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Green Goes Big
LCA’s report from the annual Kawasaki dealer meeting
Story by Laurel C. Allen

Smoke still lingered from the high-speed car chase; the smell of burning rubber wafted off the rear wheels of motorcycles that had disappeared into tunnels; the sun beat down on 4,000 people who’d just witnessed foreign agents of espionage pop out of European-style storefronts and jump into little autos that promptly flipped onto one side and drove off on only two wheels, hotly pursued by black dirt bikes … and it was only 8:30 a.m.

High above the smoke and echoes of blipping throttles, a Jumbotron displayed an image of Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA President Steve Hamada, whose speech—which was delivered in carefully enunciated English—simultaneously appeared as text on the screen overhead. After welcoming the dealers and describing the achievements of the company’s 2005 program, Hamada finally delivered the words that road race fans had been longing to hear: “In 2006, Kawasaki will be returning to AMA Superbike racing.” A roar of approval tore loose from the grandstands as dealers and media alike wobbled to their feet to cheer the prospect of a genuinely exciting 2006 race season.

True, most of us had been more surprised by the early morning stunt show than by the “news” that Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden will be lining up against the mighty Suzukis come March (the rumors had been circulating for a good six weeks prior), but it was reassuring to hear it straight from the company’s top brass and an excellent way to kick off Kawasaki’s Orlando dealer event.

Soon, the 2006 models were being rolled out, and after a seemingly endless parade of lustrous Vulcans ( Kawi will be offering no less than 13 basic Vulcan cruiser models in 2006), it took the sound of sport bikes (plus AMA Western Ad Manager Sarah Schilke’s elbow in my ribs) to make me sit up straight.

Race fans immediately recognized the rider of the ZX-10 on stage—Tommy Hayden’s standard Joe Rocket race leathers gave him away—but when Roger (also in leathers) pulled in on a smaller, more upright bike, the spectacle was, well … cute, and kind of weird-looking. The bike, however, was of great interest; though it was difficult to see from high above the arena’s floor, it was clear that Kawi was using Rog to showcase it’s new Ninja 650R, a bike meant to give dealers a weapon against the awesome selling power of Suzuki’s SV650S. (And to offer another choice for riders who favor a lightweight, flick-able street bike but who don’t want to sacrifice styling or speed.) On a side note, Tommy and Roger performed their roles in the show flawlessly … looks like those two 5:30 a.m. mandatory practice sessions paid off.

Almost before the applause had died down, another roar from stage left announced the presence of a brand new animal—Kawasaki’s ZX-14, affectionately referred to by Kawasaki staff as “the Hayabusa-killer.” It’s 1400cc mean no other sport bike on the market can match its displacement; I turned left to share my concerns about the number of inexperienced, 18-year-old guys who will soon be dreaming of 14s with UrbanCyclez.com’s Stacey Newby, but she was salivating too loudly to hear me.

The show wasn’t over quite yet … the ATVs and Mules made their own burly little appearances, jet skis raced up and down in the moat in front of the speakers’ podium, and the infamous James “Bubba” Stewart stopped by for a visit riding the KX450F he’s always wanted, as did 16-year-old Team Monster Energy/Pro Circuit phenom Ryan Villopoto. After a slight delay (necessitated by the task of getting thousands of people loaded into hundreds of buses), we all headed for Disney’s Coronado resort—Kawasaki headquarters for the weekend—to get a better look at the bikes of 2006.

Though it took some work to sit still in the hot sun for more than an hour, it was nothing compared to the events of the previous morning, when Kawasaki had loaded up the journalists for a session at Richard Petty’s Driving Experience, which allows participants the opportunity to drive a NASCAR racecar while wearing fireproof suits heavy enough to make you sweat out your sins of the night before. Twelve laps later, novice drivers had a printout of their top speeds (as well as the opportunity to buy pictures of themselves in the driver’s seat flashing cheesy grins, for $89) and I had the shameful memory of almost tossing cookies while on a ride-along with one of the instructors. Road Racing World’s Steve Atlas (actually his real name) maintained that he’d logged the fastest lap time, but he was probably lying.

Back at the Coronado, Kawasaki had taken over one of the resort’s ballrooms, and I doubt that room had ever looked as good. Cooling darkness was punctuated by spotlights that highlighted gleaming motorcycles, and a giant display in the center of the room drew attendees into a world of chrome, clean lines, and engines that seemed to bulge with barely restrained power. Behind the main display was a Kawi semi familiar to anyone who’s attended a national road or motocross race—autograph central for those seeking a signature from Tommy, Roger, Bubba, Ryan, or off-roader Destry Abbott.

In the sport bike section, the 650R and ZX-14 were the stars of the show, hordes of people surrounding each bike and jostling cameras for a clear shot. (Small children were not spared in the melee.) The 650R was impressively good-looking up close, from its ruby-red frame and two-tone color scheme (beautiful matte silvers and grays) to the little details of its styling, like front turn signals that are integrated into the fairing. Priced at $6,299 (MSRP), it’s primed to compete with the Suzuki SV650S, which carries a 2005 MSRP of $6,449. Can’t wait to actually ride one.

Though it was flanked by other fierce-looking sport bikes, the ZX-14, too, was impossible to miss. It’s a wide, big bike—we’re talking whale-shark-esque here—but still manages to look mean. (If I opened my basement door and found one waiting for me, I’d probably scream.) Though $11,499 isn’t exactly chump-change, it’s a couple thousand less than I expected and only $300 more than the ZX-10R. It’s tempting to wonder what the payoff is in building a bike that big (how many can you actually sell?), but the answer, according to Kawi Media Relations Coordinator Greg Lasiewski, isn’t much of a mystery. “We call it the Hayabusa-beater for a reason,” he says. “That bike has had a lot of success; it’s a popular segment. So that’s the market we’re shooting for.”

The ZX-14 will replace the ZX-12, targeting the same demographic: a group of people who, according to a Kawi owners’ survey, are 98 percent male, 39 percent between the ages of 35 and 44 (32 percent are ages 25-34), 57 percent married, and 81 percent of whom have more than five years of riding experience. Though there are certainly a few 18-year-olds with zero riding experience factored into the mix, that stereotype obviously doesn’t define the majority of the big-bore market.

“The American people want bigger and better,” says Lasiewski. “They want bragging rights.”

The paint on almost all the Kawi bikes was noticeably cooler than that on last year’s models; designers seem to be experimenting not only with color, but with finishes—from deep, rich sparkles to the aforementioned mattes, which lend the machines an aura of speed-serious modernity. When can you expect to see them? The 650R and ZX-14 will lag a bit behind the other bikes; dealerships should start to receive the 650R in late 2005, and the ZX-14 late in the first quarter of 2006.

Though Stewart and Villopoto weren’t seen much outside of official functions, Tommy and Rog made a mellow excursion to Downtown Disney one night, mostly so Roger could show off his “lawnmower” dance move. Were the Kawi factory riders celebrating the perfect end to a great season? Nah—forget championships and double-wins; the brothers were most excited about having received their first Road Racer X custom shield stickers.

Sunday, like Saturday, was packed full of dealer seminars … “Cashing in on the Female Motorcycle Customer” made its first appearance in the Kawasaki seminar lineup, and represented another effort by Kawi—which can already claim the biggest piece of the quickly growing female-motorcyclist market—to educate their dealers about ways to attract and keep female customers. Panel members Genevieve Schmitt, Laura Roach, and racer Deb Kuick fielded questions from the hundreds of dealers in attendance on subjects that ranged from the mechanical (what size bike should I recommend?) to the aesthetic (how do I make my shop attractive to women?), with plenty of help from the front-row peanut gallery, i.e. Sarah Schilke, Stacey Newby, and myself.

Then it was back to the pool for another—I mean, the first—margarita. The steady stream of dealers strolling back to their rooms to pack up and head home—returning to dealerships across the world, from Guam to Mexico to Minnesota—was a sure sign that our time in “The Happiest Place on Earth” (which smelled suspiciously like it had a goose-overpopulation problem) was nearing its end. Fortunately, it’s only the beginning for race fans and customers; the 2006 lineup will make its way to a dealership near you while Tommy and Roger make their way to various tracks around the country for testing. Once the season begins, they’ll have seven short months to prove what man and machine can do … before it all starts over again.
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