Background Story: The infamous Kawasaki launch

For those who were there, the Kawasaki launch of the ZX-6 and ZX-9 in Arizona back in 2000 was the stuff of legend. For those who were not, it’s a story long told in the bars and pubs of event junket hotels, always spoken of with awe and never written for posterity — until now.

Just to be clear, this sort of excess really doesn’t happen anymore. Manufacturers and corporations don’t give journos the leeway for this sort of abuse, and Canadian Kawasaki is as responsible a motorcycle maker as you get. Women, too, are now fairly represented and respected. But back then, well …

I was there representing the Toronto Star newspaper, with Scot Magnish of the Toronto Sun and CMG’s founding editor Rob Harris. And while all the details will be told here, with recent comments and corroboration from others involved, those are the only names that will be revealed. Nobody connected to this event at Canadian Kawasaki still works for Canadian Kawasaki. Everyone’s moved on now to other lives, but their hard-earned professional reputations need to remain intact.

Kawasaki sent all the participating journos a plaque after the event so they wouldn’t forget it. There was never a chance of that.

Kawasaki invited a dozen or so members of the Canadian motorcycle media to Phoenix, Arizona, in February 2000 to ride the new ZX-6R and ZX-9R sportbikes. They were magnificent machines for their time, really quick and nimble, and the bike maker booked a day at the local track to allow us to wind them up to the max. You can read Rob Harris’s account of the event here, and his review of the bikes here.

First, though, we had a day on the roads north of town, to experience the Ninjas on regular highways. I was fairly new at the bike-reviewing business and content to ride with a group of others, swapping around the motorcycles for photographs. We rode an hour out of town to Tortilla Flat for coffee, and then up into the national forest.

I don’t know who first gunned the throttle – to be honest, it might have been me – but it didn’t take long on the curving sweepers for speeds to build beyond the usual. Waaay beyond the usual – like, flat out. Perhaps it was several months of Canadian hibernation, or maybe it was the lure of the smooth, wide highway; most likely, it was sport bikes, young men and testosterone. Whatever the reason, we were soon riding with no regard for speed limits, none whatsoever.

Well, wouldn’t you want to speed up a bit?

We rode so fast that our fuel tanks drained much more quickly than anticipated, and by the time we blasted into Payson, Arizona, for lunch, we were all pretty much on fumes. All of us except the unfortunate Scot Magnish, who ran out of gas completely and coasted to an impotent halt beside the road. From where he was stranded, up on the edge of the hills, he could look out across the valley below and watch us in the distance, riding into town and parking outside the restaurant.

It must have been frustrating for Scot, but he knew he’d be rescued by the Kawasaki pace vehicle. It was a minivan in which two Kawasaki employees, keen riders themselves, were cruising slowly behind with spare gas and anything else that might be needed. They arrived eventually, put some gas in Scot’s tank and he powered the bike back to life and roared down into the valley.

He didn’t know our arrival had woken the sleepy, small town. Somebody saw us rip in and now the cops were ready beside the highway for the rest of the dirty bikers to arrive. That would be Scot, who was hungry, thirsty, and riding far too fast, so he could meet us before we finished eating his lunch.

Arizona State Troopers – may not be exactly as shown.

Scot rode through the speed trap pretty much pegged at 145 mph (233 km/h), which was more than twice the 65 mph speed limit. He pulled over right away and the cop strode up to him. As Scot remembers it, his first words were, “Son, I’ve been a state trooper for 20 years. I ain’t never caught anyone going that fast. This is going to hurt.”

The cop was older, exactly as you’d expect him to look in Arizona with mirrored shades and a Smokey Bear hat. His next line, says Scot, was: “When you’re going double the speed limit in the State of Arizona, you go to jail. You were almost three times the limit – so I ought’a shoot you right here. But seeing as how you pulled over and all, give me your licence, ownership and insurance.”

“I can also remember him asking me how much cash I had on me,” remembers Scot. “I had less than $20 Canadian and a bunch of Canadian Tire money – I have no idea why. He just said ‘Aw shit. Okay, wait here.’”

Scot Magnish was – and still is – a very smooth talker. It’s one of his talents. Somehow, he persuaded the cop that his job depended on him returning to Arizona every month and there was no way he was going to run out on the ticket. These days, you have to pay with a credit card in the cruiser beside the road, but back then, the cop let him go on a promise to pay. He showed us the $500 ticket at lunchtime and later, Kawasaki quietly paid it for him. That also doesn’t happen these days.

We got back late after riding more slowly through the desert – we were itching to speed up, but the older, more responsible Cycle Canada journalist was riding at the front and saw something glitter far in the distance. The trooper was hiding behind a billboard, just like the movies, and we rode past below the speed limit, probably in second gear.

The next day, we went to the Firebird Raceway to test the limits of the bikes without breaking any laws. The Kawasaki people seemed concerned – it was the PR team’s first major press event together – and they kept huddling to compare notes. But nobody crashed, all went well and we got back to the hotel on time. Dinner at a barbeque restaurant was rowdy and filled with alcohol, as you’d expect after a day at speed, but it was over far too early. At 8 o’clock, we were back at the hotel and there was no plan for the rest of the evening.

There are many potential distractions on a press launch.

It was Rob Harris who first suggested the strip joint around the corner. We all shrugged. Somebody else suggested somewhere more respectable and we all hummed and hah’d, but when it came to a vote, we chose the strip joint. We were all men, away from home and already half-hammered – except for the two young Kawasaki PR women.

I remember sitting at a table near the stage as the strippers gyrated around the poles. The Kawasaki Marketing Manager was clear that he would cover the cost of our drinks but no more, so the TV show cameraman ended up paying for his own lap dances in the corner. Even so, the two young PR women sat at a separate table in the back, dutifully creasing and folding dollar bills to give us, to stuff in the strippers’ g-strings as tips.

Arizona state stripper – also may not be exactly as shown.

Both women left Kawasaki within a few months of this event. One left the industry completely and the other went to work for another motorcycle maker. I met her at a bike show later in the year and apologized to her for that ordeal. She closed her eyes. “I’ve managed not to think about it,” she said. “That was the lowest moment of my career.”

Unbeknown to us, the event’s official photographer was having problems of his own. A previous eye injury was aggravated by the dry and dusty desert air, and it was painful for him to see by the end of the event.  After the dinner, he needed to drive to the lab to pick up the slides from the day to be edited overnight, so we could take them home with us in the morning. His eyes were burning and driving should have been out of the question, but nobody else was sober enough to drive – including his assistant, who was shitfaced.

“Left here, now right – NO, THE OTHER RIGHT! BRAKE! BRAKE! Okay, now left again and… BRAKE!”

Even so, the two of them got into the car and drove over to the lab. He sat behind the wheel, sober but barely able to see, and was directed through Phoenix by the hammered passenger, who told him when to turn left and right and brake through the city streets. Somehow, they found the slides, and somehow, they got back to the hotel and worked through the night to deliver the photos and nobody was any the wiser.

The next morning, we woke up, had breakfast and left early for the airport, but the event wasn’t over yet for Kawasaki. Not by a long shot. The two guys who’d been stuck driving the minivan begged the Marketing Manager to let them take a couple of bikes out for a quick ride. Okay, said the MM, as long as you’re back in time to load them on the truck by 9 AM for the drive home to Toronto.

They fired a pair of bikes up at dawn and headed up to Tortilla Flat. The older of the two was more experienced and an amateur racer, and he gave some tips to the younger guy as they rode. Along the way, they saw a police cruiser and gave the trooper a friendly wave, and after the cruiser passed, their speeds picked up. And up. And up.

The more common penalty for speeders in the Arizona desert.

They didn’t know the trooper had misinterpreted the wave as an insult, and they didn’t know he knew a short-cut to Tortilla Flat. Coming over a shallow rise at two-and-a-half times the speed limit of 40 mph, the trooper was waiting and blocked the road.

“After I was stopped, he asked us if we ‘knew the laws in this here state,’ and I said no,” recalls the older Kawi guy. “I was standing next to his cruiser, and he asked if I had anything in my pockets, and I said no, just my wallet. And when I reached behind me to pull out my wallet, that’s when he grabbed my wrist and put me in cuffs.”

“The cop started out really mean,” remembers the younger Kawi guy, who’s not that young anymore. “He got nice after we started talking to him more, and he found out we were actually Canadians working for Kawasaki. He couldn’t undo the fact that he already had one of us in cuffs, however. I can’t remember the bail, but my fine was $100.”

The bike was impounded and the older Kawasaki employee was hauled off to the station. The younger guy was released so he could raise bail. “The cop knew all about Scot’s ticket already – news travelled fast,” remembers the arrested Kawi guy. “He’d been pretty aggressive beside the road, but softened once I was in the cruiser. At the station, all the drunks were in the cells, so he let me sit in his office.”

He was lucky: he didn’t have to return to the hotel and ask the Marketing Manager for the bail money and pound fees.

While it was waiting for the tow truck to take it to the police pound, the Kawasaki Ninja would have looked something like this.

“When I got the news about a Kawasaki employee potentially embarrassing the company and becoming a bigger story than the bikes, I was not a happy man,” recalls the MM with some understatement. “I wanted to send him back to Canada right away and keep the story under wraps. My upset and anger showed, I am sure.”

What he’s saying is that he blew a gasket, which is a polite and non-scatological description of his reaction. He paid the bail and fees and then blew another gasket once his employee was freed and back at the hotel.

“He’s a lovable character and in reality he was not doing anything different from what I might have done – but he got caught. I overreacted and was not happy, for sure. However, everybody took it in stride and the story really came out slower and softer than I thought. It was not an issue for Canadian Kawasaki and the press and experience made the event a success.”

The MM also left the company soon after for a position with a much more sedate four-wheeled manufacturer.

And that’s the story of the infamous Kawasaki launch, finally fact-checked, told in full and recorded for posterity. In the end, we all came out of it intact and with a great conversation piece. And if anyone prospered from it, it was the young Kawasaki employee when the story of the arrest started to get out.

“I pleaded with the journalists to not publish in fear of losing my job at Kawasaki – I was terrified Japanese management would not be as sympathetic,” he says, but such gossip could not be suppressed. And in the end, that was okay.

“The Japanese guys either didn’t notice or care, but I got some street cred in the industry which was cool. I was a brand-new sport-bike rider. Good times!”


  1. Classic story, fantastic. I am from Calgary and got stopped in a Montana park this past summer and yes the cop took immediate payment from my credit card. Now in BC they can impound your bike at just 40 over the limit!! And that is in kilometers/hour. Pick your spots for sure. Not like it used to be. Cam

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