Speed Racers

Every kid wants an ultra-fast sport bike -- until the day he dies

Princeton Watson had only four blocks to go. If his stepmother got home from her teaching job before he did, she'd know for sure that something was missing from the garage. That something was his dad's Suzuki GSXR 1000 sport bike, specially tuned and modified to do one thing well and one thing only: go fast. It was a shootout bike, used for running a quarter-mile in under ten seconds. No turning necessary, just smooth gears and a lot of torque.

The bike had been where it belonged only 20 minutes earlier when 14-year-old Princeton's father left to go to barbershop class. Gus Hunter told his son about a load of laundry that needed to be put in the dryer and that he loved him. His stepmother was supposed to be home pretty soon anyway, so it seemed all right. Princeton even called her up to check when she'd be back.

"Mom, if you're gonna be late, call me," he said. She promised to hurry home as soon as she'd picked up his younger stepsister. "I'm bored," Princeton told her.

Gus Hunter's son Princeton died when he took out 
Hunter's racing bike for a joyride.
Daniel Kramer
Gus Hunter's son Princeton died when he took out Hunter's racing bike for a joyride.
The Suzuki GSXR 1000's high center of gravity gives it 
superior cornering capability.
Daniel Kramer
The Suzuki GSXR 1000's high center of gravity gives it superior cornering capability.

That boredom didn't last long. Princeton decided to take his dad's racing bike out for a spin to impress a girl who lived nearby. He'd ridden a similar bike, a GSXR 750, plenty of times before, but always under his father's supervision in front of their home in northeast Houston. He didn't bother putting on the helmet, leather jacket, leather pants or boots that were mandatory safety gear at the track. It was only going to be a quick run.

After showing off the bike, Princeton had to book it home. Witnesses say he was doing at least 60 through a 30 mile-per-hour zone in the family's neighborhood along Crane Street, just south of Cavalcade. Princeton was probably enjoying the rush as the purple motorcycle hummed along. He had 160 horsepower at his disposal -- a monster amount for the 375-pound bike. But when he spotted the blue Buick in front of him, everything went wrong. Princeton panicked and slammed down on the brakes, locking up the front wheel. The bike spun around, sliding on the ground underneath the Buick, according to witnesses. As the bike slid, Princeton hit his unprotected head so hard against the rear bumper, it broke the brake lights and left a dent. The motorcycle ended up in a ditch, and Princeton was dead on the scene, just four days shy of his 15th birthday.

"I can't emphasize enough he knew the consequences of touching my bike," says Gus Hunter. "He knew the consequences."

That may be true. Hunter had been training his son on bikes since he was 12, starting him out on a dirt bike before he moved up to bigger bikes. Then Hunter made Princeton practice maneuvering and coming to an emergency stop. When Princeton had his accident, he'd had more training than many sport bike riders and still he crashed, unable to maneuver and control the performance bike.

These bikes can speed past drivers on Houston highways, often at more than 100 miles an hour, in streaming blurs of bright-colored paint. Sometimes they hum like a pack of bumblebees late at night, hurrying along twisty roads like Allen Parkway. They're known by flashy names like the Hayabusa, Gixxer or R1, and they have top speeds close to 200 miles per hour. With a slight twist of the throttle, even amateur riders can send their front wheels skyward, popping wheelies down Westheimer. When the cops flash their lights to pull them over, they take off, disappearing onto Loop 610 or Beltway 8, outgunning and outrunning outmatched patrol cars. Doctors and nurses who treat these riders after they lose control call them organ donors.

The motorcyclist-as-outlaw has been a mainstay in the cultural psyche since the Hells Angels emerged in California, raping, pillaging and terrorizing shop owners and wholesome teenage girls up and down the West Coast in the '60s (at least if you believed the hysterical media accounts at the time). The Harley-Davidson cruisers they rode were all about image. Loud, greasy and crude, these hogs were for going on runs to drink beer and party. About the same time, motorcycles engineered for performance in races here and in Europe began going in a wildly different direction. Designers like Ducati raised the center of gravity to enable easier turning and added better brakes and acceleration. Sport bike designers entered an arms race that in the last ten years has gotten only more intense. With the help of computer models, designers shed so much weight and added so much power that a modern-day sport bike bears little resemblance to an early-'90s version, much less one from the '60s.

While the cruiser remains the most common type of bike, the past five years have seen a sharp increase in the popularity of sport bikes, whose sales nationwide have risen by 89 percent since 1999 and now account for one in four motorcycle sales, according to one industry-tracking group. Industry watchers aren't sure what is driving the uptick; higher fuel costs are obviously playing a role. (A typical bike can go 200 miles on its three-gallon tank.) For young riders especially, sport bikes, with their cachet and performance specs, are a must-have.

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