Forty summers ago, a home-brewed Ducati created a legend in racing. This is the inside story.
Daytona International Speedway, March 11, 1977. The moment of truth. Cook Neilson is sitting on the front row of the grid for the 13-lap Superbike race. Around him are more than 30 bikes, including Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore’s winning BMWs of the previous year, highly tuned Kawasaki fours, Laverda triples, several Ducatis and a Honda.
The first three rows of the grid are packed with America’s top riders on factory-supported machinery. Cook has earned his place on the front row. All week his Ducati has held a two-second advantage over the field. But now the rider, who came third in 1976, has mixed feelings as he looks around at his rivals.
“It seemed that the day ought to belong to us,” Cook recalls 40 years later of the giant-killing efforts he and tuner and friend Phil Schilling had achieved that practice week. “But that brings its own sense of dread: We better not screw this up.”
Riding with Cook were 500,000 followers. They weren’t on Facebook. They were the readers who had paid out hard cash for recent issues of Cycle magazine featuring in-depth reports on the building and racing progress of Cook and Phil’s Ducati, Old Blue, aka The California Hot Rod.
Phil and Cook were fully prepared for this showdown. Their good-luck charm, a photo of Ducati’s legendary engineer Dr. Fabio Taglioni, was securely taped to their toolbox. They were wearing their lucky T-shirts, a wacky logo by Phil that featured Ducati’s industrial engine on the front. (“It’s the only division at Ducati that’s making any money, so we should honor that,” Phil had said when designing them). The St. Christopher pendant was screwed tightly to Old Blue’s fairing so that even the Protector of Travelers was along for the ride.
Phil and Cook had left nothing to chance, poring over every part of the bike in the hours before the race. Old Blue featured many one-off parts produced by California’s hot rod culture and was an enigma to all except the two men who had built it.
For example, its close-ratio gearbox had been commissioned from Webster Gears, a race car transmission specialist. Its cost? $1,400, about the same as a new Honda Four motorcycle of the day.
Airflow genius Jerry Branch and dyno expert C.R. Axtell had also been involved. But it was the hundreds of hours of painstaking research and development by Phil and Cook that had brought them to where they were on this day in 1977. There was a shadow hanging over them: the ever-present threat of unreliability from a motorcycle that sometimes consumed its engine internals in moments of high stress, and the issue of fuel consumption.
“Old Blue was only getting between 11 and 13 miles to the gallon, and the race was 50 miles long,” Cook says. So Phil had filled the 5-gallon fuel tank with the precision of a laboratory chemist and then placed a white shirt on top to help prevent heat expansion in the sunny and humid Florida spring.
As the revs built before the start, the sound was deafening. It may have been a production-based race, but all the bikes on the grid had gutted mufflers loosely rebaffled to meet a generous 115-decibel noise limit.
As Cook thundered off the start he saw a flash of bike and leathers out of the corner of his eye. It was Wes Cooley’s Yoshimura Kawasaki, the most powerful bike in the race. Cooley’s Kawasaki was an unrivalled beast in the horsepower stakes. But it had one disadvantage: It couldn’t get the power to the ground through its early-generation slick tires without trying to tie the chassis in a knot.
“My personal concern eased going into Turn One at the beginning of the second lap,” Cook recalls. Back then, Daytona’s most challenging corner was a decreasing radius left that Cook describes as “excruciatingly complicated. You approach it at absolute top speed, and it’s a second-gear turn at the apex. But before you get there the corner calls for a lot of front brake while you’re at a healthy lean angle, and there are at least two camber shifts.”
Even though he was only on the second lap, what happened next told Cook he could win the race — if Old Blue would hold together. The moment is so emotional that, even today, he speaks about the bike and himself as if they were a human partnership. “Approaching this turn for the first time, we were about 80 bike lengths behind Wes Cooley’s Yoshimura Kawasaki; at the apex we were right on his tail,” he recalls.
With Cooley in his sights, Cook just had to pull the trigger to take the lead. He did just that on Turn Five, which he describes as “a little fish-hook right-hander.” But then a typical Old Blue gremlin struck. “I missed a gear shift and got repassed,” he says. “Then I got by him again in the same place a lap later. After that I never saw anybody except lapped traffic.”
Did Cook ease off to preserve both rider and bike? No way! “I dragged my knee on the ground in Turn One towards the end of the race,” Cook recalls. “That seldom happened, because I never learnt the radical hang-off style. So it seemed like it might make sense to throttle back a bit.” Interestingly, he set his fastest time on the penultimate lap, but Cook modestly suggests it was probably because Old Blue had shed so much fuel weight. “We ended up winning by 28 seconds — exactly 2 seconds per lap — and averaging just over 100mph for the whole race,” Cook says proudly.
The previous year, BMW rider Steve McLaughlin had beaten teammate Reg Pridmore in a photo finish. McLaughlin’s race time was 30 minutes and 14.91 seconds, with an average speed of 99.714mph. By contrast, Cook’s dominant victory, racing largely against himself, involved a race time of 29 minutes and 53.522 seconds with an average speed of 100.982mph. “Through it all the Ducati had performed perfectly, except for a tendency to come out of fourth gear, which would bedevil us for all of the 1977 season,” Cook says.
Cook looks back on that day with a huge sense of satisfaction. “The field was full of great Superbike riders — Reg Pridmore, Mike Baldwin, Wes Cooley, David Emde, a bunch of others,” he says. “Of course this makes you worry, especially fronting up to guys with factory-affiliated bikes. Phil had friends at Ducati, but we weren’t able to secure any fancy racing parts from them.”
He then looks at the other side of the coin. “We had what was acknowledged to be the fastest Ducati on the planet,” he says. “It was only 3mph slower than the Yoshi Kawasaki through the speed trap, and in terms of absolute top speed there were no other bikes in the field that were even close. There were bikes in the field that went fast, and bikes that handled and stopped. Only one that day did all three.”
What of Cook’s riding skills? After all, he was pretty much a hobby racer with a motorcycle magazine to produce each month. “I did feel at Daytona that year I was beginning to ride well enough to stay out of the bike’s way,” he says of his relationship with Old Blue. “The year before we had been beaten by two of the works BMWs — McLaughlin and Pridmore — and it really stung, because even in 1976, the Ducati was way, way better than anything else on the track, including having a top speed advantage at Daytona. So that motivated me all through the 1976 season to get better.”
The bike got better too, as Cook explains. “We, as [car Grand Prix team owner] Colin Chapman would say, ‘added lightness,’ mostly in the form of titanium and magnesium bits here and there, and we had commissioned a very expensive custom gearbox. So it’s fair to say that we brought a lot of focus to Daytona in ’77 — and determination.”
What Cook and Phil achieved on March 11, 1977, wasn’t just Ducati’s first outright win in a national race in America. It was a triumph of the “little guys” over the “factory superstars.”
Four decades on, it still seems as if it only happened yesterday to Cook. “Wow, it’s already been 40 years?” said the long-retired racer when I first talked to him about the anniversary of their Daytona win.
Early fans of Ducati’s bevel-drive V-twin, Cycle magazine editor-in-chief Cook Neilson and managing editor Phil Schilling balanced their day jobs with an all-consuming hobby. The genesis of Old Blue, aka The California Hot Rod, started with one of three pre-production 750SS Ducatis originally sent to the U.S. in late 1973.
They nicknamed this early attempt “Overdog,” and in 1975 it came of age, winning the 750cc class at Daytona’s pre-AMA-sanctioned Superbike race and coming fifth overall. To get to this stage the pair virtually redesigned the bike, stripping it of unnecessary parts to lighten it, and adding the best brakes and suspension they could source while calling on California’s best engine tuners for advice and help.
With the birth of AMA Superbike, the pair poured the knowledge acquired with Overdog into Cook’s 1974 SS street bike, taking it to 883cc using 450cc liners from Ducati’s single-cylinder model range. Nicknamed “The California Hot Rod” and then “Old Blue” following a change in livery, the small team’s progress was catalogued in Cycle magazine, creating a huge following. Minute details were recorded, including how oversized Harley-Davidson valves were installed, how the Venolia pistons had Yamaha XT500 rings, the Morris mag wheels ran without inner tubes to save weight, etc. Although the dyno was used for setup, in true California hot rod tradition, Phil and Cook used the drag strip for final testing, eventually turning an 11.52-second quarter-mile time at 118mph. Cook described AMA racing of that period as “4-stroke GP, with lights.”
The pair shared their achievements, admitting to readers that their bike weighed 66 pounds less than a standard SS. Power was up to 90 horsepower at 8,300rpm with a top speed over 150mph. There were two major problems that haunted the pair throughout their finest year, 1977: gearboxes and oil control. “We never solved the problem of it jumping out of fourth gear,” Cook recalls. “Later on we also had a problem with oil getting blown out of the breather and all over the right side of the bike, but after the season ended we figured it out. We were overfilling. Oil gets hot, expands, bingo! Out the breather.” In racing, there are always lessons to be learned.
Phil died in 2015, and soon after Cook recalled their unique relationship. “I was impetuous; Phil was studied, calm,” Cook says. “I had some harebrained ideas; Phil identified them as such and suggested intelligent options. I could see (and fixate on) the trees; Phil saw the forest, and everything around it.”
At Daytona, Cook was a lone wolf among the best developed production motorcycles on sale in the U.S., as the final top 10 placings at Daytona show, with Cook coming in first followed by David Emde (Kawasaki), Wes Cooley (Kawasaki), Reg Pridmore (BMW), Mike Baldwin (Moto Guzzi), John Bettencourt (Kawasaki), Kurt Liebmann (Moto Guzzi), Dan Sorenson (Kawasaki), Keith Code (Kawasaki) and Will Harding (Kawasaki).
But he never could have done it alone. With Phil at his side, of the 39 races Cook started, he had 20 wins. MC
Déjà Blue: Old Blue’s second coming
At Daytona Bike Week 2008, the Barber Vintage Museum’s Brian Slark and Jeff Ray were talking shop with Ducati restoration expert Rich Lambrechts. “It just sort of materialized,” Slark recalls. “Jeff and Rich and I were talking, and one of us said ‘what if?’”
The “what if” was to build a replica of Old Blue, which would make a perfect addition to the museum. The real bike wasn’t for sale, so why not have Lambrechts build a replica? It turned out Lambrechts had a thing for Old Blue and had been pondering a build for some time. “I had the bones to make the bike,” Lambrechts says. “It took me all of two minutes to think about it.”
Cook would be Guest of Honor at the 2008 Barber Vintage Festival, and with Lambrechts on board a plan was hatched to surprise Cook with the replica at the October event. That gave Lambrechts about seven months for the build.
Lambrechts was determined to make this bike more than just a replica, if such a thing is possible. “In my heart, I wanted it to be exact and pay tribute to those guys,” he says. “I felt the bike had to be as good or better than the original, or it wasn’t worth doing at all.”
Exact it is. From the correct Venolia pistons to the Morris wheels, to the St. Christopher medal on the fairing and the fairing decals themselves, the bike is perfect. “The Castrol [decal] is one that even Castrol hasn’t reproduced, it’s just not available,” Lambrechts says. He made his own. Déjà Blue is now on permanent display at Barber, and Cook’s been given lifelong access to it. “I talked to Mr. Barber, and he said, ‘Here’s the deal; you now not only have your own bike, but you have your own racetrack,’” Cook says. “You can bet I’ll get down there.”
And the name? Lambrechts explains: “I was standing at the lathe, and that’s when the name popped into my head. I was making a part for the engine, lightening it and trimming it down, and I had to stop and ask, is this necessary? And I said yes, for these guys, it is.” — Richard Backus