How Kawasaki Conquered Dirt Track: Part I

Henny Ray Abrams | September 8, 2010

Bill Werner wanted to give something back to dirt track. He ended up making history.

The most successful tuner in the history of dirt track racing began his quest on eBay and ended up in the winner’s circle. So that when Bryan Smith crossed the Indy Mile finish line, just in front of seven-time Grand National Champion Chris Carr (H-D), he gave Kawasaki their first Grand National Championship win on a mile or half-mile.

The victory was proof that taking an unorthodox approach sometimes paid off. By combining his wisdom and experience with that of fellow dirt track legend Jay Springsteen, the talent of hard-charging Brian Smith, and the adaptable Kawasaki Ninja twin, Werner proved that the cost of entering the winner’s circle doesn’t have to be in the tens of thousands of dollars. And by demonstrating that a winning machine can be built for the fraction of a cost of the Harley-Davidson, the class standard-bearer, Werner opened up the most all-American racing discipline to dealers and riders alike

“The ground support of participants on the youth side has has been overwhelming,” Werner began, “and that’s what we need to do to build the sport. Increased participation instead of the same 20 good old boys that dominate the sport because they’ve got all the connections, parts and money and whatnot, I believe the potential of these two victories will alter the sport. And that’s been my goal from the beginning.”

He continued. “I just wanted to finish the mission I started for the AMA to grow the sport and this is how I think I can help do that. Because it’s a great sport and it just needs more visibility. Because everybody who watches goes, ‘This is really cool. Why isn’t this on TV every week?'”

Werner said the difference from being close and winning was “the guy sitting on the seat. That’s pretty obvious, because I struggled for a couple years before. And that’s not to discredit the other guys. They’re good racers. But I think Bryan’s (Smith) real strength, comingled with Jay Springsteen, is putting the thing that happens in microseconds into words that I can understand that I can try to make a mechanical fix for.”

“Bryan’s real strength is his demeanor and his insights into what’s happening on the motorcycle and how he puts it into words as to what he’s feeling that I can’t see or I can’t feel. I wish we could have onboard telemetry and all that stuff that they do in road racing, because that would simplify it, but it’s against the rules.”

What was also critical was a one day test in Florida. The first time Smith rode it in Florida this past winter he couldn’t make the main at a non-National. The team rented a track and Werner, Springsteen, and Smith spent the day going through suspension and fuel injection adjustments. Werner can tailor the power to the track, because it’s fuel injected, and make useable power.

“You can open up a laptop and you can change the fuel delivery to alter the power curve significantly by adding or subtracting fuel throughout the range. It’s a modern engine; it’s not something you can do with carburetor bikes readily. But finding the right iteration of power and suspension, all those things takes time and you have to go to race tracks to do that. I mean, if it was all just power, I could do that alone on the dyno. But it’s not. And that’s the single most challenging thing to dirt track development is getting on race tracks, because most teams can’t afford to rent race tracks, spend a day testing different iterations. We can’t even. We only did it once. Because it’s expensive, it’s hard to do, so everybody in dirt track racing tests at the races. That’s not a quick trip to development, so to speak.”

Werner added that “Harley-Davidson so dominant is because it’s got 30 years of track experience. And all the other brands trying to beat that particular brand, are faced with the challenge of limited track time and in this economy a lot of them have limited resources, ourselves included.”

The difference between the Kawasaki Ninja and the other large displacement twins isn’t in horsepower, the difference is in torque. “Ours doesn’t make that much torque, so it’s like a big rubber band that winds up. Where the 1098 Ducati torque makes bags and torque and a fair amount of horsepower on top, but all that torque makes it hard to ride unless you’re 10,000 feet up in the air. It was a perfect storm for them at Arizona,” where Joe Kopp gave Ducati their first Grand National win, “because of the elevation. There the torque paid off for them because everything was a little bit punier. He doesn’t even ride it on the half-miles anymore, because it’s very difficult to ride. And on the miles, the last two miles I’ve seen, he struggled with mid-corner handling, and whether that’s chassis-related or suspension-related or the combination of chassis, suspension, and power, it’s hard for me to say, because I’m not in the mix of their team. But those are just the things we struggled with early in the year.”

The struggles stopped at the Indy Mile, a track where Smith was a fast qualifier last year on his XR750 by over half a second. Smith was fast qualifier by almost half a second. He won his heat race, but finished third in the Expert Dash for Cash, but only by .132 secs. to Chris Carr.

“We missed the mark on gearing and a little bit on suspension,” Werner said. “When we’re right on, he’s very competitive and very capable of winning. And if we don’t get our ducks in a row we’re not. It’s just like anybody else.”

The team judged wrong on gearing-it was on the rev limiter for the last 50 feet before he went into the corners-and that slowed him down. “But it comes off the corner real good and it hooks up real good because it’s a soft engine down low and builds momentum like most of short-stroke engines do compared to big booming engines, larger displacement.” Still, Smith edged Carr by .139 secs. in the 25-lap main and Kawasaki had their first GNC win on a long track.

A week later at the Springfield Mile, Smith was again fast qualifier, again won his heat, again was third in the Dash for Cash, and again beat Carr, this time by .047 secs.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to win all the races,” Werner said. “We feel confident. We’ve got two miles and a half-mile left. We’ve learned a lot during the year. Some of the tracks we didn’t particularly look forward to.” Werner hasn’t been to the Knoxville, Iowa half-mile since 1996, when he won with Scott Parker. “So I have a little history there and I have some notes about the Harley. And obviously my challenge was converting the Harley notes to some sort of interaction that I have to do with the Kawasaki, both gearing and suspension. That doesn’t mean that there’s a direct formula correlation. But it gives me some insight.”

Next weekend’s Minneapolis mile is also familiar. Parker won that one in 1997, “but they assured me the track won’t be like it was when we raced there in ‘97. It was a big deep cushion. They’re going to scrape all the deep loose aggregate off it and make it a hard pack.. I prefer the cushion, because I think that goes towards Brian’s strengths a little bit, but we’ve done OK on hard packs too.

“Does that mean we’re going to win? I think we’ll be competitive. I think we have a shot at winning. Everybody thinks they’re going to do good and only a few do so.”

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.