Kawasaki’s Zero to Hero Challenge brings Sportbike Drag Racing to Television…
Editorial with Event Overview
Words: Brock Davidson
Photos: Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A. /
In an effort unparalleled in the history of the modern sportbikes, Kawasaki Motor Corp. (KMC) has not only acknowledged sportbike motorcycle drag racing, but put forth a considerable amount of time, effort, and expense to showcase our discipline for mainstream motorsports enthusiasts to view this summer on SPEED TV.
A quick breakdown of the Zero to Hero Challenge concept was this: Submit an essay entitled, “Why I am qualified to race Rickey Gadson” (View complete contest rules here.)
Out of the 3,000+ essays submitted, entrants were painstakingly whittled down to 8 semi-finalists by Kawasaki’s marketing staff, combined with personal phone interviews of the top 20 conducted by Rickey Gadson himself. The eight were then judged by the public via the Kawasaki.com website from their personally submitted bio with photo. (Click here to view semifinalist’s bios - Reading their bio's you will easily see why they were chosen)
Left to right: Angie Young, Jim Markham, Rickey Gadson, Shawn Ellison, Robert Parker, and LaDon Hall
After the public had spoken, the 4 top vote receivers were the finalists (the 5th highest, Hall joined as an alternate.) They then travelled to Las Vegas Motor Speedway to attend a 2 day Rickey Gadson Drag Racing School aboard slammed and stretched 2012 ZX-14Rs.
During my interviews there was one common theme amongst all five Zero to Hero Challenge competitors, it was praise towards their Rickey Gadson Drag Racing School experience.
At the completion of the school, the competitors had to pass the official NHRA test criteria to qualify for their ET Motorcycle Competition License. Generally, this would entail making two full passes of 9.99 or quicker, but because of the LVMS high altitude, that number has been softened to 10.15. Because I don’t want to ruin any of the drama of the upcoming show, and BELIEVE ME when I say there was plenty of drama, I’ll just continue on. The semi-finalists raced each other in a bracket-race format, and for the finale, the winner out of the four, faced off against our beloved 9-time Drag Racing Champion, in a best two-out-of-three bracket-race, for the key to a brand new stock ZX-14R which had sat glistening in the sun at the starting line for two full days, taunting the contestants during each and every burnout.
I won’t tell you which competitor was in serious jeopardy of not even making the cut to receive a competition license, much less exactly what chaos unfolded just before the final. Just remember my drama comment, and stay tuned to dragbike.com for show airtimes.
I would like to take a moment to try to define the lengths with which Kawasaki has gone with regard to the Zero to Hero Challenge and bringing this show to SPEED TV. Of course, their job is to sell motorcycles, and I’m not pretending otherwise, but when was the last time a major OEM placed this type of emphasis toward the mainstream market using sportbike drag racing? I can answer that question in a few words… never in my lifetime.
The Zero to Hero Challenge concept began in August 2011 and was unveiled during the Long Beach event of the International Motorcycle Show in December. KMC produced marketing material which included high quality posters and other literature to include with the Zero to Hero bike, built by Gadson, which accompanied him on the six show east coast leg of the tour finishing at Bikeweek 2012 in Daytona. In addition to YouTube videos and various web promotions, KMC also produced stand-ups of Gadson, which were sent to every Kawasaki dealership in the country, plus sent postcards to text “ZeroToHero” to every Kawasaki sportbike customer in their database.
I asked Kawasaki Motor Corp. marketing and communications specialist, Aimee Soto, to briefly describe the logistics involved to put on a television broadcast like the Zero to Hero Challenge, and she summed it up like this:
‘Fuse Interactive is Kawasaki’s, advertising and video production agency, and they handled the entire production of the Zero to Hero Challenge shoot, which will air on SPEED TV. Next Level PR was also involved. Their account director, Tom McGovern, provided project support which was invaluable since he is highly knowledgeable about the sport. The two agencies worked hand-in-hand with Kawasaki marketing to develop the program and implement it as you saw.’
She continued, ‘We were all very hands on and took a lot of pride in ensuring that the finalists had a GREAT experience, which in return would naturally make for great content. As you know, Rickey Gadson is the king of the sport, and Kawasaki is more than just a brand of bikes. Speaking as someone who had a lot of opportunity to speak with the finalists about the experience, it made me feel good to know we had such a positive impact on their lives.’
Pressure? We all feel it, but at what level? Most people have different thresholds at which we crack under it, but where? Tough-types think they can take piles of it, yet some will internally give up before they even begin. Are we born with a certain ‘breaking point,’ or is stress-induced failure (or success) a trained mental skill? Better yet, I’ve heard long time racer John Force proclaim, “I’d rather be lucky than good any day,” and well, we are in Las Vegas…
One thing is for certain… there was no shortage of pressure for the ‘chosen four.’ In fact, the stakes were higher than most professional drag racer’s current paydays. With a Golden Blaze Green Edition (with special graphics) ZX-14R on the line (which comes with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $14,899,) a boom camera bouncing about, sound guys and multiple camera men in their faces constantly, it was difficult to imagine just how uptight these everyday/inexperienced novices felt at the idea of racing each other, much less faced with the daunting task of having to deal with a seasoned pro, like Rickey Gadson, in a best ‘two out of three’ showdown at the end of the day to actually ‘bring home the key’.
Gadson giving, Angie Young, some pointers as the ever-present cameras roll. Ashon ‘Capo’ Dickerson assisted during the event while the Monster Energy umbrella girls added an extra touch of ‘factory race day feel’ and some added relief from the blistering Vegas heat.
When I say everyday/inexperienced, let me break it down for you. The object of this challenge was not to provide a bike to borderline pros so they could go out and challenge Mr. Gadson in an effort to make the 14R look good for the cameras, NOR was it to let someone who has the financial means to purchase their own ZX-14R simply shortcut the process. These competitors were all hard working, dedicated folks who love motorcycles and hopefully had enough overall experience to meet the licensing requirements at the end of the day. The real question was if they would also possess the situational awareness required to race an ultra-powerful machine like the ZX-14R on the drag strip after attending the school, without stress testing their new Speed and Strength gear. The new ZX-14R is a seriously fast motorcycle, especially after being “Brock-ed out” (if I do say so myself.)
Gadson’s best time in good conditions is 8.54@160 MPH. As I said, KMC even brought in an alternate, in advance, just in case of a crash or miscue in the license department, etc... I will also say this… there was a LARGE disparity in rider skill level. With over ¾ of a second separating the quickest semi-finalist’s runs of 8.90s in the Vegas heat and corrected altitude of over 4600 ft. Once again, in the interest of not spoiling the show ending, I’m going to leave out the details, but pressure control was definitely the key… I’ll let you decide for yourself which ‘pressure level’ prevailed.
With high desert temps in the mid-to-high 90s for most of the event, and corrected density altitude readings above 4600 ft., the competitors had their hands full of reasons to NOT go fast. Even so, rookie Robert Parker, still managed an 8.94 second ET aboard a pump-gas fueled, bolt-on only, modified Rickey Gadson Drag Racing School ZX-14R. (Editor’s Note: Robert’s run corrected to sea level would have been in the 8.60s.)
Robert impressed all with 1.45 short times right out of the gate.
Angie was looking for all of the help she could get!
The quiet Texan, Shawn Ellison, and his brother, Michael, worked as a team and looked great in qualifying.
US Army Major and motorcycle safety specialist, Jim Markham, was physically the largest competitor of the bunch, but he didn’t let that keep him from doing well in eliminations.
Of course, I realize that a quick Internet search will tell anyone that Ms. “Slick-Wicked,” Angie Young, of Anderson, SC is the proud owner of a new 2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R. Congratulations Angie from all of your friends at Dragbike.com! (But the only way you will know the REAL STORY of how she obtained the bike STAYS in VEGAS is if you watch the Zero to Hero Challenge broadcast on SPEED TV this summer!)
So that’s my take on the Zero to Hero Challenge and Kawasaki’s overall involvement in our sport. Is the ZX-14R the greatest motorcycle I’ve ever ridden? It certainly is for my personal application as a bolt-on and go rocket. Is Kawasaki ruling the roost in supporting sportbike motorcycle drag racing like no other company? Most definitely! So even if you might not have been a fan in the past, I hope you recognize a good thing when you see it and give them a second look the next time you are in the market for a new machine.
Until next time,
Brock Davidson for Dragbike.com
Want to see more? Check out the Zero to Hero Gallery