How Kawasaki Conquered Dirt Track: Part 2

Henny Ray Abrams | September 9, 2010

The economics of dirt track racing have been relatively simple for years. Buy a Harley-Davidson XR750, load up the van, go racing. It was a system that worked flawlessly for the past 20-plus years, ever since the AMA drove American Honda out of the sport. Very few people the trend. There were old Hondas that ran early in this decade and Suzuki made a concerted effort before slumping sales forced them out. And then there’s Bill Werner.

Werner won serial titles with Springsteen and Parker before retiring as an employee of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. A few years back he was asked by the AMA to find a low cost alternative to the all-conquering XR750. The first few years were a struggle, as they would be when racing against a bike and brand that has years of accumulated data. But this year things changed. Werner reteamed with Jay Springsteen and brought in Springsteen’s fellow Michiganite, Bryan Smith. There were early battles, which were lost, but that only motivated them to work harder. They tested in Florida early in the year to get a baseline for the Kawasaki Ninja dirt tracer and, armed with that information went on the attack.

It took most of the season before they achieved their first goal, but when it happened it was dramatic. Smith edged out Chris Carr at the Indy Mile, in front of the crowd who’d come, not only for the dirt track, but also for the MotoGP race. Among them were Kawasaki executives who wanted to see firsthand what they’d been backing.

They weren’t very impressed when Werner told them he slept in his Dodge Sprinter-“This thing gets 20 mpg and I sleep in it at night, and I’m thrilled for that,” he told them, but when the checkered flag fell with Smith in front they were ecstatic. The team is run on a shoestring budget, which some in the dirt track community don’t believe.

“There’s some blogs that are out there that people say I’ve spent a quarter million dollars developing this bike,” he says. “$2500 is closer to the mark that $250,000. There’s times I’m almost kind of ashamed of it, because it’s kind of cobby and doesn’t have a great paint job.”

He continues. “I made the statement, that was very controversial, about the first bike that I built costs less than $6000 to build and it did,” Werner insists. “I bought an engine on eBay for $700. I bought a frame for $150 dollars, a stock Kawasaki Ninja frame. And I put it in that chassis.”

When the stock frame proved a handful, Werner took it to his frame fabricator who lowered the engine an inch and a half. He also had a few swingarms built. “Even if you have to pay for it it’s a couple hundred bucks a swingarm.

“But as far the engine modifications, the bike that won Indy, I bought that one one eBay for $700. I’ve got a set of pistons that costs $300, a set of rods that costs $400, a set of cams that were about $500. I made my own exhaust system, but even if you have to buy it, that’d maybe another $600, and a Power Commander. So what does that come to? Not a hell of a lot.”

Rather than race the stock steel frame, Werner had a chrome moly duplicate of the original bike built, because it’s a little lighter than the mild steel tubing, has an adjustable swingarm pivot, and a slightly different engine position. He said the cost of an aftermarket chrome moly chassis is anywhere from $1500 to $2000, Werner said. The gas tank is an old Harley XR gas tank that Werner modified by adding a fuel pump. The fuel tank, which he bought years ago for $300, is now about $900.

And if you can’t find an engine, and have to start with new equipment, Werner said it’s still cost-effective.

“Let’s say you can’t find a $700 engine, you’ve got to buy (Ninja 650R) off the floor, which is a $7100 bike,” he said. “A couple grand with the engine mods, a couple thousand dollar chassis. The wheels, which is the same cost for everyone else. Worst case scenario is you got a $15,000 bike, a $12,000 bike. The Harley (XR750), then engine kit is $11,000 and it costs anywhere from $1500 to $5000 to get it assembled. So right off the bat we’re $10,000 ahead of maybe one of the competitors. The 1098 Ducati, you’ve got buy that off the showroom floor, it’s an expensive bike.” The Suzuki SV650F costs slightly more than the Ninja 650R, Werner said. Werner said that proving you can be competitive without spending a fortune “is going to change the sport, maybe not with the established teams, because they all have alliances with the dealers and suppliers that they have. But all the pro sport guys that are graduating from the 450’s that are looking at something they can build or maintain or a local dealer can support, they come up to me en masse saying, “I’m building one of them next year.”

Werner points out that he has nothing against Harley-Davidson, where he had his greatest success and which he calls a “great company,” but adds that the XR750 requires some specialization.

“It’s an engine with the valve seats that don’t even come in head,” he said. “You’ve got to have a machine shop to put one of them together. And these, that’s not the case. You get parts out of a box and you put them in there. It’s really simple, it’s amazingly simple. But the key again is just building a better mousetrap doesn’t mean you’re going to win. You’ve still got to have a great rider. I’m not trying to discount Brian’s and Jay’s contribution to this, because certainly they’re huge contributors. Because last year on the same bike with the same engine, we didn’t make one main event. We got close a couple times, but we missed it by one or two spots maybe half a dozen times. Again, the main difference is the guy sitting on the seat.”

And the guy with the passion to pull it all together.

Werner and Smith are sponsored by Kawasaki, Monster Energy, Wossner Pistons, Supertrapp, Millenium Technologies, Redline Oil, Web Camshafts, K&N, Sponseller Homes, Cometic Gaskets, Missle Enginering, Boughner Racing, Motion Pro, KK Supply, PMP Sprockets, Decal Works, Shoei Helmets, Oakley, Tucker Rockey, Works Connection, MSR •Universal Coating, Rekluse, West Coast Hotshoes, Pro-Plates, EBC, Penske, Saddlemen, A&A, Terry Evertt, Gene & Gail, Rock Springs Land and Timber, Fluidyne Powersports, Barnett, Renton Coil Springs, Evolution Industries, Pilot Leathers,, Daytona Sensors, Cycra, Engine Ice, Falicon, Mundts Sports Center.

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.