Our stock-engine-equipped Ninja 650 is noticeably down on power, which required some aggressive and well-timed starts. Luckily, CVMA uses qualifying times to build the grids, which granted us a front row start. Our over-anxious associate editor botched just one start and was penalized accordingly.
Our stiffest competition came in the form of a methanol-fueled SV650 ridden by a fresh-faced Andrew Zabzdyr. The lightweight classes are great in that they offer riders an opportunity to hone their racecraft on a bike that’s less intimidating than a 600.
Our Ninja 650 felt immediately comfortable, and required little in the way of suspension adjustment throughout the weekend. Our only major change, for instance, was a spring change in the front end.
Bradley and Tige Danne of CycleMall stand proudly behind the Kawasaki Ninja 650 project bike. The duo walked away with four trophies (a second-place trophy and three third-place trophies) after running five races.
The Ninja 650 was outnumbered by multiple Suzuki SV650s, but held its own up front. The parts that we used to transform the bike, including the Yoyodyne slipper clutch, Sato Racing rearsets and Driven sprockets, all worked flawlessly throughout the weekend.
In the last issue, we directed a great deal of attention toward our recently completed pride and joy, a 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 display bike turned Sport Rider racebike. In the article that accompanied the build (“Green Streak,” March ’13), we briefly made mention that we’d be racing the Ninja in a forthcoming event at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Due to a vague understanding of how the bike would work in race trim however, we’ll admit that we went to press equally as anxious as you to see how our weekend at the track would play out. Naturally, the last thing we wanted to do was introduce you to one of our better-looking project bikes, only to follow up by saying that we’d turned the Ninja into nothing more than a moving obstacle for CVMA (Chuckwalla Valley Motorcycle Association) frontrunners.
The SR crew has had its hands on enough project bikes to know that podium finishes are never assured in any one race, but that unforeseeable hurdles are almost guaranteed (cue memories of our fuse-blowing Harley Davidson XR1200 racebike). Unwanted memories in mind, we signed up for a pre-race TrackDaz (trackdaz.com, 909-234-4713) event; CVMA runs a unique two-day race schedule that puts greater emphasis on racing than on practice, so the extra track time would be needed if we wanted to work out the kinks in our program and put ourselves in a good position come race day. We also reconvened with Tige Danne of CycleMall, who volunteered to lend a hand at the track and helped Bradley put together a game plan for the weekend. The duo’s strategy wasn’t overly complex (this is little-bike racing after all), but placed special emphasis on getting the Ninja’s chassis set up early in the weekend, sorting through tire options and qualifying well for the races.
Our now-extended weekend started early Friday morning, but surprisingly without any miscues. Within a matter of two sessions, in fact, Bradley came in reporting that the chassis worked extremely well, and that the ZX-10R-culled fork internals were providing good feel and feedback through Chuckwalla’s faster sections — a welcomed claim considering Catalyst Reaction’s James Morse had to all but guess on a suspension setup for our Ninja. Following the first sessions, Tige and crew went about checking all the hardware and fluid-retaining bits to assure that everything had remained snug after being stressed on the racetrack. Fortunately, everything was tight and ready for what the rest of the day had in store.
The much-expected hurdles began to develop mid-day Friday, and came first in the form of an overlap between the Ninja’s lower fairing and front fender. Essentially, what happened was the Ninja’s front end dove heavily on the brakes, which allowed the front fender to slip behind the Catalyst Racing Composites belly pan. As a result, Bradley was unable to steer the bike into the tight turn nine/ten complex at Chuckwalla and had to run off the track. Upon coming to a stop, Bradley was able to knock the fairings loose and head back to the pits; the snag could’ve been much worse, and we were lucky to have discovered the problem early in the weekend.
Our fairing faux pas wasn’t all bad, although a white-in-the-face Bradley admittedly had some trouble finding a silver lining in the situation. What the crew learned from the predicament, however, was that the Ninja’s front end was traveling too far through its stroke, an idea that went hand-in-hand with Bradley’s claim that the front fork had begun to feel soft once the lap times started to drop. Tige and Bradley discussed potential changes with the help of Bradley’s dad, Curtis, and then proceeded to install stiffer front fork springs. In the next session, Bradley went .2 seconds quicker and confirmed that the change increased stability on the brakes and through the corner, but didn’t compromise performance over bumps.
Saturday and Sunday promised to keep the SR crew on its toes and came quicker than we would’ve liked. CVMA’s aforementioned, race-biased schedule meant that Bradley was up early handling registration duties, while Tige and Curtis went about prepping the bike for the two ensuing practice sessions and 15-minute qualifying session. Admittedly, we didn’t use the practice sessions as anything more than an opportunity for Bradley to get warmed up, as the Ninja was already working really well and our rear tire was beginning to lose grip (we tested a soft compound tire on Friday, opposite of what we mentioned in the build story based on weather, but Chuckwalla’s track surface caused it to degrade relatively quick). Our attention was therefore placed on qualifying, which would decide where Bradley started in each of the five to-come races. With a new set of tires mounted and our rider now loosened up, we waited patiently until our session came around.
CVMA’s qualifying sessions offer a unique opportunity for riders who have no points but don’t want to be gridded in the back of the pack (most series grid based on previously acquired points). Bradley took advantage of this formula and garnered a front-row starting position with a lap time of 1:56.4, which was about .3 seconds faster than his fastest lap on Friday. Interestingly enough, the only bikes to qualify in front of Bradley were a CycleMall-prepped Suzuki SV650 and detuned Ducati 748. Needless to say, the CycleMall crew was excited to have a CM-complete front row.
Unfortunately, Bradley’s strong qualifying results didn’t develop into a great race-one result, as our associate editor got a little excited and jumped the start. In our over-anxious editor’s defense, the Ninja had proven to be drastically down on power throughout the course of the weekend, and a perfectly timed start was going to be needed if we had any hope of getting to Chuckwalla’s tight, one-line turn 1 in a good position. The jump start and ensuing meatball flag weren’t all bad however; the clouds around Chuckwalla had just begun to wet the track, meaning Bradley had saved himself from having to run laps on a moistening track with slicks. That’s Bradley’s story at least, and he’s sticking to it.
Bradley kept his energy-drink-induced jitters to a minimum for the start of race two and managed to stay in third place through turn 1. The only bikes to beat Bradley off the line, in fact, were a Yamaha TZ250 and a methanol-fueled SV650 pumping out nearly 100 horsepower — missing out on a holeshot is never fun, but losing only to this duo left us confident in the Ninja’s launch abilities. The race could be considered unexciting from this point forward as there were no position changes, but Bradley was able to show a wheel here and there. The battle wasn’t a walk in the park, either, and a few laps spent following the TZ and SV made it apparent that the Kawasaki’s bone-stock engine was significantly down on power. It was also becoming clear that the 650 caliper/ZX-6R master cylinder brake combo wasn’t going to provide us the stopping power we’d need to out-brake the competition. Some creativity would definitely be required if we were going to set up passes and make them stick. Unfortunately, creativity wasn’t running through Bradley’s blood this time around, and we had to settle for a third-place finish.
CVMA officials must have paid the weather bill for Sunday, as the clouds that threatened on Saturday were gone and all but replaced by beams of sunlight. A good night of sleep had done Bradley some good as well, as he rolled out in his first practice session and clicked off a 1:56.1 in just his third lap on track. For comparison, this lap was .3 seconds faster than his best qualifying lap, and .8 seconds faster than his best lap in Saturday afternoon’s race. Amazingly, the accelerated pace didn’t bring to light any faults in the Ninja’s armor, as Bradley returned to the pits still bragging about the bike’s stability and aptitude at speed. The only weakness, according to our associate editor, was a bit of chatter with the front end under load, something Tige attributes to our project bike’s street-minded triple clamps and fork tube design. “I think the thing is just flexing a bit when you get into the corner, and we can’t fix that unless we put a different front end on it,” confirmed Danne.
Bradley looked to transform the early-morning success into a better result in race one, which he managed to do by nailing the start and keeping his head down all the way into turn 1. The ensuing pack of bikes filed in behind our little Ninja, but only one bike (the same TZ250 that’d beaten Bradley on Saturday) was able to get by in the coming laps. The gap between Bradley and the TZ, ridden by an experienced Vince Rolleri, fluctuated in the early stages of the race, but began to narrow once Bradley found his rhythm. Bradley managed to close the gap even further with just two laps to go, but Rolleri simultaneously realized he had a race on his hands and was able to push toward a win. Bradley did manage, however, to run a 1:54.9 in the early stages of the race, which was the fastest we’d gone up to this point and evidence that the Ninja was coming along supremely.
Our continually dropping lap times and visions of first-place trophies convinced us to spoon a fresh set of Bridgestone tires on the Ninja for our second and third races. Both sprints didn’t pan out as Bradley would’ve hoped however, as he got stuck behind a faster SV650 and was unable to make a pass that would stick. The third-place finishes that ensued weren’t for a lack of effort; Bradley made a few hair-raising passes in Chuckwalla’s sweeping turn four, but was simply unable to hold the methanol-fueled SV off on the following straights. Bradley ran yet another 1:54.9 lap, which was enough to keep a smile on the crew’s faces, but slightly off Bradley’s Sunday-morning goal of dipping into the 53s.
Meeting our non-existent expectations
We admittedly entered our first weekend aboard the Ninja 650 project bike with few expectations, but those that we did have were all but shattered. We really can’t say enough for how well the bike worked throughout the course of the weekend, and how little effort it required to make the Kawasaki competitive in a class that’s admittedly dominated by Suzuki SV models. Credit goes to Tige Danne and the crew at CycleMall of course, who used their vast amounts of knowledge to help make the Ninja a frontrunner.
We had a great time racing with CVMA as well, and found the organization’s two-day race schedule to be extremely beneficial for those who’d rather spend their time racing than burning up rubber during excessively long practice sessions. The organization is relatively new and continually developing, but looks to offer a good avenue for up-and-coming racers; we were beaten, for instance, by a fresh-faced Andrew Zabzdyr, who’s been racing SVs for a few seasons now and is planning on making the move to 600s next year.
What’s next for our project bike? Well, we’ve had so much fun with the bike thus far that we’re going to do our best to keep the development process rolling along. The bike started off as a fun way to go racing and develop our racecraft, but don’t be surprised if you see a superbike-spec Ninja 650 gracing these pages in an upcoming issue!