Rickey Gadson On The Record

The 11-time drag racing champion talks candidly about his exciting new project: the Ninja H2 Hybrid Drag Bike

Rickey Gadson Custom H2 drag bike

New York International Motorcycle Show photo #1

Rickey GadsonBrian Nitto

I didn't know anything about the H2 until the dealer meeting in 2012 when the Kawasaki president came up to me and said he'd like me to come to Japan and give him my opinion on a project. I was flattered. I didn't hear from him until November of 2013. So, on Thanksgiving Day 2013, while everyone was eating their dinner here in the States, my mechanic Coby Adams and I got to see two clay models of the Kawasaki H2.

I had heard rumors of a supercharged engine before I got to Japan. But I didn't believe them. When I saw that it really was a supercharged motorcycle, I was excited beyond belief. It was a complete collaboration of all things KHI. They took it very seriously.

They wanted to know what it would take for me to adapt this bike for drag racing. Of course, I knew they were building the H2 to be an all-around bike, not a drag racer. But I also knew that because the H2 was supercharged, it wasn't a roadracing bike.

The same day I saw the clay model, they showed me a huge poster on the wall. It was a concept Rickey Gadson H2R with the number 62 on it, with my name on the windscreen and all the stickers from my sponsors. This was just a concept, but I was flattered. I was in Japan, and the engineers had thought enough of me to create this concept drawing. It actually looks very similar to the Ninja H2 Hybrid.

I had two days of testing at a secret facility. One day on an H2, the other on an H2R. On Saturday, I rode the H2 and did some speed runs. Most importantly, I did some dragstrip runs to see if the single-sided swingarm was strong enough to hold up to the horsepower.

On Sunday they brought me back to test the H2R, which is the first time I saw that exhaust and those wings. I had never, ever, experienced a feeling like that. When I first got on the throttle, the front wheel came up instantly. This was not drag racing; this was just rolling on the throttle. These were pre-production bikes with no electronics. No traction control. No wheelie control. Just raw power.

I promise you, I never expected that kind of power. I had never ridden a supercharged motorcycle. I've ridden every configuration but supercharged. And you gotta remember: a supercharged motorcycle has no lag. When you twist the throttle, you get instant acceleration. It goes from 180 horsepower to 240 at the crack of the throttle. The response is instantaneous.

The sound of this motorcycle is like nothing you've ever heard before. When the H2 comes at you at over 200 mph, the sound arrives after the bike, like it's trying to catch up to the machine.

I had to roll the throttle on all the way until fourth gear before I could lock the throttle. I can't tell you how excited I was that this motorcycle was a reality. In my mind, Kawasaki already ruled the roost with the 14R. They were already were the king of performance. Why build a motorcycle this insanely fast? It must be for bragging rights, and this played into my favor.

I never looked down at the speedometer. I know it was well over 200 mph when I passed by the camera. I wasn't making top speed runs. I wanted to see how long it would take me to get into wide-open throttle. So when it came to drag racing this thing, I would know what I could not do.

Those wings on the H2R? I can absolutely tell you they work. After 100 mph you can feel the difference. The H2 floats its front wheel, even if fourth gear. The front wheel is light. In fourth gear on the H2R, the front wheel was heavy. It felt firmly planted on the ground, which told me the wings worked. The bike was super steady at high speed.

Ninja H2 drag bike front profile

New York International Motorcycle Show photo #4

Kawasaki Ninja H2 drag bike.Brian Nitto

When I first drag-tested the H2, I really felt like an amateur. It was pissing me off. The bike was so powerful it intimidated me. I knew that if I twisted the throttle too fast, the front end was going to go skyward. I manipulated the throttled based on how far the front wheel was off the ground. The more throttle I gave it, the more it picked the front wheel up. I'd then have to get the front wheel back down before rolling on the throttle a little bit more and doing it again. I had to manipulate the throttle like that until I could get the throttle wide open. Do you know how much time I'm losing by doing that?

I made several runs on both bikes and told the engineers what I had felt. Or what needed to be enhanced or changed somewhat. These guys are smarter than me, and they absolutely know how to build a motorcycle, so all I could do was humbly give them my opinion on what I thought they needed to do make the H2 a better drag racer.

They started asking me about rules for the class I race in. Knowing the power this thing was supposed to put out, it was always my intention to race this motorcycle in the class I run in currently.

I run in Real Street, which represents a production style motorcycle with unlimited modifications to the motor. The only limitation: It has to have a DOT tire and a stock clutch. You can have any power "adder" you want, but only one. You can't have turbo and nitrous, or a supercharger and nitrous. It has to be all motor. Or turbo. Or nitrous. Or supercharged. One power "adder" only. You have to have all production bodywork. If you wanted to put down 450 horsepower and the clutch can take it, it's up to you to hold on.

I believe the H2 can be competitive in Real Street. At this point, I've only been able to do bolt-on modifications and enough modifications to make this bike unique and one of a kind. But I haven't yet been able to search for more power and manage the power it already has.

I picked up the H2 on October 28 and immediately took it to my mechanic's shop. We discussed our game plan. I could not take it to the racetrack with me because the bike was top secret and under embargo. Nobody had ever seen one yet, so I had to keep it out of sight. We rented the Rockingham track a day after my race. After hours, with stock wheelbase, we tested it. I knew I didn't have enough time to figure out the electronics, so I turned them off. I didn't have wheelie control or any traction control helping me. I probably got about seven runs on that bike.

For that test, I brought along my 2015 ZX-14R, set up the same exact way, with stock wheelbase and lowered, that's it. Everything else was factory. Did the same thing to the H2. The ZX-14R ran a 9.16 at 149 mph. The H2, with H2R pipes and ECU tuning very similar to the H2R's, went 9.16 at 160. That's 11 mph better!

Most people will say that's not enough difference given the extra cost of the bike. But let's not forget this fact: With the 14, I can lock the throttle in first gear. On the H2, I can't lock the throttle until fourth gear. If you were to do a side by side run, the ZX-14 would pull away from the H2 until the eighth mile, but in the second half of the run the H2 would catch the ZX-14R by the finish line.

Rickey Gadson standing next Ninja H2 drag bike

Rickey Gadson and his H2 drag bike.

Rickey Gadson and his Ninja H2 drag bike.Brian Nitto

After that test, the next phase was to make the bike rideable. Again, I could not lock the throttle until fourth gear. So I took the bike to Coby Adams for a swingarm that would help me get power to the ground a little quicker. He made me a swingarm, We went back out 30 days later. We took it to Mooresville Dragway, right around the corner from the shop, to see if we got the gearing right. The following day at Rockingham, we did our second and final test. I also brought my school bike, a 2013 ZX-14R set up very similarly, for comparison.

The school bike went 8.69 at 154 mph on pump gas. Anybody who knows drag racing, knows that's nothing to sneeze at. On the H2 Hybrid, I went 8.21 at 166 mph. So we jumped from 154 to 166. That's 12 mph more. Going from an 8.69 to an 8.21 is a huge jump in performance.

The H2 Hybrid has a 68-inch wheelbase, as opposed to 56.5 stock. The swingarm is 11 inches longer than stock. Right now, it also has a BST carbon rear wheel. We're gonna put one on the front as well.

Remember, Coby Adams had to make a conventional swingarm for a bike that was designed for a single-sided swingarm. Everything on the rear end had to change. In doing that, we lost 12 pounds on the drivetrain. With the chrome-moly swingarm, the wheel and the sprocket, we lost 12 pounds. Which is always good for performance. We also put the JRI shock on it, and Dusty from Dynojet flew out to make us a PowerCommander 5 for it with an ignition module.

Of course, nothing on this bike fits any other bike that Kawasaki has. Not the electronics. Not the wheels. Nothing is the same. It was like a total ground-up restoration. It made for some headaches, honestly.

At one point, we ran into a little situation. We lowered it too much in front when it had the stock wheelbase. When the front came back down on one run, it broke the fender. So we had to raise the bike back up about an inch and a half and have the fender fixed. Right now, the front end is actually strapped down with a front-end tie-down strap. It helps by not letting the front end rebound, but it doesn't let you get front end close enough to the ground to stop the bike from wheelieing.

We gotta bring the front end down a lot. There are lots of modifications I'd need to make to get the bike as low as I'd like. I would have to get rid of the standard pipe that goes underneath the engine. Once we have more time with the H2, we'll get it down as low as we need to get it.

It makes 292 horsepower to the rear wheel on pump gas. KHI is very smart. They are never going to run anything on the edge. When we checked the air-fuel ratio, it was 11.3 to 11.4. That's how rich they had it. They had to make sure it's safe enough for anybody who gets their hands on it to not blow it up. We knew from racing my turbo bike that we can lean it out quite a bit more than that. So we took the air-fuel ratio to about 12.2 and picked up 30 horsepower. With the leaner mixture and improved airflow, we went from 269 horsepower to 292. If you equate that to crankshaft horsepower, that would be around 320 horsepower.

Rickey Gadson custom H2 Hybrid static side view

New York International Motorcycle Show photo #2

Rickey Gadson custom H2 Hybrid.Brian Nitto

To try to calm this thing down with its stock wheelbase, we made fifth gear very long. Stock gearing is 18/42. When we stretched it out, we dropped it to a 16/42, but even that was still too much too handle. Even though we were 12 inches longer, two teeth down on the front was just too much off the start line. We ended up going to a 16/41, which was still too much, but we left it there because we ran out of time.

People will say this bike isn't all that fast. But I haven't had the H2 long enough. For the bike to run a 9.16 in stock configuration, without being able to open the throttle until fourth gear, at beyond half track, this bike has so much potential. It's much better than anything else I've ever ridden.

To put this in perspective, my race bike is a turbocharged ZX-14R with close to 500 horsepower. My best-ever time to half-track on that bike is 5.13. The H2 does it in 5:31. That's the only difference between the H2 and the bike I've developed and raced for the last several years? Of course, in the second half of the track, the 500 horsepower takes over. But the H2 still remains within a half-second of the national record.

Before you figure out how to make the H2 go faster, you have to figure out how to ride it. It's gonna take you four or five runs to learn how to ride the bike. And one of the challenges I've had with the H2 is that it left the line so hard that I kept sliding back on the seat. On all of my race bikes, I cut out the seat so it cradles my butt. Well, we didn't have enough time to worry about the seat. Every time I left the start line, I'd slide to the back of the seat. I'd have to lift my leg up and put it under the shifter and shift before I wound up in the rev limiter. That was a challenge. It took me a while to get the timing right. We ended up putting some duct tape on my leathers to keep me from sliding back!

It has a hard rev limiter. The tach gets red at 14,000 rpm, but the redline area is from 14,000 to 16,000 rpm. But it hits the rev limiter right at 14,100. Turbochargers typically sign off at a certain rpm. A supercharger continues to make boost as long as you continue to rev the engine. I believe my motorcycle could go another 2 or 3 mph faster if I could rev it a little more.

People keep commenting about how heavy the H2 is. They're appalled that it's listed as 530 lb. I will say this: I never believed the bike was that heavy, so I pulled it onto a scale. In completely stock trim (no carbon, except where the mirrors and wings are), my bike weighed 475 lb. stock, with a gallon of gas. Then, at our December test with the extended swingarm and carbon rear wheel, the bike weighed only 460 lb. I weighed my ZX-14R school bike that same day, set up the same way and with a gallon of fuel. It weighed 530 lb. Sure, if you compare the H2 to a liter bike, it's heavy. But it also has a steel frame, a supercharger, and what looks like the heaviest exhaust I've ever seen on a production bike.

Three hundred horsepower is super fast, but it’s not fast enough for me.

Kawasaki Ninja H2 drag bike rear wheel

New York International Motorcycle Show photo #3

Kawasaki Ninja H2 drag bike.Brian Nitto
Kawasaki Ninja H2 drag bike static rear 3/4 view

New York International Motorcycle Show photo #5

Kawasaki Ninja H2 drag bike.Brian Nitto