Zero electric motorcycles have been around 13 years, and while some of its engineers have independently raced the company’s wares, this year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC) marks the first time Zero officially backed a race entry. The primary motivation was to get the firm’s new SR/F model out in public view, but Zero’s inaugural race entry is part of a bigger shift taking place in the racing arena. While this is technically a factory backed effort, Zero doesn’t have a dedicated race department: their competition machine was built by company engineers. In order to demonstrate the new ‘electric naked’s performance prowess, a handful of upgrades and modifications were made to the bike, though an effort was clearly made to make sure the racer remained an SR/F at heart.

Zero motorcycles have been raced at Pike’s Peak before, like the Hollywood Electrics entry, but this year marked their first factory effort. [Zero]
“This is the first time we’ve put such a concerted focus into the race and the SR/F was the perfect bike to back with our best effort,” stated Zero’s Senior Communication Manager, Dan Quick, who spoke with us about racing Pikes Peak. With 110hp and an insane 140 ft-lbs of torque in its stock form, the changes to the SR/F consisted of binning components not vital for racing, like the onboard chargers. Showa’s top-shelf Balance Free forks and shocks were used, plus forged aluminum Dynamag rims wrapped in Pirelli Superbike slicks, plus  one-off rear-sets and ‘bars built to suit Supersport racer Cory West’s desired specs. The rear-brake has also been relocated to the left-side of the handlebars where a clutch lever is normally found, giving West the ability to freely use the rear brake at full lean.

The Zero SR/F racer is a bad mofo, with over 100hp and 140ft/lbs of torque. [Kevin Wing]
The Pikes Peak SR/F got a new carbon fiber reinforced composite bodywork, designed by Tom Zipprian and 3-D printed in-house.  There’s also a new, racier monoposto seat perched atop a custom steel chromoly subframe, adding lightness and an inch to the stock (31”) seat height. Special firmware was cooked up for Pikes Peak that bolsters acceleration: in particular, drive out of the corners. A Gates carbon belt unit was added to smooth the drive  and compensate for an improved power-to-weight ratio – the bike has shed 50lbs from stock.  When asked if there were particular challenges to prepping an electric bike for racing at Pikes Peak, Quick responded, “We have plenty of unique competitive advantages over an ICE motorcycle racing this event, but we also have the trade off of a handful of unique challenges, as well. Most notably, there is no Level 2 public EV charger on the mountain, so we have to make logistical accommodations to account for that. That small hurdle is pretty low, though, when considering the benefits of racing an electric Zero Motorcycle up the mountain.” When pressed further about these advantages, Quick elaborated, stating, “The direct drive electric motor being powered by a Gates Carbon Belt gives us instant torque and the benefit of always being in the right gear. Also, having no internal combustion makes for faster turns because we’re not competing with internal rotational mass that comes from a gas engine’s operation. Plus, EV’s don’t suffer the same performance detriments that arise while climbing in elevation due to a thinning atmosphere the way that combustion engines do.”

The power plant for the racing Zero is essentially the same as their street model. [Kevin Wing]
This last point is a significant one, as the iconic hillclimb starts at at 9,390-feet and climbs 4,720 over 12.42-miles to the 1,415-foot summit — more than 2.5-miles above sea level. That kind of altitude has the serious potential to sap power from a gas engine. With the SR/F’s massive amount of torque lending itself particularly well to a hillclimb, and an electric motor that won’t suffer from altitude, Pikes Peak makes something of a perfect showcase for Zero’s newest bike. When I inquired about Zero’s aspirations on the mountain this year – gunning for a win in the electric class or across the entire two-wheeled field? –  Quick answered candidly, saying “That all depends on where in the building you’re asking. The folks who are responsible for the safe ascent of the bike and rider are being, understandably, far more restrained in their responses. The reality is, though, that we’re not racing in an all-electric class but rather we’re in the open heavyweight division and are going to toe the line against the biggest factory race outfits in the world.”  Their modest optimism proved prescient, as Zero took 5th place in the Heavyweight class, with a 10:45 time, over a minute behind the fastest overall motorcycle, an Aprilia Tuono V4 1100 at 9:44.

The Zero SR/F Pike’s Peak racer was tailored to suit Supersport racer Cory West. [Kevin Wing]
“We’ll undoubtably learn lessons that could inform product development because we’re going to be closely monitoring a massively powerful display of what the SR/F is capable of. The reality is, though, a few runs on the mountain aren’t an ounce of what we put bikes through during our own rigorous R&D process. We’re here for our employees, to compete, and to learn. It would be great to have a strong finish, but as cliché as it may seem, any chance to support our passionate and fiercely competitive employees is truly already a win.” After qualifying rounds, we had a more realistic sense of how the SR/F stacked up against the rest of the competition in Colorado. Cory West qualified ninth overall with a time of 4:46:407. That time placed West in sixth-place in the Heavyweight Class and makes it the second fastest electric this year (in qualifying), behind Robert Barber on the University of Nottingham’s “UoN-PP”.

On the track! Team 0 / Zero on the incredibly demanding course. [Zero]
When asked how the company hopes its Pikes Peak entry might change the public’s perception of Zero and its bikes, Quick said, “I think every opportunity to get Zero Motorcycles and EVs into the public eye is a great opportunity to boost awareness and credibility of the space. The electrification of transportation is inevitable, and the automotive space is already doing a lot of great work to endear consumers to that eventuality. Being able to produce top performances by EVs at events like PPIHC, though, are ways to legitimize that claim in the minds of folks who aren’t as comfortable with change as our riders are.”

Showing the changes for the racing SR/F [Zero]
While electric motorcycles have been on the rise over the last decade, the number of producers has snowballed in 2019, with dozens of small electric startups, and production electrics from big name companies. When questioned about how Zero views the recent influx, the communications manager stated, “Every time another brand enters our space, be they a mature brand branching out into a new field or a boutique manufacturer, it brings more attention and awareness to electrification. We’ve invested 13 years and over $250 million into building the category of electric motorcycles for riders all over the world, and that puts us in a very favorable position. The reason we’ve been able to continue thriving from a leadership position is because we still maintain a posture that never allows for our guards to drop. This entire effort should be some evidence that we’ve got no plans to slip into complacency. Ultimately, though, we wish all electric manufacturers well and genuinely hope they enjoy some similar successes to ours. That happening can only help fuel the fire that leads to a better future for motorcycling in general.”

Though Zero didn’t win outright this year, we’re living in the final years of internal-combustion engine dominance in racing. Back in 2013 Lightning’s insanely fast LS-218 became the first electric motorcycle to outright win the two-wheeled class on America’s Mountain, completing the 12.42-mile course in just 10:00.694, a full 20-seconds ahead of the runner-up — a Multistrada 1200 S. And it was just last year that a new outright course record (of 7:57.148) was set by Volkswagen’s fully-electric I.D. R racecar. Pikes Peak is just foreshadowing what’s almost guaranteed to come in the rest of the racing world.