When Kawasaki made a race car
The famous motorcycle brand's first and only venture into 4 wheeled motorsport
In the early seventies snowmobile racing was all the rage. The once calm work horse of farmers quickly fell into the hands of adrenaline junkies. Racing series were popping up left and right and many different manufacturers quickly jumped on the high speed hype train, One of which was Kawasaki.
Kawasaki was the engine supplier for the successful Arctic Cat snowmobiles. It was perfect marketing for the Japanese manufacturer looking to gain popularity in the US. This was all part of Darrel Krause's marketing plan. He was one of the first to be hired by Kawasaki as a corporate employee in the US and already made quite a name for them.
The obvious problem however is that all this took place in winter, so in 1972 Krause had an idea to promote the engines during summer through the means of a race car. This car would race in a new, low cost racing series for cars powered exclusively by snowmobile engines. Together with renowned race car builder Harvey Aschenbrenner they came up with something that looked like a miniature Can-Am racer.
A monocoque chassis made up of square tubing housed the same 70 horsepower 2 cylinder 440cc two stroke racing engine used in the snowmobiles. Aschenbrenner had been given a relatively small budget so a trip to the local salvage yard was in order. He returned with a complete steering rack and a few other minor parts.
Transferring power from the engine to the wheels was a transmission borrowed from an old motorcycle. The 2-stroke engine only started delivering power at around 8000 rpm and the car ran a set of tiny 13 inch wheels so Aschenbrenner had to guess what gear ratio would work best.
A lightweight fiberglass body, made by a local company just down the road, was draped over the chassis resulting in a total weight of 600 pounds/272 kilogram (including the driver).
source: Jeff Krause's Linkedin
When the car was done it was taken to Elko Speedway, a small 1/3 mile speedway, for the first test session. It became clear that the gear ratio was anything but perfect and something had to be done to fix it. Despite this the car did quite a few lap and the speed was certainly there.
After being shown at a yearly snowmobile show the car took to the track again with the gearbox removed all together. Instead an axle clutch took its place that would engage at 7000 rpm. This proved more effective as the car ran a 14.56 second lap time. Just 0.02 seconds slower than the overall lap record set by a "regular" V8 powered stock car.
Keen to further improve the transmission, Aschenbrenner tore the whole car apart and planned on installing a torque converter instead. It was at this point he got a call by Kawasaki telling him that the car had to present for a demo run at Laguna Seca just 2 weeks later for a big motorcycle race.
On location at Elko Speedway. source: Jeff Krause's Linkedin
The car arrived with the torque converter installed but no tests had been done as Aschenbrenner and his team ran out of time. All the effort went into assembling the car again, building an impromptu race trailer and simply driving to the track which was on the other side of the country.
The first day was cut short as the engine blew. The next day a replacement arrived and the car did it's public demo, but it was far from fast. Just two laps were driven at a meager 50 mph. The torque converter was a good idea but wasn't set up correctly at all. They packed their bags and headed back home after a disastrous weekend.
Despite the slow demo run there was a considerable amount of interest in the car and new racing series, but to no avail. The entire project was left in the hands of a new business partner as Aschenbrenner and Krause, together with their families, moved to California under expenses by Kawasaki to help set up a new accessory division.
With nobody left to manage the project and without Kawasaki's further promotional power the car vanished into obscurity. It was the only car created for the stillborn series.