Although it’s easy to forget, the American road racing circuit hasn’t always been dominated by Japanese motorcycles. In 1976, Reg Pridmore rode to victory in the first-ever American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Superbike Championship riding a BMW R90S.
It wasn’t until the next year, 1977, that Pridmore became the first rider to win a U.S. Superbike national race on a Japanese motorcycle when he won the AMA Superbike race at Pocono that year, piloting a Pierre des Roches-tuned Racecrafters Kawasaki KZ1000 to victory. Running #163, Pridmore went on to win the championship on the Racecrafters Kawi in 1977, and then again in 1978 on the Team Vetter Kawasaki KZ1000.
When vintage race bike enthusiast Mike DiSabatino decided to build a tribute vintage racer honoring the early days of Superbike racing, he couldn’t think of anything better than to honor the Kawasaki KZ1000 and Reg Pridmore by making his own rendition of the famous #163 Vetter Kawasaki KZ1000. His personal twist was to make it street legal.
Coincidence or fate?
DiSabatino didn’t come to this lightly. A CPA by day and avid motorcyclist when time allows, DiSabatino was the founder and developer of SportbikeS.com, once the highest-trafficked motorcycle site on the web. He’s also the executive director of Riders University, a registered public charity for the benefit of training motorcycle riders.
Once he’d decided to do the build, DiSabatino started looking for someone to handle the actual construction and discussed the project with several willing wrenches. The project eventually caught the attention of Thad Wolff, an ex-AMA Superbike racer and motorcycle restorer with more than a few projects under his wing.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wolff battled the likes of Freddie Spencer, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson and Wes Cooley. He was AHRMA Superbike Champion in 2007, and stays active as a track instructor and professional rider today. “When I met Thad, I asked him about his abilities as a mechanic. His response was vague and he steered the conversation to, ‘show me what you want done.’ Thad never told me his history as a racer. He never even told me of his personal experience with this era of bikes, never mind his current racing career,” DiSabatino says. As they were to discover, DiSabatino and Wolff’s paths had crossed before.
In 1982, DiSabatino, an avid photographer then in his teens, managed to wrangle press credentials for the AMA Superbike races at Pocono. Shortly after they had met, DiSabatino showed Wolff photos he had of the 1982 Pocono Superbike race to convey the theme of the bike build. As DiSabatino shuffled through the pictures, he couldn’t help but notice Wolff commenting on riders and crew members by name, as if he personally knew them. When DiSabatino flipped across an image of Wolff on his Suzuki GS racing at Pocono, the picture was complete: Fate had brought together photographer and racer, two men who’d never met before, but who shared a common interest in a unique point in the past.
The build really got into gear when Cycle World expressed an interest in having the bike on display at their booth for the 2009 International Motorcycle Show in Los Angeles.
The basics of the build consisted of constructing an earlier Kawasaki KZ1000 tail section, and handcrafting custom parts similar to des Roches’ original bike, including rearsets and linkage, caliper mounts for the Lockheed calipers and a handmade exhaust. The frame was stripped, straightened, strengthened and powder-coated in a luster finish to replicate the original factory finish. Although the pair consulted daily, Wolff took control of the build, fabricating the necessary aluminum parts and making all the necessary exhaust and frame modifications.
The engine was soda blasted to remove the factory black paint used on the G-spec bike, then punched out to 1,105cc. The fuel injection system was removed and a carbureted head fed with four 34mm Mikuni RS flat slide carbs running velocity stacks was substituted. The engine also received larger cams and a Dyna electronic ignition with Accel wires.
Challenges included the unique rear-mounted oil cooler that des Roches ran on the original racers. DiSabatino searched high and low for a period-correct cooler with no luck, but then Wolff noticed one on a friend’s bike and a trade was made. Wolff determined the original steering damper was sourced from a Honda 350, and found one on eBay. The rear suspension was modified per Pridmore’s bike, and custom Works Performance gas shocks were fitted to look like old-school Konis, while the front shocks were reworked internally. Wolff had started removing some “meat” on the front fork legs as des Roches did to lighten them, but stopped after discussing the mod with Pridmore, who told him the lightened fork legs cracked while racing. Wolff also made the aluminum side covers.
As the AMA race series required bikes to be equipped with a headlight bucket and taillight lens, Wolff kept them wired up on the replica, and he installed a set of minimalist LED turn signals. The original rear fender was omitted to save bulk and weight, so a bit of fabrication was needed for the rear taillight mount. DiSabatino and Wolff both knew the replica wouldn’t be complete without the decals used on the original bike. Wolff came up with several original decals from his collection, and DiSabatino had any missing decals replicated. The Accel patches sewed onto the custom saddle are period correct, courtesy of Wolff.
Other details include the Bassani plate on the exhaust — direct from Bassani. The handmade pipes are identical to the original racer’s, except the replica’s pipes are finished with a matte black ceramic coating.
Although obviously not an original feature, one of the final details of the build was getting Pridmore and Vetter to sign the replica’s tank. The original tail section featured des Roches’ name as the builder, but as des Roches died in a military helicopter accident in the 1980s, DiSabatino asked Wolff to add his signature on the tail, with a tribute to des Roches. Finally, DiSabatino took the bike to Willow Springs Raceway, where Pridmore was holding one of his CLASS school days. There, Pridmore gave the bike his blessing with a three lap ride around the big track.
Although the original Pridmore/Vetter Kawasaki KZ1000 still exists, it’s not for sale and probably never will be. But by building his own replica, DiSabatino gets the thrill of riding and owning a bike that carved out a unique spot in motorcycle history, a reminder of a time that, unlike the bike, can never be duplicated.