Who the Heck is Paul Olesen and Why is he Writing for Thumper Talk?
I’m really excited at the opportunity to start blogging because I’m finally going to have an outlet to express my passion for picking flowers, going for walks, and singing songs. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than doing these three things except... maybe, just maybe, riding motorcycles. On second thought, riding motorcycles and figuring out how engines work is definitely much more thought provoking and certainly what I came here to discuss... so lets get started!
Most of you are probably wondering who the heck I am and what am I going to talk about. By day I’m a powertrain engineer at an American sportbike manufacturer where I work on and oversee multiple facets of engine development and production. At night I focus on my personal projects, hobbies, family, and whatever else might interest me. Since the age of 18 I’ve lived and breathed motorcycles. I’ve raced multiple disciplines (everything from road, ice, trials, salt flats, and hare scrambles), built my own racing bike, designed my own engines, modified a handful of bikes, and most importantly- made a whole lot of mistakes. These experiences, failures included, have put me in a position to teach you a few new things or at least give you an interesting read.
My powersports story started at a young age, however thanks to parental restrictions I was never able to own a bike until I was 18. Once 18 hit, I promptly bought a 1984 Honda Nighthawk 700 from my high school. The bike had been donated by a member of the local community and I had my eye on it for years as I watched students try unsuccessfully to make it run right. Thanks to my never-ending curiosity, that bike very quickly got rebuilt, and to the dismay of my parents, it got ridden a hell of a lot. Shortly thereafter I graduated high school and then attended the University of Minnesota, where I was slated to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a dentist. I don’t recall too many times where I had actually thought that this career path was going to become a reality, so naturally my interest in higher education dwindled at an alarming rate. Simultaneously my interest in motorcycles was at an all time high. I was fascinated by the old Kawasaki two-stroke triples. I had never before seen a two-stroke in a motorcycle and their simplicity, light weight, and abundance of power drew me to them. In a twist of Craigslist-fate a deal for a pair of 1975 Kawasaki H2s popped up in Dallas. Before I could fully rationalize the consequences of skipping an exam, I was on my way with a friend to pick these basket cases up. On my way down to Dallas it hit me that without knowing what I wanted to do with my life, continuing going to school was pointless. I promptly quit two years into my college education, yet again much to my parents’ dismay. I had always made money running a painting business in the summer, so I did that for awhile to make ends meet. While painting has never been a glamorous business it was quite profitable and an important part of my life as it taught me the basics of running a business, allowed me the freedom to set my own schedule, and I learned how to deal with and manage people.
Restored 1984 Honda Nighthawk 700 and Restored 1975 Kawasaki H2
The following year my parents ordered me back to school, this time to give engineering a try. I felt like a fish out of water. The idea of being stuck in Minneapolis for another four years brought upon visions of offing myself once and for all. A week in- I quit. I knew I needed a plan if I was going to break the news to my parents. Over the weekend I put on my big-boy pants and started searching for something that I might actually want to do with my life. Low and behold- if you Google “motorcycle engineering” a couple programs pop up in the United Kingdom. That was it, suddenly I was staring my future right in the face, a future that I actually wanted to pursue.
Somehow I convinced my parents that going to Wales and attending Swansea Metropolitan University was a good idea, I applied, and got accepted shortly after. Finally I was going to go learn about something I actually wanted to, travel the world, and get a degree in motorcycle engineering. The move to Wales was exhilarating and things really started to take off for me once I began my studies. The structure of the program, the way in which the coursework was carried out, and class sizes were all a lot different than I had expected- but in a good way. The first year was a cakewalk, but it allowed me ample time to learn CAD programs, design a couple fictitious bikes, make friends, and enjoy the Welsh countryside. Towards the end of the year I decided I would design and build my own motorcycle, which I would then intend on racing in the Central Road Racing Association’s club racing events at Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota. To keep costs down and the project manageable, I decided to build a super mono powered by a Kawasaki KX500 two stroke engine.
Initial Chassis Layout
My first summer back home I promptly ordered materials for the project and got back to work running my painting business to fund it. The only problem was that I had no mill, no lathe, no pipe bender, and no TIG welder- nor did I know a lot about using any of these aforementioned tools. Suddenly it hit me, there was going to be a steep learning curve. After befriending some locals who were enthused about my ambitious project as I was, in one fell swoop I procured the rights to use all the equipment I required at the odd hours I was intending on working on this bike. It was as if the universe had aligned for the things I had wanted all along as soon as I started asking for them. Quickly I got the jigs made for the frame and swingarm, enlisted the help of my father to work on the fiberglass components, and devised a plan to try and extract more power out of the engine. The biggest hold up that summer was having to teach myself how to weld. That exercise took roughly a month of practice on thin walled tubing and a hefty sized chunk of my own melted skin before I felt proficient to proceed to tackle a real frame. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, I cocked up the frame design by trusting a friend’s engine model. My first go around at a frame didn’t end up fitting anything, but I got plenty of extra welding practice! By the end of summer the bike was 85 percent complete and I was able to finish the rest of it up over the Christmas and Easter breaks.
Super Mono Construction
My second year of school was much more engaging academically and focused a lot more on the powertrain side of things which was great. I learned all sorts of useful things to help me along with my race bike build and it was great to be so close to people that could answer some of my questions from a professional standpoint. My first test ride over Easter break came late one evening and to my dismay, it was a disappointing affair. I came back from the ride and my hands and butt were numb from all the engine vibration. Half the bike had rattled loose and the other half the hardware was completely missing! My first real world encounter with engine balancing was about to take place. Much to my dismay, simply changing the balance of the crankshaft did not in fact move the vibration to a more tolerable direction. I needed another solution. After much problem solving, I decided to try and graft on a counter balance assembly I designed to cancel out some of the forces that lead to engine vibration. This proved to be a difficult task with my amateur machining skills, but through much trial and error I managed and the balancer worked!
Finishing up the balancer assembly
After my second year of school I was offered a job at S & S Cycle for the summer as an engineer. This was great since I got to hang out/pester a lot of smart folks to help me with my race bike project. I learned a lot about machining, manufacturing, and engineering processes at S & S, plus the people there were awesome. My proudest moment while working at S & S was designing and building the land speed fairing for their Bonneville Salt Flats racing bike. This was a time consuming and messy affair, but it paid off when we took the bike out to Bonneville and set four land speed records!
Once work was finished for the day, more often than not I went over to my bosses house. He had a decent size shop with a dyno, a hefty amount of tools, and the usual machining equipment- all the things I was requiring to make my world go round. Towards the end of my second year of school I had designed a fuel injection system which I was adamant about implementing onto my bike. That whole summer I spent my time incorporating the system into the engine and learned how to tune the engine on the dyno. By the end of summer my bike was ridable, and I was spending more and more time out on the road test riding. I had hoped to take it to the track for the final race of the year, but other engine problems cropped up and I, along with the bike, ended up staying home.
My third and final year proved to be the most time consuming, educational, and one of the most exciting. As part of my degree, I was required to come up with a major project to work on and complete throughout the year. Seeing as my race bike needed a new engine, I began figuring out how to design a new single cylinder two-stroke which would incorporate all the beneficial things that I had learned over the past summer testing the KX500 engine. I settled on designing a 400cc single cylinder counter balanced engine that would use as many common parts as possible with a current production dirt bike transmission. Due to the fact that we actually had a couple Honda CRF450 bikes in the school’s workshop, and parts were cheap and cheerful, I decided to use the gearbox along with a few other parts from that engine. The rest of the engine I designed from the ground up. By the end of my third year I was calling my friends at S & S to help me out with some 3D printing so I could test fit the engine into my frame and the CRF frame. As most almost graduated grads, I was nearing the time where I needed a job, and I didn’t have any spare money to spend on having parts made so the 400cc single project had to be put on hold.
400cc prototype test fitment
Job hunting proved to be an interesting time in my life, and even though I didn’t necessarily want all the jobs I applied to, I learned an awful lot through the interview process. I was able to see how companies were run, what real world engineers did, and how engineering roles were divided. Very quickly I began to determine what I did or didn’t want in a workplace and I began to wonder what my future might have in store for me. What also fascinated me was touring all of these companies’ facilities and seeing how the machine shops, engine build areas, dynos, and engineering departments were set up. One of the places I toured that piqued my curiosity the most was Mercedes AMG in the United Kingdom where the Mercedes Formula I engines are designed. I ended up going there twice for interviews and getting a job offer to work there, but thanks to work visa restrictions I was never able to secure the offer since the regulations tightened up after 2012. At that point there was really only one company in America where I thought my skill set and personality would be a good match, and that was at an American sportbike company. I had applied at the sportbike company which I was interested in in the fall of my final year and finally after four months of patiently waiting, I had heard something. An interview was arranged so I came home, loaded up my bike and prototype engine in the back of my van, and set out to East Troy. At the end of the day, after all their questions were answered, it was quite satisfying rolling out my hand built race bike in the sportbike company’s parking lot to show all the interviewing staff what I had done. The interview staff had never had another candidate who built and brought a rolling resume before and they were thoroughly impressed. Right then I realized my persistence at building my own bike had paid off and was largely responsible for landing me two jobs a lot of people dream of. I was brought on as a powertrain engineer in the fall and this is where I currently reside.
Throughout my career I have continued to meet wonderful people, learn new things, and further my knowledge of two wheeled vehicles. I hope in a small way my exploits, triumphs, and failures will all be valuable lessons.
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