Michael Czysz, Unexpurgated. The Interview: Part Two
by jim mcdermott and susan haas
Friday, January 02, 2009
The MotoCzysz C1 990: impressive technology in a beautiful chassis.
image: thanks, mc

In "part deux" of Soup's interview with Michael Czysz, we geek out on the technical stuff--viscous metal suspension, coaxial swingarms, 2D triple clamps, and alternative energy. And we ask Czysz the toughest question of all--if it all goes down the toilet, what will he do next?

Q One thing I haven't heard you mention, which is of increasing importance, is fuel consumption.

A Yeah.

Q And I know you guys are doing a lot of interesting things with electronics as well.

A Yep.

Q We were at dinner the other night with somebody who was saying that the most interesting motorcycle race series in the world would be to say to the manufacturers, "You have 21 liters of fuel. You have to do this many laps. Build whatever you want. Go to the races." It could be any weight, any displacement, any amount of cylinders.

A That's a cool idea.

Q So I'm just curious, with so much technical innovation - and really, potentially the future of the United States' economy banking on alternative energy sources, where's that on MotoCyzsz's roadmap for the future?

A Well, that's a really good question. First of all, you would have never had that idea, that discussion, or my response, a year ago. I would've said, "Oh, that's fine. Let everybody else save gas. We're here to go as fast as possible." I can't say that any more. A year later, our attitude's even changed a little bit about it. I can't say right now that we put serious energy or have any kind of IP towards fuel consumption, other than the last test we did run eight injectors the first time - four over, four under - and we did a seamless job of adjusting between them. And if you can control the fuel better, you can simply use less of it. So maybe we made a small improvement towards there. But when I did start calling the real VC type of people, and you go through this kind of vetting early up front, some of the initial guys don't waste your time, luckily, and they say, "Oh, yeah, we're heavily involved investing in the automotive industry." "Oh, great, this is exactly - I'm glad, because I don't hear this from many people." "Electric and green. Alternative. Sustainable. How do you fit into that?" "Ah, we don't. We're going for miles per hour, not miles per gallon." "Okay, thank you very much." So I actually did add - about three months ago, we have a running prototype of a very small carbon footprint, green type - not electric yet - vehicle. So every company has to be spending energy and money on that. So at the moment, even though I don't have a portfolio to walk around here and talk to these companies about, what we can do is, by example of what we have done in suspension and chassis and other areas, we could apply the same thing towards fuel consumption, diesel, direct injection, high compression, those other issues. So that's going to become a play. I like the idea of that series. That'd be a very cool series. Because you get all the texture. You get actually the strongest limiting force, right? that you could do. It's harder to limit air. It's easier to limit the fuel. And then you've given all the diversity and all the uniqueness back to us.

Q I wanted to ask you about those "Eureka!" moments that every innovator gets, where you're working on one thing, trying to solve a problem, and then in doing that, you end up coming across something just purely by coincidence, where some other piece of technology or some discovery comes about. Have you had those moments?

A Zero. The biggest problem we have is money, so the biggest problem I use it to try to solve is how to solve money. Maybe that's diversifying the focus a little bit, of the company, or whatever, but those are far from Eureka moments. I will say there was one thing that has led me to - and I can't really get into much detail, because it's not tied up yet. But it had to do with when I was working on the front end. We have so many settings that are so easy, and frankly, I'm probably in that sense one of the few lucky guys to ever go out, ride a bike completely one way, come back in, change the trail only - no rake, no ride height, nothing - by millimeters, millimeters, millimeters. Feel that. Great. Now, go in, lock the trail. Now change and make other adjustments. Because we've been able to separate it so much. We can do those usually in 30 seconds to a minute. And while going through that matrix of variations, I came across something that sparked a new idea, that "Wow, this would be awesome," and it would have to be something more variable. And other companies are doing it, but frankly, I just think - and again, in that case, it's not the theory that we would take...

Q Are you talking about suspension that varies based on ...

A An active component of suspension, but not what the other companies are doing, through either -

Q Because Ohlins, obviously, is - the Yamaha World Superbikes now have electronically variable suspension that there's rumors that it can be tied into GPS so that it'll change damping based on where you are on the circuit. But you're talking about something different.

A Yeah. I'm not particularly a huge fan of thinking that I want my dampening to really change. I think one of the sexiest inventions I ever heard of was that viscous metal suspended fluids that you can change the loads or resistance or energy through coils, and that changes the dampening, the viscosity of the metal, it slows it. But again, I still don't think I'd be really wanting to click dampers while on the circuit. I meant, physically we're not clicking it, but go through, you know. Riders want a certain amount of consistency. Maybe if there was one foul bump, okay, it'd be nice to lighten up under that. But as a general approach, I wouldn't necessarily take that. And when you talk about the Internet, I guess there's been a couple of things, too. "Well, you're not as good as Britten," which is I'm fine with that, "because you're out of the garage and he wasn't." Well, again, I think that's a common goal. Three years ago MCN - Motor Cycle News? MCN? - just trashed me. "I don't know what I'm talking about, it's impossible, carbon frames have come and gone, it's," you know. Basically, it was stupid - they were calling me stupid for coming up with this idea. It's like, "Well, why? Why?" Because I think the rider's pegs, the seat, the foot/hand controls, should all be the stability, stable, consistent package, and we put the flex elsewhere. If the truly - if the frame is a flex, and it's a spring, then you mount it high, you have a lot of unsprung mass below. Why not lower that spring and have other unsprung mass? So anyway, long story short, as you know, Ducati will be racing a carbon fiber (chassis in 2009 MotoGP). And of course they've never said anything about it. So you get all that bad press, and you get all the bad people getting all hysterical about it, but then it just fades away and nobody ever corrects it or goes back. There's been a couple of those. Rossi's got a triple clamp very, very close - not nearly as sophisticated as our 2D triple clamp. BMW just put a coaxial swingarm. We didn't invent the coaxial swingarm. Somebody else - I think Bimota was probably one of the first ones. But I think we've done it in a better way, and it's not totally coaxial. But the ride, the anti-squat on the bike's really one of the strong features. So we'll see - there's no doubt that these longer-reaching concepts do start new conversation. Those new conversations get done maybe from boardrooms, engineer rooms, before you know what? They are problems everybody's trying to solve. It is the inevitability of the future that you've got to look further out there, and that's just - it depends on your, where you're standing, how clear that is and how far out you want to see.

Q Obviously all this innovation and this passion for innovating, and coming up with new components and new philosophies about motorcycle racing and motorcycle chassis, suspension, engines, all the stuff that you're working on, requires a tremendous amount of money. So given that you've got to spend 80% of your time raising money and the stock market's been so tough, if you look out in the next few years, with the way everything's going, if there was a worst-case scenario, just to ponder that for a second -

A Oh, there's a serious worst-case scenario, and it's not pondered--it was never pondered until six months ago, and now it's a massive part of my life.

Q But given all the stuff that you've done and the way that you think, what would be next for you? If you needed $50 or $60 million to do things the way you wanted to do it, but you weren't able to raise that because of the global marketplace, what would be next for you, do you think? Would you be taking your skills somewhere else and saying, "Hey, let me offer my services as a guy who can really think outside the box to produce innovative motorcycles or innovative new technology"? What would you do next?

A What I would like to do next, if things didn't work out, is still stay in motorcycles. And that is, I thought, "Okay, I could crank the architecture back up and get that going again, get right back into it without probably missing too much of a beat." But it's kind of like, you know, I don't know, that would've felt like, then this was a huge distraction, a huge cost, and there wasn't really any kind of ultimate outcome. And pretty much then it would be a deal of... I don't know. It would've felt like a wrong decision all the way down the line. I'd rather stay in motorcycles and struggle the rest of my life, and ultimately contribute something, and say, "Well, yeah, it was a tough struggle, but in the end, it is what I wanted to do. It is what I enjoyed doing." And that's an okay life. So I have made that commitment. I talked to my wife about that before. I was like, "I can develop. I can do the architecture. And they're all going to take a certain amount of money and time." And frankly, if I look now from where I'm sitting, the closest thing to hit is MotoCyzsz. As long, as impossible and as long shot as it is, it's actually the thing that I own that I feel like is the closest to becoming something. So why would I jump ship now? The only down side to it is, it's got tremendous overhead, and nobody's paying for that. So it's bleeding me to complete death. Because I'm like that guy at that gambling table. "One more round. One more round." And we are doing the smartest things we can and cutting, and that's not easy, but that's the reality. And so are many other companies. So I am committed to sticking with the bikes. And as far as leaving MotoCyzsz and going for another company, that's total possible; however, it takes more than - I mean, I would be the same innovator and leader in any company. But the company itself, the structure of the company, has to appreciate and support that kind of ideology. And I can tell you, I just came back - I've been traveling the world in the last two months or so - and many of the companies that I went to, especially back in Asia, who said that's exactly what they're looking for, is innovation and technology. They need to move their companies ahead. Thought that they were set up to be able to capitalize on it, and they weren't. They were, at best, manufacturing companies that copy other people's ideas and do things cheaper, and they're so far from creating a culture that would cultivate that kind of approach. Again, that's - they don't even really understand what they're talking about, really, when it comes to that. Like you would do in a software company or a real advertising agency or an architect, somebody that's really focusing on creativity. And that's actually the hardest thing, I think, is about bringing the creativity side to something that's so precise as motorcycles. Because you just can't arm-wave and do whatever, and "okay, that corner didn't come out right, or that detail didn't come out right, that's fine." It's got to come out perfect. So I do like that challenge of those two sides coming together.

Q We were talking yesterday about old bikes, and we mentioned the Bimota V Due, and you said you used to have a V Due. Talk about your interest in the sport, some of the bikes that you've owned. Was there a bike that inspired you, you rode it and said, "I love this, but I could do it better," that made you go into this?

A Unfortunately, actually, I was around it forever, young, so I had a super-early impression. Lived in the pits. It was a classic southern California thing where my grandfather had a shed out in the back, and loaded up a box van - or not even a box van, a van with no seats - and we drove to Ascot and Willow Springs and those kind of tracks. So I just had a huge passion for - I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world, as a young boy. Then when my grandfather died when I was quite young, the whole, whatever little family business we had, just closed down. I got slowly back into it. I bought a - I wanted to do - my wife and I, just as any young couple, had no money. We were living in California. I found an old R50. I thought, "This would be cool. This is what we can do on our weekends. This is what we do instead of vacationing." That's what you do. You just get on the bike and you drive to someplace and have lunch and stay in a cheap hotel that night and come back, and that was a bitchin' weekend. And really, in southern California, it took about four hours to get out, but then there was a lot of options. We had the best times. After that broke down too many times, I remember coming back from past Long Beach and the Queen Mary, and the light just, [making dying engine noises]. And we thought, "Oh, God, we can't get to the hotel. We're on the freeway, we're going to get killed." The taillight was only this big to begin with. I said, "This is insane. It's not reliable. We really like this," and so I did buy a new streetbike. That was kind of the first - and I was older. I was probably 23 or -4 before I ever really had a streetbike. And then my wife and my best friend gave me a Daytona MotoGuzzi. Which at that time was pretty cool.

Q The 1000, the red one with the single tail section?

A Yeah.

Q You couldn't put your wife on the back of that, though?

A Yeah. That's right. [Laughing] By then, she was kind of over the hunched-over thing, anyway. What we did, kind of those weekends were, anyway - I ended up with a K75. Something that's more comfortable, anyway. You put a bag in, and that was cool. But this was on the side, and they thought it was a cool design, they thought I'd like it. And I took it to the track and like the fourth corner, I ran off, wide, because I just couldn't get it... That was the first time I'd ever been on the track, it was really a great bike, and I said, "Oh, man, this is awesome." I like repetitiveness. I like to get it and figure it out, and it's comforting, and it was like, "This is really great." So I ended up bringing an Aprilia RS250, a streetbike, and that was it. I just completely fell in love with the whole motorcycle. Again, I had already had been through the scene, to some degree. I remember pushing Buddy Parriott, one of our best American racers, and he raced against Hailwood at the USGP, which for a couple years was in the United States, at Daytona or Willow Springs, I forget which one. And anyway, but I kind of got - it took a long closed circle, but eventually I kind of tripped back into it and got into it. Then I just tried to get every bike that I thought was kind of unique. And they all had something to offer, and they all had something, unfortunately, in compromise, as that's what true engineering is.

Q It's interesting that your first real new streetbike was a Daytona 1000, because Dr. John Wittner, obviously, at MotoGuzzi was a guy who came in and said, "Let me figure out how to make this engine and this shaft drive into something that people can actually put on the racetrack."

A Which I only met him after. So it's not like I was even inspired by his deal. It was like, "Wow, this is cool. I'm going to do some research on it. Oh, here's this guy." In fact, I talked to Dr. John one day out of the blue. One of the cool things too, is, about this whole process... People say, "Oh, you're not racing." That's the number one thing I hear. You're right, I'm not racing. We can't race. I wish we could. Trust me. If we could race, we would race.

Q What class would you race in? And then, it's a lot of money to race, also.

A Yeah. It's a complete distraction to developing and building a bike, at the moment. I don't need to race. I want to race, but I want to also win. And right now, it would be an overwhelming distraction and financial burden to the company, when what we should be doing is establishing partnerships, building IP, creating a core company that hopefully will have some legs to it, and not just struggling from season to season how are we going to race. I mean, I saw KR go through that. Right now, we have a slightly different set of priorities that we have to go on. But I've kind of got a little bit off.

Q Bikes that inspired you.

A So the upside was, to this whole thing, was being able to have contacts, and actually people, I think some admire but some just give me complete pity, and being able to call guys that I thought were cool. And as I've been doing this, have earned and gained more respect for, and thinking, "Christ, I don't know, I'll call X." And I literally call X, and I absolutely usually get a call within the day or the next day, and I'm talking to them.

It is basically, that is the primary feedback I get from the world right now. I feel like we keep doing, we're trying to do this and whatever, and there's not much payoff. Being at the track when something breaks through, that is the payoff. But it's private. It's for yourself. It's like your own religion. You don't need to stand up and convert, you just need to feel comfortable with it. But it is pretty cool, now and then, to feel pretty down in the dumps, not really know where to go on some issues, maybe, and I don't usually get the answers, but sometimes when you just talk about it with somebody, and you kind of re-live it, by the end, they usually wish you good luck and all. And I think, "Wow, that guy just wished me good luck. And he really meant it, I think." That's cool. And then that's really even happened more and more, and then this week was an example. Calling people, or writing them for the most part, that I'd never contact, and doors have been opening like crazy. I mean, full invites. Full days. "I'll change my schedule. I'll fly here." I mean, it's like, wow. It's incredible.

Q A lot of people have heard this story, and there are always going to be people on the Web or in the press who are going to take a shot, but I think a lot of people would like to see you succeed, and to see some new technology hit the racetrack. It must be very gratifying for you to actually meet some of these heroes.

A Guys that are winning championships year after year after year after year, riders that could go anywhere, crew chiefs that could go anywhere, that I got riders that I want, ready, crew chiefs that I want, ready, potential investors ready, but there's a few steps we have to take before that. You got to get - I mean, there's homologation issues and whatever - and there's manufacturing issues. You heard the gentleman talking to us yesterday, what did he say, the first 10%...

Q "In software, the first 10% of development..."

A Something about 90/10 and all...

Q "The first 90% of the work takes 10% of the effort, and the next 10% takes 90% of the effort."

A [Laughing] Something like that. I think that's kind of where we're at. We're at that trying to get that next step, and looking up, and going, "Oh, Christ, it's still another 90% effort. I better get a partner for this one." Look, could it be done by yourself? It could. The only limitation is money. Do I think I, or anybody, but particularly myself, can raise that much money? No. We've been doing okay. I don't think I'm very good at it. Other people say, "Oh, you're pretty good at it, if you've raised this much." But I hear other people getting $10, $50, and $100 million checks. It's like, huh. We scrape by with, unbelievably, like literally, people just take out a little money out of their pocket, fold it in half and hand it to me.

Q What have you raised today? Can you disclose that?

A Yeah, I don't talk about money any more. [Laughing] It's a big lengthy discussion, and just throwing out numbers doesn't make sense to people unless they know how it's all laid out. But a lot less than a team would run through. So. And they're really just taking existing bikes and - they're working hard on them, but they're still taking - it's much harder to build something from nothing.


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