechanical and aerodynamics and everything else.
So it's super fun for me to talk to all these people, hear their points of view, either an academic point of view or one from a guy who's actually gone 400 miles an hour. Sometimes there's extreme variance on what they think makes things go fast. Do you go with the guy that's gone 400, or do you go with the guy with a master's degree for Formula One? I've used this as a bit of a diving board for meeting new people in the area that do all this stuff.
Loz: So in terms of basic specs for this bike, you said 200 kW?
200 kilowatt motor. It's a bit of a Frankenstein motor. It was built for a testing solution by that company I spoke of earlier. It's been proven on the dyno for 200.
As far as the max output for length, I might have some problems with cooling. So I have a bunch of solutions for that, like an ice box, a chiller. But the peak power is 200. And if I can ramp up to that and get it going, I should be able to maintain that for the length of the track.
Loz: There'd be no traction control or anything like that? That'd be a bit complex for this sort of build?
Yeah, well kind of. One of my buddies from the rocket project…
Loz: Rocket project?
Oh yeah, we built a rocket engine for our senior project, I didn't mention that. Basically a missile that shoots satellites into space from a jet fighter. We actually built a version of the first stage rocket engine, and fired it off in an abandoned missile silo in Wyoming. That was really cool.
Loz: You're making me feel like I've had some pretty boring weekends!
Well, it was over decades! This is my traction control sensor. I've got a hall sensor in front and a hall sensor in back, and a 3D printed holder for them. They're just magnetic pickups. This is a test rig for it. There'll be one on the front wheel and one on the back. They'll instantaneously compare RPMs between the front and back wheel, and if they're off by 10 percent, a light will light up in the cockpit. That's my traction control! Just a feedback loop telling me if I'm doing a burnout basically, because otherwise I might not know until I'm falling over!
As I go through this project … like, Mike Corbin, he came back to the house and checked out the project. He was explaining this to me, and I was like "that's a good point, I should build something for that!" I came up with this dumb solution so I didn't have to purchase a $2000 VCU that wouldn't work with the motor I had.
A lot of what I've learned talking to these old timers is that it's mostly about the driver. The driver's super important. You can get a whole computer and tune the traction control, but salt is never the same twice. Usually the traction control just holds you back. These guys generally just get out there and do it.
So I've had this mentality of fixing it as I go, and trying to work out what's important and where I need to spend money. Parachutes, fire suppression, all the safety stuff. For everything else I just try to create stuff from scratch!
I made my own vehicle control unit with a buddy of mine. On an EV, that's mostly the interaction with the inverter. Then you have a thumb throttle for the gas, a thumb throttle for the brake. Those are hooked up to an Arduino, which is fast enough to control the motor and also has enough inputs to reliably tell the motor what to do. It has a CAN bus shield on it, which is like the communication protocol between cars, like an OBD. We programmed that protocol to talk to the inverter.
It's super dumb. We only have the minimum requirements for all this stuff. But I've made it as robust as I could without breaking the bank.
Loz: Well, you remember how Corbin would do his throttle back in the day, right?
Yeah, he had a series of connectors where he'd just jam these contactors down, and continue to ramp up the voltage, he had three or four settings, like "on, more on, and all the way on" or something. (laughs)
Loz: And there was some wire that was designed to blow so he could actually get the thing to stop … So when you're saying your system is dumb, it seems to be well within the tradition!
That's the mentality I'm going for! I'm entirely self-funded. It's pretty much me for the whole thing. A couple buddies helping me with a few parts, but otherwise it's just me and my fiancee out there wiring the bike …
She just pushed me down the driveway the other day, without the motor in it, so I could learn how to balance and control it. We used the pickup truck to drag it up my driveway, and then she'd push me, I'd get up to 5, 10 miles per hour, and then go down the hill trying to figure out how to balance it.
Loz: What state's the bike in right now, has it got a fairing on it?
No, it's on the ground, the battery is assembled, but I haven't ramped the voltage yet. The drivetrain's in, I have to weld on a couple more things. I'm reinstalling the wiring harness so I can get the wheel to turn with the battery voltage.
Next weekend I might take it out down the street. There's a little one lane road that's like half a mile, where I can probably get it up to about 60 miles an hour. Just to make sure I'm not throwing errors on the motor, or having issues with connections, or anything like that.
Loz: How do you balance one of those things, can you stick your legs out?
No, basically I built a stabilizer that comes down, almost like landing gear. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to build that, because it's in a tiny slice of space between the battery and the firewall.
I had a hydraulic jack I was going to try to run to bring those stabilizers down, but that would've had a heavy 12 volt load on the system. Then I bought a bunch of aircraft cable, and I was gonna try a cable pull system with a latch. But those two systems didn't have positive locking, which you need to have according to the rule books. They need to lock in place mechanically.
So I bought a screw-on style trailer jack, and turned it upside down, and I stuck a Makita drill on the end. I cut the handle off, re-printed a handle for it in the cockpit. So in the cockpit, I can turn the switch for the Makita to change direction, and hit the trigger, and that spins the jack up and down, and that's attached to a linkage which then controls the outriggers. It's pretty trick honestly, it turned out really good.
I had the Makita gear because I sent them a package telling them what I was up to, and they sent me a bunch of tools. And I was going to go buy a linear electric actuator, and I started looking at pricing and speed and load, and then I realized I had that Makita drill sitting right there, which had its own convenient slide-in battery that I had a charger for right there – and it's got its own isolated 18-volt system that's separate from the bike, so there's no load draw or anything like that!
Loz: Does that get them a sticker on the bike?
Yeah, for sure! There's a few people that've been chipping in, like maybe a thousand bucks here and there to help me out with safety gear and stuff, they'll get their sticker on the side too!
But right now the side of the bike is probably gonna be crappy sheet metal or something. I've been trying to move forward with this, but I'm getting close to the deadline, so I think I'm just gonna go to the metal store and create a steel tubing structure around the bike, and just pop rivet sheet metal to it. And just roll paint it black for now. Just so I can get a little bit of aerodynamics, and move forward with the project.
I was going to go out there with nothing on it, but it turns out that's way more dangerous. The aerodyamics are completely altered, and if you fall there's nothing protecting you, and you can end up having much more of a violent crash.
Loz: What is your deadline?
I'm trying to get out to El Mirage in late June or July. And I haven't signed up for Bonneville, but Bonneville is mid-August. That's where I wanna go out there and open it up.
But I'm coming in as a rookie, so I'll have to qualify, and make my way through tech, too. Hopefully I can get out there to get some sort of record, but it's more difficult than it used to be, I guess.
Loz: What kind of safety gear are you putting in?
The rule book has full safety gear for your body. Streamliners are fully enclosed, so they treat them kind of like cars. It's a reclined driving position, kind of like a Formula One car. So there's a 7-point harness, a HANS device, like a head and neck restraint, and that's super constrictive. A face sock, a fire suit, race shoes, gloves.
Then for the battery I have an isolation detection, so if there's any leakage from internal voltage to the outside chassis it'll detect it and shut down the bike. Fire extinguishers, I needed two of those, and two parachute tubes, one for high speed, one for low speed. And a tip over sensor that automatically deploys the parachute.
Most of those things you can't skimp on. The parachutes are 800 bucks a piece. The fire bottles, I spent like 2500 bucks just on those. There's certain things you can't skimp on to pass tech.
In the rule book, it says the fire extinguishers need to go near the exhaust header and on the oil pan of the motor. So it's like "ok… I'll put them on the battery and the motor?" I actually called them to ask about that, I didn't want to rock up and have trouble with tech inspection.
Loz: What's this whole thing going to end up costing you?
I haven't been keeping track, because I really don't wanna know! I'd say … The biggest thing is getting out to the track. It's like 7 or 800 bucks just to sign up to run. In the end it'll be somewhere around $15,000 or something like that. That's not too bad.
The majority of costs I would've accrued would've been the battery and the motor. Most of that stuff … A motor's like 10G for a Tesla drivetrain. And a battery, making it custom would be like 8 bucks a cell … Maybe $20,000 for that as well. So I saved a lot of money on the drivetrain, and the rest was like tubing, wiring … A lot of that stuff I already had from building motorcycles.
I had all the welders, I had the mill, everything else, so I've saved money on tooling just because it's been a hobby for a long time.
Loz: How much can you see once you put a fairing up?
I had to make a big decision in the beginning, which was how to hold the front wheel in place. On a normal motorcycle, the forks come up, the wheel size is maybe 20 something inches tall, and with a triple tree on top of that, there's a lot in front of your face.
I was thinking about trying to build an internal hub steering system, then I'd just be able to see straight over the tire. That's what BUB uses, and what Ack Attack uses … But after talking to those guys and looking at Ack Attack's bike, I was like "that's beyond me!" The bearings for that are insane.
So I was gonna try to shorten a telescoping front end, like a Harley, and put heavy duty shocks in it, and more oil. And I built an aluminum triple tree, and after I finished machining these out, I sit down and it's blocking my whole vision forward. I was like "son of a bitch!"
So I scrapped that front end and built a new front end, something like a souped-up Vespa configuration. It has a pivoting swingarm, and two shocks in front from the swingarm up, and that tapers in almost like a Harley Springer, really narrow. That does block my view, I get a couple inches of horizon, then the center of it is blocked by a steering damper.
Loz: So how do you steer something like that?
It's got tillers. Those are attached to a linkage that goes up to the bottom triple tree on the fork and controls it. I built in some adjustability as to how much movement at the handles it takes to create a certain degree of movement at the wheel.
Balancing is a feat in itself. I'm surprised I got it, it took five or six tries to keep it up without falling over. Once I get it up to higher speeds it should be much better. I've been watching a guy who did streamliners to see how much they needed to move the bars, and how much steering I should expect.
Loz: It gains stability as it gains speed, so you won't be moving it much at all when you're up and running!
At slow speeds you have to anticipate, it's not like riding a bike where you just lean and push, you have to turn the handlebars quite a lot to catch yourself from falling over. You have to turn into the fall, and feel when the bike gets back upright, and then as soon as it's upright you have to turn right back in to get yourself straight again. There's a lot of really quick, tight steering movements, I've got a video up online, it shows my hands going back and forth like mad, the back wheel's staying pretty still but the front wheel is all over the place.
Loz: So that's positive steering, and then once you get up to a certain speed you start countersteering like on a normal motorcycle, but I've heard there's a further effect that happens when you get to really high speeds the steering reverses itself again. I've only heard of it on the land speed stuff. Can't remember where I read it, but it just fascinated me this idea that you steer right to go right, then after a certain speed you steer left to go right, and then at some very high speed it switches around so you steer right to go right again.
I'll tell you when I get there! Haha! At that point I think the track's pretty wide. Coming from a BMX background, I have a pretty good sense of balance. That's how I have a feel for the slow speed stuff.
Loz: This whole thing just sounds like so much fun. I love shoestring efforts at crazy things.
Normally I wouldn't do it, but after I started looking at the record, and it seemed achievable… I mean, if I tried to go for the motorcycle land speed record right now, it's just so far out of my league. The gas one. Oh my god, how much money, how much time, how many people would I need to help?
But I looked at this one and thought "nobody's filled this void, and I have a head start with all this stuff, and the knowledge in my background. This is what I should be working on right now."
So I'm trying to keep the costs low and do what I can. It's getting pretty exciting, it's getting real right now. I dropped the bike on the ground with everything in it, and looked at it and thought "holy crap, I'm really gonna get in this thing and go two hundred and something miles an hour?"
Loz: What's the fastest you've ever been on two wheels?
Like 166 mph on a Hayabusa in the back roads of North Carolina.
Loz: Stuck in fourth, were you?
Haha! I was lugging sixth! I thought I was cool, look at me, I'm in sixth gear! I'm comfortable going relatively fast, but we'll see what happens when we try to double that.
It might end up being a lifelong goal to achieve this. I've just wanted to go fast, and I think this is the perfect platform for that.
The next step for me in this project is I'm kinda pushing the marketing side. That's why I reached out to you, and some other people who do articles. I'm trying to get a bit more exposure and get people to help out. I'd love to push this out to potentially help with monetary stuff.
There's a bunch of people writing about all sorts of EV stuff right now, it seems like this fresh and new thing.
Loz: And you seem like you're right in the thick of it right now, there's a few absolute nutbags in Northern California doing all sorts of crazy stuff. It's a real hotspot for cross-breeding of crazy people with crazy goals.
There's just a lot of cool and unique people in this area, and there's a buzz around the EV stuff at the moment. It's fairly easy to get yourself into it, and if you're capable, maybe you can build something. There's a lot of people I know doing EV projects.
You can follow Shea Nyquist's progress toward a land speed record at his YouTube channel.