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The 2002 Kawasaki ZX-9R in San Diego / March 2005

Street Riding Perspective - Opinion

By Kenny Kopecky, WSMC #27
(written in 2002 when WSMC #6  - WSMC #1 in 2006)

I recently received the May issue of Roadracing World, and was interested to see how the new open class sportbikes were reviewed by the magazine, and disappointed to find that a 2002 Kawasaki ZX-9R wasn’t available for the street portion of the test.

Having recently acquired a ZX-9R specifically for street use, on May 4th and 5th I completed a two day 886 mile round trip to the Sears Point National from my home base in Rosamond, CA and would be pleased to offer some newfound insight I have acquired on the bike.

Let me mention, this is specifically relating to street use...as a racer I have competed in Southern California for the last two years on a Yamaha YZF-R6 with good results, and this season have also been racing a 2000 model supersport spec Yamaha YZF-R1. I am not a ‘street bike tester’, being fully biased towards racetracks and going as fast as possible when I ride and race motorcycles.

Also, as a racer, I fully concur with the Roadracing World staff in choosing the Suzuki GSX-R1000 as the best open class bike (stock vs. stock) for racetrack use, as is seen regularly in competition at our local WSMC events, as well as around the country. I certainly would be surprised to see racers choosing any model other than the Suzuki or the Yamaha for serious competition. That said, the ZX-9R was my choice for a streetbike...I wanted a fast bike not as sharply focused towards the racetrack as the other open class bikes are.

Mr. McAllisters’ accompanying article on the open class suspension was quite insightful, and I’ll look forward to trying his recommendations but for purposes of a “stock” test I have been riding the bike with stock suspension settings and chassis set-up. In the 700-plus miles I had put on the bike prior to my overnight jaunt to the races nothing particularly bothered me about the suspension on the street...but heading north I found a few sections of Highway 101 where the seams and freeway expansion joints absolutely hammered me through the rear end. On a section of Highway 1 north of Pacifica I hit a few of the nasty pavement seams in turns while running about 75mph. I still received the jackhammer shot in the rear, but the front felt fine and more importantly to me the bike continued to track on course without hopping sideways or changing lines and running wide. After each section of bad pavement I would vow to soften the rear compression damping and/or back off the pre-load but would find 100 miles later I was pleased for most part with the ride.

My street riding style is extremely reserved compared to my racetrack riding, thus in my rides both locally in the Lake Hughes area (south of Antelope Valley in So. Cal.) and on Mt. Tamalpais (the highlight of my weekend ride) I have found the ZX-9R to be stable and composed, without any undue pitching of the chassis. On occasion I have actually tried to make the bike shake shimmy and wobble, and while not equipped with a steering damper the bike is as poised a machine I have ridden. I certainly could never ride on the public roads hard enough to determine if the chassis flexes, but maybe someday will put some of my Dunlop 208 race tire takeoffs on it and see what it’s like at my home track of Willow Springs.

The brakes have been fantastic...echoing the feeling of the Roadracing World track test crew. The rubber-covered footpegs do squirm around IF I put a lot of bodyweight into them during transitions, but I don’t ride that way on the street, for a streetbike I certainly do prefer them to the solid mount aluminum pegs on my racebikes. I had recalled reading that Roadracing World street tester Dr. Gaudino disliked them in the 2000 year model open bike test, and I now have a better understanding of why after riding on them. They do seem a bit too far forward for my taste...I found myself letting my legs hang behind them during a few extended sections of freeway droning for a good leg stretch. The saddle has been fine...my weekend riding stints ranged from a low of 82 miles to a high of 139 miles between fueling stops. My fuel consumption averaged just over 50 m.p.g. for the round trip from Rosamond to Sears Point and back, with a low of 47.5 and a high of 53.3 m.p.g. Most magazine tests I’ve seen list fuel mileage for this bike in the mid-30’s, so I surmise that must include all of their WFO track and dragstrip testing.

Reading the Roadracing World test the Kawasaki has been suggested to have the best wind-protection and highest bars...features which I like for the road. The bike still becomes more comfortable to me running above 90mph with the benefit of air pressure reducing the upper body weight onto the arms, but that speed remains impractical for long on the street! Prior to my Sears trip, I rode it a bit in a ‘racing tuck’ (without my tankbag used for the National) and I found the bike super comfy and stable with much better wind protection than my Yamaha racebikes do at extremely high speeds. I had also previously ridden it in Antelope Valley in heavy crosswinds (steady 35mph with gusts to around 50mph), and the bike was quite stable, though I found it amusing to ride in a straight line for so many miles with the bike leaning far into the wind!

As I left Rosamond at 3:00am on Saturday of race weekend and returned home 2:00am on the Monday after, I rode nearly half the trip in the dark. What a pleasure to find the Kawasaki ZX-9R headlight bright and a nice beam pattern on low setting, and with the highbeam vastly superior to my recollection of the last fast bike I rode at triple-digit speeds in the dark, a Team Pasta Marin GSX-R1100 Superbike at a Willow 24 Hour endurance race ten years ago. A great headlight! The turn signals were nice and bright, with all switches falling readily to hand. The old school analog speedometer sucks though...more than a few times I had to do a double-take trying to see if I was going 80 or 90 late at night. Too many tiny little numbers. Hey Kawasaki, it’s time to get the nice digital speedo like everyone else has. While I never used it for any reason in traffic, the horn sounds tiny. I want a horn that sounds big and loud, like an old Cadillac!

I’ve read in other tests of the ZX-9R regarding a lag or hesitation in the carburation...I spent the majority of my ride on Mt. Tamalpais (north of San Francisco) making the bike pull from 2000 to 3500rpm in 3rd and 4th gears up the hills and have yet to find any problem with it. Nailing the throttle in 6th gear at 5000rpm? Off it goes....triple-digit speeds show up just like that and again, no problem or lag in my experience. Apparently, that was more a problem on pre-2002 models.

So, it’s true this ZX-9R is heavier and slightly slower than the other open class bikes...if you ask me what I think of the thing I’ll tell you it absolutely rips considering it IS a street bike! Low 10’s in the quarter mile? Somewhere around 170mph top speed? Zero to sixty in under 3 seconds? All from a bone stock street bike?! Ya, I don’t mind having the slowest, heaviest of the 2002 open bikes as tested...it’s faster and more capable than most street riders are prepared for, and all of these bikes are good reasons to participate in a track day near you if you have that desire to hold the throttle open! The bike responds well for me on turn in and transitions, and while none of those open bikes handle like a Yamaha YZF-R6 I am quite pleased with the ZX-9R on the street. The ride on Mt. Tam featured many tight turns and yes, it’s big but felt comfortable and I had no problem turning it. A quick mention, for riders on the west coast who have never ridden Highway 1 and Mt. Tamalpais, check it out! I found it an absolutely fantastic ride and am glad I detoured off the shortest-most direct route home Sunday after the Superbike race, and I’ll gladly go the extra miles in the future to enjoy more of that area.

I can’t rate my transmission as “awful” as the racetrack testers found on the borrowed ZX-9R at Daytona...no missed shifts, false neutrals or popping out of gear for me, again this riding under typical street use (okay, perhaps leaning toward aggressive riding once in a while) but I have found occasional upshifts to be “notchy”. It’s not a slick shifting tranny. We’ll see if it gets better with more use and another oil change.

So “The Facts” in the May issue are that the ZX-9R is 23 pounds heavier than the new R1 and down 7 horses on that same bike. And, it’s 27 pounds up on the GSX-R and nearly 22 horsepower less? Wow. Looks to me like a street rider desiring the fastest Open bike has only one choice, and that seems to be unanimous amongst the professional motorcycle testers. And I’ve got to tell you, I think the 2002 Yamaha YZF-R1 is THE best looking bike of the bunch! Of course, the Honda has it’s attributes and fans.

And so I wonder, can I live with the fact I have so much less power than some guy at a stoplight on the GSX-R1000? Yup, I sure can. Am I worried that the Honda is lightest and some riders might try to carve up a mountain road faster than me on a ZX-9R? Nope, no worries. I’m not interested in trying to ‘out brave’ anyone on a public road. These days, I can appreciate being older and (hopefully) wiser, and getting to race competitively every month for so many years has given me the ability to relax and enjoy my rides on the street...the sights and pleasure of it all. And the ZX-9R provides me with more than enough speed, handling and totally crazy acceleration to entertain me. Oh, and noting the street section of the May issue, I can report the ZX-9R wheelies just fine. It IS more comfortable for me than the sharper focused open classers. It’s faster, better handling and with better brakes than any of the production bikes I raced in the eighties and early nineties. It makes for a nice, sporting, high speed ride to view the races, and gets great fuel mileage. The only real bother I’ve had with it is that harsh rear suspension, and even that is only on certain sections of pavement.

I’m looking forward to more fast and fun street rides on the ZX-9R! Laguna Seca in July is on the list of places to go, and I’ll be taking more detours to sample some fine roads throughout California soon. See you out there...

Note for reader: Kopecky is a 21-time Willow Springs club racing expert Class Champion with over 135 expert class roadrace wins and more than 450 top 3 race results, and started competing in roadracing in 1982. He’s ridden AMA Superbike Nationals and Endurance National Championship races, and been on the podium at both AMA and WERA National Championship roadrace events. He ran the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club program as "Operations Manager" from Jan. 1992 to Dec. 2003 and now lives with his wife and family in San Diego, CA. In 2005 he won over 40 races and the Overall Track Championship #1 title at Willow Springs International Raceway.

This Kawasaki street bike was traded away for a dirt bike in 2011. Kenny no longer rides on the street.

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