This time of year there are a lot of “2012 Top Ten” lists and that got us thinking, what was the most significant thing that happened in the world of Ducati in 2012? Was it Rossi leaving? Audi buying? New models? All important and going forward these things will have a big impact on 2013 and beyond. But standing here, in 2012, looking back, it had to be Cook’s Last Ride…
See the photos HERE
In 1969, Cook Neilson was 26 years old and editor in chief of Cycle Magazine, the largest motorcycle magazine in the world. In those pre-internet days if you were a motorcycle enthusiast magazines were your lifeblood to all things moto – new models, race results, it might be 6 weeks before you got the news “hot off the press”. Cycle wasn’t the only magazine but it might as well have been, so devoted were it’s followers. Cook was editor for 10 years and during that time he changed the vernacular of motorcycling. He coined the term Superbike. Wrote and edited Cycle and it’s staff to a style of writing that set a gold standard. And he introduced the multi-brand comparison test. Just getting the brands to agree to the up to then unheard of, heads up test, surely saved more than a few lives. Cycle was known for it’s “can’t be bought” honesty and the new to the American market Japanese manufacturers believed honest reviews here were important. Once one on one brake and handling tests were in the picture the march to better and safer began. And that’s why Cook was and remains important to motorcycling. But it’s not why he is important to Ducati, and that’s where this story begins.
1971 – Bridgehampton raceway – Ducati’s US importer, Mike Berliner invites Cook Neilson and his managing editor, Phil Schilling, to come and try a prototype 750cc. After a few laps it was clear to both men the bike was something special. They agreed to give more formal feedback on the styling which they felt could use some help, Phil made some drawings and eventually the production bike made it’s way to the US as the 750GT, sporting most of Cook and Phil’s suggestions. Cook ended up buying one and in 1973 he entered it in a race at Riverside. Not long after he moved up to a 750 SuperSport and began the quest that was ultimately documented in the Racer Road series, followed by over a half a million readers. Always good at coining a catchy phrase, they called the Ducati racer The California Hot Rod, but to Cook and Phil she was just “Old Blue”. If you have read the series you know how their descriptions of long nights working on Blue, the radio playing in the background, bleary mornings that came too soon and clever fixes with help from friend after friend were memorizing. It must have been a very crowded place, Cook, Phil, the Ducati and 500,000 readers waiting for the mailman to bring the next installment. No one expected a fairy tale ending but that’s what they got. They won the Daytona Superbike race and put Ducati on the map in America, delivering a market that up till then had been minimal at best. Official Ducati history records this as the most important Ducati win in America to this day. It’s been said Ducati might not have survived at that time without the USA sales they generated. Did they revive the company? No one knows for sure of course but what I know is that Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling remain to this day the two most important people in US Ducati history. And that brings us to Cook’s last ride.
Barber Motorsports Park, October 2012 – Cook had decided, quite some time ago that when and if he took his last ride on a racetrack it would be here on the exact replica of the California Hot Rod known as “Deja Blue“. It had been 35 years since he and Phil won Daytona and Old Blue now quietly resided in a collectors living room, it’s music bottled in it’s engine, perfectly preserved atop an oriental rug. A few years before, the Barber museum staff had commissioned Rich Lambrechts of DesmoPro to make an exact replica and exact it was. So much so that when the bike was rolled out for the first time both Cook and Phil thought somehow Barber’s had managed to buy Old Blue.
Deja Blue was a labor of love and being there that weekend was like stepping back in time. Some of the original Cycle staff were there, and if you had looked thru the garage door you would have seen Cook’s wife Stepper quietly reading in a corner, Cook, in his Daytona leathers conferring with Phil while the others fueled and tweeked around them. 1977 is the name of an Instagram filter, this could have been it’s inspiration. Since then Cook and his friends had come to Barber for the Vintage Festival every year. As a past grand marshall and current Hall of Fame’r he rode the track yearly but last year he took a tumble, ironically on the Ducati 848 Jason DiSalvo had won the Daytona 200 on. A sudden rain shower combined with a slick paint stripe and the 848’s quarter turn throttle stepped the bike out, and down it went. It was a low speed incident that could have happened to anybody. The bike was fine, but Cook broke some bones and the long drive back to Vermont gave him plenty of time to think. We joked, it was now the only Ducati ever binned by both guys who ever won Daytona on a Ducati, did that make the 848 worth more? But all joking aside, Cook came to the conclusion riding Ducati’s on a race track might better be left to others. So he asked George Barber if he would mind if he rode Deja Blue one last time. Now, we were all standing behind the museum, watching Cook watch the Barber staff crank the bike up on rollers. Word had gotten out that this was Cooks last ride and the space was beginning to fill with people important to Ducati and Cook’s past. Paul and Maggie Smart, Pierre Terblanche, Nick McCabe who while at Ducati North America worked with Cook on the Cycle World “New Blue” project, Alan Cathcart, and more, it was a regular Ducati scene. It seemed everywhere I looked another person who understood why this, as David Letterman would say, “was something”. The time came to go and Cook never looked back, he rode off, past the paint stripe, did his laps and returned the bike to the Barber staff. But his eyes, like most of the others were not dry. It was, we all knew, the end of an era.