The lust for literbikes
Riders in our sport are always trying to decide what would constitute the perfect racetrack motorcycle. Opinions vary, with only one constant. Whatever the best machine is, it's not the one currently owned! In this "grass is always greener" scenario, bigger is usually better and eventually, most wind up stating that their ultimate object of desire displaces 1000cc. Literbikes are on the top of everyone's wish list but does the reality of owning one as a trackday bike live up to the bench racing hype?
TrackdayMag.com set out to explore this question two years ago, when we picked up a crashed 2008 GSXR 1000 from CrankyApe.com, a company which auctions off wrecked and repossessed vehicles at sites across the country. We drove to their branch in Valdosta, Georgia and rebuilt the machine right there in the parking lot, then headed a few miles down the road to JenningsGP racetrack for a test weekend. Against long odds, our ambitious plan worked perfectly and that first weekend was amazing. The 07/08 Gixxer 1K was all-dominating in the AMA, wining virtually every race for Yoshimura Suzuki riders Matt Mladen and Ben Spies. Even on that first tentative weekend, we could feel what a capable machine we'd acquired.
Last season, our project bike was a 2011 Kawasaki ZX10R, a motorcycle which represents the next generation of literbike technology. Kawasaki came within a few points of winning the World Superbike title with this design in 2012. Its main advantage is lighter weight than previous designs. Kawasaki has worked hard to eliminate unnecessary fat wherever possible. The packaging of this machine leaves no wasted space and results in a 1000cc bike that seems 600 small. This new-age beast actually makes our old Gixxer 1K feel heavy and slow by comparison!
Shock and Awe
Two seasons and two fine motorcycles later, we're ready to comment on the experience of being a 1000cc racetrack rider. First and foremost, we should probably mention the POWER! Oh heaping, hellacious, head-spinning, holeshot-winning, heavy duty horsepower on high! You've been threatened at every rider's meeting you've ever attended that you'll be kicked out if you intentionally pull wheelies but what if they're unintentional? We've tried numerous times to explain to event organizers that we were the innocent victims of an overly-powerful motorcycle and haven't won that argument yet. The problem is that compared to smaller bikes, a 1000 seems to overreact to every twitch of the throttle. Until you're used to it, this can lead to unintentional hooliganism. If you fantasize about being shot from a cannon, we'd recommend riding a literbike as a marginally safer alternative. Hey, at least it has brakes, right?
If you're coming from a 600, 750 or a V-twin, the 1000cc experience is nothing short of terrifying. That thing in your right hand is controlling a process more akin to fission than internal combustion. Almost everything you've learned about riding a motorcycle goes straight out the window when you've got a runaway nuclear reactor between your knees. If you're a corner speed rider, a 1000 will turn every bit of throttle-control confidence that you've ever acquired into an all-consuming fear of highsiding yourself to the moon. If your style is to go deep, brake like a demon, then turn and burn, you're equally screwed. Both braking and corner exit acceleration are radically different on a machine this powerful.
When you step up from a smaller motorcycle to literbike power, everything happens much faster. You're now riding something that will accelerate more rapidly and, in the process, achieve a greater ultimate speed between corners. Because the rest of the machine must be of robust construction to harness its huge engine, a literbike is heavier than its puny brethren. The result is that you'll be arriving at each corner with more speed to burn off and a greater amount of mass to slow. Physics dictates that you'll need to brake earlier. There's a serious mental aspect to consider here as well. A 40mph corner looks far more terrifying at 130 than it does at 100 and aside from the speed difference, there's also velocity to consider. On a slower bike which has pretty much run out of steam by the end of the straight, you wait for your brake marker, then begin to execute your corner sequence when you reach it. When arriving at the end of any straight on a 1000, at the moment of throttle roll-off, your machine is accelerating much harder than a smaller bike would be at that point. This additional thrust has the psychological effect of making the rider feel as if he is being propelled into the corner by forces bent on destroying him. Riders of smaller machines laugh about having literbikes blow past them on a straight and then throw on the brakes pathetically early. Having experienced both sides of that coin, we'll state with absolute confidence that it's far easier to late-brake aboard a slower motorcycle. Saving your braking for the last possible moment aboard a 1000 requires serious courage.
Acceleration and Shifting
As was previously mentioned, literbikes have the tendency to wheelie of their own free will. Since flipping over backwards is not conducive to lower lap times, you'll be spending much of each lap on wheelie prevention duty and yes, that means giving the bike something less than full throttle. Oh, how you'll grow to miss those carefree days when all you had to do was tuck under the bubble and pin it! Being in the correct gear is critical when riding a 600, since if you let the RPMs drop, you'll be waiting all day for some power. On a 1000, you often find yourself loafing around a corner at 5000rpm, just because the motor is much more easily controlled when it's not on the boil. You'll be surprised how much less you shift on a literbike. Second and third gears will be enough for many circuits, with an occasional visit to fourth on longer straights. You'll need a track like Brainerd, Daytona, Road Atlanta or Road America to use all the cogs in a 1K's box.
Horsepower versus Torque
There is a massive difference in personality between 600cc and 1000cc motorcycles. We've often said that a 600cc bike is "the tip of the whip." Its small engine makes horsepower by flowing a great rush of air/fuel mixture through it at high rpm. Slow that mechanical process and forward thrust trails off immediately. As a result, your job as a 600 rider is to maximize the machine's every resource. Revs are your lifeblood and you do what it take to preserve every last one of them. You tap dance on the shifter, charge into every corner with as much momentum as possible and try to slingshot out onto the next straight with as little loss of forward progress as you can manage. You measure your progress on a 600 by how much sooner you can reach full throttle leaving a corner and then how much longer you can stay wide open before you brake. Every extra thousandth of a second at WFO is a victory aboard a 600.
A 1000 is a completely different animal. Here, torque is king. You might be able to plow a field with a literbike. (Lord knows, we've left furrows in more than one runoff area with ours....) Sure, it will make high rpm horsepower like a 600 does but if you're leaned over at that point, the rush of acceleration will overwhelm your rear tire in an instant, leaving the fates to decide whether you'll be sliding, tumbling or soaring to your next destination. Instead, you lug the machine through corners on a fat wave of midrange torque, only allowing the high rpm feeding frenzy to begin once the machine is off-apex and nearing straight up and down. Between trying not to highside and preventing the machine from going over backwards, you'll spend remarkably few seconds of each lap at full throttle. Mastering a 1000's ability to terrify you on approach to your braking zone is no easy task, either. In short, riding a 600 is about maximizing momentum within the limits of traction, while herding a 1000cc monster is about trying to use as much of the available power as possible without allowing the machine to gain the upper hand and pulverize you.
Maintenance and Crash Survivability
It probably won't surprise you to learn that 1000cc motorcycles consume tires, chains, gears, brake pads and gasoline at a rate that makes 600 bikes look downright economical. Through expensive experience, we've learned that you don't want to do a 520 chain conversion or use aluminum sprockets on a racetrack-ridden literbike. Yes, the pros do this in an effort to save weight but they also replace these parts after EVERY session. The rest of us need to buy steel gears in the factory recommended pitch and wrap them in the highest tensile-strength chain available. While it's not recommended for any racetrack-ridden machine, don't even think about using a clip-style master link on a 1K. A riveted link is the way to go every time. Soft, sprint-compound brake pads will disappear at a phenomenal rate when stopping a heavy literbike from racetrack speeds. Trackday participants will find that pads recommended for endurance racing will suit their needs well and for most riders, will offer equal performance. As for gasoline, we've always gone by the rule of thumb that a full tank in the bike plus a five gallon can will get us through a day at most venues. Add a second can to that equation when you make the switch to a 1000.
We've been surprised to observe that on the whole, properly equipped literbikes are quite crashworthy, regardless of manufacturer. Yes, you'll want the usual compliment of armored engine case covers, sliders, clip-ons and rearsets but with these parts installed, your core motorcycle stands a much better chance of surviving drama if it's a 1000cc model. Our speculation is that while motorcycle manufacturers shave every gram from their 600cc machines in order to make them as light as possible, literbikes need to be designed a bit stronger to survive the massive power of their huge engines. This serves the larger bikes well when they begin to tumble. As an example, our 08 GSXR 1K came to us with evidence that its street owner had wheelied it over backwards. Since then, we've slid it down the asphalt three times, with two of those incidents resulting in end-over-end summersaults. While virtually every part that bolts on has been destroyed and replaced at least once during the bike's service life, our machine's frame, swingarm and engine have survived each crash unscathed. The cost savings of being able to rebuild your machine instead of having to replace it can determine when, or perhaps even if, you'll be able to return to the sport.
"Whattaya mean I was in your way? My bike is a THOUSAND!"
We've noticed that some 1000cc riders can become pretty good at accelerating like crazy, braking fiercely to a near-stop, pointing the bike in a new direction and repeating the process. These guys are normally referred to as "Corner Campers" and they pretty much piss off everybody who shares the track with them. When a faster rider on a smaller bike catches someone like this, a war of egos usually ensues. The camper doesn't like being passed on the brakes or in the turn, so he'll use his superior horsepower to retake the other rider down the following straight. To the defense of these individuals, they are at least capitalizing on their literbike's strengths while avoiding the more difficult aspects of maintaining corner speed on a powerful bike. That said, it is our belief that if you want to drag race, you should go to a drag strip. The trackday sport is about cornering and it is there that you should concentrate your efforts. In almost every case, Corner Campers started their racetrack careers aboard a 1000 and have never ridden anything else. Often, they've avoided any form of instruction as well, believing that they are of superior talent already and couldn't possibly learn much from some annoying dude in a silly vest. Are all literbike riders like this? Absolutely not! Can you learn how to ride a racetrack well if you begin on a 1K? Of course that's possible and we've seen many people successfully take this route. It's worth keeping in mind though that a 1000cc machine is not a starter bike. Just like a street rider shouldn't buy one for his first-ever ride, a racetrack rookie would be better served by and likely would make faster progress with a smaller motorcycle, even if he has many years of road riding under his belt.
So is riding a literbike at the racetrack all it's, um.... cracked up to be? That depends. How experienced a rider are you? Make no mistake, a 1000cc motorcycle is quite a bit harder to go fast on than something smaller. Riding one can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. If the circuits in your area offer room for a big bike to stretch its legs, then a 1K will make you very happy but if you normally ride at tight circuits, you'll have more fun at lower cost and burn less energy by wringing every last drop of speed out of something with less power. It is our opinion that a literbike can make a slow rider faster (the corner camping scenario) and a fast rider slower. As an example of the latter, two of our editors were having a spirited ride together at Putnam Park, in Greencastle, Indiana. This course offers a variety of corners from fast to slow and one long straight that really lets a big bike get spooled up. The editor on the 750 was giving his pal on the 1000 fits! They swapped machines and something totally unexpected happened. The 1000 rider went faster on the 750, while the 750 rider did just a few laps on the literbike and came in, commenting, "That thing's way too much work and way too scary for me. It's not my idea of fun." So did the 1000cc editor see the light and renounce his big-motored bruiser? Nope. His take on the situation was, "Man, it's a beast to ride and I know I went faster on the 750 but that big old Thou just puts a smile on my face!" Our conclusion? Life is short. Go with what makes you happy.