Pro Motorcycle Racer for a Day

Riding Attack Kawasaki’s ZX-6R AMA Racebike

Pro racer for a day
Pro racer for a dayErich Stiegler

A year ago I spent two days lapping Infineon Raceway aboard the latest 1000cc sportbikes for our "Class of 2010" comparison test, yet none of them—not even the 170-horsepower BMW S1000RR—felt as ferocious as the Kawasaki ZX-6R I'm riding here now. That's because this Kawi is a bona fide racebike, built by Attack Performance to AMA Daytona Sportbike specs. In fact, this is the same machine J.D. Beach piloted to fourth place at Daytona at the start of the 2011 season. Weighing in at 370 lbs. with a full tank of gas and churning out nearly 140 rear-wheel horsepower, the ZX-6R does everything quicker and more violently than the big production bikes.

The original plan was to go to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, and race one of the Feel Like a Pro Kawasaki Ninja 250R rental bikes with the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM) for a Track Time story. The 250 was eligible for a couple classes, but two races wasn't going to make the 800-mile trip worthwhile so I started sniffing around for an additional bike. A call to Kawasaki put me in touch with Richard Stanboli, owner of Attack Performance and manager of the factory-supported AMA race team. With rider J.D. Beach now contending the premier Superbike class on a ZX-10R, his ZX-6R was sitting idle at the shop. Would that bike work? Uh, yeah! I'd expected a track-prepped stocker used for testing, not a legitimate support-team racebike.

Jorge unwraps the tires prior to a race
Jorge unwraps the tires prior to a race. The ZX-6R is supported by a custom stand that lifts the bike by the frame, leaving the front of the bike easily accessible.Erich Stiegler

Like everything Kawasaki USA and Attack Performance get involved in, the commitment level was all-out. Richard set me up with the racebike, a parts bike and a mechanic. Team technician Jorge Artola would accompany me on the trip, probably as much to keep me from messing up their machine as to make sure I got the most out of it!

When I showed up at Attack’s shop in Huntington Beach, the bike was up on the lift. Mechanic Dan Schwartz was in the process of prepping it, setting the suspension and gearing according to the team’s Infineon race notes. He had me throw a leg over the machine to verify lever position, rearset height and other ergonomic details. The partially disassembled bike and Dan’s questions about setup preferences took me by surprise: It was clear I’d stepped into something the Attack guys took very seriously, and the intensity level was a little frightening. At the same time it was exhilarating, and intriguing to see how meticulously things are done at the professional level.

Ari Henning
Attack adjustable clip-ons and rearsets meant we could set up the bike’s ergonomics exactly the way I wanted. The hard foam seat lets you know exactly what the rear tire is doing.Erich Stiegler

During Saturday's practice I split my time between the Ninja 250R and the ZX-6R. Buttoned up in Attack's own bodywork and bristling with billet race parts, the 600 looked menacing. The bike had been stripped of everything unnecessary and then reassembled with select performance components. Wide, flat clip-ons framed the Attack Performance adjustable triple clamps. The fork tubes were original-equipment Showas, but the internals and caps were Öhlins and an Öhlins TTX shock supported the back end. Rearsets were from Attack, with a quick-shifter in place for clutchless, full-throttle upshifts. A custom textured-foam seat, full Leo Vince exhaust and Kawasaki-green chain finished it off. Jorge had our garage set up as soon as we unloaded, so the only thing for me to do was take the wheels over to Chris Maguire at CT Racing to have him lever on some Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa tires.

Running a factory support bike in a club race might sound like shooting fish in a barrel, but the AFM attracts big grids and a lot of talent. Racers Joey Pascarella, Lenny Hale, Jason Lauritzen and Isle of Man veteran Tom Montano were all present on their 600s, with lap times on par with the top AMA finishers. The Attack ZX-6R was a rocket, did everything I asked of it, and thanks to the team’s notes there wasn’t much additional setup required. The suspension felt perfect, and if I nailed my line through Turn 6 the gearing had me kissing redline in top gear just before grabbing the brakes for Turn 7. The engine had been blueprinted and the head decked to increase compression, and there was a lot of midrange power to show for it. The biggest difference I noticed was the way the slipper clutch had been tuned. After downshifting, the clutch let the engine rev up with very little engine braking, which kept the chassis stable and helped promote higher corner-entry speeds.

Garage 34 was our headquarters for the weekend and Jorge was clearly in his element. I tried to assist with the bike, but he had his routine down pat and I just got in the way. Jorge knew the bike inside and out—he’d built it, after all—and tended to it diligently.

A grayish-white exhaust outlet is the telltale sign of a proper fuel/air mixture. The ZX-6R was tuned on VP U4.4 race gas, which tech Dan Schwartz says is good for 5-6 bhp over the AMA-spec Sonoco gas.Erich Stiegler

He fuelled the bike before I went out and then measured the unused fuel when I came in so he could dole out just the right amount for the races. As my sessions approached he warmed up the bike, filling the garage with the sickly-sweet smell of race gas. The shrill bark of the exhaust and the urgency with which the engine revved got my adrenaline pumping even before I headed out on the track.

My first race on Sunday was Production 250, followed immediately by Formula 1—a catch-all class for modified 600s, 750s and large-displacement twins. I was gridded on the left side of row six—a long way from the front but well positioned for a run up the inside going into Turn 1. When the green flag dropped I shot past a half-dozen riders by skirting the pit wall and taking a tight line through Turn 1, then went wide through Turn 2 to ride around a cluster of bikes vying for the inside. Over the next few laps I reeled in numerous riders on the brakes and on the gas between turns, but I was losing ground at the corner exits due to a lack of rear grip. We had switched from an SC1 (soft) tire in practice to an SC2 (medium) for the races due to tearing issues related to track temperature, but neglected to adjust the tire pressure to account for the different compound. Several big slides in the opening laps eroded my confidence, and I only passed one more rider during the second half of the race to finish eighth.

Ari Henning in the race
Ari Henning (73) leads Cole Crowley (287) and Kenyon Kluge (96) through Turn 4 in the 600cc Superbike race. Both riders eventually overtook the author, relegating him to 19th place.Erich Stiegler

We got the tire pressure set properly for the 750cc Superbike race, where I started even further back on the grid in the middle of row seven. I put the added grip to good use and made rapid progress in the opening laps, running as high as eighth place again. With the tire hooking up properly the bike fired out of turns, and I had to pull myself up behind the bubble to keep the front wheel at a manageable height exiting tighter turns. The bike was dialed—all I had to do was man up and ride it right! Unfortunately, I began to fatigue by the halfway mark. I hadn't pedaled my bicycle in a couple weeks, and it was all too evident. As my legs and core weakened my lap times lagged, and two riders slid by me. I finished 10th, impressed by the way the bike performed but disappointed that I wasn't up to riding it.

I was spent, but there wasn't any time to rest because I was also in the next race on the 250. Jorge caught the ZX-6R as I jumped off it and ran to the little Ninja, held at the ready by one of the FLIP employees. When I came in off of the 250 I had 20 minutes to recover, and then it was back on the ZX-6R for the 600cc Superbike race. Switching between the 600 and 250 took a lot of mental energy. The two machines required totally different techniques. If I rolled the 250's throttle open as delicately as I did the 600's, I would barely get moving. And if I twisted the 600's grip as quickly as the 250's, I'd most certainly crash!

Number 73
The Attack bike still bares JD Beach’s #73 from the Daytona 200. The velocity stack protruding from the bike’s flank is the receptacle for the team’s special front stand.Erich Stiegler

The 600cc Superbike class is one of the most hotly contested in the AFM, and it's where most of the fast guys focus their attention. Once again I got a solid start and successfully forced my way through the lap-one melee, but then found myself in the void between the back of the pack and the front-runners. The toll of running five races and pulling double duty on two disparate bikes was too much, and I didn't have the strength or focus to ride the ZX-6R as hard as needed to move up any further. By that time the Pirellis had about 20 race-pace laps on them and were starting to fade, and after a few near-high-sides I decided to throttle back and cruise. Stanboli had told me the ZX-6R would be put up for sale as soon as I brought it back, and I wanted to bring it back in one piece! The fact that I finished more than halfway through the 40-plus-bike pack is simply a testament to the ZX-6R's obscene horsepower, stupid-strong brakes and easy handling.

It would be wonderful to write that my lap times and results improved over the course of the day, but sadly the opposite was true. Even so, it was quite an experience to ride such a finely tuned machine and to have the support and assistance of a trained professional. At the end of the day I was exhausted, but I would have been in much worse shape if Jorge hadn’t been there to help! The weekend’s activities gave me a peak inside the workings of the Attack Performance race team as viewed from the seat of one of their own machines. Considering what the ZX-6R racebike felt like compared to a stock 1000, I can only imagine how ferocious JD’s ZX-10R racer must be!