When Kawasaki Came to Town
races remembered: 1992 daytona 250 grand prix
by Dean Adams

thanks, kawasaki

Although you wouldn't know it by watching a 250 race now, Kawasaki was once a huge power-house in 250 racing in America and abroad. Future four-time world champion Eddie Lawson won the AMA 250 Grand Prix championship in both 1980 and 1981 on the Kawasaki KR250, a bike tuned for most of that period by Steve Johnson. In international Grand Prix, Kawasaki won five world 250 titles in succession between 1978-1981 with riders Kork Ballington and Tony Mang riding the green works bikes.

Not any more. Now the AMA and international Grand Prix classes are dominated by Aprilia, Honda and Yamaha. Kawasaki dropped out of Grand Prix in the early 1980s after plenty of 250/350 world championships and has not been back, preferring to concentrate on Superbike and Supersport.

KHI (Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Kawasaki's Japanese parent company) seemed to be thinking of a two-stroke return at one point, and built a modern KR250 and raced it at Daytona in 1992, but the bike was never seen again after that.

What beget what? In the early 1970s Kawasaki used a roadrace version of their 350 F5 enduro bike as a 250, a machine known the world over as the Bighorn (in its knobbie tire form) fitted with slicks, big brakes, and a fairing. Yvon DuHamel and others raced this bike. Prior to that, Kawasaki used the thin and spindly A1-R twin to combat the Yamaha TD1s and other early two-stroke 250cc production racers.

thanks, rob muzzy
In 1975, Kawasaki introduced the first KR250 race bike, which featured an in-line twin cylinder engine, with twin cranks that counter-rotated. After vibrating everything--seemingly including the fingerprints off the rider's hands--with this engine configuration, Kawasaki then built the second version of the KR250 as a Twingle (both pistons rose and fell together) and with this machine they had great 250cc success. This version of the KR250 is the one Kork Ballington and Mang won world championships on, and Mick Grant, Mike Baldwin, Gregg Hansford and Eddie Lawson rode as well.

The latter KR250s were known for their novel technical advances: the eighties bike had belt final drive, a single rear shock on one side of the swingarm, some had steel rotary valves, some fiberglass. There was even a special Daytona-only seven speed gearbox to fight the wind on one side of the banking and get a few more hundred rpm with the wind at its back on the other side. Gregg Hansford (78) and Lawson (80-81) both won Daytona on KR250s. Anton 'Tony' Mang tried several times to win it for Kawasaki, but never saw the checkers first until he swapped to Honda in 1986.

thanks, kr-guyKawasaki built and sold hoards of KR250 streetbikes for the home market and in Canada. Great Britan and Europe. They were powered by a peppy Twin engine and are known now for their rarity.

Kawasaki abandoned Grand Prix racing after the 1982 season and turned their focus to Superbike and production racing, entering a wide array of bikes and riders in Superbike and World Endurance racing (including Carl Fogarty). Then, in 1992, Kawasaki Japan unexpectedly showed up at Daytona with a new KR250, surprising some even at Kawasaki USA who had no idea they were coming. No matter, green team fans were ecstatic to see two-stroke Kawasakis back on the grid. 

Riders for this new effort were South African Trevor Crookes and current Honda World Superbike star Aaron Slight. Former world champion Kork Ballington managed the team, which at Daytona anyway, almost set a new standard for secrecy. Ballington's Japanese bosses didn't want anyone to see anything inside the experimental KR250 fairing and kept the bike covered nearly anytime it wasn't being ridden. Including in the pitlane, and while the little green and while bikes were in the garage. When the KR250 went through AMA tech inspection, the Japanese seemed incensed that the technical inspectors wanted to see what was inside the fairing. After a little standoff, they were granted a peek.

image by dean
Aaron Slight said then that he never even asked what the engine configuration was when he realized how secretive the Japanese were with the bikes. "I don't even ask questions. They make changes and ask me if it's better and I tell them," he said.

What were they hiding? The rumor had it fuel injection and a strangely configured V-Twin engine. After the dust cleared and some who knew talked, what was in those green and white fiberglass panels was indeed a carburated (twin downdraft carbs with reed valves feeding directly into the crankcase) V-Twin all right, but an upside down V-Twin, with both cylinders pointing down. Because of this design, the bike had serious exhaust system configuration problems as the exhaust exited the rear of the cylinder and had to snake around the engine to exit.

At Daytona you'll bring your horsepower and gearing on a 250, or you'll stay home. For a first time effort the 1992 KR250 was fairly fast and seemed in the hunt. Slight did not finish the race, and Crookes, who disappeared right after this event never to be heard from again, finished a pretty remarkable sixth after being in the hunt for third-fourth. (Colin Edwards won the race, Chris D'Aluisio in second, Kenny Roberts Junior third, Robbie Peterson fourth, Jon Cornwell fifth.)

Rumor had it that the KR250 would be seen next at the Japanese Grand Prix later that month at Suzuka, but it was actually never seen again. Kawasaki later said that the 1992 effort was simply a design exercise and nothing more. Ballington and Crookes vanished, and Slight went on to help Scott Russell win the first Suzuka eight hours for Kawasaki in 1993, then abdicated to Honda.


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