Racing Kawasaki Ninja 250s | Ninja Warriors | Track Time

Big Fun on Small Bikes

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Darren Beatty

Once again it started with an e-mail from Tim O’Mahony, ringleader of Seattle’s Group W Racing. Last time Tim-O reached out it was with an invitation to race Honda CB160s (“Formula Fun,” MC, November 2009), and it resulted in one of the best weekends I’d ever spent on two wheels. “We’re racing ‘Ninjettes’ now,” the e-mail read. “We have a fleet ready. Come cramp your face from grinning like an idiot!”

Packed grids and fist-tight racing have made Formula 160 a hit in Seattle, but the vintage aspect isn’t for everyone. “We wanted a way for people to get involved in small-bike racing without being full-time mechanics,” O’Mahony explained. So he bought a Kawasaki Ninja 250R, race-prepped it, and the rest is history.

Dozens of other WMRRA racers began building Ninjas too, quickly separating into two factions: Cheapskates and Mini-Superbikers. The former focus on early (1986-2007) Ninja 250s. These are bombproof and, because aftermarket support is almost non-existent, modifications are extremely limited. The latter start with latest-generation (’08-and-newer) Ninja 250Rs. These feature 17-inch wheels instead of 16-inchers, allowing radial race rubber, and a greater number of aftermarket options including suspension and engine mods. While it’s hard to spend $1000 on an early Ninja, some new-gen racers cost as much as $10K!

Turns out O’Mahony was right: Underpowered Ninja 250s are every bit as much fun to race as vintage CB160s, with fewer mechanical headaches. My first race was on an early model borrowed from Phil Cook. This beater wasn’t pretty, but it worked well—especially considering it cost less than a rear slick for a superbike! Besides, the racing was so tight I forgot all about the bike—positions changed whenever anyone made the slightest mistake. I ended up finishing eighth overall, and second pre-gen bike. The first pre-gen rider, Adam Moore, finished .036 of a second in front of me after drafting past at the line.

For the next race I borrowed a new-gen bike from Bellevue Kawasaki’s Mike Correll. This was a completely different game. Optimized suspension and sticky rubber greatly increased cornering speeds and reduced the margin of error. Barreling into the wide-open Turn 2 carousel with a dozen droning racers just inches off either side was nerve-wracking, but Correll’s trick Mini-Superbike felt predictable, planted and more capable than any “beginner’s bike” had a right to be. The top-four riders rode off the front but stayed packed like caged ball bearings until the finish. O’Mahony won—again—but just .851 of a second covered the top three. Racing doesn’t get closer than this!

It also doesn’t get much cheaper, safer or simpler, which is why 250-only “cheapionships” are popping up all across the nation, including the San Francisco Bay Area and the upper Midwest. The cutthroat race action thrills experts, while there’s no better way for budding beginning racers to learn the importance of fast lines, smooth inputs and maintaining momentum at any cost.

But most of all, small bikes are big fun! Group W doesn’t do it any other way.

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