Kawasaki Zero to Hero Challenge

Troy Siahaan
by Troy Siahaan

In Kawasaki’s Zero to Hero Challenge, Team Green invited anyone and everyone to enter to win an all-new ZX-14R. But winning the bike wouldn’t be that easy, as they’d have to beat nine-time AMA drag racing champion Rickey Gadson for it. To sweeten the pot, the entire experience would be captured on film by SPEED TV. Thousands entered, but there was only one winner. And a rather surprising winner at that.

To enter, contestants had to submit a short essay about why they deserved a chance to faceoff against Gadson to win a 14R. Of the “many thousands” of entries, Kawasaki internally picked eight semi-finalists, chosen with the help of Gadson. Those eight essays were posted on Kawasaki’s website and the public voted for the top-four finalists.

Of the many who entered, Robert Parker (far left), Shawn Ellison, Angie Young and Jim Markham were chosen to do battle with drag racing legend, Rickey Gadson (center).

The top four vote getters – Robert Parker, Shawn Ellison, Jim Markham, and Angie Young – came from all over the country with one common goal: to beat Rickey and take home a new ZX-14R. In addition, LaDon Hall, who received the fifth-most amount of votes, was chosen as the Alternate Rider in case someone couldn’t participate for whatever reason.


The premise is simple: all five contestants would be flown to Las Vegas and take part in the Rickey Gadson Drag Racing School where Gadson would personally teach each student everything he knows about going down the quarter mile as quickly as possible. The school bikes, naturally, were 2012 ZX-14Rs, specially equipped with several items from the Brock’s Performance catalog, including a lowered suspension, clutch kit, exhaust and Dynojet Power Commander V. Further improving their launches is a swingarm extension kit from Roaring Toyz.

This dyno chart, provided directly by Brock Davidson himself, shows how well even the ZX-14R meters fuel. With an exhaust, Power Commander, proper mapping and a few other tricks, Davidson is able to get 216 horsepower from an otherwise stock 14R! He predicts the Rickey Gadson school bikes the contestants rode make around 214 horses. All this on 89 octane fuel, too.

At the school’s conclusion, all five riders would have to qualify for their NHRA licenses by posting a sub-10-second quarter-mile pass in front of an NHRA official.

The contestants wouldn’t be thrown to the wolves and forced to fend for themselves. Each person took part in the Rickey Gadson Drag Racing School and learned from the school’s namesake.

With licenses in hand, the competition begins. Based on qualifying times, there would be two semi-final rounds, with the winners of each facing off in the final. The winner of the final would then race Gadson for ultimate glory and a new ZX-14R. To help level the playing field, each round contestants had to agree on whether they want to bracket race or go “straight up” against their opponent.

We all know how the latter works: winner takes all, but in bracket racing, each rider tries to match elapsed quarter-mile times set for them (known as the “dial”) based on what they had done in practice rounds earlier – without going faster or jumping the start, otherwise known as “red lighting.” Whoever gets closest to their dial without going faster is the winner, even if they cross the finish line behind their competitor.

Gadson’s lessons weren’t confined to the classroom. Here, he’s showing the students what to look for in a lane.

The Challengers

An amateur drag racer when he’s not installing heating and A/C units, Robert Parker, 28, began to distinguish himself as the head of the class. He’d never raced anything bigger than his 2003 ZX-6R, but a best run of 9.48 seconds at 142 mph on his 636cc machine gave notice to his intentions on the 14R.

“Look out for Robert (Parker),” Gadson said. “That’s a name you’ll be hearing more of in the future. The kid’s good.”

Parker’s dream, however, is to quit HVAC work and make drag racing his full-time job. “Winning that ZX-14 would give me a bike big enough [in displacement] to leave the 600 and go pro,” he says.

With a long history in drag racing, Shawn Ellison calmly waits for his turn to make a run.

Shawn Ellison, 42, has a long history in drag racing, both on two and four wheels. Motorcycles have been a part of his life since age 12, and amateur drag racing followed not long after. His switch to four wheels brought moderate success, including a Pro Street championship in 1999.

But the urge to hop back on a bike was too much, and the Zero to Hero Challenge was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. “I’ve always longed to race professionally but have never been able to afford to pursue it,” Ellison says. “There is nothing that would thrill me more than being trained by the master, Rickey Gadson, himself.”

Jim Markham, 34, is a U.S. Army Major at Fort Huachuca. With 11 years riding experience, he mentors other soldiers and other riders in proper riding skills and the importance of wearing the right gear. “Something I always stress is that riders need to get the gear, wear the gear and get as much rider training as possible,” he said.

Jim Markham knows how to stay cool under fire. If he was nervous during this contest, those glasses helped to hide it.
Of the contestants, Markham is in a unique position as his background lies mostly in road racing. A newly licensed racer in the southwest CCS region, his 2002 Honda VTR1000 has seen double duty, both as a road racer and part-time drag bike. Markham’s best time on it so far is a 11.57 second pass at 118 mph. He hopes this experience will transfer over to the road course.

Angie Young, 40, better known as “Ms. Slick-Wicked,” is a mother of three whose essay received the most votes in this contest. Motorcycle painter by day and drag racer by night, Young got her nickname from an automotive finish she paints that looks and feels like real snake skin.

“Wherever I went, people thought it looked slick and wicked. The name stuck with me after that,” she says. A motorcyclist all her life, Young caught the drag-racing bug through customers taking her to the strip. Two years ago, she decided to give it a try on her Suzuki GSX-R1000. “After that, I was hooked,” she said.

If you have a need for a snake skin paint job for your motorcycle, Angie Young, or Ms. Slick-Wicked, is the person to talk to.

The Alternate, LaDon Hall, 33, was brought up in a drag racing family. His father raced a Kawasaki Z1 and Team Green has been the brand of choice ever since. As motivation to continue his education, the elder Hall presented his son with a deal.

As the Alternate rider, LaDon Hall got to participate in all the activities, but ultimately wouldn’t get a shot at racing Gadson for a new ZX-14R.

“He said if I completed my MBA, he would build me a dragbike to compete against Gadson in the ProStar Drag Series,” LaDon says. That was all the motivation needed. In 2009 he earned his MBA and his father built a bike. Unfortunately, the series folded, leaving the Halls with a new bike and nowhere to ride. Hall was sentimental when saying “The Zero to Hero Challenge will give me the chance I missed to finally race Rickey.”

Higher Stakes

During the practice sessions, all five students were taking Gadson’s lessons to heart. Each progressed at their own rate and steadily worked their way forward. Gadson covered everything from burnouts and staging to timing the lights and getting the perfect launch.

Receiving the full-factory treatment was a new experience for the contestants, one not taken lightly.

While the atmosphere was fun and lighthearted, each contestant knew what was at stake. When the practice sessions ended and qualifying for NHRA licenses began, tension was building. All four men were safely underneath the 10-second ET barrier, but Young was struggling.

With each of Young’s attempts to break the 10-second barrier, Gadson was by her side giving her words of advice.

Her times were in the mid 10-second area and she was getting nervous. Eventually, however, she clocked a 10.10-second pass. This gave her hope. She was determined to break into the 9s.

She failed time after time. As the clock struck the track’s 10-pm curfew, the elusive nine-second run had still escaped her. The track agreed to give Young one last attempt at her goal.

With all the pressure on her shoulders, she lined up one last time. She stumbled slightly at the launch but didn’t give up. Nine seconds and 91 milliseconds later, Young crossed the line. “I wanted it. Bad,” Young said describing her pass. “After I bogged the start, I just kept it pinned and hoped for the best.”

Raw emotion after Young earned her NHRA license on her last attempt. Her participation in the event was under serious threat until this point.

The Showdown Begins

Based on qualifying times, the two semi-finals would pit Parker against Young and Markham against Ellison. All four competitors agreed on a bracket race format. Parker was considered a strong favorite to win the entire contest, especially considering his blistering 8.94-second pass at 155.67 mph during NHRA qualifying.

As the odds-on favorite to win the contest, Parker let his nerves get the best of him as he left the line too soon.

As he and Young staged, everybody expected Parker to take an easy victory. But as the lights changed from yellow to green, Parker left too soon, red-lighting and handing the victory to Young. “I got too anxious and tried to get a good light,” Parker said. Meanwhile, Young was shocked she beat the odds-on favorite. “I can’t believe it. I just focused on my lane and made sure I didn’t red light,” she said.

A similar fate occurred in the next heat, as Markham and Ellison took their places. What looked to be a fairly even race on paper turned into an easy victory for Markham as Ellison, too, jumped the start.

In the final, both Jim and Angie dialed times neither seemed worried about hitting. As the lights went out, Jim reacted with one of his best launches, surprising even himself. At the 1000-foot mark, he looked over to the other lane, saw empty track and “knew I was going too fast,” he said. “So I let off.”

Jim Markham prepares to light up the rear tire for his final pass.

It didn’t work. Despite getting a clean start and shutting down well before the finish, Markham lost the race by clocking a quicker time than his dial. So the underdog, Ms. Slick-Wicked, was on her way to face Rickey Gadson in the final event.

“I’ve got a secret weapon!” Gadson yelled as his machine was wheeled in under wraps. Under the covers, however, was a stock ZX-14R. The only changes from the factory were a lowered suspension and a clutch mod courtesy of Brock’s Performance items. He’d race with a stock exhaust, no swingarm extensions and no air shifter. Each agreed on a best-of-three format, giving Young every opportunity to take home a new Kawasaki.

On their first run, Gadson reminded everyone why he’s a nine-time champ by laying down a quick run, but more importantly, clocking a .06-second reaction time. Rickey was too aggressive with his second launch, resulting in a quarter-mile wheelie and a victory for Young. With it all to play for, the third run saw Young bog the start, ending her chances for victory, as Gadson pulled away and easily met his dial time.

With it all to play for, Gadson and Young line up for a best-of-three showdown.

Saving the Best for Last

It would be cruel for Kawasaki to have these four finalists come this far and still not give away a ZX-14R (not to mention bad TV), so there was a surprise in store. After some deliberation, Gadson, with help from a few folks from Team Green, awarded the new 14R to Young for her Most Valuable Hero status. Not only did she eliminate all her rivals on the way to the Gadson shootout, she also demonstrated the greatest amount of improvement during the event.

After hearing the news that she won the ZX-14R, Young was clearly elated.

Making the prize extra special, Brock Davidson, owner of Brock’s Performance, is donating all the parts needed to convert the stock 14R into the same machine used during the challenge.

So, what does Young plan on doing with her new toy? “I’m taking it straight to the dragstrip when I get home!” she exclaimed.

Gadson, too, couldn’t be happier with the outcome. “I’m impressed and happy with everybody – they really worked their butts off,” Gadson said. “But I’m really happy for Ms. Slick-Wicked. I worked with her a lot and believed in her even when she didn’t believe in herself. For her to win the bike is a great underdog story.”

Beating out all the boys, Angie Young stands proud with her new prized possession. If you’re anywhere near South Carolina, look out for it.

You’ll be able to see the Zero to Hero Challenge later this summer on SPEED TV. Air time hasn’t yet been confirmed, but we’re told we’ll see a series of two-minute shorts in August that will run in chronological order over multiple days.

Related Reading
2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R Review – Video
2008 Kawasaki ZX-14R: First Ride
2008 Hayabusa vs. ZX-14R Shootout
2006 Kawasaki ZX-14 vs. Suzuki Hayabusa Shootout
2006 Kawasaki ZX-14 Model Introduction

Troy Siahaan
Troy Siahaan

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