2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the venerable Kawasaki Ninja, a name and a bike synonymous with performance. The early 1980’s was a time of discovery for motorcycle manufacturers. They learned:
- that ever-increasing displacement and cylinder multiplication had limits
- how to make water cooled engines cost effective and compact
- the value of production bikes with aerodynamic bodywork.
For Kawasaki, these lessons all came to fruition in the Ninja. It is impossible to convey in such a short article what the Ninja did to the motorcycle scene. Well, Peter Egan could probably do it, but you’re stuck with me. Maybe by analogy, you can understand. The Ninja did to motorcycles what:
- Star Wars did to Sci-Fi
- jet engines did to fighter planes
- CD’s did to music recording
They did not invent their respective categories, but so radically advanced them that all previous ways of doing things were suddenly antiquated.
Regular readers know that this column is given as much to storytelling as it is to reporting and, as luck (?) would have it, I have a Ninja story from 1984.
As a college student in Columbus, Ohio, I entered my Kawasaki 550-4 in a “run what you brung” drag race at National Trails Raceway. We were to make two timed passes to establish our dial in times. On the first pass, my only concern was to not be paired up against that brand new Kawasaki Ninja I spotted in the other lane, but that’s exactly what happened. Beating that bike was a pipe dream, but I thought if I could beat it through two gears, it would dampen the humiliation. At the line, I had the little motor revved to the ideal launch rpm and feathered the clutch just the way I’d practiced. The little bike launched hard and carried the front wheel just an inch or so off the ground. Redline 9500 rpm, shift to 2nd, feather the clutch, full throttle, and again the front tire was just barely airborne. No Ninja to be seen. Moral victory. Redline, powershift to 3rd, no Ninja. Redline, power shift to 4th, no Ninja. Now I want to win outright. Redline, power shift to 5th, the finish line is 200 feet away, victory in sight. Zoom! The Ninja flew past so quickly that I wondered if he’d be able to stop in time. Deflated.
When I returned to the staging area for the second timed run, the referee came over, laughing. He said the Ninja rider had launched his bike probably at redline and just dumped the clutch. It instantly broke the rear tire loose and fish tailed so wildly the guy almost dropped it. Then he pulled in the clutch, regrouped and tried to launch again. This time, he went into a giant wheelie and almost looped it over. Pulled in the clutch again, got it straightened out, and whacked the throttle. By then, the referee said, I was already at half track and everyone began cheering for me to win. When the win light illuminated in his lane, they all booed. But it turned out to be a victory after all, for he had crossed over the center line and thus disqualified himself. The humble but willing 550 had vanquished a Ninja on an NHRA certified drag strip.
Moral of the story: The Ninja (in motorcycle terms) is a serious weapon, able to be wielded by only the most experienced. If a novice attempts it, he only imperils himself. This is the Way of the Ninja. It was true in 1984 and remains true to this day.
Until next time, stay tuned, upright and in your lane,