Race-Ready 300-pound Ninja 400 From Norton Motorsports
Back in late 2017, I found myself twisting the throttle of the then all-new Kawasaki Ninja 400 around the legendary corners of Sonoma Raceway. That was a good day. Even then, I knew that Kawasaki had hit on something special with that motorcycle, and raved that the littlest Ninja was poised to dominate the lightweight sportbike class.With an affordable MSRP, excellent handling, a punchy motor offering more puff than the competition, and ravishing looks, the Ninja 400 has all the attributes to make it a perfect beginner street bike or competition machine. It dropped into the market at an ideal moment—there is a lightweight sportbike renaissance in the US market afoot, sparked by the KTM RC 390 and Yamaha YZF-R3.
Since then, the Kawasaki Ninja 400 has become a force. In its first year, the Ninja 400 took home the 2018 World Supersport 300 Championship with Ana Carrasco at the helm, followed by a title this year with Manuel González as its pilot.Stateside, Rocco Landers dominated the 2019 Liqui Moly Junior Cup class in MotoAmerica, winning 14 of 17 races during the recently wrapped up season. The motorcycle Landers piloted was initially built by none other than American road racing legend Jeremy Toye and his Ninja400R.com project, which launched last year in partnership with Hot Bodies Racing.Toye, a renown bike builder, riding coach, and champion racer, has more street cred than you can shake a stick at, with the Isle of Man TT, Macau GP, Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, AMA Superbike, AMA Flat Track, and even some professional car racing on his resume. This is a man who knows what it takes to ride at the top level, and win, too. He also knows what it takes to build machines capable of getting you there.The impetus of Ninja400R.com can be described in three ways. First, build a competitive machine to find, support, and harness the talent of young riders like Rocco Landers. The second objective is to show the potential of the Ninja 400 platform. Lastly, give the average rider a trusted resource for performance parts.The Ninja400R.com project was off to a good start. Life being what it is and obligations being what they are, Toye and Hot Bodies Racing had to bring in some help to manage it all and joined forces with Jesse Norton of YamahaR3Racing.com, another trusted resource in the lightweight game.Norton is cut from a different cloth than Toye. An engineer by trade, Norton has over a decade of experience working in high-tech manufacturing, ranging from aerospace, defense, and even medical equipment. CNC and 3D design are his forte. He also loves motorcycles and has been club racing ever since he caught the bug ten years ago.Together, their enthusiasm for the sport is palpable. I can’t think a better pairing of minds – the hyper-focused psyche of a former racer and bike builder, combined with a calculating engineer capable of manufacturing what they need to get the job done.Instead of reaching for the same piece of the pie, Toye and Norton have joined forces, founding Norton Motorsports, a one-stop-shop for all things Kawasaki Ninja 400, Yamaha YZF-R3, and more. The objectives remain the same—Norton Motorsports provides performance hardware for everyone of any skill level, plus the experience and wealth of knowledge to support their customers.Many of the products on the Norton Motorsports site are developed in house and designed by Norton and Toye. If they aren’t, then they are produced by trusted manufacturers and tested by the Norton Motorsports duo. This includes everything from replacement mirrors to blueprinted CNC-machined engine heads; there isn’t a thing missing for riders looking to improve their lightweight steeds. There is also loads of content from fueling, installation guides, and other helpful articles on the Norton Motorsports site.Beyond that, Norton Motorsports offers complete race versions of the Kawasaki Ninja 400 and Yamaha YZF-R3. They make it easy, with options ranging from simple race prepping with safety-wire and crash protection, to a Standard Track build that includes a full exhaust system, upgraded suspension, and plenty more to a race-ready MotoAmerica Junior Cup/FIM Spec machine. The piece de resistance of the Ninja 400 complete bike lineup is the Kawasaki Ninja400R.com SuperBike Club Racer Spec Bike.“We didn’t want to go too far with these bikes,” Toye said. “We could have thrown a ZX-6R front end on there, split the cases and blueprint everything, but that isn’t what we’re trying to do here. We want to build bikes that are attainable and manageable for the average rider or family.”At $8995 for the Novice Club Racer Spec bike, $11,520 for the Expert Club Racer Spec Bike, and $12,800 for the MotoAmerica/FIM Cup Spec Bike, they are inexpensive for track-ready road-racing motorcycles. If you’re interested in picking up the SuperBike Club Racer Spec version, it will set you back $15,135.All the parts in those packages are available on the Norton Motorsports website and can be customized to suit your needs. Unless ordering all the parts and doing all the work yourself, you’re not going to find a better deal for such a niche bike, nor is it going to be in such ship shape.The Ninja400R.com SuperBike Spec build is the no holds barred, full-blown, everything and the kitchen sink build. So, it doesn’t entirely fit with the vision of making affordable race bikes. This is about showing the potential of the platform and getting the most out of it. Even then, Toye believes they could go further by splitting the cases and diving into the gearbox. The racing rabbit hole is endless.I recently gave the Ninja400R.com SuperBike a whirl at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Let me make one thing clear—it is hands down one of the most fun motorcycles I’ve ever ridden and certainly among the best setup bikes, too. Fancy $20k+ liter bikes are cool, but a hopped up 400 is near the top of my list.I rode it alongside a stock Kawasaki Ninja 400 to provide some perspective on the improvements. If you think that isn’t a fair fight, let’s contextualize it. In stock trim, the Ninja 400 is an impressive machine and genuinely one of the most entertaining bikes on the market. Although it is built to a price-point, you’re getting a massive amount of bike and capabilities for bargain-bin prices. This isn’t about naysaying the stock Ninja—quite the opposite.If a veteran SuperBike racer such as Toye can pull his helmet off after one session on a stock 400 and be giddier than a kid in a candy store, I think that speaks volumes about what we have here.Riding the stock Kawasaki Ninja 400 to get refamiliarized with the tight, 17-turn, 2.68-mile circuit, I was grinning ear to ear aboard the wee Ninja. It’s light, nimble, laughably compliant, and extremely forgiving. Both Toye and I lapped around Chuckwalla on the stock machine and drew the same conclusions—this little bike rips.The 400 SuperBike is a different beast altogether, though it still retains many of the qualities that we know about the Ninja 400. It’s still agile, easy to ride, confidence-inspiring, and wickedly fun while at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of power.That makes sense as there has been extensive engine work and suspension upgrades, though the frame, fork, and swingarm remain the same. Suspension tweaks alter the geometry, but the Ninja400.com build still very much a production motorcycle.Before finishing my first lap, the firmness difference between each chassis was more than evident. The stock Ninja 400’s non-adjustable 41mm fork and spring-preload adjustable shock keep the bike on the straight and narrow when tipping into many of the sweeping corners at Chuckwalla. The street-biased settings, soft springs, and equally plush damping make the whole affair a comfy one, even when riding at track paces.Major bumps are often hidden from the rider, which is excellent in terms of comfort. However, that does mean your feedback isn’t as precise. Grabbing too much brake sees you blowing through the fork and exposing your lousy riding habits, which can be argued is a good thing.The stock Ninja 400 is more prone to dramatic weight transfer due to the softer suspension. A significant input will often have an even more significant reaction felt through the entirety of the chassis. Your movements need to be deliberate and smooth to ensure that you’re not making the bike fidget. Transitioning through chicanes, if done aggressively, upsets the stock Ninja due to how incredibly compliant the bike is. Rolling down and out of turn nine compresses the Ninja 400’s suspension, and a nice compression bump exacerbates the situation.It’s a stark contrast on the SuperBike Club Racer Spec Bike with the fully adjustable GP Suspension 25mm cartridge kit installed and a fully adjustable Penske 8983 shock, both featuring proprietary Rocco Landers valving. Heavier springs and more substantial damping aren’t the only changes. A fork brace by Ninja400R.com gives the traditional fork far more integrity. Also, the geometry is altered by raising the rear roughly three-quarters of an inch and choking up on the fork a bit.All the playful compliance of the stock bike is eliminated and demands direction from the rider, in all the best ways possible. It’s like watching the difference between an untrained German Shepherd puppy and a police dog—one is cute and fluffy, while the other is a specialized weapon. If you want to put the front of the 400 SuperBike on a dime-sized-spot on the track, that is where it’s going, and it won’t deviate until you give inputs saying otherwise.Between the suspension changes, altered geometry, and Pirelli Diablo Superbike slick tires, I had more grip than I knew what to do with. The front end feels more substantial than the stock machine, allowing you to dive into corners and put all your faith into that front wheel. It reminds me of the sensation that you’d get on a stock 600 or other middleweights, with loads of information being perfectly telegraphed the rider.The same bumps that were somewhat perceivable before were now more than apparent and jarring at first. After a couple of laps to settle in, it was more than evident that I wasn’t going to be pushing the front end hard enough to lose it in rough sections of track and I’d begun the slow climb from slow to less-slow, carrying greater roll-speed, just as you should on a lightweight machine.Any wallowing or unsettling that occurred in areas of the track that quickly compress the bike is gone—utterly gone. The GP and Penske suspension combination works incredibly well with perfectly smooth actuation. Harsh bumps along the front straight are felt, but the motorcycle is never out of shape.Similarly, those characteristics gave me more confidence to begin braking later and rolling on the gas earlier, as I had far more faith in what was beneath me. The Kawasaki Ninja400.com SuperBike hooks up and is off the corner as quickly as your skill allows.Now, as this is a track-only bike, things such as lights, emissions equipment, wiring, and what not have been left by the wayside. In running order, the 400 SuperBike weighs about 305 pounds—about 57 pounds less than the stock machine. Undoubtedly, that contributes to everything said here.Those aspects of the SuperBike are the easily attainable sides of it. On a stock machine, we can open our wallets, and be the financial sadists that all motorcycles are to get that exact result. The important thing is that we’ve gained the ability to tune the suspension for our needs and skill level. If you opt for the MotoAmerica Junior Cup Spec build, this is what you’ll experience in terms of handling.The next step is the 399cc parallel twin. An untouched Ninja 400 makes about 45 horsepower and 25 ft/lbs of torque with no modifications. However, Toye and Norton have done extensive work to the motor, employing the Ninja400R Velocity Stacks and Ram Air System, Norton Racing Bored Throttle Bodies, Ninja400R SuperBike Ported Cylinder Head w/ High Lift Intake and Exhaust Camshafts, a .010 Thin Head Gasket, and a Graves Motorsports full exhaust system. Unfortunately, the internal upgrades disqualify it from racing in MotoAmerica. Their loss is our gain because this thing fierce.That’s quite a mouthful of parts, and peak results are 62 horsepower and 41 ft/lbs of torque when running on race fuel. Mind you, these are numbers recorded at the wheel, not the crank. On pump gas, you’ll lose a couple of horses and ft/lbs of torque. Either way, you’re looking at roughly a 25 percent gain in power.An unaltered Ninja 400 has plenty of power on the streets and happily cruises at freeway speeds with no issues. On the track, it’s a similar story. It has enough power to be used as a great training tool for anyone getting into sport riding, compared to a 250cc or 300cc, which feels like its losing steam in the straights. This is the type of power that lets a rider comprehend what is going on, without succumbing to the sensory overload that is associated with larger, more powerful motorcycles.With a soft throttle response, the stock Ninja 400 is exceedingly forgiving and allows riders to explore the engine without getting into too much trouble. The SuperBike, as you might imagine, kicks everything up a notch.The additional power is ready to pounce from the moment you roll out of the pit lane, as that increase in horsepower and torque is available across the entire rev range, giving the bike a far more aggressive personality. Though boasting higher figures, the power delivery is even more progressive and consistent. It pulls happily from lower in the rev-range than before due to having more torque on hand, making power that is edging towards middleweight V-twin machines. It’s a joy to ride, with power that I can wrap my head around.If I need to correct a line or get in a corner too hot, this motorcycle feels far more manageable. When you’re still riding at speeds where there are consequences, the 400 and R3 platforms are extremely good training tools. Speaking of consequences, I also know why turn 9 is affectionately referred to as Crash Corner.Surprisingly, what stood out most wasn’t the increase in power, which was excellent. That the power is delivered so smoothly is even more critical, and is directly attributable to the flawless fueling. I review stock motorcycles almost exclusively, many of which have proper fueling. Nothing I’ve tested has a throttle connection this solid and responsive as I felt here. An aRacer RC2 Super ECU featuring a map was developed in house, working in conjunction with an aRacer Autotuner was used.Coupled with a quick turn throttle, anyone in the saddle of the Ninja400R SuperBike can twist the grip and get into the meat of it instantly, picking up every apex, and burying the tachometer in a hurry.There is a caveat. If you can open throttle in half the time it takes to open a stock one, that means you can close it in half the time, too. There is a significant penalty for riders that aren’t smooth with their inputs.Beyond that, there is the gearbox. In the street, the Ninja 400’s gearbox has never once cried foul, and I’ve never caught a missed shift, either. On the track, the higher pace and higher rpm can result in missed shifts or false neutrals if you’re not extremely deliberate with your gear changes.Overall, the stock Kawasaki Ninja 400 is designed to have a light clutch pull, with a shift lever that takes zero effort to operate and, to its credit, it does precisely that. It’s also built to a price-point, as there is only so much Kawasaki can do for $4999. Don’t expect it to have the tight gearbox of a ZX-10R without paying literbike prices.When the pace hots up, you’ll want more positive shifting with additional feedback through the lever. To tighten the gearbox up and get it race-ready, the Norton lads added their Ninja400R Race Spec Clutch Upgrade Kit w/ Barnett Springs and Plates, making the clutch pull stouter, along with a Ninja400R Blueprinted Shift Change Shaft, which helps alleviate those mis-shifts. In the end, it tightens everything in the gearbox up and would be among the first changes I’d make to a 400 of my own. Also, a quickshifter was thrown in because race bike.During the introduction of the Ninja 400, a few of my colleagues and I commented on how the single 310mm petal disc and basic axial master-cylinder did quite well. There was a bit of fade and not all that much feel, though they work fine. In the 90+ degree heat of Chuckwalla, I felt similarly.Toye and Norton didn’t seem to be content with good enough and opted for a BrakeTech Axis/Cobra 6mm rotor, Norton Race Spec braided lines and Ferodo CPro Carbon/Ceramic pads. Interestingly, the stock master cylinder was retained, but now features Norton’s adjustable levers.In either case, the brakes now pack far more power, without any ugly bite. Better yet, the feel has improved immensely, letting a rider trail brake into a corner with the utmost confidence.Then there is the riding position. Earlier, I mentioned how the bike is raised, creating more ground clearance. That is only one piece of the puzzle, as the more aggressive riding position aims to achieve even more clearance, while also improving the rider’s ability to manipulate the bike.With adjustable Sato Racing rearsets and Woodcraft 2.5-inch riser clip-ons, the cockpit feels more relative to that of an average supersport machine. The stock Ninja 400 is more upright, with additional legroom.Initially, I’d wanted the rearsets moved a bit more forward because I felt that my legs had too much bend in them. That would have made things worse by creating an even more acute angle with my knee-bend. In comparison to the stock machine, the Sato rearsets have less bend, as the position is more relaxed. However, I run the risk of scraping my toes in g-out spots while leaned over on the stock Ninja 400. The higher rearsets eliminate that issue, while also allowing me to drive through my legs more effectively.On specific bikes, I’ll have trouble effectively driving my weight through the outside peg as the more relaxed riding position creates a more extended reach to the outside footpeg. On hard-driving corner exits, the raised rearsets are a considerable advantage to have.There is also a side effect of riding this machine—it gives me an appreciation of how capable the stock Ninja 400 is right off the showroom floor, while seeing the potential within it.When it’s all wrapped up in a bow, the Norton Motorsports Ninja400R.com SuperBike Club Racer Spec Bike leaves me astounded. It has a silly amount of power for a bike this size, handles like an absolute dream, and has no fault that someone of my skill level can find. It’s a blast to ride and showcases how far you can go with a well-built lightweight machine. Now, the only thing left to do is sell all my belongings and try to get one of my own.Special thanks to Pirelli North America for their support with this story.Photography by CaliPhotographyRiding Style
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena rides the all new Ducati Monster. Big changes have been made by Ducati–has the company ruined the considerable heritage of the iconic Monster–or are the changes worth it? In the second part of the show, we chat with Nick Ienatsch, Founder and Head Instructor at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. He says: “We aim to change your riding life by introducing you to Champions Habits: The techniques, approaches, skills, and the mindsets of the best riders in the world. These Champions Habits are the foundation of safety and consistency to whatever speed you ride, in any venue on any bike. Street riders, this is just as much for you as track riders. The best way to make safe riders is to make good riders.“ We hope you enjoy this episode!