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Common Tread

Is it a good idea to buy a track bike for $1,000?

Apr 02, 2021

Here at Common Tread we’re pretty guilty of focusing on the newest and shiniest motorcycles.

In order to document a new machine, the CT staff often gets to ride fancy and fast motorbikes — Lance on a Street Triple in Spain, Ari on a Superleggera at Laguna Seca — looking to critique a bit of brake fade here or instability there. I’m sure you agree this is important work. The point is, it got us thinking that we were overdue to look at the other end of the spectrum. Instead of hitting the track on a new bike, whether it’s $100,000 or $5,000, what if you only had $1,000 to spend on a track bike?

There are a few ways to interpret this, so we set a couple of basic ground rules for this experience. First of all, no mini bikes. Yes, going to a kart track with an XR100 is a great way to hit the track and do it on the cheap. Then again, it’s hard to find a good mini for a grand nowadays anyway, much less set up to haul an adult on pavement. Second, no aftermarket parts. We agreed that the bikes we purchased would get fresh tires, and we were allowed to change or flush fluids, but aside from making sure they were safe to ride at speed, no upgrades were permitted.

The contenders

If you take a crack at this challenge you’re going to see a lot of middleweight supersport bikes on the used market for what seems like nothing. I just cruised Craigslist while writing this and there was a Honda CBR900RR and a Suzuki Katana 600, within striking distance of our office in L.A., each listed for $1,500 or less. A four-cylinder sport bike is a bad idea for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we’re always preaching about how small or medium-sized twins are the way to go for getting the most out of a track day. Not to mention the tires, or syncing four carburetors. N’thanks.

2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 in a train yard
The Kawasaki Versys 650 Superleggera edition. Maybe it’s the recent resurgence of yesteryear’s style, but it feels like the ER-6N would have benefitted from a round headlight. Photo by Spenser Robert.

With that in mind our talented and enabling director of CTXP, Spenser Robert, found a 2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 in a perfect state of disrepair, for $800. Up and running, but with the bodywork smashed off about 10,000 miles ago. Spenser is the world’s foremost purveyor of Versys 650 sermons, so even though we were all obviously looking for a Suzuki SV650 this Versys was seen as destiny and soon landed in the shop. About five minutes after that it adopted a nickname: The BattleToad.

2015 Honda CBR300R in a dirt lot
Beginner bikes often have a rough go at life, and the CBR’s 13,000 miles seem to have been particularly hard. Especially toward the end. Black paint helps disguise swaths of abrasion. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Ari’s search was also SV-centric, having owned them in the past and being one of the most pragmatic motorcyclists you’ll ever meet. However, after a couple of hot leads on SVs went cold, his heartstrings were plucked yet again by the diminutive Honda CBR300R. Years ago, Ari spent enough time racing and wrenching on little CBRs that he even has his own big-bore piston design. Point being, the crash damage along the right side and the bent levers didn’t seem like a bridge too far, though Ari’s hubris did cause him to fail Used Bike Buying 101 by only viewing the CBR in a darkened garage. The asking price was high, but he talked the guy down to $1,100 and brought this all-black Baby ‘Blade back to the mothership.

Baling wire holding the dash in place on a Kawasaki Versys 650
With no fairing or front subframe, the BattleToad’s dash mount is a little atypical. Sturdy, though, just like the ad promised. Photo by Spenser Robert.

After pumping in some fresh oil and brake fluid, we mounted up fresh rubber on both bikes. I know this is fudging our budget a little, but we tried to play it fair by going with Dunlop’s Sportmax GPR300 option, which shod the BattleToad for $173 and Ari’s Wee-BR for just $165. Other than brake pads that were a little thin and a clutch cable that was crunchier than a box of granola, my Versys seemed sound for a test ride. Oh, and the baling wire holding the dash in place, obviously — we decided that’s more a “feature” of the BattleToad than an issue. Ari’s CBR seemed largely ready to rock, too, and almost looked too clean from the left side.

Missing kill switch on a Honda CBR300R
Twisted together wires keep the CBR running in lieu of a functioning kill switch. Don’t worry, we threw some shrink tubing on the exposed copper. Photo by Spenser Robert.

That was until we rolled it onto the set of The Shop Manual and locked it into the bike lift to take a look at its underbelly. The front wheel was in the chock properly, how come the bike wouldn’t stand up straight? And wait, was the front wheel at a different angle than the rear? Hmm, now that we looked at the scratches on the right side it didn’t look like a bike that got crashed. No, it seemed like this bike was run over. By something big. That explained everything, and just to confirm Ari popped a helmet on and rode around the parking lot to see how it felt. As I watched him ride away from the garage door I could see the wheels were following two different tracks.

A Honda CBR300R rides toward camera with misaligned wheels
You can imagine Ari's heart sinking a little bit when I rode his new bike straight at him. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Ari’s report from the test ride, despite crab-walking around the office park, was that the bike actually felt pretty good. We took the new machines for a cruise to our favorite Italian deli for lunch, and commuted for a couple of days afterward, checking all the while for stuff rattling loose. I’ll admit that the BattleToad’s B-minus brakes and no ABS made me a little nervous. Still, what a smooth operator, cruising down the freeway comfy as you like for an unnaturally naked bike — and those aftermarket headlights turned out to be a treat. Ari basically had the same to say about his machine. “It’s like a three-legged chihuahua,” he said, “it probably looks pathetic limping along all sideways but it doesn’t seem bothered.” Our plan was a go: Scuffed knee pucks or bust. Maybe both.

When the sirens of lean sing

Our destination for the track test was Sonoma Raceway, laid onto a hillside near the swampy shore of the San Pablo Bay, just north of San Francisco. This happens to be one of our favorite circuits in the whole world, so even if our motorcycles were a little janky the prospect of flying over crests and through blind curves was thrilling enough to get our metaphorical tires hot. The literal tires would have warm up on track. No tire warmers in this test.

Sonoma Raceway's Turn 7
Sonoma Raceway’s dozen or so turns are prettiest in the spring, when the rain turns the backdrop green. There’s magic in these hills. Photo by Spenser Robert.

As thorough as we had tried to be in the prep and lead up to this experience, you’ll forgive us for being a little more cautious than usual in our first session out. Neither bike seemed especially eager to turn a fast lap time, and warming up slowly seemed like the prudent thing to do. The CBR was dog slow, even for a 286 cc single. Presumably it was suffering some degree of suffocation due to its crushed muffler. “Most riders opt for a high-flow performance exhaust,” remarked Ari, “but this thing has a low-flow pipe.” 

2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 in Sonoma Raceway's Turn 9
I used red and blue masking tape on the auxiliary high beams at the track, going for the police interceptor look. Photo by GotBlueMilk.

The CBR300R being sluggish was no surprise — the big unknown was how its twisted frame would handle Sonoma’s demanding curves. Ari reported that left-hand turns took far more bar input than was reasonable for a 357-pound machine. Arguably more exciting was that the bike tipped into right handers alarmingly fast, and then would wallow as if a tire had gone flat. If anyone ever suggests a 27-horsepower bike is boring to ride, we’ll suggest they ride our lopsided Wee-BR. Speaking of lopsided, somehow I hadn’t noticed riding on the street (and in the Craigslist ad) that the BattleToad’s handlebar was crooked, so my left hand was slightly ahead of my right. Aside from that and the spongy brakes, though, the Versys seemed ready for more.

What followed was a great day. We blasted around Sonoma with our stock exhaust pipes and ugly paint for a half-dozen sessions of unbridled fun. Ari adapted to the Honda’s wonky steering and attempted to relive his club-racing glory days, and repeatedly came in off the track grinning like an idiot. And even on relatively slow bikes we took risks we wouldn’t dream of on the street. Hell, the little three-legged chihuahua went almost 100 mph, with 20-something horsepower and a bent chassis. I slid the BattleToad’s front tire in one of Sonoma’s fast, downhill esses, which was much more exhilaration than I wanted, but in general had a blast backing the Versys into hairpins and doing wheelies down the front straight. 

Honda CBR300R in Sonoma Raceway's Turn 2
“Hey Charlie, I know I just quit drinkin’, but is that guy’s front wheel leaned over more than his rear?” The three-legged chihuahua dances through Sonoma’s crested, off-camber Turn 2. Ari’s favorite. Photo by GotBlueMilk.

Fittingly, in our last session of the day we both ran out of gas, and in the exact same spot on the track, one lap apart. True friendship is written in the stars, apparently. Ironically, Ari had a tickle of worry the whole day that the little CBR might explode due to a crankshaft recall, but in the end it was our own stupidity that turned us into spectators.

Upshots and chasers

Screenshot of a Craigslist ad for a 2009 Kawasaki Versys 650
Only an adoring owner would list a bike like this. “Seller transparency” indeed. Photo by Spenser Robert.

As we sat in the truck for the 7-hour drive home, chewing over the larger lessons of the experience, we figured it could be billed a success. But, we got lucky. As much as we hate to backtrack on the whole concept and recommend you spend more on a track bike, that was our big takeaway. The BattleToad easily could have been bent or mangled beyond repair when we bought it. Instead, it was an ugly duckling instead of a scrap heap, and we’re forever thankful to the previous owner for loving it.

Ari’s experience with the CBR300R goes to show what can happen if you scrape too close to the bottom of the Craigslist barrel. The fact that it landed in capable hands just means this bike got a fresh lease on life when most others wouldn’t, and it’s a great example of why any of us should probably spend just a little more and get a bike with a slightly less checkered past. If you bump your price basement up to a couple thousand bucks or so, decent examples of 15-year-old bikes with a whiff of sporting prowess will start to populate your feed. That’s where it’s at, and I know we’re not the first to say it.

Honda CBR300R in Sonoma Raceway's Turn 9
Fresh rubber was the only add-on, and we kept it cheap! Even if the GPR300 isn’t an ultra-high-spec tire it’s a great option for any bike in this wheelhouse, and is sticky enough for an intermediate track day. Photo by GotBlueMilk.

To be clear, we absolutely stand by the cheap track bike notion, whether it’s a used 300- or 650-class twin or a minibike on a kart track. To put a finer point on it, nobody needs a fast bike or a wide rear tire to learn and have fun. Whether you choose to replicate our experience of spending just a thousand bucks or you take our better considered advice and spend a little more, getting on track for cheap is a great thing to do while you're waiting for your superbike ride to come in.

Kawasaki Versys 650 and Honda CBR300R posed on the drag strip at Sonoma Raceway
Nineteen hundred dollars of impure performance. Photo by Spenser Robert.