Words: Paul d’Orléans. Photos: Derek Dorresteyn / Alta Motors
We’re pretty sure Mario Andretti didn’t change Elon Musk’s diapers, but Dick Mann did chaperone Derek Dorresteyn’s mother on her dates. Even better, Derek’s uncle Dick, an AMA Hall of Famer, was the cover boy on the very first issue of Cycle World in September 1962. With such a family legacy, a veritable baptism in gasoline, it’s no surprise Derek, the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Alta Motors, has entered the motorcycle industry. He learned to ride in the Richmond Ramblers MC back lot at age 4, and spent a few years chasing the family legacy on speedway tracks. Now he and his company are knocking loudly on the doors of the AMA, demanding to race head-on with gas bikes in sanctioned Pro events, and proving a brilliantly designed competition e-bike will shortly make their rivals obsolete.
Motorcycles are Derek’s family story, period. His maternal grandfather co-founded the Richmond Ramblers MC in 1946, mortgaging his home to help buy a clubhouse in Point Richmond, with enough adjacent open space to host club rides and competitions. Derek’s father was a very talented rider, but a stint in Korea with the Marines left his 12-year old brother Rich to take care of his Mustang minibike. Rich used the Mustang with the notorious Richmond ‘paperboy crew’ in company with Dick Mann, delivering newspapers on small motorcycles at a breakneck pace in those lightly-trafficked days. Paper routes cultivating AMA Hall of Famers – what have we lost today? “The paper route was to earn some money, but having the bike was what it was really all about. The paperboys would race around and do stunts.” Two years later, Mann encouraged Rich Dorresteyn to try flat track racing; Rich was 14, but lied about his age, and got his first ride on Dick McAfee’s Triumph Grand Prix flat-tracker.
Dorresteyn’s paternal and maternal family threads merge at the local Belmont ¼ mile dirt track. It was home base for Derek’s grandfather, and family friends like Mann and Joe Leonard. “My mom Ginny knew all the racers, helped collect tickets, and later she was the trophy girl. She met my uncle Rich, and his parents, and Dick Mann was the chaperone on her dates!” But it was Bill Dorresteyn who won the trophy girl (a motorcyclist herself of course), and they raised their two children on two wheels. “As a kid, our whole social scene was around motorcycles. My mom was employee #3 at Cycle Gear, and worked at various cycle shops as I grew up. My dad had talent but raced for fun; he won the National Jackhammer Enduro overall in ’68 on a 650 Triumph. My sister and I grew up riding on dirt; she was 3 and I was 4 when they put us on bikes, it was a fun family thing. My sister raced a little, and while we’ve always ridden off-road, we have street bikes too of course.”
With the Dorresteyn family name, it was expected Derek would take up the family business. “My entire life, our social world asked when I would start racing. Uncle Rich was a popular, well-known rider with a lot of fans – I grew up in awe of him and his accomplishments, with so many stories from my dad.” Rich led a hard life though, and struggled with heart disease even while racing. “At the 1958 Peoria TT, Dick Mann and Gary Nixon had to practically lift him onto his bike, he was so weak, but he won the national! These guys had no athletic rigor, they were working class toughs making a living by winning races. Rich died at 38, in 1976, from heart trouble after rheumatic fever.” While Derek’s family attended perhaps 20 races per year, “there was an understanding racing wasn’t what I should do; they’d seen so many people killed and injured, they didn’t see the point in it.”
Of course, that didn’t stop Derek from wanting to race, and he chose Speedway as his poison. “My mom worked at a Jawa speedway bike dealer, and one of their riders would become a multi-time national champion. I’d been riding since I was 4, was pretty good at it, and friends I’d grown up with at the Ramblers were racing.” When he told his parents he wanted to race, at 15, they said ‘get a job, finance it yourself, and we’ll see.’ He got a job at Cycle Gear, earned enough to buy a speedway bike, leathers, and a helmet, and “it was like a switch flipped; suddenly the whole family is going to speedway races 3 nights a week, all over California.” He was pretty good too, “I won a few races, and made a little money, but not nearly as much as I put into it.” Derek’s tuner-sponsor was Dale Lineaweaver, a legendary veteran builder of outrageously cool bikes, including a National Championship winning Husaberg, flat-track Ducati and BMW twins, and even dragsters. Lineaweaver garners ‘we are not worthy’ props at Sideburn magazine, but has since abandoned gasoline… to become the principal tech at Alta Motors.
Blame it on San Francisco, a former Bohemian stronghold transformed by the tech industry, for the inspiration to design an off-road competition motorcycle. Dorresteyn gave up racing while in college studying Industrial Design, and supplemented his post-college work in custom fabrication with his Moss Machine Co. and by teaching 3-d CAD design at the California College of the Arts. Keeping on the cutting edge of machining technology meant reading the blog of Tesla’s Martin Eberhard regarding new lithium-ion batteries which made possible a compelling electric car. “I was racing Supermoto for fun in the mid-‘00s, and developed a high powered but really peaky KTM motor with Lineaweaver. Reading Eberhard, I started thinking, ‘if this was an electric motor, I could change its characteristics with software’… I thought ‘if the tech is ready for a car, maybe it’s ready for a motorcycle’.” He tossed the idea to the brilliant industrial designer Jeff Sands, a riding buddy (and inventor of the step-in snowboard binding); the idea stuck and they began modeling an electric racer. They shortly discovered no available components matched their performance targets; they’d have to build it all from scratch.
“We hired an electro-magnetic engineer for a special motor design, which I then built into a mechanical design. At one point the spreadsheet simulation looked great, the CAD design looked great, we had propriety tech in the motor I’d designed, and we thought ‘this is a business’.” That was 2009, and with a rough business plan they sought a CEO to help orient the business and raise capital, and found the like-minded engineer-turned-tech consultant Marc Fenigstein. Still, it was an after-work gig for the 3 principals, and their first $30,000 to build a prototype came from family members. “We built that first prototype in 6 months, and hit our key design metrics within about 5%. But it was just a proof of concept; we built it to look good, and it worked well, but it was not mass producible.” By 2014, they’d secured real investment, and started on a production prototype, which meant a total redesign. “We also had to build a whole company, making key hires like battery expert Rob Sweney, and creating an automotive supply chain; it took 2 years to commercialize the process, to perfect the design, pass all our tests, and develop the machine on the track. Now we have a team of 55, with a wonderful product with great reviews, on a real trajectory to be successful.”
Dorresteyn reflects that “It’s been a hell of a ride, to bring the Redshift into the world.” He notes that world-class racing vehicles aren’t really built in the US; “We have nothing like the F1 or bike industry in Europe, or the depth of the industry in Japan. We’ve had to hire folks from the bicycle world, from Tesla, from tech; none of our designers are from traditional motorcycle building or racing. It’s an interesting commentary on American industry.” Another commentary is the resistance Alta is getting from the racing world, where the Alta Redshift is barred from national and world championship competition. But we’ve already seen a relatively inexpensive electric motorcycle win Pike’s Peak; can an MX GP or Supercross win be far away? “We try to be kind, but our bike and customers are in effect telling the industry, ‘your product is obsolete’.” Alta and other electric competition machines aren’t going away, and we’re entering an uncomfortable phase of co-habitation, not unlike the late 1800s, when steam, electric, and gasoline-powered vehicles all scared the horses. Things will change, and Alta may build the bikes to change them. If so, another Dorresteyn would be a candidate for the AMA Hall of Fame, if that body ever kicks its gas-huffing habit and sees the bright blue spark of the future…