Kawasaki Endurance Team - Pit Pass: In The Company Of Legends

SR's El Jefe gets the call to ride for the Pair A Nines Kawasaki endurance racing team at Daytona alongside some of motorcycle racing's greats

The e-mail from Kawasaki's Jeff Herzog came like a bolt from the blue. "Kent, a very interesting racing opportunity came up," wrote Herzog, "and I think you're the perfect fit for it." I'm not as eager as I used to be when the words "racing" and "opportunity" come up together (I hadn't raced in a sanctioned competition event since nearly stealing the AMA National Pro Thunder win at Willow Springs in '00), but being the racing slut that I am, my interest was still piqued. "Would you be interested in riding for Gary Nixon's team at the Moto-ST endurance racing event at Daytona? You'd be riding along with Jay Springsteen and Jimmy Filice."

Whoa. Gary Nixon? Jay Springsteen? Jimmy Filice? We're talking about three riders who'd easily earned their own spots in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Nixon is a two-time AMA Grand National champion with a storied career, including winning the '76 FIM Formula 750 world championship with legendary tuner Erv Kanemoto, then having it taken away due to politics. Springsteen is considered one of the greatest dirt-track racers of all time, winning three consecutive AMA Grand National championships and collecting 43 National wins (currently third on the all-time list) over an incredible pro career that spanned three decades. Filice is a three-time AMA 250GP champion who has also won numerous AMA Dirt Track Nationals, although he is probably best remembered for his stunning victory as a replacement rider in the 250 World Championship Grand Prix at the 1988 USGP. There is enough combined championship talent in these three to simply have them touch the motorcycle and the bike would practically win the race all by itself. Um...and I'm supposed to ride with these guys?Well, that wasn't exactly the case. "Nixon's team will be fielding two Kawasaki Ninja 650Rs. Springsteen and Filice are riding one bike, and you'll be paired with Nick Cummings on the other one," Herzog said. The pressure wasn't exactly lifted, though; 20-year-old Cummings was the '05 AMA Dirt-Track Ricky Graham Rookie of the Year, and the young hotshoe has already made some impressive forays into roadracing.

I was starting to wonder why I was asked to be the sacrificial lamb for this project, when Herzog added, "You were the first person I thought of when Nixon asked about putting a journalist on one of the bikes. And actually, Nixon mentioned you by name. Apparently you impressed him with your riding at Mid-Ohio." Back in September of last year, Kawasaki held a track day for Kawasaki owners at the newly repaved Mid-Ohio facility, and I recall riding with Nixon during one session. Make no mistake, the two-time AMA Grand National champ may be 66 years old now, but he still can do the business on the track. And I impressed him?

Kawasaki's Ninja 650R isn't exactly a motorcycle you'd initially consider a racebike. The 649cc parallel twin was designed as a budget middleweight that can fill multiple roles for both novice and experienced riders--although racing definitely wasn't among those targets. The $6399 Kawasaki (which incidentally won our "budget bike" comparison test in the July '06 issue) does possess excellent performance that not only towers far above its more sparing EX500 brother, but also puts it on par with more powerful competition. Regardless of original intentions, the little Ninja has found a racing venue in the newly created Moto-ST endurance racing series (see sidebar). Restricted to four-stroke twin-cylinder motorcycles, the Moto-ST championship emphasizes long-distance team racing in a tightly regulated arena designed to foster competition while keeping costs down for the participants. One of the methods used to level the playing field is horsepower limits (measured in a postrace dyno run), and the Moto-ST series' Sport-twin class limit is 75 horsepower. (There are two other classes with 95- and 125-horsepower limits.) Some simple tweaking by the team's engine builder (and crew chief for the Kawasaki that Cummings and I would be riding), Charlie Benton, and our bikes were easily competitive while remaining safely below the limit.