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Common Tread

Can a sub-$10,000 Ninja reinvigorate the Supersport class?

Oct 25, 2018

A little over two years ago, I went out on a limb and speculated that the 600 class — once the most coveted category among the Big Four — was about to go extinct. I suppose I owe you an apology.

World Superbike and MotoAmerica still have 600 Supersport support classes. Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki still have 600 cc race reps in their U.S. lineups, and Kawasaki just splurged on a flashier-than-usual launch for the reskinned 2019 ZX-6R. So to paraphrase another Mark, rumors of the demise of the 600 class were exaggerated.

2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R
Without ABS and in the gray color, the 2019 Kawasaki ZX-6R slips in under $10,000. Given that price and $500,000 in contingency, Kawasaki has high hopes it will boost Supersport-class grids next year. Photo by Kevin Wing.

I was wrong, but for the right reasons

Back in 2016, when a rumor caused me to predict the demise of the whole 600 category, I was overreacting. But let’s face it: the class pretty much went into hibernation. Before the Great Recession, the Big Four seemed to start with a clean sheet every four years and issue a major revision when new models were only two years old. That was then.

Suzuki has hardly updated the GSX-R600 since 2011. Honda’s current CBR600RR dates from 2013. Yes, Yamaha released an updated YZF-R6 in 2017 — and the MotoAmerica Supersport class is, for all intents and purposes, almost an R6 spec class. But there are rumors Yamaha won’t even field an official team in 2019.

Kawasaki at AIMExpo
The new ZX-6Rs were kept under wraps at Kawasaki's booth at AIMExpo. The new middleweight was definitely the star of the show for Kawasaki. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

They’ve always said, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” but Yamaha’s lukewarm reaction to Supersport domination is more evidence for my theory that, in reality, it’s “Sell Monday through Saturday, in order to race on Sunday.” What I mean by that is, motorcycle companies are staffed by a bunch of guys (and some gals) who love racing. If they can afford it, they’ll field factory teams, because they live for that shit.

But racing motorcycles don’t really run on gasoline, they run on money. If the money’s not there, you don’t race. I’ve not been made privy to Yamaha’s R6 sales, but I can guarantee you that if they were selling thousands of them — as they were 10 years ago — Graves Motorsports would already have signed riders for next year.

What was the downfall of the 600s? They used to sell really well — partly because they were mistakenly thought of as "beginner bikes," which was ludicrous. Now, new riders have mo’ better choices in the 300-400 cc category, and there’s a burgeoning selection of 650-and-bigger twins that are more user-friendly middleweights for riders stepping up.

Ironically, those are both categories in which Kawasaki really helped erode the appeal of a razor-sharp across-the-frame four. But the 600 class’ biggest problem is that it costs almost as much to build a middleweight as it does to build an open-class sport bike. So a base-model GSX-R600 carries an $11,399 sticker; the R6 goes for $12,199; and a CBR600RR with ABS lists for $12,799. The few riders springing for new crotch rockets can buy an open-classer for just a bit more. Even buyers with the good sense to want a less intimidating 600 will quickly surmise that the category has barely evolved in recent years; used bikes are just as good as new ones.

Looking at the motorcycle market, I would not have been surprised to hear that the ZX-6R was killed off. But instead, Kawasaki has doubled down by dropping the base price an impressive $1,700.

1985 Kawasaki Ninja
The 1985 ZX 600-A1 seems quaint now, with its steel perimeter frame, but it offered stunning middleweight performance back in the day. Kawasaki photo.

Ninja history, abridged

Kawasaki was an early entrant into the 600 cc "race rep" market way back in 1985. But as the sales category heated up and 600s got sharper and more track-focused, it was harder for Kawasaki to stay competitive. For the 2003 model year, Kawasaki made a bold strategic decision to bump both bore and stroke, increasing the displacement of the ZX-6R to 636 cc. There really is no replacement for displacement; the boost really improved the Ninja’s rideability.

2003 Kawasaki Ninja
In 2003, a 37 cc displacement boost meant that the base model Ninja was no longer eligible in AMA Pro Racing’s Supersport class. For a few years, Kawasaki made enough 599 cc RR models to keep the model homologated. Kawasaki photo.

Remember motorcycle magazines? Those things printed on paper and sold on news stands? Fifteen years ago, every bike mag made its annual "600 Comparo!" issue a splashy cover story. Sport Rider magazine — which was too authoritative to survive into the present day — split its 600-class comparison into street and track tests. That was a tacit acknowledgement that the category had become so track-oriented that some models’ real-world usability was compromised. The bored-and-stroked first-gen 636 cc Ninja won SR’s street fight.

That begs the question: Is a 636 cc four now legal in a class that’s nominally restricted to 600 cc?

I shot a Facebook message to WERA’s Sean Clarke, who quickly responded, “The 636 has been legal in our C classes since it came out, same rules for our 600 classes in the National Challenge Series.”

2007 Kawasaki Ninja
In 2007, Kawasaki dropped the 636 model in favor of a new, race-legal 599 cc Ninja. Roger Lee Hayden used it to win the AMA Supersport Championship and then the bottom fell out of the market during the Great Recession. Kawasaki photo.

What about MotoAmerica? As it happened, I ran into Chuck Aksland at AIMExpo. He told me that the previous-gen 636 had been homologated through the 2018 season, even though it was nominally above the displacement limit. “I imagine that if the motor’s the same, we’d have no problem with it. But,” he cautioned me, “you should confirm that with [Technical Director] James Morse.”

Morse did confirm it via email, adding, “The bike will be legal and no balancing will be needed. In the past, we put a weight penalty on it but found it was unnecessary.” Ouch, eh? Even with a 37 cc displacement advantage, it can’t break the stranglehold that the Yamaha R6 has on the class.

The R6 is, to be sure, an excellent starting point. And yes, Supersport race bikes look fairly stock, because the frame and swingarm, wheels and fork externals, and bodywork shape must all remain stock. But MotoAmerica’s 16 pages of Supersport technical regulations still allow for plenty of development.

Fork internals and rear shock are only subject to a fairly generous price cap; a kit harness and ECU are permitted, again subject to price cap; some head work’s allowed; radiators, clutches and exhausts are almost unrestricted. It may look as if there’s only a few different bikes on the grid, but under the fairings, the development permutations are endless.

2013 Kawasaki Ninja
In 2013, Kawasaki bumped the ZX-6R back to 636 cc. Kawasaki photo.

Honestly, I don’t think the ZX-6R’s stock components hold it back in MotoAmerica; the frame and swingarm are exactly the same ones Kenan Sufuoglu used to win the FIM’s World Supersport title as recently as 2016. Yamaha’s advantage in the U.S. championship comes down — perhaps — to the availability of key kit components, and — definitely — to the massive knowledge base that’s been built up around the R6.

Starting from scratch with a new bike and making it competitive against the likes of the Yamaha in MotoAmerica would take a season or two of testing, development, and money. The Kawi guys I talked to were all careful to disabuse me of any "factory" plans for 2019. A race shop with a wealth of experience, like Attack Performance, could probably make the 636 a contender, given time and budget. There are even rumors that Yamaha and Graves Performance will part ways. It would be sweet revenge for Chuck Graves to win a major championship for Kawasaki — not that I think that’s gonna happen.

MotoAmerica Supersport race
This photo from Road America is typical of any shot of the front of the MotoAmerica Supersport field: Valentin Debise (53) on a Suzuki and a fleet of Yamaha YZF-R6s. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

So for now, “If you want to win, you have to be on an R6,” will likely remain a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does that mean Miguel Duhamel was lying to me when he said, “If you could put the 20-year-old me on that bike, I’d win the championship”? No. It’s just that riders of his talent and audacity don’t come along every year.

However, the new ZX-6R is a great race bike for mortals, who have to come up through the ranks before jumping into the MotoAmerica deep end. After riding it for a couple of sessions, Duhamel was genuinely excited — almost giddy — about how good it was, even in street-legal trim.

“My fear is that there’s some kid out there who could become the Michael Jordan of our sport, but he’s not going to even try, because he thinks that you can’t win unless you’re on some big team with factory equipment,” Duhamel told me. “This is the message you [journalists] have to get out — that these bikes are so good you can show your talent, and for less than ten grand!”

Miguel Duhamel on the ZX-6R
Miguel Duhamel rode the 2019 ZX-6R and came away convinced that the Supersport class is now an even more viable stepping-stone in a young pro’s career. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Of course Kawasaki would love to see a younger version of Miguel on a Ninja, at the front of the MotoAmerica grid. But the company is trying to be realistic: club racers and track-day riders are the target market for $9,999 base model. Team Green’s already posted $500,000 in ZX-6R contingency for next season, with payouts for 150 events in over a dozen series.

When I mentioned the new Ninja’s $9,999 base price, WERA’s Sean Clarke messaged me to say, “Yeah, I fully expect to see a lot of them next season.”

Roger and Tommy Hayden on Kawasakis
In 2006, Roger and Tommy Hayden rode Kawasakis in AMA competition with Roger competing in both Supersport and Superbike. Kawasaki photo.

So will the ZX-6R “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday”?

Despite my skepticism about the marketing value of race wins, I would love to be proven wrong by the new ZX-6R. The Ninja "600" has been a significant model for Kawasaki for more than 30 years. I love that Kawasaki’s dropped the price on the new one. I love that they still believe that if club racers and track-day riders adopt it, they’ll influence recreational riders.

So, can the the 2019 ZX-6R fulfill Kawasaki’s ambitious plan to revitalize a once-thriving racing class, to say nothing of an entire category of motorcycle? After riding it on both street and track last week, I was reminded of something that’s been easy to forget over the decade: Middleweight race reps like this are simply the most fun you can have on asphalt.