Photography by John Flory
Ludington’s GPz550 look more like the GPzhan ZX-7.
This article was originally published in the February 1995 issue of Sport Rider.
What kind of performance motorcycle would you build if you had the resources and command of the race shop of the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world? A tricked-out Bimota for Sunday-only blasts up the canyons, or perhaps the ultimate sleeper, a turbo-powered Pacific Coast? The possibilities are quite endless, aren’t they? Anybody pick a 13-year-old GPz550?
Al Ludington always liked the clean look of the early 1980 Kawasaki Superbikes as ridden by Eddie Lawson, Wes Cooley and Wayne Rainey. The sharp lines, snarling attitude and loud green paint defined what Ludington, once a service manager for an East Coast Kawasaki dealership, felt made that motorcycle look right. For a time he searched for an ELR or even an S-1 to make his own, but could not find a stellar example. Ludington satisfied himself by pinning up a magazine photograph of Lawson riding his championship-winning 1982 Kawasaki ELR.
Ludington spends his work week at American Honda in the California race shop as a mechanic on the Smokin’ Joe’s Camel Honda Superbike team. He has tuned for illustrious riders such as Dave Sadowski, Tom Kipp, Mike Smith and Jamie James. He and Sadowski won the Daytona 200 when employed by Vance & Hines—Al knows his stuff. Moreover, he likes to modify his own vehicles in his spare time: an almost street-legal Mustang 5.0 sits in the Honda parking lot as testament to that.
To the tinkerers and shade-tree wrenches out there, Ludington’s work place is a virtual nirvana of Snap-on tools and the finest shop equipment money can buy. There is very little that cannot be fabricated or sourced from within the walls of Honda’s impressive facility in Torrance, California. The shop itself, in typical Honda fashion, does not suffer from a lack of resources.
Photography by John Flory
Today’s standard look used to be the racetrack look and pre-dates Scott Russell’s rise to the Superbike championship by about 10 years; bikes like this trick GPz captured a young Scott Russell’s imagination.
Initially, Al did not intend to build the retro-Kawasaki Superbike you see here. When Ludington bought a wrecked 1981 GPz550 in 1984, his plan was to use it as a builder project with the intent of fixing and reselling the bike. That was before a heap of very expensive, historically important, unobtanium parts dropped into his lap. And Honda’s workshop. Ludington began work using his page torn from a magazine as a blueprint of what he would build. The tube-frame chassis and archaic suspension received the most attention. Rare Astralite wheels, 18-inchers front and rear, give the first indication this is definitely not a rare ELR, and not an almost nonexistent S-1 either. The wheels themselves are from Randy Renfrow’s Honda Pro Twins machine that he won the AMA Twins championship on in 1988. Ludington was handed just the wheels and had to mock up and machine the many spacers and related hardware himself. Ludington tells us, “We have a race-part fabricator at Honda, Tom Jobe, who does some of the best work with exotic materials—titanium and carbon fiber—that you have ever seen, F-1 car racing quality. I would make the pieces for this bike and then bring them to him for grading, just for my own information. You know that your stuff is pretty good when he okays it.”
The front brakes on Ludington’s ELRR (Eddie Lawson Replica Replica) are tremendous, bordering on overkill. The giant discs and rear torque arm are from Honda’s early 1980s RS500 Formula One racer, sourced directly from American Honda’s race department. The Nissan calipers are from Yamaha’s original OW01 race kit. The rear caliper, tiny in comparison to the front units, is from a Honda CR500 motocrosser. The entire package works surprisingly well on the street. “You grab a handful of brakes on this bike and she stands right on her nose.” Ludington confesses, “I swear it feels almost like it’s going to tweak the fork.”
Photography by John Flory
Was there anything tricker than a scooped Superbike seat and Works Performance shock? No, and there still isn’t when they’re combined with the clean Astralite wheel profile.
Gary Mathers, now manager of Honda’s racing department, worked previously as the team manager at Kawasaki. He worked with Lawson, Rainey and Muzzy when the team won the AMA Superbike championships back to back in 1981 and 1982. He knows where all the bodies are buried and had the presence of mind to save a few instruments of destruction from his tenure with Kawasaki.
Mathers hoarded several trick parts from those bygone days, some of which he dug out of his garage and fronted to his minion Ludington. A trick fastener circa 1982 here and a brake line there added some authenticity to Ludington’s machine. Mathers dug deeper into his cache of parts and presented to Ludington a pair of Works shocks from Lawson’s actual Kawasaki factory Superbike in 1982, taken off the machine after Eddie won the Road America national. Ludington had them rebuilt and installed on the bike.
While he had some CNC mill time available to him, Ludington created the huge triple clamps that clench the stock fork tubes. That done, Ludington drilled holes in the ignition and starter covers and in the shifter and rear brake lever to cut ounces from the machine’s weight. “We call that poor man’s titanium,” he joked. To finish out the package, Mike Corbin made an ELR look-alike seat for the machine using the stock belly pan while Ludington threw a coat of Kawasaki racing green paint on the cosmetics. To give it that last little bit of exclusivity, he retained the stock GPz550 stripes. To complement the rest of the package he added a pair of direct-from-Kawasaki ELR handlebars and a set of Dunlop tires, finishing the chassis segment of the undertaking.
Photography by John Flory
Some glossy black paint improves the look of the leading-axle fork; bolting on some Nissin calipers and an Astralite wheel reduces unsprung mass and improves performance.
The engine has remained, shall we say, essentially stock. Ludington degreed the cams and installed a jet kit in the bullet-proof ’81 GPz motor. Those mods along with the superlight, hand-built Vance & Hines Supersport exhaust system are the only engine modifications Al will openly admit to. The fact that Ludington tuned the bike that Tom Kipp won the 1992 600 Supersport championship on raises some curiosity. Knowing what substantial power gains can be achieved rather easily, Ludington of all people owns a motorcycle with an untouched cylinder head? “Well, I didn’t say it was bone stock,” he replied shrewdly. An Earls oil cooler concluded the engine modifications.
Ludington has spent as much as 40 hours making a carbon fiber airbox for Kipp’s RC30 Superbike and figures that this entire undertaking took him about 200 hours to build. That’s about a year’s worth of generous coffee breaks and lunch hours at Honda.
When he finished the GPz550 project, Ludington presented the bike to his brother Fred as a Christmas present. “I felt the need to move on to another project and I really didn’t feel comfortable rolling a Kawasaki around in the shop while an employee of Honda. Besides, Fred drooled an embarrassing amount every time he saw the bike.”
Reigning World Superbike Champion Scott Russell wandered over during the photo shoot of Ludington’s missile. Russell, who sits on some eminently fascinating Kawasaki machinery in his day job, found the trick hardware on this Kawi just as alluring as everyone else who had seen it. He rode Ludington’s motorcycle around for a bit and gave it his blessing: “Nice ELR.”