The $299.99 Big Piston fix
Since 2009, Showa's 30mm "big piston" forks have been used as standard equipment on many of the best sportbikes available. From the moment of their introduction, racetrack riders have clamored for a way to make these forks better without breaking the bank. The solution for most suspension companies has been to simply toss the internals and go with complete cartridge replacements. This works but is expensive, with the parts alone averaging between $1200 and $1600. It makes one long for the days when a simple revalve kit costing a few hundred bucks was an alternative. What many riders don't know is that as soon as 30mm forks arrived on showroom floors, Race Tech immediately stepped up to the plate and produced exactly such a kit. In all the "You just have to replace that junk with a cartridge kit" hype that has surrounded the big piston forks, the Race Tech 30mm Gold Valve kit has gone largely unnoticed. We decided to give it a try and report on the effectiveness of this much more affordable solution.
The bike we chose for this test was our "Perfect Ten" project, a 2011 Kawasaki ZX10R that had already been treated to the best of everything else. Literally, the only critical system left as produced on this machine was its forks, which remained untouched since they'd rolled off the assembly line in Japan. Owner/Rider Bart Schuster had just used this machine to dominate his classes at the June Championship Cup races held at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (See "Perfect Ten Stacks Plaques.") Obviously, the Kawasaki was quite rideable with the stock components in place and Bart was comfortable with taking front end grip to the limit. If the Race Tech components improved the machine, it would be immediately obvious.
Our technician for this project was Ken Hall, of Superbike Suspension in Naperville, Illinois. Superbike Kenny has been our go-to guy for years and has had his hands on literally every motorcycle that has run through the TrackdayMag.com shop. While he is a very experienced installer, this would be his first time using the Race Tech 30mm kit. As it turned out, we were very glad to have Ken involved with this project. He found the process of installation to be quite challenging, using up more than double the time he'd allotted for the job. On the plus side, Race Tech maintains a hotline for people working with their products and fortunately, the time difference between Chicago and California kept the line of communication open as this rebuild went into extra innings. When all was said and done, Kenny looked exhausted but his opinion was encouraging. As he bounced on the finished product, Ken told us, "I think you're going to like these forks."
When comparing the cost of Gold Valves to a cartridge replacement kit, it is important to compare apples to apples. Because Race tech offers both setups, we will use their numbers for this purpose. Also, because you can have the technicians at Race Tech perform your install as well, we will use their labor rates for this comparison.
Cartridge kit $1199.99
Labor $ 175.00
Springs $ 129.99
Oil $ 29.99
Wear items $ 108.93
Gold Valves $299.99
Oil $ 29.99
Wear Items $108.93
Price Difference: $979.99
Clearly, Race Tech's Gold Valves offer a substantial savings of nearly a grand over the company's own excellent cartridge kit. Saving money is always a plus but only if the discounted item offers enough of a performance improvement to justify its cost. Only one way to find that out, right? It was time to head for the track.
The debut of our Race Tech 30mm Gold Valve kit occurred at Autobahn North Course, in Joliet, Illinois. This is our home track and makes a great venue for testing suspension. The course is a mix of high speed sweepers and tight, technical, low speed bends. The pavement is endlessly bumpy as a result of the cars which run there on a daily basis during warmer weather. Bart was immediately impressed and eventually cut nearly two seconds off his previous best lap time. He swore he'd made the entire gain in fast, bumpy turn one. While this is unlikely, the bottom line is that anywhere he needed to trust the front tire under bumpy conditions, the Race Tech 30mm Gold Valves gave him a higher level of confidence. This translated into faster lap times and more fun! Considering that Race tech's solution saved us at least a grand over the cartridge alternative, we'd say that this was money well spent.