Vintage Jim McDermott: The Perfect Weekend
Sunday morning, big plate of eggs, 2 Advil and black coffee, ready to face the world.

What would your definition of a perfect motorcycle weekend be?

Mine would include twisty roads, perfect weather, good food and great friends, old and new. Sure would be nice to have a racetrack reserved for our private use, a selection of various street and sportbikes to rail around on, with endless free gasoline.....and maybe some legendary roadracers to give personalized riding tips. And as we're already at the track, let's take in in an AMA roadrace, and do a little bench-racing with celebrities from the motorcycling world. That would be a dream biking weekend, wouldn't it?

Well, Soup just got back from this dream weekend, guests of Kawasaki at their 2008 Superbike Showdown at Infineon Raceway, in Sonoma California. Truly, this was a motorcycling weekend to remember. We met in San Francisco on Friday night, for dinner and a little bowling - nothing too special, right? Except that your bowling teammates were AMA Hall Of Famers Gary Nixon, Jimmy Filice, and Jay Springsteen! Drag racing legend Ricky Gadson, "Superbikes" host Jason Britton, actor Kadeem Hardison, and boxing legend Roy Jones Jr. were also along for the weekend. Model/Actor/Zoolander cast member Tyson Beckford was hanging too. Soup's teammate was stunt phenom Kane "Insane" Friesen, Kawasaki's first ever officially supported stunt rider. Friesen holds the world record for the fastest stoppie - 137 miles an hour!

(The bowling was a great way to get to know everyone, and there were trophies awarded. Jimmy Filice brought home the "lowest score" award, not a real surprise as Jimmy bowled like The Elephant Man on a Jaegermeister binge! Of course, it was probably one of the few times in his career that Filice got the lowest score at any motorcycle related event...)

We headed down to Sonoma that night, and Saturday morning, shuttled over to the track. Kawasaki had an assortment of streetbikes waiting, and a nice route thru wine country laid out for us, tight & twisty mountain roads and coastal riding included. I grabbed a KLR 650, a bike greatly improved for 2008 with better brakes, handling, motor and wind protection. The KLR proved to be hugely entertaining on the goat trail/mountain section of the ride, with endless switchbacks and bicyclists to dodge, and at $5399, it was easy to see why this is the biggest selling dual sport in the USA. After lunch, I briefly rode Kawi's new Versys 650, which uses a parallel twin powerplant similar to that in the Ninja 650R. The Versys was predictably more willing to accelerate then the KLR, and with less vibes. I enjoyed the KLR's riding position and do-it-all nature a bit more than the Versys. Having just ridden a 2008 BMW 1200GS in the area around Alice's Restaurant the week before the Kawi trip, I can honestly say that the Bimmer didn't do anything demonstrably better than the KLR, except for higher speed slabbing runs. If someone were able to shoehorn a 650R powerplant into the KLR, I don't think there would be an adventure bike on the planet that I'd rather own. That said, the stock 08 KLR was a bike I was curious about, but didn't expect to admire, so it was surprising that the Kawi staff damned near had to pry me off the thing.

After a 130 mile ride, we circled back to Infineon just in time to catch the AMA Superbike race. Jamie Hacking came thru from 5th place on the grid, and brought the Monster Kawasaki ZX10R home in 3rd place. After the race, everyone headed to Mertens Dairy farm for the 3rd Annual Kawasaki Minimoto Invitational. The Mertens family let Kawi purpose build a minimoto track just for this event, as well as a short track. Speed TV's Greg White emceed the event, and basically broke everyone's horns for 4 hours straight. The heat races were thrilling, as journos (including MIA moto-MILF Jamie Elvidge) mixed it up with Springer, Filice, Gadson, Nixon and the others on tweaked KLX110's. Springer in fact won his heat race, but caught a bad shift heading for the finish line, causing him to flip backwards, thrown off the machine and spectacularly across the finish line, in a dusty heap. Everyone thought Springsteen had flipped intentionally, until we saw his bloody chin and dazed look, but he was OK. In the final, Rickey Gadson prevailed for the 2nd year running. After lots of laughs, lots of beer and lots of BBQ, we headed back to the hotel.

One thing I learned on this trip—if you have to get up early in the morning, don't go to the bar for a nightcap with Gary Nixon and Jimmy Filice. Both of these guys are chock full of gripping tales of motorcycle racing, from the days of skinny tires and haybales, when all the traction control you had was in your right wrist. Filice talked about racing 250cc with John Kocinski (surprisingly, he liked the guy), his 3 years at Kenny Roberts' ranch in Spain and his epic win at the 1988 USGP. Nixon spewed tales at a non-stop, frenetic pace, like a burst pipe, so many memories inside him to release. A lot of these tales can't be repeated (in comedic terms, Nixon "works blue"), but one memorable tale involved highsiding a GP bike at a Japanese test facility during the 70's, a crash which pitched Nixon into a tree at 120MPH, leaving bark embedded in his skin. He showed me the arm where the bones broke from that crash, and two 6 inch scars that lay side by side - one from the Japanese doctor who initially treated him, the other from an American Doctor who fixed Nixon properly. Jimmy Filice and I listened and laughed as Nixon told his stories, I drank Bombay Gimlets, Jimmy drank Petron. Several hours later, after bumbling back up to my room with great difficulty, I wondered—in 20 years time, if I'm lucky enough to be at a press event with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, what kind of stories are those guys going to have to tell? All the hard work they put into bicycling? How quirky traction control was "back in the day"? Feh!

Sunday morning, big plate of eggs, 2 Advil and black coffee, ready to face the world. I decided to take a quick ride prior to day 2's races, and chose the new 2008 Ninja 250R as my mount. I recently purchased a Yamaha WR250X Supermoto bike (watch out for an upcoming review on Soup) and wanted to see how the Ninja compared. I was very surprised what a pleasant streetbike the little Ninja was; it handled and stopped superbly, and pulled strongly enough to ride confidently in traffic. The bike cruised at 70mph without feeling busy or buzzy, and I was quite stunned that this little gem of a bike was only 3500 bucks. My guide for this short ride was Kawasaki PR/Media Relations man Jon Rall; his father, Dr. David Platt Rall, was briefly Surgeon General of the USA, and a noted specialist in cancer and environmental health. It was a warm day, and we pulled into a gas station to grab some water and catch our breath, the kind of thing you always do when you're out for a ride with friends. Also along for the ride was Sheila Green-Barnhill, President of the New Directions Motorcycle Club, out of Newark NJ. Kawasaki went into various online motorcycle forums and encouraged clubs to write a brief outline summarizing their charitable works, and winners would be invited to attend the Infineon trip. Sheila's club was chosen for their fundraising efforts for breast cancer victims; I also spent time with Eric Adkison, an Atlanta area police officer and President of the Front Runnerz motorcycle club, who had raised money for the families of fallen officers. I think it was really quite special of Kawasaki to reward clubs that help people in need, and greatly enhance the positive public perception of motorcycling.

We made it back for the races, and were spirited up to Kawi's private suite high above the racetrack. Hacking once again notched third place, charging thru the field. Then it was off to dinner, Japanese, and I had the surreal, coincidental task of helping Tyson Beckford choose what to eat, as I was a) next to him in the chow line, b) he hadn't really eaten sushi before, and c) I'm a long time sushi whore. We all wisely called it an early night, as Monday was to be our track day.

After a quick safety meeting with Monte Lutz of Sportbike Tracktime, who were running the track event, we headed over to pitlane to choose our bikes. I had never ridden at Infineon before, so I figured I'd start with the Ninja 250, and use the first session to learn my lines. But there were only 4 of the smallbore machines available, and they were quickly scooped up, so I threw a leg over the Ninja 6R, a bike which I had ridden at Barber in December 2006 for Soup. Infineon is a very technical track, and I found myself moving around a lot on the bike. I had to remind myself to scream the 6R, I was nowhere near the meat of the power, as I cautiously learned the track. I was reminded how nimble the ZX6R is, how wonderfully planted the front end feels. My confidence grew quickly, and the feeling of the 6R's front end digging into the asphalt as I accelerated down thru the Carousel was addictive. For the 2nd session, I switched to the Ninja 250R, which was obviously far less powerful, but still lots of fun. On the 250R, I shifted when I hit the rev limiter, and just screamed the bike everywhere. So long as you kept the bike above 8000rpm, it pulled off the corners nicely, with a 4500rpm powerband. I did manage to rip one of my feet off the pegs, as the littlest Ninja has a lot less ground clearance than the 6R, so I learned to tuck my boots very closely into the bike. For my third session, I rode the Ninja 650R, and honestly I wasn't expecting it to be that great, having ridden the ZX6R earlier. But the 650R proved to be a very entertaining ride, with great handling, a very wide powerband, and easily accessible torque. Ergnomically, the 650R's street oriented comfort enabled a more relaxed riding style than the ZX6R, and I hung off the bike a lot less. The riding style was more upright, kind of like Mike Hailwood, where the ZX6R was more knee down.

I initially was going to take the ZX6R out again, but one of the other guests, Bill Werner, had told me how much fun the 650R was. And Bill knows, because he custom builds a prototype dirt track bike powered by the 650R motor that puts out over 95 horsepower—at the back wheel! Coming into this trip, I must confess that I didn't know who Bill Werner was, as I have never been a dirt track fan. But I spent some time with Bill and his lovely wife Victoria, chatting over dinner, and slowly deciphered the huge contribution this humble gentleman had made to the sport. Bill wrenched for Gary Scott, Jay Springsteen and Scott Parker on the way to 13 AMA Grand National Championships. Bill himself won 13 AMA Mechanic of the year awards, and the inaugural AMA Pro Racing Award for Mechanical Excellence. Bill's currently consulting for Daytona Motorsports Group, as they endeavor to reinvigorate Dirt Track racing to its former glory. Werner is clearly passionate about what he does, handbuilding Kawasaki 650R based bikes that will compete with the long dominant Harley XR750s, at a far more affordable price of entry. Bill Werner has also been the crew chief for the "Pair O Nines" MotoST racing team, where he and his teammates Filice, Nixon and Springsteen won the 2007 Suntrust MotoST championship.

Werner spoke of his deep respect for Jay Springsteen, with whom he has a lifelong friendship. Springer sometimes used to sleep at Werner's home as a guest during the racing season, and would always be asking Werner for chores in gratitude for the accommodation. Werner of course refused, but this didn't stop Springsteen from getting up early and mowing Werner's lawn—in fact, Bill put a Number 1 plate on the lawn mower and apparently has a photo of Springer shirtless, tanned, pushing that machine around his front yard. I spent some time with Jay Springsteen, and without question, both he and Bill Werner are salt of the earth guys. I hope to attend my first dirt track race this year so I can speak more competently about a sport that produced two guys such as this.

The track day was a hoot, nobody got hurt, not even the guy who wadded his friend's brand new ZX-14 (350 miles on the clock) at 120 MPH into turn one, turning the bike into several large piles of plastic and metal. My last session of the day was on the 6R, and it was perfect, mind and body flowing as one, snicking thru the flawless gearbox, everything silent and effortlessly fast. The checkered flag waved, and I was totally satiated. The day done, sun baking the circuit, everyone with a farmer's tan, happy to peel off our leathers. Many of the attendees were flying out after the track day. We had spent so much time together over the past 4 days, we had become like a family, or perhaps a small traveling circus. The goodbyes were really a drag. What I'll remember most about this event is not the bikes, the racing, the roads, or the food, but the people. Kawasaki put together an event that encapsulated all that's great about our sport, without forgetting that at the heart of it, the opportunity to build friendships is what makes motorcycling so special. I sure hope they invite us next year.

Special thanks to Jan Plessner and all the folks at Kawasaki for putting together the event and being such gracious hosts .

Jim McDermott lives in New York City
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