I confess. I don't have much experience racing ATVs. I've raced every weekend of my life on two wheels, but before this week, my four-wheel resume totaled two events. One was 20 years ago when I raced the Blackwater 100 on a Suzuki Quadracer 250 to prepare for the following day's motorcycle race. The other was an ITP QuadCross a few months ago.
Last week, Kawasaki invited me to do race number three. It would be the Glen Helen round of the WORCS series. Nice. That would make me well-rounded, with one GNCC, one WORCS and one MX. The point was to test the 2010 Kawasaki KXF450R in a race environment. The Kawasaki is a very unusual machine. It's billed as Kawasaki's flagship performance quad. In stock form, it's geared toward cross-country trail riding with EPA blessing, a quiet muffler and a narrow-ish track. Of course it's the same machine that Josh Creamer and the Monster Kawasaki race team use to race the MX Sports National MX series. For details on how that machine is modified for motocross, check out the dirtwheelsmag.com story from a few months ago by clicking here
. But the bottom line is that the race machine is wider and has a full race tune motor. I would get the KFX in stock trim aside from the required dead-man's switch (a Motion Pro item) and full DG nerf bars. I had concerns.
CONCERN NUMBER ONE: I've done enough stories on race quad to know that no one races one in EPA stock form. I didn't even know if it could climb Mt. St Helens in an 84 dB state of tune. And the narrow axle and A-arms are designed for trail, not track.
CONCERN NUMBER TWO: I had no idea what I was doing. I had never been around the track, I had never ridden the machine and I had no idea if I could hold on for a one-hour race.
CONCERN NUMBER THREE: I told Gary Jones what I was doing. "Great! I'll do the same race!" he said
"No, I don't think you can," I said, my panic probably showing. "It's an Industry race. Kawasaki won't have another KFX for you."
"I'll race a Honda. They'll let me in."
He was right; they always let him in. His main purpose, of course, was to make life difficult for me. But he didn't write that on the entry form.
My first concern was for nothing. The KFX turned out to be plenty fast in stock form. Gary rode our Honda TRX450R with a full race pipe and airbox modification and we drag raced side-by side off the line. He shifted much earlier than me and instantly bolted ahead. "I learned that a long time ago," said Gary later. "Quads will suddenly hook up if you make your first shift a little early, then you'll have a good drive all the way to the turn." He did. near the first turn a loud Suzuki passed me, but I was a solid third in a mixed field.
The next few turns were an education. The Kawasaki's power was not an issue. Mine was. The sheer strength required to muscle a quad around an unknown track at race speed amazed me. I had only a vague sense of where the track went, and I was going there at full speed. Gary had ridden another class, so I just followed him and the Suzuki while trying to learn the traits of the Kawasaki at the same time. I think I was holding on way too hard. My arms ached within a few turns. Even my thumb hurt from the throttle. The race had only been underway for a few minutes and I had gone completely anaerobic and was already exhausted. The only good news was that Gary Jones was in front of me and couldn't smash me in any way.
In the next half lap I resorted to plan B. That's where I slow down, figure out what I'm doing wrong and then to learn something. I'm really not in terrible shape, honest. I ride bicycles, like, a zillion miles a week and race motorcycles all the time, yet I was wrecked almost immediately. I had been concerned that the KFX would be too slow, but I was completely incapable of holding on. I must have been doing something wrong
I was. It turns out that the Kawasaki has pretty good suspension in stock form, but you can't blitz whoops and ride the main groove on a rough course like Glen Helen. It's all about the entry line in every turn. When you set up early and roll the throttle on, you don’t have to work so hard on the exit of the turn. The KFX does the work.
Another education came on the infamous Glen Helen bridge. This is a steel spectator bridge that crosses over two sections of the track. The course went up one set of stairs and down the other. But some of the lower, widened race quads didn't have the ground clearance that I did. So the first time I came to the bridge, the rider in front of me high-centered. I was so close behind him that he couldn't get a second try "You've got reverse," a course worker shouted at me. "Use it!"
Oh, yeah. The KFX does have reverse. It's the only Japanese race quad that does. I pressed the button, shifted down and what do you know? I went backward and the bottleneck cleared before it started. People who say that you don't need a reverse gear during a race have never ridden a very difficult race.
Without a doubt, the most difficult section of the course was the sand whoop section in the wash outside Glen Helen's main gate. It seemed like you should be able to lift the front then and slam through them. But as soon as I tried, the quad would aim itself toward one bank or another. Then I would have to stop, set down the front end long enough to re-aim the machine, then do it again. It wasn't a very fast technique. Near the end of the race, I thought I was doing it better, but several of the leading Pro Am class riders lapped me. They were doing long wheelies where their front wheels barely touched the top of each whoop, and somehow steering with their rear wheels. I never quite figured that technique out. That might take one or two more races over the next 20 years.
One of the great things about WORCS races is that you can see your lap times on line within a few days of the race. It gives you lots of time to sit back and launder the number until you have a completely fictitious version of what happened. My lap times, as it turned out, got better on every lap. On the last lap, I had the second fastest time in the class. That was the good news. The bad news was that I was still sixth and finished a good six minutes behind the leader. But I did learn a lot about the Kawasaki in ways that I would never learn by just going out and practicing. The importance of sheer power is over rated; a stock KFX is plenty fast enough to win the non-expert classes. Likewise, the benefits of wide axles and A-arms is over-rated. I had a distinct advantage when the track got rutted and I could hit smooth lines that wider machines couldn't fit through. The Kawasaki really is a race ready machine that just happens to be trail legal. That’s a combination that I didn’t know existed.