Sixteen years later and bike journos are still whispering stories in bars and pubs about the infamous launch of the Kawasaki ZX-6 and ZX-9 Ninjas in Arizona. I was there, Rob Harris was there, and others who will remain nameless.
For 20 Years of CMG, this is the story of that event as it was written by Editor ‘Arris and published back in February, 2000. It’s entertaining and it teases the reader with suggestions of nefarious activity, but it doesn’t tell the full tale: the arrests, the huge speeding tickets, the illicit sex…
That story’s told for the first time in a different post — click here to find out what really happened — but for now, enjoy ‘ Arris’ story and read between the lines. -Ed.
We stumbled out of the Phoenix airport in brilliant sunshine and plus temperatures. The Kawasaki people greeted us and whisked us away to our hotel … then to lunch, then back to the hotel, and then to dinner. The Kawasaki termed ‘Operation Phoenix’ was meant to introduce the totally revamped ZX-6/9R to the Canadian press, but the first day was proving more of an introduction to Mr. Coronary and Mrs. Fat Bastard. Stuffed, tired and with the vicious rumour of a 7am start the next day, I rolled into bed.
At an ungodly 6:15 am, I awoke and made my way down to where the bikes were warming up for the day’s road ride ahead of us. Not far out of Phoenix are the Mazatzal Mountains, in which lay our first destination, the ‘town’ (well, all of six residents) of Tortilla Flat and the oh-so twisty Apache Trail.
It’s the kind of road that omitted to include any straight stretches — one sharp turn leading quickly into the next, with no barriers to prevent any minor miscalculation from developing into a free fall into the canyons below.
Yet more food was to be consumed at the town’s restaurant, after which we turned tail to link up with the Beeline Highway and its gentler sweepers and long lurid sections of four-laned speed traps. There’s something irresistible about being on a 900cc sport bike on a perfect day and an open highway. Even more so when the rider in front (Jamie Dick from Canadian Biker) had just opened her up and was soon to be out of sight. The challenge had been laid and I responded by opening up the ZX-9R and quickly working my way up the gears. Jamie seemed like a good speed-trap decoy, so I left a mile or two between us to allow for rapid slowdown should some blue and red twirly lights show up ahead.
Here I was pleasantly surprised by the Nine’s ability as a highway bike. It’s not as radical as, say, something like an R1, maybe closer to Honda’s new Blade, with plenty of room to slide yer arse back, splay yer arms over yer legs and tuck in behind the screen. The fairing doesn’t demand contortions or a severe backward bend in the neck in order to see clearly, and leaves you in a pose that you could probably keep for hours, or until you find yourself in jail, whichever comes first.
Talking of which, by the time we had stopped and consumed lunch, one of our party had yet to arrive. Scot ‘Roadrunner’ Magnish had managed to get speed-trapped by a local Coyote Cop a few miles short of our lunch stop, just managing to sweet talk his way out of a tour of the local jail by promising profusely that he would indeed pay the $400 US fine. The cop was apparently in a good mood, Scot having made his personal best ticket of his career with a paltry 144 mph.
In all fairness having a ZX9R wound open in top meant that at least two or three of us had been in that speed zone on that very same stretch of highway just minutes before. Scot was just the unfortunate one who got caught in the tractor beam of the local coffers.
The return trip entailed a repeat, and slower, cruise back along the Beeline with frequent stops to conduct interviews and shoot some riding footage for the Motorcycle Rider TV show. It was at one of these stops that I noticed just how dirty the desert is along the highway. Arizonans don’t seem too concerned about ‘leaving just their footprints’, opting to leave their beer cans and plastic bags instead. While doing an interview, a truck pulled off the highway near us, loaded up with an old sofa. It disappeared into the desert, only to reappear five minutes later sans sofa. Shame. Having said that, they do seem like an exceedingly friendly bunch. The local biker types cruising by (sans helmets), almost always took the time to initiate a friendly wave to their multicoloured, helmeted sport-biking brethren, something that most of Canada sadly lacks.
To keep in the established spirit of the trip to date, the day was rounded off with yet more food and another earlyish night, in preparation for the following day at the track.
Said track (the Firebird Raceway) happened to be a drag strip, the end being connected back to the start by a very squiggly section, with just a few too many concrete walls nestling up to the edge of the course. At the end of the straight was an additional loop, which was added and then barriered off throughout the day, depending on whether the local car school was using it or not. To say that this track is a tad unnerving is akin to saying that Mr. Magnish was caught doing a tad over the limit.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of using a track to test a new bike. But then press launches give you very little time to really get to know a bike anyway, especially in a very intensive two days. However, the format of a day on the road followed by a day on the track was proving a good combo that would put even McDonalds to shame (actually eating gravel at the side of the road would put McDonalds to shame, but then millions of customers can’t be wrong, can they?).
The first two sessions were cautious learning curves, the unforgiving track demanding the full attention of the rider, who coincidentally was riding like a Big Girls Blouse to boot – and a flowery one at that.
The third session saw me on a ZX-6R, and was proving to be a real blast. Having just come off the ZX-9R (not in the crash sense of the phrase) in the previous sesh, the extra flickability of the 6 (a whole 14 kg lighter) showed itself, making the left, right, left, right, left, right, left of the chicane a pleasure. The 9 is not exactly lardy at 183 kg (although the R1 comes in at 175 kg and the new Blade at 170.4 kg – claimed), but its extra mass is sufficient to take away some of the flickability factor enjoyed by the 6.
More food was consumed, and after lunch I took to the track on the 9. A full gut left me riding like a BGB again, braking way too early at the end of the straight and actually totally screwing up my line through the chicane section. Severely cutting one of the corners, I found myself fixated on the nasty looking bump on the inside. Of course, this meant that I hit it, sending me ricocheting off towards the inside bump of the next corner. A big handful of front brake allowed me to stop before completing my farcical bump-to-bump crash, leaving me entering the subsequent corner at an embarrassing 25 km/h.
An hour passed before I was let out again, this time on the increasingly attractive ZX-6R. The first lap was a reacquaintance of the desired lines, the second an examination of the 6’s power spread, as I opened it wide at the start of the straight and let the revs free-climb. The power curve was exceedingly smooth and linear for a 600. I normally find that the 6s lay down their power in steps, with relatively flat sections being followed by sudden surges, this occurring several times on the way to redline. However, the ZX-6R’s power kicked in pretty low down and shot smoothly up all the way to its 14,500 rpm red line. There was a bit of a last surge at the top end, but otherwise a very usable spread indeed.
Short shifting up the box, I thought it might be interesting to see what top speed I could get it to before a hard white-knuckled brake at the end of the straight. Unfortunately I can’t remember the result, my attention being diverted as I approached the bridge that signified that it was time to brake. The problem being that the bridge was only time to brake if you were doing the extended loop bit of the track. Sadly, this session did not include the loop — instead some big barriers lay straight ahead and the required left-hander was now just an impossible fantasy.
I squeezed the front brake as hard as I dared and pushed tensely on the rear. The back end began to slide and the front end chatter as the front wheel would intermittently lock and release. I let off the rear completely and focused on not locking up the front. The bike came to a stop with meters to spare, allowing me to rejoin the track sheepishly but now completely andrenalized. Thank you Kawasaki for the twin six-pot front stoppers!
Needless to say, speed/power testing, and indeed all testing was over for the day, realizing that it’s better to end the day as a BGB than a DOA.
The evening proved somewhat interesting itself, but space and relevance do not allow for details – and besides, Mark Richardson made me do it. Oh the silicone-implanted humanity of it all.
And so wrapped up an interesting few days in the Arizona desert, and the end of Operation Phoenix. For details and thoughts on how the bikes performed, don’t forget to tune in next week for part two …. yeah, bet you didn’t see that one coming. What a lazy bastard that Harris is. Can’t be bothered to write it all out now. What’s he do all day anyhow? Lazy, good for nothing …