This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.
Kenyon Kluge, an IEEE member, has merged two careers—as a Silicon Valley engineer and as a motorcycle racer—into one at Zero Motorcycles.
Dream Jobs 2009
Kenyon Kluge grabs a leather jacket from his office and heads down the stairs to the manufacturing floor at Zero Motorcycles, a maker of high-performance, all-electric dirt bikes. He stops to take a pair of knee-high boots, a helmet, and gloves from a shelf and then hoists a gleaming new Zero X dirt bike off its rack.
For the next hour or so, he’ll be darting cleanly and quietly up the trails that wind through the trees near the company’s Scotts Valley, Calif., facility. And all the while he’ll be working, too.
Until a year ago, Kluge led a double life. Monday through Friday, he was a mild-mannered Silicon Valley engineer. On weekends, he was a top motorcycle track racer, competing in events all over the United States. Now, as Zero Motorcycle’s director of engineering, he has managed to merge his passion with his profession.
Kluge’s journey into engineering began early, when he qualified for a physics program for middle-schoolers run by the local University of California campus. For about a year, the 13-year-old spent his Saturdays studying on campus with undergrads or out on the boardwalk at the Santa Cruz beach, measuring the g-forces generated by the Giant Dipper roller coaster. When he graduated from high school in 1992, tight family finances ruled out a four-year college. Instead he registered at an ITT Technical Institute in the Los Angeles area to work toward an associate’s degree in electronics, expecting to transfer to a four-year EE program.
He never did get that four-year degree; real-world work proved too captivating. While still at ITT, he interned with a contractor who built new-product prototypes. After getting his associate’s degree in 1997, he went to Extreme Networks, a start-up in Santa Clara that made one of the first gigabit Ethernet switches. In 2000, he moved on to chipmaker Altera, in San Jose. There he worked on one of the first ”softcore” microprocessors, devices that can be implemented on a programmable logic chip, such as a field-programmable gate array (FPGA).
Much of that time, Kluge was racing. He’d first ridden a dirt bike on a visit to a California ranch when he was 11 years old, but his parents refused to let him have anything to do with motorcycles after that. In 1994, however, after he turned 18 and no longer needed his parents’ permission, he got a motorcycle license and bought a Kawasaki EX500.
”From the start I wanted to race, but I didn’t really know how to go about it,” he recalls. He spent the next three years figuring it out. Then, in August 1997, he loaded his motorcycle into a friend’s truck, and they drove to Sears Point (now Infineon Raceway) in Sonoma, Calif., camping overnight in a nearby field. For his first race, he entered the 750-cubic-centimeter Superbike class, one of the fastest and toughest categories. Way out of his league, he crashed, wrecked the bike, and dislocated his shoulder.
Two months later he went back. This time he didn’t crash. He didn’t even finish last. He continued as a weekend racer until 2002 and then took a year’s leave of absence from his job as a senior engineer at Altera to race full time on the American Motorcyclist Association’s pro racing circuit, crisscrossing the country, living out of an RV. He placed 15th out of 94 in the Formula Xtreme class. But 27 is late to turn pro in motorcycle racing, and after the season ended he went back to Altera.