Lei'ing It Down: Hawaiian Style

Sportbikes, sunburn and a splash of endurance racing, just another crappyweek at the office

Editor's Note: Yes, we know much of North America is still recovering from winter, and many of you are suffering from aggravated PMS (Parked Motorcycle Syndrome). So the idea of donning your most ventilated gear and hopping on your bike for a ride through warm breezes amid sunny skies seems as ludicrous and far-fetched as winning the lottery...without playing. Last fall, we sent staffers Cook and Norem to play in Hawaii, get a read on island motoculture, and bring back tales of races won, tanned women ogled and fruity rum drinks consumed. Here's their report.

Deadlines. All day photo shoots. Writing a road test over the weekend (all part of the manufacturers' just-in-time delivery of test bikes). Dealing with management. Sometimes it's just too much.

Midkvetch, there was Boehm, looming large as ever in my office doorway, still amped from his morning commute on his ZX-12R long-termer. He was looking for a volunteer to take his place in a boondoggle of the highest order: a trip to Hawaii with the sole purpose of seeing what the, ahhh, motorcycle scene was like there.

Actually, there was more to it than that. Boehm can't resist a race. And our friend (and former staffer) Garrett Kai, now an ever more important slice of gouda at American Suzuki, had proposed a good one: a four-hour endurance race at the only racetrack in Hawaii, the fittingly titled Hawaii Raceway Park (HRP). Sniff tests revealed yet another wedge within the boondoggle: HRP was Kai's home track in his formative motoyears, and he was itching for an all-expenses-paid way to go home and whip up on the locals. He denied this, of course, but we were not fooled.

"Wanna go in my place?" Boehm asked. "Hmmm. Let me think about it." Pause for a millisecond. "Sure, why not?" "Good," Boehm said, "but you've never roadraced, right?" He was right. "Then you should take Norem with you, to, ahhh..." Boehm searched for a polite way to say "keep us from being embarrassed by your sluggishness" and managed, "...to keep you company." Of course. Despite the fact that the doctor's signature was still wet on Norem's release papers (he'd broken his knee in an ugly incident with a Subaru a few months prior), he was raring to go. "As long as the track doesn't have too many left turns," he said, wobbling slightly on his emaciated left leg, "I'll be fine."

And so it transpired that Norem and I and our newest, bestest buddy Kai joined up in Honolulu with a mission and, we'd discover later, a flexible plan.

Let's learn a little about Hawaii. (Cue National Geographic theme.) Polynesians settled the Hawaiian islands more than a thousand years ago. They found a lush paradise and lived there undisturbed until January 1778, when some ne'er do well explorer by the name of Cook--no relation, thankfully--landed upon the second-westernmost island of Kauai. Cook and crew began a long tradition of trade, questionable card games and, um, messing around with the women. Unfortunately, Cook's lads gave the locals a touch of the clap, which wiped out a good portion of the population. As you might expect, Cook and his boys were much less welcome on the next visit. After an altercation, the captain was killed.

Originally, each of the islands had its own monarchy, but by the mid-18th century King Kamehameha, it says here, united the islands by force. Eventually money, in the form of investments by sugar barons, propelled the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liluokalani, leading the way to Hawaii being annexed to the United States in 1893 and then made a full-fledged state in 1959. Soon Jack Lord was chasing criminals around in his black Mercury, and you probably know the rest.

Basically, each island is geographically and climactically its own animal. Far to the west is Niihau, privately held. There is no truth to the rumor that Ricardo Montalban keeps a seaplane gassed and ready in the harbor. Next is Kauai, lush and wild, with the dramatic Na-pali coast along its northwestern shore. Hawaii is called the Big Island because, well, it's the biggest. It has two peaks higher than 13,000 feet and tremendous volcano activity. Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world. Maui, spoken in a snicker by teenagers the world over for a certain kind of combustible export, is dominated by the 10,000-foot Haleakala peak, supposedly the highest dormant volcano on the planet. Molokai is known as the "Friendly Isle," which was an early form of public-relations spin applied after Captain Cook's demise. Lanai used to be a wholly owned piece of the Dole Company but is slowly phasing in tourism, a concept still unknown on Kahoolawe strictly because it is uninhabited. It's going to remain that way until the military is done picking up all the unexploded shells it lobbed on the island during decades of target practice. Oahu is home to Honolulu, the state capitol and possessing a population density between Los Angeles and Manhattan. It's an odd place if you've traveled the rest of the islands because it is so relentlessly citylike; the famed Waikiki Beach is a narrow, packed strip of sand wedged uneasily between row upon row of skyscrapers and the pounding Pacific.

Nevertheless, we're not in Hawaii for a history lesson or to learn how to pronounce the name of the state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. We're here to ride. Kai's considerable efforts before our arrival have netted us three GSX-R750s, one a thoroughly tricked-out bike owned by Travis Higa, who apparently doesn't believe in rearview mirrors. Or turn signals. Or an ignition key. (Thanks, anyway, Higa; Norem had a blast.)

Kai rounded up a stable of friends, and we went searching for the best roads on all of Oahu. We found both of them. Truth be told, riding a high-performance motorcycle in Hawaii--and on Oahu, in particular--is an exercise in frustration control. First, there aren't that many roads because, well, there's not that much land. The main roads circle the islands and are typically choked by tourists in identical Altimas and Camrys, tamped by low speed limits. On the windward side of any of the islands you can count on rain at some point in the day, while a Honoluluan's idea of a cold spell involves temperatures in the 60s.

Nevertheless, Kai and crew showed us the two best roads on Oahu, which wind up above Honolulu like a pair of slimy black snakes attempting to return to the wild. The operative word is slimy. It's often wet in Hawaii, and the lush vegetation means you'll find wet leaves and broken fruit amidst the aforementioned Altimas and Camrys. At once you realize why there are so many Harley-Davidsons and cruisers roaming the islands. Piloting a GSX-R around Oahu is like buying War Emblem to teach your little princess how to ride a pony. After a couple of laps of Tantalus and Round Top and a photo op above the city, we made the rounds, visiting brothers Danny and Lester Miyasaki, owners of Island Cycle Works and the men who gave Kai race sponsorship in the form of half-used cans of Gumout and plenty of verbal abuse. Their shop reflects an interesting Hawaiian work ethic: It's not neat, it's not filled with the latest test equipment, and the Snap-On guy almost never comes around. But you can see every tool has been used (and by the looks of the bikes, used properly) and that the pioneer spirit looms large. Where a poser shop owner buys a specialized fuel bottle used when synchronizing carburetors, the Miyasakis have built one from an old moped gas tank and an IV stand. It works just as well, plus you can put more stickers on it.

Further down the road we're introduced to Al Montgomery, president of Cycle Sports Hawaii and our motopatron. It's his GSX-Rs we're borrowing and he eyes us warily, especially the way Norem's limping around the place. His shop is big, neat, tidy and, given the roads here, extremely busy.

He confesses to selling a ton of sportbikes, especially--you guessed it--GSX-R1000s.

That brings us to the great Hawaiian motorcycling conundrum. If there are so few good roads, why are there so many motorcycles? Over a couple of days riding around, we'd unearth the roots to the "scene." They're made up of the same things that prompt riders in the flatlands to buy sportbikes, and cruiser fans in the Rockies to hop aboard VTXs. They're enthusiasts, pure and simple. The act of riding and, perhaps here to a greater extent than on the mainland, merely owning a great motorcycle is justification enough. Because there are so few great twisty roads, the emphasis turns to sheer acceleration, as evidenced by the proliferation of big-bore sportbikes and the seeming ubiquity of the V-Max. Suffice it to say, Hawaiian riders are just like us--only they live in a prettier place.

Eventually we meet up with our race team, such as it is. The plan calls for us to share a GSX-R600 with Kai and Layden Paulino, parts manager at the bustling Cycle City in Honolulu. He's also the fast guy, and the key to us having even the slightest chance of success. Paulino and Kim Nakashima, who is the race director, full-time fast guy and old friend of Kai's, give us the skinny on the track, HRP.

"Oh, it's fun," Nakashima says. "I think most of the barbed wire on the outside of Turn Two has fallen down, and we just bought new spark plugs for the ambulance, so we think we can get it started." Paulino and Nakashima laugh like schoolgirls. (It transpires that there isn't actually an ambulance on site, but that the fire station is just around the corner. We would have an EMT present at all times.)

Over dinner the night before the race, we talked strategy. "Well," Kai said, "the first thing is to not fall down. Four hours is a long time. Plus, we'll have Paulino, who'll run fast enough to give us a chance." Kai looks accusingly at Norem, still nursing injuries from a wayward Subaru. Kai is nice enough to avoid my gaze. "I'll be fine," Norem said, "as long as I don't have to turn left." Kai, normally so laid back you wonder if he's paying attention, bursts out laughing. "Norem," he cackles, drawing a map of the track on a napkin, "it's all left turns!"

Sunday morning provides the proof. It's probably unfair to say HRP resembles less a true motorsports circuit than a collection of paving projects a few frat guys hemmed together with a stolen steamroller and a few cases of Red Stripe. The track is made up of a dragstrip ending in a 170-degree turn (to the left) followed by a bumpy portion of the dragstrip's return road that merges into a fast right-hander before meeting the appropriately named Gateshack Esses. Yes, this is where the spectators and crew cross the track to enter the facility--before, after and during the race. Past the Esses come Turns Five and Six, again appropriately named Off-Camber. Survive that section and you'll end up in The Sweeper, a tricky left-hander that feeds you back onto the front straight approximately 200 feet past the staging lights for the dragstrip. Look around and you see Armco, lots of used Pirellis and portents of pain.

We drive the track in photographer Kevin Wing's rental car and wonder if all the free shrimp the night before was worth it. Then we see the racebike, a lovely, near-stock GSX-R600 with a revalved fork, Yoshimura pipe, Oehlins shock and steering damper (thanks CycleMall), and pristine white race bodywork. We learn Paulino wants race-pattern shifting and, being the fast guy, he gets what he wants. We momentarily panic until Kai explains that there will be time during pit stops to change it back and forth.

At first the track seems fearsome, with no apparent runoff and few landmarks. But we learn the course over the 45-minute practice session, eventually getting lap times that you don't need a calendar to measure. I'm unseemingly proud of a 1:08 lap in practice, only to be duly chastened by Paulino's easy 0:57 lap and alarmed by the grass stuck in his right knee slider. "You need to cut Turn Two really tight," Paulino explains. Yeah.

Kai takes the first stint and acquits himself well, followed by the rest of the team. I'm in for the second stint and become more familiar and comfortable, whipping the lap times into the high 1:03s, just shy of Kai's laps. Norem, uh, manages to stay on board. I'm also happy the organizers have elected to put a chicane approximately 100 yards before the fearsome, bumpy Turn One, so that I'm not braking from near-terminal velocity at the entrance. (During the race, Paulino would complain of the GSX-R's lever coming back to the bar.)

You know there's a race on because the bikes all have number plates, but the pitside atmosphere is noticeably stressfree. Families enjoy a picnic lunch under the tarps along the pit road. Bikes arrive over the pit wall for leisurely refueling and rider changes. The sun arches overhead and from time to time a rider samples the wildlife growing among the tires lining the track. A red flag is thrown to clean up the mess, and we all relax some more.

And then it rains. On the dry side of the island. Of course.

Being the host and one of two locals, Kai receives from me his last stint a few minutes early. Kai, not yet a father, shrugs, rides for five minutes until the rain stops and enjoys the rest of the stint. Our last rider is the ringer, who pounds around on the Suzuki, four-hour-old Dunlop D208GPs and all, blitzing all our times by a shameful amount and, unbeknownst to us, winning our class and giving us second overall. At the end of the day, the victorious Team Boondoggle crew gathered around the amazingly unscarred GSX-R and made plans for next year. Deadlines can wait.

Seeing The Islands

Best known as the most likely place to land by airliner, Oahu is more than just Honolulu. (Although you really should see the USS Arizona memorial before heading to the other islands.) Kailua, on the northeastern shore, is a homey and comfortable town with some of the best surfing in the world. Further along the north shore, check out Haleiwa, slightly touristy but close to the famous Pipeline, a name familiar to surfers for its fearsome break.

If you want to know what Hawaii might have been like decades (or even centuries) ago, check out Lanai. Home to just 5000 people, it's regarded as the most natural or secluded island in the chain. Go to the village of Launolu to see some of the best preserved ruins of ancient Hawaii. You should also see Shipwreck Beach on the eastern shore, so named for the World War II vintage ship slowly decomposing off shore.

What do you do on an island of just 264 square miles? It's a sure bet you won't eat at McDonalds (there isn't one) or be held up by traffic lights (there aren't any).The main town of Kaunakakai is but three blocks long. Yet Molakai boasts the longest white-sand beach in Hawaii and, it says here, "the only barrier reef north of Australia."

Kauai is the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain, often called the Garden Isle because of its abundant natural beauty. (What? The rest of the islands are the Mojave desert?) Airlines serve the main town of Lihue, which is amazingly rural after you've seen Oahu. Travel around to the north shore town of Hanalei, where the tidy "downtown" is surrounded by shops and excellent restaurants. Check out Hanalei Bay and, a bit farther to the west on the main (only) road, Lumahai Beach. Fans of the movie South Pacific will recognize the setting, particularly Lumahai Beach, which is also known as Nurses' Beach. The stones in the path leading down to the sand were placed by the movie crew. The equipment of the time was too bulky to be carried on an unimproved trail.

Farther west, past the end of the road at Ke-ee Beach is the famed Na-pali coast, a breathtaking range that seems utterly ancient. There are numerous hiking trails on Kauai, including the challenging trail through the Na-pali. In many ways, Kauai is the most different of all the islands, represented by a more laid-back (if that's possible) and nature-oriented attitude among the locals and tourists.

Big Island
It's all about the volcanoes, baby. The Big Island of Hawaii is home to the Kilauea Caldera, which has been erupting since 1983, and Mauna Loa, which last erupted in '84. You can walk around on nearly fresh lava flows and camp in rustic cabins in Volcano National Park. (Indeed, Hawaii's park system is among the best you'll find. And, of course, laid back.) Although the largest of the islands, Hawaii is still compact enough that you can stay in any of the beach villages and manage hiking or sightseeing on any other part of the island with ease.

On the north shore, park your car and take a walk into the utterly wild and overgrown Waipio Valley, where you'll see more varieties of ferns and general overgrowth than you ever imagined, interspersed with taro plantations.

Kahului and Wailuku on the north shore near the island's narrowest point are the island's business center. You'll find upscale hotels in Ka'anapali, and you can get a Jimmy Buffet special in the historic whaling town of Lahaina. Take a drive up Haleakala, the world's largest dormant volcano; you can also sign up for a bicycle ride down the mountain. A van takes you up, and gravity brings you back; it's a hoot. Over on the eastern shore is the bucolic village of Hana. It's 30 miles out on a road marked for 15 mph, and better on a DR-Z400 than a GSX-R1000.

Custom sportbikes sprout like yellow hibiscus (the state flower). Apparently, the guy on the ZX-12R finds sufficient room on Oahu to let its horses roam. The GSX-R may well be the official state motorcycle of Hawaii.
Maybe it's the good weather, but we saw few totally stock bikes.
The Brothers Miyasaki with a special project.
If this nitrous-injected 1994 V-Max isn't a bull in a china shop on Oahu's crowded streets, we don't know what is.
With Honolulu in the background, our intrepid tourist heads up toward Tantalus and Round Top, the two "better" twisty roads on Oahu. On the far left of the photo is Diamond Head--not to be confused with the band Diamond Head. It was originally called Laeahi by Hawaiians, a name that means "brow of the tuna." At one point, Fort Ruger occupied the crater, packing a battery of cannons. The fort was abandoned but there's a great hiking trail at the site now. Go early in the day, because there's no shade inside the crater.
What a view! On the overlook from Diamond Head, this is the scene looking back toward the Big Island of Hawaii. We were unable to confirm reports that our host Garrett Kai used to frequent this road in his youth, watching others on bikes and in cars do "stupid things." We do know this was where young Kai received his first moving violation on a motorcycle. Some things never change.
Semivictorious riders of Boondoggle Racing celebrate surviving four hours of Hawaii Raceway Park. They wouldn't know until a few days later--after many fruity rum drinks--that they'd scored first in class (600 production) and second overall. See, staying up is as good as going fast.
Cook eventually figured out the circuit and left plenty in reserve.
Norem, still nursing injuries, felt fate's wrath at racing on a circuit with mainly left turns.
Doesn't look like a frantic pit stop does it? More like, how are you doing, Kai? Having a good time? Would you like another Zip-Pac?
One of the GSX-R1000 pilots goes down in the fourth hour. We felt bad for him until we learned that he handed us second overall. He was basically unhurt.
A late-race battle, won by Number 23, who failed to crash.