From Mild to Wild: Kawasaki Mean Streak Motorcycle Makeover

Bone-stock muscle twin turned tourer turned race bike—we took Kawasaki's new Vulcan Mean Streak to extremes. By Jamie Elvidge

When I finally switched off the light in my office in Los Angeles it was 7:30pm on a Tuesday. I needed to be in Eureka Springs, Arkansas to attend the Vulcan Riders and Owners (VROC) Annual event on Thursday. Downstairs in our garage a new Vulcan Mean Streak was waiting in the fluorescent den--bone stock, except for a small Fire & Steel windshield that had arrived that afternoon. When I stepped into the mirrored elevator in my well-traveled Cordura suit, the thought of the enchanted hours ahead took my breath away. There are few things in life that flip my switch like mounting a bike for a long-distance ride. And even though the breaker wouldn't be open long, the miles would be many and in their midst I knew I would find peace.

The Mean Streak is Kawasaki's latest edition to a line of 1500cc V-twin-driven cruisers that dates back to 1987, and it's also a contestant in the current V-twin performance cruiser clash, which includes Harley's V-Rod, Honda's burly VTX and Yamaha's Road Star-derived Warrior. The Mean Streak's release into the mosh pit was shadowed by Harley's delivery of its futuristic 1100cc hyper cruiser. Folks were bumping into this newest Kawasaki Vulcan on their dealer's floor though, and desperately wanted to know more than the magazines had been able to find time to tell. We did perform a full test (October 2001 issue) and found the Mean Streak agreeable and well appointed, although not as strong as the V-Rod, VTX or Warrior when it came to off-the-line grunt. The result felt unfortunate to me. Yes, this new class asked to be judged in dyno graphs and dragstrip data, but should sheer output undermine all the other niceties we like in our cruisers? The Mean Streak was the most comfortable and one of the most well finished of the new class, not to mention the performance cruiser with the lowest MSRP ($10,999), yet it was coming out the underdog amidst the more aggressive designs.

So I began to wonder how it would rate if we gave it a little push in the horsepower department. Hence my second reason for rushing out to Arkansas. Our Mean Streak had an appointment with Dave Rollins, owner of Thunder Manufacturing, who would be at the event coaxing a little more poop out of the VROCer's Vulcans. We would adapt Kawasaki's approved Stage 1 kit, which would include Vance & Hines Pro One exhaust as well as an air filter system and an electronic Power Commander to enliven the injection. Then I'd have a couple days to ride the bike around Arkansas to see how it would taste at 80 hp instead of the stock 63 claimed by the factory.

Ah, but my quest wouldn't end there. As some of you might remember from the last issue ("Out to Launch") I'd already committed to a grudge match at the AMA ProStar World Finals in Gainesville, Florida against Speedvision commentator Larry Maiers. My plan for the Mean Streak was to see how far it could stretch. After the VROC rally, the bike would be shipped to the Thunder shop in Phoenix, Arizona, where it would be torn down and given a Stage 2 treatment. This kit would retain the existing mods but add to the recipe a port-and-polish, bigger pistons, larger throttle bodies and more assertive cams. I wanted at least 100 ponies out of this bike before I ticked the light tree.

BEYOND THE FRAY
It takes so long to get away from the hustle when you're headed east out of Los Angeles that by the time you can finally see the stars, you're halfway to Arizona. I pulled the bike off the Interstate when I finally got beyond the grind and just sat there in the stillness of the desert. It's always remarkable to me that vast portions of Southern California have erased their geological situation. Grass doesn't grow out here. Just dreams.

It came quickly this time, the peace. I rode until 2am and clarity was already taking hold. Everything in my life makes sense looking in from out there, and I understand my place on the planet. At the first sign of weight in my eyelids I checked into an ambiguous Best Western just over the Arizona border and slept more soundly than I had in months. I'd started out from the office with a new gel butt pad on the bike--a product I'd been meaning to test, but discarded it after a couple hours (it felt like frozen pizza) and found the stock seat exceedingly comfortable for long stints. I would clock 1100 miles the next day to prove it. In fact, I wasn't uncomfortable at all on the crazy-fast trip and the small accessory windshield offered just the right amount of wind protection without mucking up the lines of the bike.

Wednesday was long, no doubt, and I landed in Amarillo for what remained of the night. I was high and couldn't sleep so I watched The Weather Channel and made notes about the bike. There are several significant differences between this new model and the Vulcan Classic line it was born from. It's way faster for one thing, but it's also more stable. I've ridden a 1500 Classic through these parts where the wind blows the stickers off your helmet, yet the road is so straight and empty you can't help but speed. (Well, I can't.) Trouble with the original Vulcans was they'd get a slow headshake going if you pushed them hard, especially when the rear was weighted with luggage. The more recent models are improved, true, but none compare to the Mean Streak for high-speed stability. Note: This bike is bad for my driving record.

My average-size soft luggage was easily adapted even though there are no appointed hooks. (I used the rear peg brackets and taillight stems.) Happily there is lots of space between the fender, rear brake caliper and the pipes. I had only troubles when I rode the VTX cross-country with the same luggage. You do have to carry bags high on all these bikes though, since the small rear fenders want to suck saddlebags toward the wheel. I was also riding the Mean Streak with a magnetic tank bag and the clean, broad tank made a perfect mount. The beautifully styled tank only holds 4.5 gallons of fuel (one-half gallon less than the Vulcan Classic FI) but more efficient injection and overall lighter weight actually provide a longer range. I could easily ride 145-mile stints before stopping, and I was riding hard.

On my final day I woke up late and spent some time hunting film and spray paint before heading out to the Cadillac Ranch. I wanted to photograph the Mean Streak amidst the colorful, upended relics but it required sneaking through a people-sized gate on the edge of the field. The Mean Streak's front end went in okay, one end of the bar at a time. But just when I thought I was in like Flynn my soft luggage wedged. So much for stealth. Since I couldn't put the kickstand down, I had to wrangle the saddlebags off by sitting backward on the bike. I then shot through the gate like a cork, followed by a stream of bemused tourists. I chuckled over the scene many times during the last leg of the ride from the Texas Panhandle to Arkansas.

The bike had done amazingly well as a straight-line touring mount but the last 80 miles on my route to Eureka Springs required sport be added to the experiment. The unlit twisties were a challenge for me since I was a little buzzed from the drone, but the Mean Streak absorbed the hilly terrain as if it were a preference. Steering is light, but not too quick and the response is always predictable. I got to tune the brakes out there in the hill country since the fast pace I'd been setting had gummed my sense of velocity. The Mean Streak's triple-piston calipers on dual discs up front combined with a single twin-piston disc on the rear offer astounding stopping power without the light-switch feel associated with similar systems found on modern sportbikes. I was running the air-adjustable rear shocks with about 10 psi, which provided just the right amount of tension for me to track a fast, stable line without skittering over irregularities.

Eighteen miles short of my destination I was pulled over by a battalion of Arkansas lawmen. The four Sheriffs and one State Trooper that surrounded my bike were definitely impressed that I'd ridden from California in less than two days, but gave me a whopper of a ticket anyway. They didn't buy my story about how cops in my home state use a combination of colored lights, not just little blue ones when they wanted you to stop. Before escorting me on, they told me to be extra careful on the "crooked roads" ahead and I thought that was pretty darn funny until I passed a sign a few miles later that said "Crooked Road Ahead."

I'd talked to my boss over the howling winds of Oklahoma earlier that day and he asked me how it was going. I said, "Fine, except I'm almost there." It wasn't that I was sorry to be at the VROC rally (something I'd looked forward to for months) or that I was in this incredibly charming and historic town (I'd spend the next couple days fantasizing about moving there). It was falling out of the spell of the road that saddened me--the dimming of lucidity and the return to the restlessness I feel in everyday life.

FASTEST WAY TO FAST
It took about seven minutes for the stock exhaust on the Mean Streak to be replaced by the Pro One system. Steve Rice, who handles Kawasaki's cruiser press relations as well as the Corporation's drag racing effort (strange combo, huh), was on a mission. All of a sudden he's on the ground with Chip Ellis, Kawasaki's 600-hp Funny Bike pilot and I'm standing there having a coffee thinking this kind of service is really pretty cool. Rice and I both wanted the kit on the bike as soon as possible so I could have adequate seat time. I rode it in the pouring rain with just the pipe and came back with the opinion that I couldn't tell if it was much faster because it was so much louder. Loud is commonly mistaken for power, and although I'm sure the pipe offers a slight boost there's no adequate way to read it. So we rolled it over to the Thunder Manufacturing truck for some more definitive enhancement.

This didn't take long either and I was impressed not only with the simplicity of applying the Stage 1 kit but also the affordability (about $570 without the pipe). You end up with a nice looking air filter cover as the only external change (save the exhaust, which is necessary for optimum results). The small Power Commander module is hidden behind the left sidecover. I have come to think of this as Everyman's Hop-Up: Something immediately gratifying that doesn't tamper with the engine internals.

The Mean Streak's change in output was obvious the next time I left the parking lot. "Here you go," I thought as I tore off into the Arkansas countryside. "Now you're sitting pretty among performance cruisers and you still cost less than the others do stock."

That night Kawasaki put on a dinner party for the VROCer's that rivaled most black-tie events I've attended. Black leather was the most notable difference, and when I walked through the doors of the historic Crescent Hotel & Spa I was overcome with the delicious smell of it. Good humor and camaraderie set the mood for dinner and it was interesting to put faces to the names I'd only chatted at over e-mail. VROC is a proud club and strong in its loyalties. It feels tight-knit the way a healthy family does, and I was honored to be accepted in Eureka Springs, which is to this club what a kitchen is to kin.

I announced at dinner that I was looking for someone to ride with the next day and the Dallas Fort Worth Chapter was quick to take me under its wing. I was even more excited that this particular group of men and women was well known for their skill and appetite for fast corners. We had a ball, albeit a chilly one. Yes, this sharpened Mean Streak was even more fun to ride, and yes, I totally recommend the upgrade (although I personally would shop for a quieter pipe).

GOING FOR THE GUSTO
Most of my riding over the next couple of weeks seemed to be on the mirrored elevator back at our publishing offices in Los Angeles and needless to say, it wasn't very exciting. My mind kept wandering to the Mean Streak that had been dropped off at the shop in Arizona for the Stage 2 modifications. Of course these thoughts led me to fantasize about racing the bike at the Gainesville World Finals which rendered a goofy grin just shy of producing drool.

I flew out to Thunder's fast-growing facility the afternoon the engine was to be reassembled. In a little over three hours Dave Rollins and his sons Travis and Trent slipped the new pistons into the slightly expanded sleeves, applied the cams and throttle bodies then buttoned up the cases. There was something very intense about watching that huge motor being brought into the gaping hole in the Mean Streak's frame. Less than an hour later the bike was running and ready for the dyno.

On the first graph, horsepower at the rear wheel was peaking in the 90s, we'd all been hoping for a triple digit. It wasn't until the next day when the motor had cooled and injection had been fully dialed that it hit the mark. The bike was packed for the races running 100.6 hp and 105 foot-pounds of torque. Thunder had produced an identical Mean Streak for my opponent Larry Maiers to ride. The rest was up to me.

OFF TO THE RACES
Sure, I'd had a great time at Rickey Gadson's drag race school, and I'd done pretty well, but it had been almost two months since I'd shocked a heated tire and I'd never done it in front of hundreds of people. So I was a little nervous, but then I'd think of ol' Maiers and what a piece of cake it was going to be to beat him and my heart would ease up. Then the phone call came. Maiers had decided he wasn't cut out for drag racing (yeah, so what?) and would I mind if he sent someone in his place? Well. That someone turned out to be our Speedvision show's producer, Greg White, 30-some years younger than Maiers and brimming with competitive hormones. I also knew White was a veteran motorcycle road racer. My date with clear blue sky was off. This was actually going to be a race.

Both of us took advantage of the test and tune day at the Gainesville Speedway the Thursday before the races began, making as many runs as possible so we could hone our methods. Except for a blast down a busy street in Phoenix the night the motor was first installed, this was the first time I'd ridden the improved Mean Streak. And yes sir, it pulled like a bull. An air shifter fitted at the track was controlled by the horn button--definitely a nicety since my optimum launch rpm was about 4500 rpm and I'd shift just under the limiter at about 5800, which left little time to reel in the old clodhoppers. I was pleased with my end-of-the-day runs (low 12s) and left the track feeling pretty confident.

Friday was a different story. White and I were entered in three classes: Street ET, Pro ET and Hot Rod Cruiser. The first two categories are based on prediction, and won or lost depending on how close you get to your own estimated time. ET is an especially fun class because it doesn't matter how fast your bike is...just your thinking. Hot Rod Cruiser is pure head-to-head racing, and lucky for us, the field was too small to allow disqualifying. I didn't do so well on my first couple of lights. I jumped one and slept through the next. My times were all over the place and it messed with my head that White was pulling faster runs. One minute I was the Queen of the World and the next I'd lost my cool. I was still having fun, but White was looking like a big pin pointed at my balloon.

Our showdown was scheduled for Sunday and I used all my competition runs on Saturday getting my launch back in order. Gadson would sneak in a little coaching when he wasn't busy trying to nail down another championship for Kawasaki. My last run of the day yielded a 12:12, my fastest time yet on the Mean Streak. I was ready for that White boy.

Waiting in line for an hour to get a 12-second thrill isn't very exciting. Or that's what I'd think while I was sitting there. Then I'd move close enough to breathe the smoking rubber and my heart would pound and I'd think, man, I can't take this drag racing--it's just too intense. And finally, each time I'd tick that quarter-mile beam all I could think was I needed to be back in line so I could do it all over again.

I hadn't lost in Street ET yet, but I choked in my race early Sunday morning, which I supposed was best, since it gave me more time to psyche out White before our grudge match. We knew we wouldn't go far in the actual Hot Rod Cruiser class because as quick as our Vulcans were, they weren't up to the 10-second quarter-miles the pro bikes were running. But then again, I wouldn't get on one of those bikes that had been stretched with extreme mods and ride it back to California either. The Mean Streak felt as solid as it ever had and I trusted it just as much.

White and I had both grown fond of waiting in line with the Hot Rod Cruiser riders though. We were few, but we were fun. In all my days of covering races I've never witnessed such a jovial attitude between competitors. When it finally came time for the big showdown, the group insisted we go first so they wouldn't miss it. A pat or two on the back and we were moving toward the burnout box.

When people say, "This is the moment I've been waiting for" they generally aren't talking about something that will last precisely one moment. But here it was. Everything slowed down when I was finally facing down the track and dumping the clutch for that big tire spin. I pulled out of the burnout and took a deep breath. Out of the corner of my eye I could see White jabbing a WWF-style finger my way, but it didn't break my concentration. After heating the tire I did a little practice launch to see how well it hooked up before moving into the groove and inching up to the first beam. The first trigger will light the top staging bulb on the tree, and this is where I typically stop breathing. I pressed myself against the tank, brought the revs up and waited for White to stage. We were running a pro light in this class, so instead of a three-light countdown there was only one full flash before green.

I knew I'd gotten a good light because I never saw it. My launch was healthy and I didn't lose any traction on either end, but White was right there. I pressed myself deeper against the bike and watched the tach. A shift at the wrong rpm would cost the race. I tripped the quarter-mile beam at 12.19 seconds--only 1/10 of a second before White's 12.29 (his best run of the weekend). What a race, indeed. We were both babbling like a couple of five-year-olds when we arrived back at the paddock.

Early the next morning I had to fly back to the grind, but I would've given just about anything to get on the Mean Streak and ride it back to Los Angeles instead. I had no doubts about its reliability, and as a touring mount, it had already proven its strength. I did feel a little better knowing I'd get the chance to log more miles on this machine though, since it was already slated for a long-term test and had yet to receive cosmetics. At this stage of attachment, I wasn't inclined to hand the Mean Streak back to Kawasaki anytime soon. Maybe Dave Rollins could install a 12:1 compression kit and I'd ride it in the ProStar opener next season. Ah, there's the drool.

From the jet I stared down at the empty countryside and the threads that bind it and realized I wasn't really going home. The fount of my contentment has nothing to do with four walls and fuzzy slippers. For me, it's the seat of a motorcycle that offers serenity. And the open road is my front door.

**Resources

**PROSTAR
(256) 852-1101
www.amaprostar.com

THUNDER MANUFACTURING
(602) 269-5033
www.thundermfg.com

For more articles on custom bikes and articles about how to customize and modify your motorcycle, see the Custom section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.