Ninjapalooza -

Tom Roderick
by Tom Roderick

The Pearl Stardust White EX650 and Passion Red ZX-10R stood out like fishing bobbers adrift on a Lime Green sea of corporate-branded Ninjas. However similar in color, the 20 or so Kawasaki sportbikes, representing the performance spectrum from 300cc to 1000cc, assembled in the Chuckwalla Raceway paddock, is an impressive sight, warming the heart of this chilled moto-journalist on a frigid January morning in the high desert.

Commonly, track shootouts pit motorcycles of generally equal performance against one another to determine a superior model if only by the slightest advantage. This Kawasaki sponsored event, however, provided an opportunity for riding models of disparate calibers in a consecutive sequence of my choosing. A half-hour session aboard the new-for-2013 Ninja 300 followed by a stint on the potent ZX-10R, sure, why not? Mix in some sessions with the reintroduced Ninja 636 and its more utilitarian counterpart, the Ninja 650, and the performance potpourri is complete.

Missing from the Ninja-fest is the Z1000 and ZX-14R. While the Z1000 would certainly be a fun bike on which to navigate Chuckwalla Raceway, the world’s fastest production bike is better suited for illegal top speed runs on the nearby Interstate 10.

To encourage steep lean angles and aggressive riding, Kawasaki shod the participating Ninjas with some stickier-than-stock Bridgestone rubber then ushered riders onto the track, in counter-clockwise fashion, which, as of now, is my preferred direction of travel at this particular venue.

While circulating the 17-turn, 2.7-mile-long track I was both the passer and passee. Oftentimes I was aboard the underpowered Ninja 300 or Ninja 650 going up the inside or around the outside of a lesser skilled rider piloting a more potent machine such as a 636 or even a 10R.

The Ninja 300 doesn’t look like a “beginner bike.” Maintaining high corner speeds is requisite to setting fast laps times on the littlest Ninja, and its 379-pound wet weight begs you to toss it into corners with abandon. Low stock footpegs hamper higher corner speeds but are easily replaced.

I’m not being smug, simply pointing out (even to my surprise) how effective a motorcycle unendowed with the latest technological go-fast doohickeys can be. Left knee on the deck, footpeg grinding against the asphalt, arching a tighter line through Chuckwalla’s long, sweeping Turn 5 and beneath the person riding higher up the corner’s 10 degrees of banking speaks more to capabilities of the Ninja 300 than it does my riding prowess.

The 2013 Ninja 650’s parallel Twin thumps out enough power to keep things interesting. Its open seating position allows for easy movement when transitioning from side to side. The higher, superbikesque handlebars are somewhat awkward but you get used to them.

When I was passed while aboard the 300 or 650 it was evident that cornering speeds between the pedestrian and supersport models are incredibly similar (a testament to the ability of quality tires to up your game). The more powerful bikes left the diminutive Ninjas inhaling exhaust fumes on corner exits but for a few brief seconds, at the corner’s apex, the 300 and 650 Ninjas were equal to their supersport superiors.

Whereas the 300’s throttle remains pinned 98% of each lap, the Ninja 650 outputs enough rear-wheel horsepower to require some throttle manipulation lest you spin the rear into oblivion getting on the gas too forcefully while at full lean. When this happened to me while cresting Turn 9 it reignited long-dormant riding tactics. Soon thereafter I was clicking off downshifts while hard on the brakes dumping the clutch and enjoying the resultant hopping and squirming of the 650’s rear end – common to hard riding a bike sans a slipper clutch.

As smooth as you like, the 636 Ninja enters and exits corners with poise and agility. The bike’s slipper clutch and traction control technologies reduce the effects of sloppy downshifting and excessive throttle application, allowing a rider to focus more on corner entry and exits points and cornering speed.

No such antics on the technologically advanced Ninja 636. While some lament the intrusion of rider aids it was never more apparent than when swapping the Ninja 650 for the 636, or especially the ZX-10R, that traction control, slipper clutches, ride modes and other technologies go a long way into sweetening the supersport experience.

With the performance of modern sportbikes outstripping the abilities of most riders, these electronic mechanisms allow motorcyclists to more safely explore, and sometimes go beyond, their personal limitations. Pushing the envelope on a bike as effortless as the ZX-6R is reasonably manageable, whereas a literbike is constantly provoking a rider to explore his or her subjective performance thresholds.

On a tight track like Chuckwalla, where the longest straight is a mere quarter of a mile, the Kawasaki ZX-10R is, to state the obvious, a challenge to control. Incredible speeds are realized in the short distances between corners demanding more braking and often inciting over-braking resulting in slower corner speeds. On fast tracks such as Willow Springs, literbikes get to stretch their legs and put their monstrous horsepower to work, but such wanton performance can overwhelm both rider skill and technological safeguards.

Compared to the other Ninjas at Chuckwalla the ZX-10R is mind-numblingly fast. It tears your arms out of their sockets accelerating out of a turn before nearly pitching you over the windscreen when slowing for the next rapidly approaching corner.

For testing my mettle, the 10R is certainly the measuring stick of choice among Ninjas. But the physically exhausting nature and mental depletion during such an activity can only be safely tolerated for short durations.

I found the rare experience of piloting the 300 and 650 Ninjas around a track to be enticingly fun and challenging without the fear the 10R injects into the situation. But, given a choice I prefer the performance a mid-displacement bike, such as the Ninja 636, has to offer.

The combination of fun and thrills are nicely balanced in the ZX-6R. If I were Goldilocks and where the Ninja 300 and 650 are too slow while the ZX-10R is too fast, the Ninja 636 would be just right.

What this all stands to confirm is the age-old expression that it’s better (funner?) to ride a slow bike fast than it is to ride a fast bike slow. You can also add to that the self satisfaction of passing a faster bike with a slower one – that’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight and winning.

Related Reading
2013 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R Review
2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300 Review
2013 Kawasaki ZX-6R vs. 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750 vs. 2012 Triumph Daytona 675R - Video
2012 Japanese Superbike Shootout - Video
2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Review: First Ride [Video]
2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R Review
2011 Supersport Shootout - Track [Video]

Tom Roderick
Tom Roderick

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