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A Weekend At the Races: Kawasaki Superbike Showdown at Infineon

There’s an old saying that I’ve heard a million times, and people have said it regarding a million professions. It goes “No one gets into (insert your profession here) for the money”. Since starting my career in journalism, I’ve heard this from more than one journalist. So why DO we get into it, then? Well, it helps to have a job that’s also your hobby, but there is another type of compensation referred to as the “perks”.

Having a garage full of motorcycles is one, but I would say that the best part of being a motorcycle journalist is the opportunity to take ‘working vacations’, flying around the country (and sometimes the world) to ride motorcycles in assorted attractive locales. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do just that, as part of Kawasaki’s annual media pilgrimage to the Kawasaki-sponsored AMA Superbike race weekend at Infineon (formerly Sears Point) Raceway in Sonoma, California.

As one of 20-odd journalists on hand, I had the opportunity to sample the back roads of Northern California’s famed wine country aboard a variety of mounts provided by Kawasaki. Now, I have to preface this by saying that I’m not exactly an expert on every region of the US, but the riding in this area of Northern California is definitely a step up from most of what I’ve experienced near my Southern California home.

Unfortunately, our idyllic weekend was interrupted by the same rainstorm that affected the AMA racers at Infineon, and we didn’t get to do nearly as much riding as I would have liked. Yes, I know, we could have ridden in the rain – depending on how cynical you are, you can put my reluctance to do so down to my being a typical, pampered journalist, or you can chalk it up to the fact that last time I visited the area (for Yamaha’s 2006 FZ1 intro a few months ago), I spent a full day riding in the soggiest conditions I can possibly imagine, short of a full-on monsoon. Despite that recent experience, I again arrived in Sonoma (just as I had for the FZ1 intro) without anything in my gear bag which could possibly be considered ‘rain gear’ – which goes a long way toward explaining my reluctance to get soaked.

The missing rain gear didn’t mean I was short of equipment. – I was hauling two full-sized rollers through the airport, along with a helmet bag and a backpack, and the innocent bystanders whose toes I ran over must have thought I was a sherpa preparing for an upcoming Everest expedition. What the hell did I need so much gear for, you ask? Well, considering that we had plans to ride on the street as well as hit the roadrace track and even the dirt, I had to pack along a wide variety of protective devices, some of which take up quite a bit of space. Not to mention my typical ‘business extra-casual’ attire to get me through 5 days and nights.

Oh, I didn’t mention the track plans? You see, Kawasaki had arranged a few extra-curricular activities beyond the normal street riding; on Friday we competed in a series of pit bike races on a purpose-built motocross track located on land borrowed from a local farmer, and on Monday we had the opportunity to participate in a track day on the Infineon race course!

Kawasaki provided a stable of identically-prepared KLX 110s for the demolition derby, um, I mean motocross race. As usual, the journalists treated the event as if we were competing in the MX des Nations (our publication’s honor rests on our shoulders, and all that), and a minor amount of carnage ensued. The light rain which came down on and off all day didn’t do much to help our chances of keeping things on two wheels, although in my opinion it actually added to the fun factor by making the whole thing much more challenging. Some of the other journalists didn’t seem to enjoy it quite as much as I did, however – which made it easier for me to somehow end up competing in four races instead of the allowed two…

Maybe I’m exaggerating a little about the carnage, since no one got seriously hurt, which is usually a common occurence when journalists are set up in competition. There was, however, an amazing amount of block-passing, take-out moves, and general slip-and-slide fun going on in the mud that day. What amazed me the most was the durability of the KLX 110s – despite a constant pounding by riders weighing (in some cases) as much as a hundred pounds more than the 110′s intended users, these little bikes ‘took a licking and kept on ticking’, as they say. This is even more amazing considering the devil-may-care attitude exhibited by some journalists at this type of event; that is, the certainty that you won’t have to fix it if you break it breeds a sort of casual contempt for a level of ‘equipment conservation’ that most riders would consider normal.

Anyway, all joking at the expense of my profession aside, the pit bike race was a hell of a lot of fun – so much so that I’m planning to buy a KLX 110 of my own any day now. To go with it, I might have to buy another pair of Icon Motorhead riding boots – Kawasaki gave us a pair as a gift to wear while riding the pit bikes, but unfortunately I crashed approximately 72 times in foot-deep mud and in the process turned a nice, new pair of boots into an unidentifiable lump of mud. They worked really well before I attached the 15 pounds of mud, though!

As far as Saturday and Sunday are concerned, I’m not going to go into incredible detail – the racing has already been described in minute detail elsewhere on the ‘net, and my memories of the street riding seem to have faded somewhat when faced with the mind-blowing entertainment of the mud fest and our Monday track day. Suffice it to say that the roads of Sonoma and Napa counties are as beautiful as ever, Kawasaki’s ZX-10 is an excellent mount for a (rapid) bit of tooling around the countryside, and Ben Spies is amazing this year. Now on to the track day.

The big talk among the journos on Sunday was the dismal probability that our Monday track schedule would be rained out, just as part of the weekend’s AMA racing had been. Trying to keep our spirits up despite the gloomy weather, we headed for the giant Playstation trailer (which Kawasaki had rented) to play a bit of Tourist Trophy and Gran Turismo. Keeping a positive outlook about the chances of dry weather on Monday, I took the opportunity to make some laps around Infineon on Tourist Trophy, hoping to get a feel for a circuit that I had never turned a wheel on in my life.

Now, I know some people say that they learn tracks more easily through video games, and Tourist Trophy definitely showed me which way the next corner went, but it had one other unanticipated effect – it was intimidating! Or rather, the track was – attempting to make it all the way through Infineon’s series of blind crests and off-camber exits was incredibly difficult on the Playstation screen, so much so that I went to sleep that night (well, OK, technically it was well into Monday morning before my head touched pillow, but who’s counting?) with a bit of nervous doubt concerning my chances of keeping it ‘rubber side down’ on the track the next day.

I needn’t have worried, as I quickly discovered in my first session aboard the ever-competent ZX-6R. In fact, leaving aside the challenging blind crest in Turn 2, Infineon was easy and FUN to learn, and after a full day of riding there, it is definitely in serious contention for the title of ‘favorite track’ in my mind. The variety of corners, along with the constant elevation change in the first part of a lap, makes Infineon a joy to ride – and when I say Turn 2 is challenging, the challenge is to make yourself go in fast enough! Never during the whole day did I feel in danger of crashing, even when I took out a Ninja 650 (the new parallel twin) and overzealously hammered the foot peg into the ground when turning in for Turn 2 (although that was a little bit startling).

Overall, I had an incredible weekend in Infineon – and here I go ending the article, without even touching on certain parts of the experience! Things like hanging out with Gary Nixon and riding to the airport with MX hero Jeff Emig will stay with me for a long time. I also made a bunch of new friends, one of whom in particular (you know who you are!) I want to thank for keeping me company for a good part of the weekend (the best part, actually).

Yeah, I love my job….