Why has it never been done before? The ultimate shoot out – On one side a 2005 Honda CRF-450 R and on the other side a 1989 Kawasaki KX 500. Maybe the better question is why these bikes.
I am not going to lie. I am not a member of the wrecking crew, and I no longer race. Being of the female persuasion and far from my prime, you might ask what gives me the expertize to write about these bikes. The thing is that I own and ride both bikes with the proviso that I have set them up differently; one for the track and the other for off road.
The 1989 KX 500 is a dinosaur. It was first introduced by Kawasaki in 1983 and vied with the Honda CR500 for top honors on the motocross track until the early 1990’s when Honda gave up the two-stroke horsepower battle and left the Kawasaki to reign supreme. However, today the Honda CR500 is more popular than the Kawasaki in hill-climb events.
The KX500 hasn’t had any major modifications since 1988. It got upside down forks in 1990; with the last updates coming in 1992 with crank and ignition changes when it was recognized that the bike was being used as a cross country race weapon. The bike has been out of production since 2004. So today if you want one you have to look in the used bike ads or get one through Service Honda.
For more information regarding the KX500 see: http://www.dirtbikemagazine.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?type=news&mod=News&mid=9A02E3B96F2A415ABC72CB5F516B4C10&tier=3&nid=9F4F461E88C04C65858CDD3C382A19F5
“For over twenty years it was generally accepted that if any bike made more power than a KX500 it was impractical. The KX500 was seen as the upper boundary of sanity. It might have been true. Today’s 450 four-strokes make the same peak power as the first KX 500 of thirty years ago. But what make the 500 so formidable was its narrow spread and fearsome delivery. It was a bike for real men.”
The other bike is the 2005 Honda CRF 450R, a contemporary 450 four-stroke. It is a bike designed and built for modern motocross tracks. If I remember correctly, one of the off-road motorcycle magazines compared it to using a sledge hammer to crack a nut on a tight track (like the one at Carnegie).
In its displacement class, the CRF450 vies for top honors in professional hill-climb events.
When I got a chance to ride my Honda on the track it railed berms inside or outside. It was easy to power through the turns and land doubles on the down-slope. Sometimes I missed landings by over-jumping tabletops. The suspension can handle anything.
When I first took it on the tight single track trails it seemed top heavy and a little too powerful until I got the hang of it. Then I loved it and took it almost everywhere.
Tracks have changed a lot since the time of the KX500 with big doubles, triples, step-ups and table tops. The suspension of the KX500 would have to be stiffened up to deal with these tracks (I have it valved for Carnegie off road) Although it handles well in the corners and rails berms, it is not built for bad landing like casing a double. It also wallows slightly if slammed into berms or on sharp jump faces at speed.
With that in mind I will always prefer my CRF450 for the motocross track. Over-jumping and flat landings are no sweat on the Honda. Do this very often on the KX500 and you had better inspect the frame for cracks.
For off road; which is the better bike? I don’t ride the Kawasaki because it is a classic but because it has a motor that puts everything else to shame (even my CRF 450).
Both bikes are pretty stock engine wise. The CRF 450 has a radiator brace and a spark arrester screen while the KX 500 has an FMF pipe, FMF silencer, Renthal bars, Wisco piston, and Race Tech Gold Valves installed front and rear.
The previous owner of the KX-500 had replaced the stock gas tank and added a kick stand (which I broke off in a crash years ago), replaced the nineteen inch rear wheel with an eighteen inch wheel and added a mount for enduro time keeping equipment on the bars.
To be sure these bikes come from different eras. The KX is from the time of Brad Lackey and it has not changed much since the introduction of water cooling and disc brakes (the eighties). It has right-side up cartridge forks. The forks look spindly compared to the massive upside down forks on the Honda. The Honda has high speed and low speed compression adjusters and rebound adjustment. The Kawasaki just has compression and rebound adjusters.
The Honda rules on rough fast tracks. It is rock steady going through deep high speed whoops while the Kawasaki feels slightly out of its league at speed going through the really big stuff. The Kawasaki rules on square edged hits, ruts and the rough single track trails found at Carnegie.
The Kawasaki is from a different era with a deeply dished, wide, plush seat (the flying sofa) and bright green fork boots. It is a slightly portly frog next to the Honda’s modern gazelle like exterior. You might ask why I even ride such a dinosaur. It might look like a relic; but in its day it was the unofficial Carnegie bike along with the (then ubiquitous) Honda CR-500. Even today at hill climb events you see ancient 500 ding-a-lings often bettering the times of modern 450 four stokes.
To be sure when I bought the KX-500 (the nineteen nineties) it needed a lot of work. My husband and I rebuilt the top end, replaced the reeds and carburetor, greased the headset and the linkage and had the forks and shocks rebuilt. When the original stock pipe broke off in the header I replaced it with a FMF gnarly pipe and spark arrester.
The original pipe had a ton of power on top and kept on building power as the revs increased but after the rebuild the power-band did not extend very far into the mid-range and I had to shift a lot to accelerate.
I called it the Jolly Green Giant because it had good super friendly power. It did not have the formidable top-end like before the rebuild and new pipe. The KIPS power valve assembly is complicated and maybe, I surmised, we had put it back together incorrectly.
Then in 2005 I stopped riding the KX500. That is until a friend/acquaintance (Mark) said that he could make it right. His sons race the hill climbs with KX500s against a field of mostly Honda CR500s.
In the first round of the 2013 series his son, Shane Speed, was within a few thousandths of a second of multiple hill climb champion, Petey Krunich, in the professional 701 open class using modified street bike engines and extended swing-arms. These bikes have over one hundred and fifty horsepower and it takes unbelievable guts to race them up the hairy professional hill-climb tracts in Sunday’s event. Shane wasn’t even riding his own bike and got second place. He is that good. (Petey also won the professional 125 to 450 class on a CRF450).
As a side note; in the 451 to 700 professional class Joe Shipman, son of Tony of Motomart, beat a slew of CR500s to win. It is a very competitive class and the other standout was Logan Mead on a KTM 640 in second place. Pete Krunich (senior) was third on his CR500 beating his son Petey in fifth place also on a CR500. Shane had problems in his first run and ended up just within the top ten with his KX500. A lot can go wrong on any given run and ruin your overall for the day.
See: http://www.skipspromotions.com/ for more information and results.
Mark is considered the guru of the KX500 as a builder and tuner. He can jet them to perfection and with the addition of just a FMF pipe he can really make a real difference for non competitive riders like myself. His forte is that he can work wonders for real hill climb contestants and cross country racers like his sons Shane and Kyle. With suspension settings and motor work he can unlock hidden potential and make their bikes really fast. He builds and tunes his own bikes and has taught his sons keep theirs in top condition and modify them to make them even better.
He took my bike and fixed the power valve assembly, cleaned out the muffler and jetted it. Then he gave it back to me and asked me how I liked it. WOW!
The power was spectacular. It was never an ordinary bike power wise but afterwards it became a rocket ship. No kidding… It put the stock CRF 450 to shame. The front wheel comes up with just a twist of the throttle.
It can be ridden at low rpms in a high gear and then brought up to speed without shifting or any fancy clutch work. Once the revs rise the power just keeps on getting stronger and it never seems to stop accelerating. It is all I can do to hang on. In optimum conditions I have to use the clutch just to keep the front end down.
Because it is a two-stroke, it feels a lot lighter than the CRF450, which weighs a little less. The two-stroke is a delight in tight gnarly conditions. I never thought that I would find anything to compare with the CRF450 because the Honda has so much power and torque, but with a little help re-jetting the Kawasaki and cleaning out the muffler, I am a true believer in two strokes again.
Compared to the new and improved KX500, the stock and well used CRF450 is somewhat of a powder puff (The Honda still starts first kick hot or cold). Really… The Kawasaki is that good. And we are not talking about a wildly spinning the rear tire, but power to the ground horsepower which results in ungodly acceleration. It picks up like gangbusters in less than optimum conditions and just keeps on going faster. It is there from just a crack of the throttle to WFO and it has great over-rev.
It seems like it has a wide power band as well as incredible peak power by my seat of the pants dynamometer. I am a convert. I never thought that I would ride anything with a broader power-band than my CRF450 and so you can imagine my surprise to learn that unlocking the power of my KX500 would result in this prize. In other words, off road the KX500 beats the CRF450R and wins this shootout hands down in the right conditions (no deep, high speed whoops).
On the track it is the other way around with the Honda CRF 450 four- stroke beating the more powerful KX500 two-stoke. The modern Honda is a much better handling bike and instills confidence no matter how rough the track or how much air you get over the jumps. It steers through corners with or without the throttle, hits berms with a vengeance and is rock solid everywhere.
Off road there are one or two chinks in the Kawasaki’s armor. It can be a reluctant starter because of massive amounts of compression making it a bear to get the engine spinning fast enough. (It has no automatic compression release like the Honda). However, Shane can get it started first kick every time and if I am persistent I can always start it. The other thing is that it has to be properly maintained, expertly tuned and ridden aggressively to be effective. Oops…