Fontana, California, August 20, 2002 --
When the dog bites. When the bee stings. When we're feeling sad. Etcetera etc. These are a few of our favorite things: Big ol' bikes--some bigger than others--with handlebars that don't make us assume the position, bikes that are happy under any circumstance, bikes that are nice to our tender little bottoms.
We love them dearly, but we gots ta know: Will we be embarrassed when it comes time for a track day?
Now that our friends at Fastrack (fastrackriders.com) have broken the code to Mr. Penske's lovely facility right down the road in Fontana, California, we're there more than we're home, seems like--a win/win for ourselves and our loved ones. And so we gathered together friends and motorcycles to see how things shake out.
What fun would it be, though, without something thrown in to make our attempt at scientific method, fairly unscientific?
We actually went to Fontana twice--one Friday using the big, AMA circuit--ie, the infield and part of the big superspeedway. Then, about a week later, we rode the smaller, tighter infield course. That's because, due to circumstances beyond our control, the Ducati couldn't make the first day. On day two, also due to circumstances within our control sort of but not really, a bunch of the other bikes couldn't make it due to it being a Monday and people having jobs and stuff--and us having but the one clapped-out van. The bike that did make it, to duke it out with the Ducati, was the Kawasaki ZRX, for the simple reason that our fastest tester (that would be me) went fastest on it on day one. Does this make any sense at all?
Dang, guess I already gave it away. The Kawasaki ZRX ain't exactly sophisticated, but the fact it's got 165cc more than the next biggest bike makes up for a lot of that; 80 foot-pounds of torque at under 7000 rpm overcomes the fact that the Kawasaki is the heaviest bike in the group too. Also, the big circuit is pretty dang smooth, which seems to de-penalize the big Kawasaki's old-fashioned steel tube frame/dual shock chassis. Not that it's not an exciting ride just the same.
Lively is a good word when speaking of the Kawasaki at speed. Too lively for many tastes, in fact.
The bars feel a tad light blazing down Fontana's long front straight at 150-whatever, but if you go limp and trust in Allah, nothing nasty ever comes of it. Down off the banking there's a tight left followed by a slow kink that leads into a big, fast left.
In it, I don't think Kawasaki's people did the bike any favors by fitting cheater D208GP Dunlops, as the bike gets into a big dirtbike clawing-for-traction mode while the rider attempts to keep the throttle wide open whilst sawing at the wide handlebar.
Stimulating if you're accustomed to that type of thing. Offputting if you've grown used to modern bikes. (Wes Cooley sometimes liked street tires on his old Yosh superbike, he told me, `cause they'd slide instead of tying up the chassis. Now I understand.)
Six-piston Tokico calipers have no trouble slowing the bike, even if their feel isn't the absolute best, and the long, low Kawasaki fully uses the grip of the D208s once in the corner, where it has more ground clearance than any other bike here. It's a big beast, but with excellent weight distribution; the rider sits up close to the not-too-wide bar, and that big crankshaft is low and close to the front wheel.
"Corner exits, though, are its stock in trade; hang on when the tach gets past about 4000."
Next quickest for yours truly would be the Yamaha FZ-1 --indeed my fastest low-1:47 lap on it is right there with the ZRX. We left the standard tires on all the other bikes--standard on the Yamaha being Bridgestone BT020s--but even with sport-touring rubber the limiting factor on the FZ was ground clearance: the series of fast lefts that dumps onto the long front straight is critical to a good time at Fontana, and every time I had a good one going, the FZ's left peg would dig in, bounce me off-line a tad, and there a tenth or five would go.
Aside from that, the FZ really does no wrong. If it doesn't have quite the Kawasaki's punch out of slow sections, it makes up for it with greater revvability and a slick six-speed gearbox (instead of the Kawasaki's five-speed). Its R1-style monoblock-caliper brakes are the finest in the field, and while the FZ's suspension is on the soft side for track work (hence the dragging problem), the bike never, ever feels uncomposed, decomposed, or even the least bit loose, in the Kawasaki way.
The Triumph Speed Triple is of course, a long-time favorite. As with nearly every Triumph we've ridden lately, the Speed Nipple's suspension engineers have performed an excellent job; this one's a tad firmer than the FZ-1, but just like the Yamaha, the Triple is absolutely stable and composed all the way around Fontana, and also equipped with powerful, modulable brakes that will get the front BT010 Bridgestone hopping and locking in Fontana's hardest-braking area; no worries, thanks to the wide handlebar. The Triumph steers light and quick but not too--just right, really--has good cornering clearance and, at 480 pounds wet, nearly ties the 919 for skinniest-chick honors.
The Triple feels like it has the widest, most easily deployed powerband, too. Why, given all that, did I go a bit slower on it? Don't know. Must be down to the fact that the engine is a mere 955cc, and while it feels torquey in the midrange, our Dynojet says it sort of isn't compared to the Kawasaki and FZ-1. Matter of fact, the Triple doesn't get past about the 60 foot-pound mark until past 7500 rpm, and if you've been riding fours all day it's easy to smack into the rev limiter shortly thereafter. So what if it's a second slower; the Triumph sends up such a cool howl, and has such a nice chassis it barely matters.
My times upon it were actually marching steadily downward when I, um, got tired and salty of eyeball and parked it. With fresher rubber, a loud-ass exhaust pipe and a little reprogramming, the Speed Triple might be the one.
Alas, the Honda 919 is a pleasant little animal but one which comes up short in our racetrack competition by dint of a measly 919cc engine cranking out a paltry 100 horsepower--not enough of either to hang with this crowd at Fontana. The 919 steers quicker and lighter than the other bikes (not a real advantage at Fontana but a big one in the Street Competition, to come when we get around to it). Also, the Honda is the only bike here which makes no provision for suspension adjustability. The fork is too soft or needs more compression damping or both; it's easy to get the front end plunging/chattering in Fontana's hardest braking zone in an almost alarming fashion, and sometimes quick transitions (if you're used to wrestling the Kawasaki especially) get the Honda into momentary spasms. Of all the streetbikes here assembled, the Honda is most suited to, how shall we say--being ridden at a streetbike pace. Less experienced pilots, riding at a more casual pace, like it fine (which is what we in the biz call "damning with faint praise").
I built myself a naked bike about six years ago--an `83 Suzuki GS1100 all hot-rodded out. The idea was simple brute performance, light, and not cluttered up with needless plastic bodywork.
I've put over 50,000 miles on, and still enjoy it a lot. The bikes we had at California Speedway are all conceived with the same idea I had in 1994. I guess I am partial to their ilk.
I think the 919 Honda is the most "user-friendly" of the bunch: small, light-feeling, comfortable. At street velocities it's near perfect. Very nice brakes! At the track however it's overly soft, lightly sprung suspension makes things hairy during side-to-side transitions, as well as having a lot of front-end dive during braking. It also seems least powerful.
The FZ1 Yamaha is also a great street bike, larger than the 919, so a better choice for traveling. The suspension is also smooth like the 919, but better damped. My issue at the track was ground clearance: The peg feelers hit the deck early and hard, not too scary but you just let them ride on the pavement and feel your foot folding up with the peg. Power was good if not really exciting, lots of torque. Suspension is soft but not overly so--but I didn't get much feel for the front end, so I lacked confidence in the bike's ability to turn under braking. The last two bikes are really quite different from each other, but I rate them very close in terms of fun and usefulness.
Kawasaki's ZRX1200 feels larger and heavier than the Triumph Speed Triple (`cause it is), but in use it's light and very strong. Initially the rear ride height was jacked up, causing the bars to wag at speeds over 130, thereby causing me to roll out of the throttle, which slowed my times considerably.
Scott Buckley of Kawasaki flipped the eccentric axle-adjuster around 180 degrees, lowering the rear--and the problem all but disappeared. I think I was hitting about 140 or so with just a little wag goin' on, so I didn't have to let off the gas. The quarter fairing "breaks wind" nicely, allowing a calm spot to tuck in behind.
The ground clearance was really amazing! I could lean it waaay over, (new D208ZR tires). It is very surprising how good a "Sport Bike" this is, yet you could go touring or city trolling, in great style I might add. This bike is the most similar to my own GS1100, so I like the styling the best--red or Green.
In most areas of subjective performance the Triumph Speed Triple shines above the others. It is the best "Sport Bike" of the group. It turns, stops, and accelerates with such a crisp feel that it really seems unfair to compare it with the Honda or Yamaha at the track. As a touring mount, its hard seat, lack of wind protection, and stiff suspension hurt it in a similar comparo. For city cruising the bike has attitude in spades. I know it does and so does everyone else including the cops, "Take my license please!" Can anybody ride this and not wheelie away from every stoplight?
The ultimate judgment--which would I spend my money on? I'm a sporty bike guy, I'm 50 years old. I confess I already bought a `99 Speed Trip, and I'd definitely buy another. The new one is mo betta! That said, a project ZRX would be great; there's an excellent owners' club complete with helpful website. Wait, I forgot I've still got that beautiful GS in my garage....
(WT is slightly Triumph-biased, as he happens to be Triumph's [and Aprilia's] west coast fleet service Person.)
(This was Will's first Fontana day; interesting he went best on the 919... And I think he was going faster than these times reflect but Calvin was too busy roosting himself in the afternoon to record every lap for everybody. We call this MO Fuzzy Logic.)