The Green Carpet: Hollywood

Documentary Captures High-speed, Zero-Emissions Motorcycle Grand Prix

Q & A with documentarian Mark Neale, creator of CHARGE.

charge documentary

CHARGE, a documentary from British documentarian Mark Neale, and narrated by actor and motorcycle enthusiast Ewan McGregor, opens this week in a limited run to theaters nationwide.

The film captures the first zero-emissions motorcycle grand prix, held June 12, 2009, on the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) course, one of the most demanding and deadliest circuits. The self-governing Isle of Man sits between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The TT, which began in 1907, is considered the world’s greatest motorcycle sporting event.

CHARGE begins in early 2009 during pre-race planning, and follows American hotshot riders from the Portland, Oregon, MotoCzysk team, local heroes ManTTx Racing, and Anglo-Indian contenders Team Agni—all angling for victory on their green machines. We chatted with the filmmaker and creator Neale, who also wrote and directed the MotoGP motorcycle film FASTER and its 2006 sequel.

What inspired you to make CHARGE?
It started with a phone call from Michael Czysz in February 2009. He told me he was building a bike for the first zero-emissions race on the Isle of Man. I’ve made independently funded movies about motorcycle racing before, and I thought this was a great story. We agreed on the ‘rules’ of the movie. Michael gave me full access on the understanding that I was going to cover other teams and characters as well. I knew about the legendary, self-taught British inventor Cedric Lynch, for example, and he was obviously going to be a vital part of the story: Cedric was operating out of a garden shed in North London, the antithesis of Michael Czysz and his hi-tech design and manufacturing facility in Portland, Oregon. Both of them in their own different ways are world-class inventors and genuine visionaries. Dozens of patents between them.

Was a green race a welcomed event at the TT?
It was obvious from the start that the zero-emissions race was going to be a controversial event: the Isle of Man (IoM) is the mecca of hardcore motorcycle racing. They’ve been racing on public roads there since 1907, when road racing was banned on the UK mainland. For two weeks every June, the island is occupied by an international army of racers and fans who are there for speed, noise, danger and beer, not for clean, quiet, politically-correct machines which go less than 150 mph. It was clearly going to be a great story because so many people hated it. It’s very different now, a source of real pride and real innovation. Last year Honda showed up with an electric bike, built by their development company Mugen. But at the time the event met with withering scorn from thousands of ‘proper’ bikers, and went ahead only because of a combination of the Isle of Man government’s desire to foster economic development and the entrepreneurial drive of Azhar Hussein, a UK businessman from the world of consumer electronics who initially pitched the idea to the Isle of Man government.

How did you tap Ewan McGregor as host?
Ewan narrated my other motorcycle racing movies, FASTER (2003), and FASTEST (2006). I pursued him for a long time to get him to do the first one. As many people know, he’s a serious biker (witness his round the world ride in the TV series, Long Way Round). With CHARGE, he agreed to do it before I’d even started shooting. It took a lot longer to finish CHARGE than I anticipated, mostly for reasons of financing. It made writing the narration easier, knowing that it would be Ewan’s voice. He has the force.

What makes the Isle of Man the most dangerous on the circuit?
The fact that there have been well over two hundred deaths there since 1907. No other racetrack comes close. There was a time, decades ago, when races were held on public roads in many countries. Now most car and motorcycle races are held on closed circuits with large run-off areas–expanses of gravel and grass where machines and bodies can tumble and flip with relatively few injures. But there are no run-off areas on the Isle of Man. The course is a 37.7 mile loop around the northern half of the island, which means through towns and villages and along country roads. There are brick walls, telegraph poles, trees, bus stops, phone boxes, pubs, houses… Hit any of those at 160 mph and that’s it. It’s a shock when you first see it: motorbikes flying past people’s front gardens at 200 mph. Spectators sitting by the road, having a cup of tea or a pint, a yard away from the bikes. You can think of the people who race there as crazy or as incredibly skillful and brave, or all those things. Each year there are around a hundred racers in all classes, and each year most of them survive. There will usually be at least a couple of fatalities (four of the riders in the film died in crashes, but not in the electric races) but that means a 96-98% survival rate. Quite amazing, when you consider the speeds and the merciless nature of the place.

Any women in the sport? 

There are a few women motorcycle racers but not many. It’s very much a man’s world. That said, Team Agni (Cedric Lynch’s outfit) hired Jenny Tinmouth to ride one of their bikes at the 2010 race and she came fourth. She’s a regular competitor in the gas-bike races on the Isle of Man and in closed-circuit races in the UK. I reckon there are plenty of dads out there who don’t mind their sons riding motorcycles because they themselves used to ride, but not many dads or mums who want to see their daughters on bikes. Girls on motorcycles, in my opinion, are incredibly cool.

Any world records set?
I believe that Lightning Motorcycles, who will be at the Isle of Man race next month, hold the outright record for electric bikes: 215mph, set at Bonneville Salt Flats in 2011. It won’t last long.

Do you ride?
I’ve ridden motorcycles since I was 12. When we moved to Southern California 15 years ago, one of the big attractions was dry sunny roads after all those years in the rain in the UK.

What do you hope viewers take away after seeing it?
I hope people enjoy the movie as an entertaining and emotive story about a highly unusual group of characters who set out to do something extraordinarily difficult, and by and large succeeded against the odds and in spite of all the cynics. It also has an educational value. I learned a lot myself and I’ve heard from engineering students at MIT and other universities that it was an inspiration to them. There are more university teams doing the race each year. If the film helps inspire a new generation of engineers it will be doing something very useful–this technology has many applications and the world has plenty of problems for future engineers to solve.

Tommi Lewis Tilden

Tommi Lewis Tilden

Tommi Lewis Tilden has worked as an editor for several notable media outlets including Disney Publishing, Teen magazine and TV Guide. The Los Angeles-based editor, journalist and book author is also actively involved in environmental efforts including Tree People and Heal the Bay.
read full bio.
Tommi's eco awareness has long encompassed her work (e.g. while editor at TEEN she researched environmentally friendly printing), as well as her personal life (she's a proud Hybrid owner and her home sports solar panels).

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