Common Tread

Ninjas revisited: A former racer tries Kawasaki's fastest, 30 years later

Dec 05, 2017

When my mother first got together with Bruce, she mentioned he had a history with motorcycles. She didn't know the details, nor could she be bothered to care. Not then, at least.

What I knew about Bruce was he drove a Dodge Viper. And once, he gifted me an old book on Formula One and a shirt from the Australian Grand Prix. Buying my favor? Perhaps. But if you're offering Formula One memorabilia or motorcycle stuff, I'm your huckleberry!

Deeper discussions over IPAs revealed Bruce was not only a motorcycle enthusiast and F1 fan, but was a former racer with a few Daytona 200s on his resume. My mom hit the jackpot!

Fast forward a few years. Bruce and my mother are now married and have moved from the gloom of the Pacific Northwest to the arid sandstone of Arizona. Bruce has bought his first motorcycle in decades. He wanted something that would be fun to ride to work five days a week but would also accommodate my mom on weekend jaunts into the desert. He settled on a Yamaha FZ-09, in silver with the purply-blue wheels.

When Kyra and I came to visit that first winter, all Bruce could talk about was bikes: his bike, the bike he almost bought, the bike he should have bought, or the bikes I had been riding. We poured pints and shot the proverbial shit for hours, night after night. On Sundays we'd watch Formula One and MotoGP, and when he'd get a weekday off, we'd ride.

Bruce Behal, Justin and Kawasaki ZX-10R and ZX-6R
Let's see how motorcycles have improved over the past 30 years. Photo by Kyra Sacdalan.

Last April, as a thank you for his hospitality and to celebrate his 60th birthday, I arranged for Bruce and my mother to accompany us to Austin, Texas, for the MotoGP round. I borrowed a pair of bikes from Ducati and we spent the week leading up to the race riding Texas Hill Country. A must for any motorcyclist as far as I'm concerned.

1987 was the last year Bruce raced a motorcycle. A trip to Daytona for the 200 was the highlight of the year, where Bruce climbed aboard his race-prepped Kawasaki Ninja 750 and battled for position against a field of up-and-coming AMA Pro racers. What did he do when he was done racing motorcycles? Bruce took to boats. Racing offshore powerboats, to be precise. After that, it was cars. Fast cars (see: Viper). Some are surprised when they learn of Bruce’s conquests. His everyday character isn’t boisterous. He is soft spoken and subtle. But he's not slow.

During late-night discussions, the idea of putting another Ninja beneath his butt came up a couple times. Having worked at a Kawasaki dealer during his racing years, Bruce had access to all the bikes, bits and pieces he needed. But that was 30 years ago, and we were both curious how he'd feel about the latest crop of Kawasakis. Bikes which, if we're being realistic, have very little in common with the 1980s iterations.

Bruce Behal
Bruce Behal racing a Kawasaki three decades ago. Photo by Larry Lawrence/Rider Files.

Kawasaki no longer makes a 750 cc sport bike. Today’s Ninjas range from 300 cc to the eye-wateringly fast ZX-14R. So, we sourced the most appropriate pair: Supersport and Superbike, ZX-6R and ZX-10R, respectively. To say we were excited at the opportunity laid in front of us was an understatement, but Bruce being the strong and silent type, I had to pry the excitement out of him.

First impressions are something I take seriously. They set the stage, can change the course and are generally just as important as your final thoughts, especially when it comes to motorcycles. That said, the first thing that came to mind when they rolled the Six and Ten out of the Kawi warehouse in Orange County, California? Holy shit, what have we gotten ourselves into?!

To get acquainted, we decided to do a few hot laps around the neighborhood before hitting the highway headed south toward the Inland Empire. Bruce threw his leg over the ZX-10R, turned the key, flicked and clicked a few things then rolled onto the throttle and out of parking lot. Being the eager and inappropriate person that I am, I squeezed the ZX-6R and slid past, watching revolutions per minute turn into screaming engine sounds and numbers climbing all too closely toward three wide. At our first stop light, Bruce caught up, leaned over and hollered: "This is going to take a little getting used to!"

riding the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R and ZX-6R
So this is what the motorcycle industry has been up to for the past three decades. Photo by Kyra Sacdalan.

We switched bikes shortly thereafter, so Bruce could get a feel for the rev-happy 600 and I could try all the harder to kill myself. After we dipped our toes in the water, we dove onto the Interstate and pointed ourselves south. One twist and your ass is at the back of the saddle, the tachometer turning all kinds of crazy colors as you click through the gears going up, going fast. It's dangerous, really. And then add Southern California traffic and splitting lanes to the equation and you’re just an idiot. An idiot with a big stupid smile on his face and a goddamn race monster between his legs.

Bruce began his racing career aboard a 1000 cc Suzuki. A big, silly thing from the late 1970s. After a few races and a low side that tore up the bike a bit, Bruce decided something smaller was in order. His next bike was Kawasaki's new GPZ 550, and with the help of his then employer, Bellevue Kawasaki, Bruce prepped the bike for racing in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. He finished well that first season on the Kawasaki, and within two years was wearing the AMA District 27 #1 plate. When honored at the banquet for his efforts, however, he gave credit for his title to the fact that another racer – someone he admired – wasn't present for the entire season. How very Bruce of him.

The next year, he moved up to the new 750R Ninja, outfitting the bike with Wiseco pistons, Dunlop tires, better brakes, suspension and an exhaust which pulled more horsepower from the 750 cc in-line, four-cylinder, twin-cam motor, which claimed to make 103 horsepower from the factory. Not bad for the mid-eighties. He raced up and down the West Coast that year with a jaunt out east to compete in the infamous Daytona 200, the crown jewel of the AMA Pro season.

For a guy who hasn't been on a proper sport bike since the late 1980s, I was pretty damn impressed. But I've seen Bruce do this before. Throw a leg over a thing and just go, like he's done it ten thousand times, like he's ridden that exact thing the day before. Confident but not cocky. Our plan was to take these things to the track. Relive his racing days. Dress up like Power Rangers and turn laps until something gave. But our schedule got screwed up, so we settled for twisty roads and a beach day in between.

Murrieta was our launching point the next day with a rough idea of where we were going penciled out in my mind. Ortega Canyon, over the top, and then down to San Clemente for the night, where my mother and Kyra would meet us. From there, we'd head east again towards Palm Springs and the endless array of two-lane twists and turns that are scribbled across that desert landscape like an eight-year-old gone crazy with a crayon.

Bruce Behal and Justin Coffey
A stop for a sarsaparilla and a mental reset. "This is going to take a little getting used to!" Photo by Kyra Sacdalan.

Our first opportunity to test both the bikes and ourselves came as we climbed up Ortega Canyon to the Roadhouse Cafe, where we indulged in sarsaparilla and a snack. The canyon cuts and curves, becoming dangerously narrow through some spots. Traffic was thin, so we were able to tip the things over as one should, rolling onto the throttle and exiting corners at speed. It was the first time Bruce had a handful of the thousand, and you could see it on his face when we sat down for the soda.

"This isn't anything like the bikes I used to ride," were his first remarks. "The thousand is definitely designed to go fast. The riding position is a lot more aggressive than the iteration I was on – it puts all the weight onto your wrists.” I concurred and he added, “It did help stretch out my back, though!"

Aggressive is an understatement when you're talking about a modern liter bike. Built to haul ass, they leave little room for comfort, or consideration for your kidneys. The Ten is an absolute animal. By comparison, the Six felt… uh, svelte? It also required an additional twist of the wrist, forcing me to be more aggressive than I am accustomed to. Power builds, the motor whirring beneath you at unprecedented revolutions per minute, then slingshots you like an elastic band pulled taut and let go. Bruce didn’t enjoy the Six as much as I thought he might.

“You have to rev the shit out of it to stay in the powerband,” he noted. “The Ten has a linear powerband and the output is more predictable, which makes it easier to ride fast, especially when exiting a corner.” Funny how the monstrous Ten can seem tamer than its 600 cc sibling.

riding the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R and ZX-6R
Getting acquainted with the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R and ZX-6R. Photo by Kyra Sacdalan.

We spent a night in San Clemente as planned, then blasted down Highway 78 to Julian for pie — a recommendation from a fellow go-fast motorcycle guy, and one we never take lightly. Pie is important. From there, the 78 turned into the 79, the 79 to the 371, the 371 into the 74 just outside of Anza where we headed east into Palm Desert, but not before ripping our way through the canyons of the San Jacinto Mountains. A short but exhilarating stretch of road that dumps you out into the desolation of California’s eastern desert, Highway 74 — in particular, the section just outside of Palm Desert — offers motorcyclists a chance to truly test themselves.

In the end, we agreed the Ten was our favorite of the two. Its power and delivery were easier to manage, albeit considerably more intense, than the Six’s. As Bruce put it, “This thing will go faster than you want it to, but doesn’t let you die along the way.”

“Sport bikes have evolved so far and so fast, it’s hard to comprehend how anyone can ride one to its full potential. But at the same time, they’re so easy to ride – almost fool-proof thanks to the electronic aids, ABS, traction control, etc.”

Bruce Behal and Kawasaki ZX-10R
Bruce Behal, the author, and two fast Kawasakis. Photo by Kyra Sacdalan.

And that led to one more question that begged to be asked. What if he could put that 2017 Ninja ZX-10R in a time machine and take it back to the 1980s, lining up on the grid with that instead of the bikes he raced back then? The question seemed to take him by surprise.

"Honestly, I never thought about it because I was too busy holding on,” he said.

On the other hand, now that we brought it up, the idea did seem to appeal to him. “I think if I were riding the new ZX-10R with my limited abilities,” he concluded, “I could have been dicing it up with Kevin Schwantz!"