Las Vegas is the natural habitat for a heavyweight contender. Everything is larger-than-life there. You can redraw the lines between fantasy and reality 24 hours a day, or at least as long as the money holds out. What better place, then, for Kawasaki to give us a go on the all-new ZX-14, its latest high-velocity two-wheeled projectile. Considerably larger than life and allegedly packing a 200-horsepower, ram-air-assisted punch, the most powerful off-the-rack motorcycle in captivity can erase the boundaries between fantasy and reality altogether--as long as you can hang on.Forget the ZX-12R. Kawasaki won't mind. Aside from internal-combustion propulsion and monocoque-chassis architecture, the latest Maximum Ninja shares nothing with the last. The 200-mph implications that preceded the 12R have been erased by an international gentleman's agreement that electronically limits liter-class GTs--the ZX-14 included--to a somehow-more-reasonable 300kph (186 mph). Dissertations on drag coefficients and frontal area are thus conspicuously and happily absent from the proceedings, as are all members of the European motorcycle press, who are more wound up about the whole 200-mph thing than we are. Booking the Bonneville Salt Flats would be anticlimactic when you know everyone will leave with the same number.
Some things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas. But thanks to Nevada Highway Patrol radar and the miracle of interstate reciprocity, high-speed laps of Nevada on this thing could be hazardous to your driving privilege. All of which means our very first taste of the ZX-14 happens not at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's twisty road course but at its 1.5-mile tri-oval--42,000 tons of asphalt that form four very different, very fast and very scary 12-degree banked corners. And that's OK; the lack of an R designation in the bike's name means this is no repli-racer.
Kawasaki did enough testing on the tri-oval to make sure any reasonably sane person would actually live to tell about it, but the motorcycle press corps has never been tainted with an overabundance of sanity. So no radar guns. No racing. Everyone goes one at a time and pulls in after five laps. We're rolling on stock Bridgestone BT014 radials. This thing only goes 186 mph, so what could go wrong? Our own Barry Burke doesn't scare easily, but this place has his full, undivided attention. "When I first got on the bike, I thought, `this is a lot of motorcycle.' I was nervous at first, thinking about vague steering, soft suspension and stock tires. But the bike's tires and aerodynamics are fantastic. There was some crosswind and generally weird air out there, but even with the speedometer pegged on the other side of 180 mph, this thing cut right through it and stuck firmly."
Softly sprung suspension, ridiculous G-loads and a vast expanse of concrete wall mean you don't want to do anything to unsettle the chassis or provoke Mr. Sphincter at Big Speed. Smoothness is key on the banking. The 14 seems more comfortable with ludicrous cornering speeds than the 12R. Burke clicks into sixth rolling out of turn 4 for the start/finish straight, then back to fifth for the other three corners. Running 7.5 miles somewhere to the right of 160 mph draws a fine line between exhilaration and visions of memorializing oneself with a Candy Thunder Blue smudge on the turn-3 wall.
The fact that there's ample power to spin the tire at will and leave big black marks on the asphalt surprises no one. But given the excitable, asocial tendencies of its ancestors, the ZX-14 is a revelation. Power feels more hydroelectric than a product of internal combustion, flowing from idle to the 11,000 redline in a steady, linear stream with no sudden spike to complicate rapid forward progress. That progress is distinctly more rapid once the tach needle crosses 6000 rpm. Think 6.0-liter twin-turbo Mercedes V-12. Then think quicker.
Making the segue to the LVMS's quarter-mile dragstrip later in the day, thoughts of pulling the trigger on the world's strongest production motorcycle engine induce indigestion in some contestants, followed by another definition for "launch"--especially if you've ever tried to launch the taller, shorter, peakier and infinitely less-cooperative ZX-12R. Seven-time national champion Rickey Gadson offers information and sincere encouragement: precious commodities to a roadracer like Burke who's a rookie at this drag-racing thing. He looks a little edgy. As it turns out, he had nothing to worry about.
It's hard to imagine a friendlier beast, even at the strip. Can you fog a mirror? Then you can put a ZX-14 in the mid-11s at 120-something. Your little sister could clock an 11.48. Aim for the traps. Put 3500 rpm on the tach. Now ease the clutch out and wind the throttle in one fluid motion. Shift three times at 11,000 rpm without lifting the front wheel higher than your head--or hitting the rev limiter--and you're there.
Covering 1320 feet in less than 10 seconds, however, is more complicated.