1978 Vetter Kawasaki KZ1000
Son of Z1-and brother of the first title-winning Japanese Superbike
Unless it's your birthday-or wedding anniversary-August 21, 1977, might not hold any special meaning to you. But that summer day in '77 is a key date in motorcycle racing history, because it marked the first win for a Japanese motorcycle in an official AMA Superbike Championship race.
The machine was a Kawasaki KZ1000, much like the one shown here, sponsored by SoCal speed shop Racecrafters, built and tuned by the legendary late Pierre des Roches and ridden by Reg Pridmore not only to that race win at Pennsylvania's Pocono Raceway, but also to the '77 Superbike title.
"I had to start from the back of the pack," Pridmore says, "because I'd crashed in qualifying trying to pass [Wes] Cooley. Wes ran up front in the race, but dropped out with a mechanical, and I inherited the win." Pridmore was followed home at Pocono by Mike Baldwin, Kurt Leibmann, John Long and Kurt Lentz, all on Ducatis except for Baldwin, who rode a Moto Guzzi.
That win, and the Superbike title that followed, proved to be a harbinger of Things To Come in U.S. Superbike racing, not only for Pridmore, but for Japanese marques in general.
The powerful Pridmore/des Roches combination returned to Superbike grids in '78 to defend the title, this time with upgraded '78-spec KZ1000s from Kawasaki and additional sponsorship from designer Craig Vetter, the father of the vaunted Windjammer fairing, a product that literally changed the face of motorcycle touring.
"I'd done some roadracing in the Midwest," Vetter tells me, "but my wife-to-be said it was too risky, so I thought of sponsoring a Superbike team instead. I spoke to my friend Cook Nielsen [editor of Cycle, winner of the '77 Daytona Superbike race and runner-up to Pridmore in the '77 Superbike series], who said, 'If you can get Reggie and Pierre, do it.' So I met with them and we made a deal. I was thrilled!"
"Pierre wasn't just a superb engine and chassis builder," says Pridmore, "but just the sweetest guy-quiet and friendly to everyone. [Editor's note: Des Roches died in a military helicopter crash a decade later.] He built me a wonderful racebike that season: It was fast, it handled really well and the engine was indestructible. We were really consistent that year."
They were indeed. Pridmore didn't win a race all season-but he still ended up with his third consecutive Superbike title (he'd also won in '76, the first year of the official AMA Superbike Championship, aboard a BMW). His competitors rode a mix of Japanese and European brands. Steve McLaughlin, John Bettencourt and Wes Cooley won races on Suzukis, while Paul Ritter and Harry Klinzmann won on a Ducati and BMW, respectively. The tide was changing.
Streetbikes of the day were heavy and relatively slow, with frames that were slightly more rigid than heat-treated licorice, so top-tier Superbike performance depended on well-chosen, well-executed modifications. Pierre des Roches' '78 KZ1000, while lacking the aesthetic nastiness of the Yoshimura Suzukis (and of the factory Hondas that would arrive in '80), was as serious as anything on the grid. The frame got plenty of attention.
"Pierre told me one key to stability and proper cornering was a straight and true frame," Vetter says, "but that the stock KZ frames had their steering-head assemblies welded slightly off-center, which compromised handling. So he basically ground down, re-welded and re-positioned the racebike's steering head so it was true. This allowed him to also position the steering head slightly rearward compared to stock, which shortened the wheelbase and effectively moved the bike's weight bias forward. He also got quite creative with frame and swingarm bracing."
"Yeah, the thing cornered nicely," says Pridmore. "It felt planted, yet it wanted to change direction quickly despite the 19-inch front wheel. I could tell a big difference right after he did the frame bracing."
I felt similarly at Barber while riding the KZ. Although the seat positioned me farther forward than I would've liked, the bike felt surprisingly agile, plenty taut and highly stable, which resulted in ample feedback and was extremely confidence-inspiring. No wonder Pridmore was able to flog the thing so thoroughly.
The Vetter KZ's DOHC inline-four was impressive as well. Displacing 1015cc and claimed to produce 140 horsepower (with 90 bhp at just 6000 rpm), the engine featured Yoshimura cams, pistons and close-ratio gearbox, Axtell heads with larger valves, modified stock carbs that were said to flow 85 percent more than stock, a beautiful hand-bent Bassani exhaust and a tail-section-mounted Lockhart oil cooler. "I love where Pierre mounted that oil cooler," says Vetter. "It looks distinctive and is out in the airflow where it could do some good."
Did Pridmore realize the significance of his win at Pocono in '77 as the first official AMA Superbike class victory for a Japanese motorcycle? "Not really," he says. "I mean, Yvon [Duhamel] had won the first Superbike Production race in '74 at Laguna, so it wasn't like the Japanese bikes weren't around. They were, and they were competitive. It just took awhile."
Owner Brian O'Shea knows just how competitive; he won a classic Superbike race and finished second in another aboard the Pridmore/Vetter Kawasaki at Daytona awhile back. "Reliable? [The Pridmore bike] had sat for years [with the Cooley bike], but with fresh rubber, new pads and an oil change, it was awesome!"
"O'Shea was one of the earliest collectors of these things," says Vetter. "He bought them when no one else wanted them!"
Good on you, Brian.