The phone call from Kawasaki's Jeff Herzog had that familiar ring to it. "Hey, Kent, remember at the Versys press launch where we talked about preparing one to race in the Moto-ST endurance series? Well, I've got one over at Carry Andrew's shop right now getting modified for the 8-Hour event coming up. We're thinking of having both you and Andrew Trevitt race the event on two separate teams. Carry is also building another Ninja 650R for Trevitt's team. Interested?" It all sounded pretty appealing, but the clincher was when Herzog told me who I would be riding with.
"You'll be teamed up with Scott Russell and another rider we're getting lined up at the moment." Um . . . come again? You mean Scott Russell, as in Mr. Daytona? The former AMA and World Superbike champion who's won the Daytona 200 an unprecedented five times? Although the thought of a floundering magazine editor dragging the team down momentarily gave me pause, I quickly jumped at the opportunity. And I knew Trevitt wouldn't need convincing. "Heck yeah, sign us up," I told Herzog.
The official Pair-A-Nines Kawasaki race team at the SunTrust Moto-ST Daytona 8-Hour would be made up of three squads. The original team of Jimmy Filice and Jay Springsteen would be joined by Filice's son Justin on a Ninja 650R tuned by Bill Werner. A second 650R built by Andrew would be piloted by my previous Pair-A-Nines teammate Nick Cummings, fellow dirt-track protg Jesse Janisch and SR Senior Editor Trevitt, while the Versys would be ridden by Russell, yours truly and young up-and-coming Canadian superbike racer Brett McCormick. This had all the makings of a fun, no-stress experience . . . or so we thought.
The Kawasaki Versys-A Roadracer?
It's pretty hard to imagine the Kawasaki Versys as a roadracing machine. The adventure-tour-styled bike is very tall and has longer-travel suspension than its Ninja 650R brother. At the Versys press launch in San Diego last year, however, Herzog pointed out that it had better suspen-sion components (a rebound-damping-adjustable inverted fork and stronger banana-style swingarm) as well as a slightly better brake setup than the 650R-based platform I raced back in the March '07 event. The plan was to have noted engine builder Andrew modify the Versys engine to run in the Moto-ST series' Grand Sport Twins class, which has a power limit of 90 horsepower-compared with the Sport Twins class's 75-horsepower limit the Ninja 650R usually runs in. Squeezing that much power out of a 649cc vertical twin-even one as technologically advanced as the Kawasaki engine-would be no small feat. But if there was one person who could do it, Andrew would be the one. JE pistons and Megacycle cams were ordered to help boost power, although Andrew didn't have a lot of time to work with; he was also prepping a Ninja 650R for Trevitt's team, and the race was only a month or so away.
Another problem was the fuel tank-Moto-ST rules permit a maximum of 4.5 gallons capacity, and the Versys is equipped with a 5.0-gallon unit stock. Andrew had a fabricator carve out a half-gallon section of the tank underneath and weld the assembly back together. So that issue appeared to be handled-but the Daytona curse would come back to bite us.
Ahem... this was the state...
Ahem... this was the state of our two machines on the morning of practice. Our Versys chassis sits bare while the engine gets cams replaced; Trevitt's team's Ninja 650R stands in the background with a stripped-down engine and no bodywork. Amazingly, nine hours later both bikes were up and running.
The Daytona Curse . . . Again
As Trevitt and I were flying into Orlando on Thursday before the race, the news coming from Herzog wasn't encouraging; the team truck containing our bikes hadn't arrived yet, apparently having suffered a blown transmission somewhere along the cross-country trek from Los Angeles to Daytona. It wasn't going to arrive at the track until sometime during the wee hours of Friday morning, and there was only a two-hour practice session on late Friday afternoon (5:00-7:00, allowing teams to get some night practice) followed by a single 20-minute warm-up session at 8:20 Saturday morning (the race was scheduled to begin that day at 1:00 P.M. and end at 9:00 P.M.). Nonetheless we figured it couldn't be that difficult to get things squared away by the time 5:00 P.M. rolled around, so we weren't too concerned.
When we arrived at our garage bright and early Friday morning, however, we began to get a bit concerned. The Versys sat on stands stripped bare with no engine or bodywork, while the Ninja 650R of Trevitt's team had no bodywork with a stripped-down engine. Andrew was busy in a corner of the garage installing the cams on the Versys engine as it sat bolted to an engine stand. Herzog was working intently on the fuel tank, and various parts were strewn about the garage. With the clock ticking down toward the day's practice session, Trevitt and I both dove in to see what we could do to help.
An apparent mix-up with the Megacycle camshafts' labeling led to the last-second cam switch. The more modified Versys engine was supposed to get the aggressive cams, but Andrew inadvertently installed them on the engine intended for the 75-horsepower Sport Twin class 650R. Not wanting to run afoul of the strict horsepower limits (bikes are dyno'd immediately after the race, and even a fraction over the limit brings a penalty) as well as ensuring that the Versys engine had the most power potential possible forced Andrew to make the change.
The special JE pistons (right)...
The special JE pistons (right) in the Versys engine force a compression ratio of 12.5:1 (compared with the stock 10.6:1) and weigh 40 grams less than the stock unit on the left. Note the slipper skirt design and deeper valve cutouts in the dome.
Because the Versys was entered...
Because the Versys was entered in the Grand Sports Twins class, we had to add 25 pounds by strapping these lead weights on both sides to meet the minimum weight rule.
The Versys' fuel tank is larger...
The Versys' fuel tank is larger than the Ninja 650R's at 5.0 gallons, so Andrew had a fabricator take out a half-gallon section underneath. Unfortunately, due to a lack of time for testing, we found the modification interfered with the fuel-gauge float.
The fuel-tank problem was that the Versys has a fuel gauge instead of the 650R's low-fuel light, requiring a movable float inside to measure the level. When the fuel-pump assembly (which includes the fuel-level mechanism) was installed, the float was binding on the section modified to help the tank meet the 4.5-gallon maximum capacity rule. With no fuel-consumption data available, a fuel gauge of some sort would obviously be important for determining pit stops during the race. After some careful tweaking we managed to get the float working freely, but when the tank was filled with fuel we found it was still over the 4.5-gallon limit. This forced us to stuff the tank with antislosh foam and even some plastic hose to meet the capacity level. With all that inside, whether we'd still have a working fuel gauge during the race was going to be a crapshoot.
Amazingly both bikes started to come together about an hour before practice was to begin. Andrew had planned to see how the Versys engine ran on the Moto-ST dyno, but some delays in the riders' meeting meant that the dyno closed sooner than planned, leaving the Versys virtually untested before it was to turn a wheel on the track.
"Kent, we can get you a walker...
"Kent, we can get you a walker so you can get out to the bike in pitlane . . ." El Jefe's team of wise guys included Russell (center) and young Canadian superbike hotshoe Brett McCormick (left).
We got both bikes approved by tech inspection about a half-hour after practice started, so we quickly jumped into our leathers to get some shakedown laps in. While Trevitt's team didn't seem to have too many issues, our bike was definitely down on power; we might have been entered in the 90-horsepower Grand Sport Twins class, but some bikes in the Sport Twins category were pulling us off the corners and leaving us behind on the banking. Having to strap on 25 pounds of lead weight to meet the 20-pound minimum weight difference between the two classes surely didn't help matters.
Through all these snafus I was impressed with Russell's positive attitude. It would've been easy for a former WSB and AMA champion to become frustrated with the bike's lack of speed and walk off in disgust. Instead, Russell simply shrugged his shoulders, laughed and said, "Hey, it is what it is. Let's race!"
As El Jefe (92) tries to weave...
As El Jefe (92) tries to weave his way through traffic, the Geek (99) starts to sneak up on him in the background.
The difficulties for our team continued on race day. While trying to get the rider/pit intercom system working, we nearly missed the parade lap. I hurriedly put on my helmet without the earplug speakers, hoping we'd have enough time while sitting on the grid before the start to put them in and get the radio working. Thankfully I was able to get the earplug speakers in on the grid, but there was something wrong with my microphone; I could hear Herzog, but he couldn't hear me. At that point, though, that was the least of my worries.
Once Trevitt slipped past,...
Once Trevitt slipped past, it was game on for bragging rights in the SR offices. The duel actually carried both of them up the standings during the race. Of course once El Jefe assumed his rightful place in front of the Geek (below), all order in the universe was restored.
Both Trevitt and I were starting the race for both our teams. Because both teams were new, neither had any points, and thus they were gridded toward the back of the field. I still wasn't used to the rolling start, and several bikes got the jump on me as the field threaded into Daytona's first turn.
It took me a couple of laps to get into a rhythm, and I finally settled into a pace and began to pick off a few riders. The bike's lack of speed meant a lot of ground had to be made on the brakes and into the corners, making each lap a lot more work. But an unexpected aid to my lap times came in the form of Trevitt, who whizzed by me as I was attempting to pass another rider. Like a red flag in front of a bull, it was "fight's on" now; I had no desire to listen to his crap about leaving me for dead at Daytona, and we engaged in a duel that actually carried us up the standings quite rapidly. Through all this I was keeping a wary eye on the fuel gauge; it seemed to be working, but I wasn't sure if it was accurate. We decided to do a set number of laps with each stint just in case it wasn't.
Luckily, at the same time the fuel gauge was at its lowest point a red light illuminated on the dash, meaning there was a backup low-fuel-level circuit somewhere in the fuel-pump assembly. I signaled the crew that I was coming in, and during the pit-stop refueling the tank took almost the full 4.5 gallons.
McCormick set out and began to steadily lower his lap times as he became more accustomed to the track. Unfortunately about a third of the way into his stint he ran off the track in turn one and crashed; the damage was minor, though, and he was able to get back to the pits for repairs. We lost a few laps getting the bike straightened out, and once McCormick finished his stint he handed it off to a very determined Russell, who immediately began reeling off lap times that were slightly quicker than mine-with worn tires.
Russell gained us back a handful of spots and handed the bike off to me with a thumbs-up. My next stint was uneventful but also somewhat tiring; the Versys' higher fuel tank (rules prevent modifying the outer profile) forced my chest upward, making it impossible to get tucked in behind the windscreen. My helmet was buffeted around so much that it was becoming fatiguing, and the chin strap was beginning to make my jaw sore.
Shades of Daytona 1992: Russell...
Shades of Daytona 1992: Russell on a Kawasaki (well, a little slower than the one he rode back then) is chased by Doug Polen (77) on a Ducati.
Trevitt's team's 650R called...
Trevitt's team's 650R called it quits midway through the race due to a misrouted coolant-overflow tube.
When I jumped over the pit wall after finishing my second stint, I noticed Trevitt's team's 650R sitting forlornly with no one on it. Their race was done; the bike had overheated due to a misrouting of the coolant-overflow catch tank during the hasty assembly before the race. But the Daytona curse wasn't over.
As I sat in the pit a while later waiting for Russell to finish his stint, I suddenly noticed he hadn't come by the front straight in a while. I notified Herzog and Andrew, and after waiting to see if Russell might be limping the bike back to the pits, they ventured off to make sure nothing bad had happened.
It turned out Russell had asked a little too much of the rear tire coming out of the International Horseshoe, and the bike spit him off hard in a nasty highside. Luckily he was OK with no injuries, but the bike suffered damage on the right side that would require some time to fix. The decision was made to halt our team's effort.
But the Daytona curse still had more in store. During the night we noticed the Springsteen/Filice 650R pit crew running back to the pit garage with their bike. A major engine problem required a motor swap to keep their championship hopes alive, and the garage soon became a beehive of activity as everyone pitched in to help. About 45 minutes later the bike was back out on the track . . . only for that engine to give up about an hour later. Fortunately they weren't the only ones to suffer the Daytona curse; the rival team in contention for the championship also underwent a mechanical failure that took them out of the race, handing the title to the Springsteen/Filice team.
Despite blowing two engines...
Despite blowing two engines and not finishing the race, the Pair-A-Nines Kawasaki team ended up winning the Moto-ST Sport Twins Championship at Daytona.
While the weekend obviously didn't go as planned, the Pair-A-Nines team still won the championship and none of our team was hurt in the crashes, so it was one of those experiences you can look back on and laugh about later. It was great to see Russell back in Kawasaki green, the brand that's been associated with his numerous championships. And Herzog has promised us another race effort in the future. Sign us up, Jeff-but can we do it on a different bike, please?