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Written By: Joe Oehlhof
Five months ago, Keefer says to me while we were out riding, “Hey, you should race the Vet National.” I responded back with, “Nah, it’s too much work getting ready for it. I don’t have the time.” Of course immediately after Kris is done flapping his lips, his wife Heather chimes in with, “Yeah, you should race it. Kris will get you whatever bike you want.” My head sparked up and for some weird reason my mouth started to reply with, “Alright, in that case I am in”! KK looks at Heather with a scoured look and says, “Wait, wait, wait…Whoa, Whoa, Whoa. You can’t be making those kinds of promises!” A verbal agreement from any Keefer is a binding agreement so I immediately went Law And Order on his ass with “Nope, she said it. That’s the deal.” And Keefer replied with, “OK, we will get you a good bike and let you get it dialed in. Will you race it then?” I reluctantly said, “Yes.” Figuring it would probably never happen with Keefer’s schedule as well it being the fire season here in California (I am a San Bernardino County Fireman). Never the less, we are roughly a week out from the Vet National and here I am preparing myself and a bike that I had about one month of time on.
Getting the actual bike took a little longer than expected because of the “450 MX Bracket Shootout” and other factors, but in the end, Keefer decided to give me the 2020 Kawasaki KX450. Once he told me this, I got excited because I chose this bike as one of the top bike’s in this year’s 450 bracket. It’s a bike I feel really comfortable on, so I was excited to put some time on it, shake it down, and figure out what areas I wanted to address.
Luckily for me, Kawasaki provided a solid base to start from, which helps when you are in a time crunch. The stock Kawasaki 450 is a great all-around bike for a wide range of riders, hence the reason why it got second in the bracket. For me the engine is strong yet very controlled, has a confidence inspiring compliant chassis, coupled with a smooth progressive powerband, that allows you to feel in control, while being able to push your limit. After spending a little over a week shaking this bike down, I came up with a few key areas that I wanted to improve. So here we go with phase one…
First area I wanted to concentrate on was the rider triangle which is really easy because I felt very comfortable with the stock bar position and bend. Call me old school but I do still like the 7/8” bar because of the flex that it provides. Kawasaki offers a lot of adjustability with several different bar position options with the triple clamp and two options with the foot pegs, but after trying several different combinations, I settled on the stock peg position and the bar mounts in the rear hole, facing in the forward position. Once I decided on this setup, I enlisted Pro Taper to provide that next level comfort. I went with the Carmichael bend Fuzion Bar because it’s a 1 ¼” bar, so you get the durability in case you have a crash, but comfort and flex of the 7/8” bar due to the option of locking or unlocking the cross bar. The locked position gives you a little firmer feel with less flex and the unlocked position gives you a bit more flex that mimics the character of a 7/8” bar. Pro Taper also provided the oversized bar mounts, which easily bolted in using the rubber mounting and stock clamp. I rounded it out with the 1/3 waffle soft grips that added grip and comfort for my sissy hands.
Next on the list of improvements was to boost the power for starts. In stock form the Kawasaki KX450 provides a very broad manageable rider friendly powerband, but by no means is this bike slow. The power feels connected to the throttle, has excellent roll on bottom end with a strong pull through mid and top. I had no complaints with the power delivery, I just wanted more. Don’t we all! I called the guys at Pro Circuit knowing that their relationship and years of experience with Kawasaki would provide me what I hopefully needed. They sent me up with their Ti-6 Exhaust which provides a 1.5 pound weight savings as its titanium tubing is thing of beauty. After bolting the system on (which is painless), I immediately noticed improvements throughout the power band. It kept that smooth manageable roll on power, but increased it slightly, plus added more pull in the mid-range and thus improving the recovery time when shifting from second to third. It also provided more over-rev just in case I got lazy (which is more common now that I am over 40) and I needed to leave the KX450 in second gear at times. I know it sounds crazy to have a system that boosts power everywhere because usually it can be better in one area and not so good in another, but this system gave me exactly what I was looking for. I have a couple more options to try to help move the power more, but that will be in phase two of this story so be watching for that.
The last thing I was able to try in this phase of the Keefer forced “Vet National Bike Build” was another “comfort” piece. This piece made big improvements on the 2019 Suzuki RM-Z450 bike build, so we asked Kris Palm of FCP Engine Mounts to help me out for this green machine. Factory Chassis Parts provided engine mounts with different a material and thickness (compared to stock) that allowed the chassis to flex differently yet shockingly provided a smoother overall feel, especially when the track is at its worst. After a long day of testing with Keefer as well as doing two twenty-minute motos at Glen Helen, Kris from FCP bolted the engine mounts on and had me try them. If you have never ridden Glen Helen at 4pm just imagine a track that’s dry, most of the berms are blown out, has edgy off camber sweepers, kickers on the jumps, nasty braking bumps, and even nastier square edges through the corners, as well as down the next straight away. These conditions are commonplace here in California. If I was back home in Ohio, I may have not went this direction because of the soil differences, but since I am dealing with this kind of drier soil here on the west coast, I look for “comfort” when testing any part. It’s miserable to ride a track as rough as GH when you’re not comfortable, but if you can make a bike work in those conditions, you have accomplished a great feat. Like I said before, the Kawasaki chassis is (in my opinion) the best one out there, so I wasn’t sure if the FCP mounts would be able to improve upon that. In a nutshell, the mounts give the chassis just that little bit more flex, which takes away the transfer of energy that happens when you hit those bumps, so you don’t feel the sharpness of them as much. Upon entering corners, the FCP mounts take away some of that harsh hit you may feel and calms the movement of the bike down even more. On initial lean through corners is where the mounts shine by allowing you to brake really hard and stick inside shallow inside west coast ruts. Once in that rut, the bike stays planted and absorbs the acceleration chop better and continues down the next straight in a calmer manner.
I am really happy with the improvements we were able to make with bolt on parts and pieces from Pro Taper, Pro Circuit, and FCP. Taking a good bike and making it a little better is always fun yet tough, so I am looking forward to phase two where I will be testing a remap of the stock ECU by Pro Circuit, modifying the suspension in order to dial it in for my weight and riding ability as well as a full clutch system from Hinson. Stay tuned for that test as well as a Vet National story, to see how all of this preparation in one month’s time goes and the more difficult task of preparing myself with limited riding time due to firefighting duties, dad duties, and husband duties. My hope is to give you guys that have regular jobs and family responsibilities a path to dialing in your bike, so you can enjoy that one day a week you get to ride. -Joe Oehlhof
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