For the final phase of our 2009 Kawasaki ZX-6R Project Bike we returned to the the racetrack, this time at The Fastest Road in the West aka the 2.5-mile Big Track at Willow Springs International Raceway. The occasion was the third round of the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club (WSMC) road racing series. After all, what better way to evaluate the track worthiness of our project bike than to race it?
Performance Upgrades Recap
In Phase 1 of our review we hit our 2009 Supersport Shootout VII winner with a LeoVince SBK Factory Race Exhaust System and paired it with Dynojet’s Power Commander 5 with Auto Tune functionality. Not only did this combo give us almost 10% more engine power it shed nearly 20-pounds.
Phase 2 consisted of transforming it into a full-on track bike by fitting Hot Bodies Racing bodywork sprayed by Southern Oregon’s Cutting Edge Illusions and a Zero Gravity Double Bubble windshield. Next we enlisted the help of the beyond talented guys at Catalyst Reaction Suspension Tuning. There Dave Moss and Co. re-valved the OE Showa shock. They also filled the fork and shock with heavier weight suspension fluid and adjusted the preload and clickers for optimum suspension performance on the racetrack.
For Phase 3 we changed the final drive gearing with a pair of Sunstar sprockets spun on a RK chain. The bike was geared down for quicker acceleration which is ideal for smaller racetracks like Pahrump and the Streets at Willow Springs. We also mounted a set of Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa DOT-label racing tires so we had the grip to rip around the aforementioned racetracks.
Personalization of hand and foot controls was up next in Phase 4. We acquired handlebars, levers, and rearsets from Vortex Racing which allowed customization of the riding position to individual preferences. The front brake set-up was also massaged by adding a pair of Braking brake discs with matching pads and Goodridge stainless-steel brake lines.
Off to the Races
Whether you’re an experienced road racing bounty hunter or a rookie looking to experience the high-speed thrill of motorcycle road racing, WSMC is an excellent organization to do it with. WSMC runs exclusively at Willow Springs International Raceway located in Southern California’s high desert. The 11-race season begins in January with races held each month until the season finale in November. There are a multitude of classes for all types and sizes of motorcycles—ranging from obscure vintage machines all the way up to modern superbikes.
(Above) For the final phase of our 2009 Kawasaki ZX-6R Project Bike we brought it to Willows Springs to race with WSMC. (Below) Regardless of the type of bike you ride there is a class for you to compete in at WSMC.
Having already removed all street equipment and fitted Hot Bodies racing bodywork with mandatory fluid-catching belly pan per WSMC rules in Phase 2, our bike was almost race-ready. The only other modifications necessary was the replacement of the engine’s coolant with straight water and safety wiring a few key components including the axle nuts, fork pinch and brake caliper bolts, oil/coolant hoses and drain plugs. Lastly we fitted my ‘379’ competition number on the front and rear bodywork.
With our ZX-6R now legal for competition we made three last adjustments before hitting the racetrack. First, we replaced the Vortex shorty-style handlebar levers for standard Kawasaki pieces due to personal preference. Next the final drive gearing was modified by swapping out the 45-tooth rear sprocket installed in Phase III for a smaller 41-tooth sprocket. This compromises acceleration for higher top speed which is necessary due to nearly constant triple-digit speed demands of the Big Track.
We also visited the guys at CT Racing, Pirelli’s official track vendor, where they mounted a set of Pirelli Diablo Superbike racing slicks in sizes 120/70-17 for the front wheel ($190) and 190/60-17 for the rear rim ($245). The reason slicks were selected as opposed to DOTs was purely an economic one as slicks have a tendency to last longer than a treaded tire, thereby reducing the cost of racing. I was also anxious to try out the rear tire, as it is all-new construction said to blow the doors off competition in terms of outright grip and wear.
Considering the limited amount of time spent aboard our Kawasaki Project Bike around Big Willow, I opted to arrive a day early to participate in Friday’s TrackDaz trackday. The fee to ride is only $125 and it’s a great opportunity to receive extra seat time in preparation for Sunday’s races. Like always everyone got plenty of track time and the day went off without any problems, despite the occasional crash and associated clean-up.
For the weekend I was fortunate to have the uber talented hands of former AMA Superbike factory wrench Joey Lombardo at my disposal. Joey has worked with some of road racings past and present heavy hitters including Miguel Duhamel and the brothers Hayden. Since, he has joined Kawasaki’s Tech Services department, the dedicated guys and gals who are in charge of making sure all of its press motorcycles are in perfect mechanical shape whenever guys like me need to use them for a review. And for this weekend, he’d be at my disposal meaning that all I had to do is race, just like a factory rider. Jeez, does it get any better than this?
(Above) When the Pirelli Diablo Superbike slicks are brand new, even the Kawasaki’s 110-plus horsepower engine doesn’t have enough power to get the rear tire to break traction. The rear tire has that much grip! (Middle) Fast guy Curtis Adams gives Adam some tips in between practice Saturday at Willow Springs. (Below) Grip, grip, and more grip. Without question Pirelli’s freshly redesigned rear tire delivers the most amount of outright grip I’ve ever experienced.
First thing Saturday morning I hit the registration office to make sure my racing license was in order and to sign-up for Saturday’s practice and Sunday’s races. I chose to race in Formula 2, 600 Mod Prod, and 650 Superbike—all classes which allow you to run non-DOT tires. All said and done it cost $120 for the competition license (valid thru the last race of the season), $80 for all-day Saturday practice, $180 for the three races, and $10 for the starting practice in which riders line up on the grid for a mock start upon the conclusion of Saturday practice. After that I got my tech slip and it was off to tech inspection.
Before riding on track, WSMC requires you take your racebike through tech inspection to ensure that it’s safe to ride. Before inspection you are to remove the bike’s belly pan so the inspector can better see if everything is in order. If you’ve done all the work properly and your bike is clean and in good mechanical order, tech is an absolutely painless exercise, if you haven’t, well, consider yourself warned…
Saturday practice is split into groups based by lap time. Since I haven’t been able to lap below the 1:30 mark consistently I was relegated to practice in the ‘B’ group. For the most part practice went well, however it seems that the vast majority of racers are shoehorned into this group which makes it hard to get any clean laps making it feel like ‘passing practice.’ Nonetheless any practice is good practice and I was able to get more comfortable on the bike and work on specific sections of the track that always give my brain trouble i.e. Turns 1, 8, and 9.
In between practices I was able to consult with local fast guy Curtis Adams. He gave me a few key tips in regards to where you need to slow down in order to set-up in preparation of rocketing through some of the key fast sections of the track. Willow is definitely a tricky, ‘locals only’ track so it helps to get some insight from a guy like Adams who really knows a thing or two about riding a bike competitively here.
Even after two full days of ripping around Willow, the Pirelli slicks we ran were still in decent shape (we did flip the rear tire at the end of the first day due to the enormous amount of heat generated in Turn 8 and 9). There wasn’t any unusual wear or tearing of any kind which signals that the suspension was adjusted properly and working optimally. Again, this is due to the diligent work put in by Catalyst Reaction Suspension Tuning.
On race day each group gets two quick practice sessions. After practice concludes there is a mandatory riders meeting then it’s time to race. In between practice and the races, my man Joey fitted a fresh set of Pirelli slicks then checked over the bike making sure everything was good to go. With the tire warmers plugged-in and the bike fueled up, it was now time to hurry up and wait…
Part of the racing game involves waiting. Here Waheed waits it out the best way he knows how using a Bridgestone tire as a pillow.
One of the cool and not so cool things about WSMC is its exorbitant number of racing classes. While this is great for the sport by allowing everyone a class to compete in, it also makes for really long days with in excess of 16 race starts all happening in one day! Luckily, my races were clumped together towards the end of the day so at least I wouldn’t have to race, then wait, then race again. I always hate that.
At the beginning of the day I wasn’t at all nervous but as I prepared to suit up in preparation for my 8-lap races, the pre-race butterflies started to come. It’s the exact feeling I get prior to the start of any type of competition I’ve been in whether it be on a dirt bike, pedal bike, or a simple foot race in grade school. And contrary to most I actually totally live for that quasi ‘oh my God, I’m going to die’ feeling as it makes me feel alive.
A few seconds after the announcer blasts “final call Formula 2,” Joey peels off the tire warmers. Just to be sure I touch them before putting on my gloves, and yes, they’re piping hot. After scrubbing in the tires and getting them fully up to temperature on the warm-up lap it was now time for business.
The starting grid is arranged based on points stemming from each racer’s results that season. Being that I had never raced with WSMC and had zero points I was relegated to the back. Throughout the weekend Joey had given me all kinds of useful nuggets of race craft. One tip that I found especially funny and that I hoped to put to use was during the start when he recommended getting to the side immediately and driving around everyone from the outside. When the green flag dropped I got a decent jump but for some reason I prematurely up-shifted into second gear so the effects of my handy clutch work was negated.
(Above) Waheed battles with the 741 machine of Sander Donkers in Formula 2. (Middle) Waheed attempts to serve it up CT Racing-style at WSMC. (Below) Team Hewitt’s Stephen Hewitt closes in on Waheed in the Formula 2 race.
Having not experienced the chaos that is Turn 1 of a motorcycle road race in nearly a decade I was tentative and nearly dead last as all 11 of us poured into the first corner. I made a pass at the exit of Turn 1 then another as we funneled into Turn 2 and right then I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The six guys in front of me had their bikes leaned over so far that I thought they were going to slide out and crash. In fact I was right behind one of them and I specifically remember thinking that if that guy crashed I would run right over him. In fact, I assumed that I had the bike so far leaned over that it was going to slide out from underneath me. But it didn’t—not even close—a testament to the insane Velcro-like grip afforded by Pirelli’s Diablo Superbike slicks.
Recognizing that I’m a pretty conservative braker, I made sure to stay on the inside to prevent being passed as we made our way into Turn 3. Without a doubt I’m way more comfortable through slower speed sections of the track than faster ones. For some reason I can’t get the same feeling from the bike. That being said, the part of Big Willow that I feel most comfortable through is Turn 3, 4, and 5. Everywhere else—well, let’s just say I could use some help.
Like Adams advised, I tried my best to not rush Turn 6 in order to get a good drive through the back straightaway that leads into Turn 8 and 9. Here you can really feel the extra and longer top end pull afforded by the LeoVince pipe. I do my best to hold the throttle pinned for as long as I can before my brain finally makes me back out a bit as I enter Turn 8.
I’m full tuck as I motor through this tricky high speed turn trying my best to look ahead while staying glued to the tail sections of guys ahead. As I grab two downshifts and lay the bike onto its side into Turn 9, I’m again partially stunned by the ridiculous lean angle that all of us are achieving. I mean we’ve got the bikes so far leaned over that it’s hard to know where the horizon is! Again, I’m in absolute awe by how much grip the tires have. You can literally mash the bike on its side, pin the throttle and the tires have so much grip that the bike just hooks up and turns—adhered to the ground like you were physically connected to a set of rails.
I follow the pack through Turn 9 carrying more speed than I ever have and simultaneously hitting the apex perfectly before drifting the bike wide to the other end of the track on exit. As we motor down the front straightaway, I’m able to make another pass this time by using the draft. I notice that the bikes further ahead were now pulling a gap which perhaps may be attributed to the fact that the classes I’m running give more leeway in terms of engine modifications and that I’m running a bone stock engine aside from the pipe.
Full tuck again, I pop my body up from the still-air cocoon afforded by the Zero Gravity raised Double Bubble Windscreen which is a absolute necessity for taller than average pilots. I’m on the front brakes—fast and hard before letting them go and dipping into Turn 1 again. By now I’m pretty much running by myself. I see some bikes ahead and initially it’s hard to determine if they are the leaders or simply other races from the 1st wave start before us. Turns out they’re lappers.
Into Turn 2 again I try to maintain decent speed but it is way more difficult when you don’t have a carrot in front of you. I try and remain focused hitting my mental reference points I had established earlier in practice. The only problem was I was lapping much faster than I had in practice so some of the points I had made were no longer applicable because of the extra speed I was carrying.
I was racing solo, or so I thought, passing the occasional lapper as I motored through Turn 8/9 again. Without being able to chase anyone I instantly reverted back to my kooky line through the last turn which no doubt cost me seconds. Yes, the line I take by myself is that messed up!
My speed decreases as the checkered flag draws closer. With only a lap to go some of the other riders I had passed earlier in the race had caught up and eventually passed me like I was standing still. I would go on to finish 8th in Formula 2 and 650 Superbike out of a field of 11 riders and dead last in the last race of the day, 600 Mod Prod. I was bummed because some of the guys I had passed initially before being re-passed late in the race finished as high as 4th so I know that if I could have run with them or even beat them if I just would have remained focused and manned-up through the faster sections of the track.
After competing in his first-ever WSMC race weekend, Waheed officially has been bitten by the road racing bug.
Nonetheless, at the end of the day I was pretty happy with how the weekend went. I got my lap time down to a 1:27—a new personal best. And the cool part was I did it easily without so much as a slide or any sketchy or uncomfortable maneuver. I picked up some more speedy lines courtesy of the faster riders I was following during my races and have a better appreciation for what it takes to be successful at racing. I was also educated on just how far racing tire technology has advanced due to the jaw-dropping performance of Pirelli’s Diablo Superbike slicks and how just a few modifications to your standard street bike can make it fit for racetrack duty. Most importantly, I’ve been bitten by the racing bug and can’t wait to return to WSMC with this ZX-6R just so I can do it all again.