1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Custom: Tribute to “Pops” Yoshimura and Wes Cooley

1976 Kawasaki KZ900 custom motorcycle

1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Build: Return To Riverside

Some things are forever tied together in the public consciousness and there is no way to separate them. Peanut butter and jelly spring to mind, of course. But for those who remember late-1970s/early-’80s superbike racing, Wes Cooley and Yoshimura are also inextricably linked for that era.

Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Cooley’s father ran the club racing organization where the young Wes got his start. Wes honed his skills in the smaller classes before being hired in 1977 by the legendary Japanese tuner “Pops” Yoshimura to race a Kawasaki KZ1000 in the AMA production class.

Cooley’s winning ways started immediately; he won his first AMA Superbike race on the KZ. Although the following year Yoshimura switched to the better handling Suzuki GS1000 machines, that original Kawasaki KZ1000 superbike became imprinted into the consciousness of many fans at the time.

1976 Kawasaki KZ900 custom motorcycle
1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Tribute Build

Russ Norman, a Southern California native, was one such fan.

“I remember watching Wes Cooley come out of the big, banked right-hand sweeper that led onto this short chute, that in turn led into the fast left-hand Turn One,” Norman says, recalling a race at Riverside International Raceway. “Back then you could literally stand inches from the track as the immortals came blasting by. This was when I saw Wes on the Yoshimura Kawasaki Z1 come by with such a howl that it sent chills deep into my core. It was a sound so demonic and attention grabbing, that it stayed with me for my entire life. Over the years I told a number of friends that it was the best sounding bike I had ever heard—and a sound that I swore one day I’d replicate.”

Following a serious two-wheeled accident a few years ago, Norman stayed off motorcycles. But in 2015, he came across a mostly stock 1976 Kawasaki KZ900 that reignited his Wes Cooley/Yoshimura Kawasaki dream.

“Most of my friends told me, for God’s sake, Russ, leave it alone. Look at it! Don’t mess with it! But, I told them stock is for wusses and it simply isn’t in my genes to leave a bike stock. So, that began my quest to build my 900,” Norman says.

1976 Kawasaki KZ900
1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Custom

“It took me about two years to build it. Finding companies that made the parts you see on the bike wasn’t easy. I had never heard of most of these companies, as this was my first time building a bike like this.

“There were many, many miles logged, sourcing parts to and from the various companies that I wanted to be involved in building this bike. There were a lot of phone calls made, and many hours spent searching the Web—a lot of hurry up and wait, until it became almost the norm. But, I was determined and relentless to get the results that I wanted, and I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight.

“The external parts that are clearly visible such as the tank, tail, side covers, and exhaust, as well as other smaller items came from a company called Doremi Collection out of Japan. The four-pipe exhaust from them is a work of art, even down to the tiny Yoshimura logos visible inside the pipe from the rear. I had the whole system ceramic coated by Young Gun Performance Coatings in Rancho Cucamonga to withstand temperatures up to 3000 degrees.”

The paint scheme on the tank, side panels and tail section is a precise replica of the original Yoshimura design and has clearly been meticulously done. “The folks at Doremi told me that the paint was still curing when it arrived from Japan, so I had to unpack it as quickly as possible and leave it to fully harden,” Norman says.

1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Custom Build
1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Custom

The swing arm, adjustable offset triple tree, KYB adjustable fork, wheels, rear sets, and other parts came from JB-Power via the American distributor Hyper Cycle in Van Nuys, Calif. According to Norman, there were at least two full pallets of parts from JB-Power alone.

Other Kawasaki parts Norman needed came from Z1parts.net. “Many times I spoke with Adriana Arroyo there,” Norman says appreciatively. “She was very patient and had even more knowledge about these bikes than many people I know, and apparently she is like this across many other classic bikes, too.

“A big part of the build that isn’t visible is what was done to the engine. I took pretty much the entire motor to CryoHeat in San Diego who treats motorcycle and car components to a sub-zero [350 degrees below zero] process that hardens metal and improves its wear resistance as well. I feel the owner Josh Lahaye is probably the most knowledgeable person in the US when it comes to this process. He went over exactly what he was going to do, but some things were proprietary and he could not go into precise details of how he was going to do them.”

1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Wes Cooley Tribute
1976 Kawasaki KZ900 Custom

“The outcome was amazing,” Norman tells us. “He not only treated the entire engine to the CryoHeat sub-zero process, but also micro-polished all the internal components so the motor acts like no other standard 900 when the revs rise and fall, as well as when the gearbox comes to shifting. It also substantially increases the longevity of the parts.

“Once I had picked up everything from CryoHeat, I took the engine to Carry Andrew at his shop, Hyper-Cycle in Van Nuys. Carry has been a mainstay in So Cal and AMA racing since the ’70s, and he had the cylinder head ported by his guru Mitsu. He then put in his own camshafts that were made to his specs, as well as new pistons, a race crankshaft, and many other engine components. The engine and other assorted parts were then powder coated by the same company that did the exhaust, Young Gun performance coatings, and they did an excellent job.

“Once I picked up the engine from Hyper Cycle, and helping me more than I could have ever imagined, was my friend Willi Sheffer, who is also a former AMA Superbike and BOTT racer from the ’70s and ’80s. Willi spent many days and nights helping me build this bike. Without him, I dare not imagine how long it would have taken to complete it.”

Norman finishes his story with a satisfied smile. “When all was said and done, all the miles traveled and the hurry-up-and-wait all went by the wayside when I hit the starter for the first time, and heard that ground-shaking rumble that only could come from this big two-valve Kawasaki 900 motor. It was just like I remembered.”


Photography by Don Williams

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