Cook Neilson stunned his readers
and the motorcycle industry in September, 1979 when he suddenly
resigned as Editor of Cycle Magazine.
MH: In retrospect,
you left Cycle and the motorcycle industry when you were at the
top of your game, and it took everyone by surprise. You probably
could have been motorcycling’s guru of journalism for the
rest of your days. Can you tell us now what contributed to
that decision and how long you had been considering it?
CN: A short while before I left Cycle Magazine and Southern California, my wife Stepper and I looked at each other across the dinner table and said, almost simultaneously, "It's time." She was enjoying a very lucrative career as a Certified Court Reporter; I had had a nice run with Cycle Magazine --12 years. We were both happy, we had three dogs that we loved, we lived in a wonderful house we had built in the mountains that looked out across Malibu and the Pacific Ocean, we had a nice big pile of friends. Of course it was time to leave.
Things were changing in Southern California in ways neither of us liked. When I rode down the backside of the Santa Monica Mountains on my way to work, I could see the air most mornings, and it seemed to be getting blacker and blacker. Traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway was getting quite a bit worse. There was a street in Westlake where I used to test my drag bike -- we named it Burnout Boulevard -- that in a very short period of time turned into a full-on neighborhood, houses everywhere. It wasn't like Stepper and I stopped loving California; we just wanted to leave while we still DID love it.
Aboard Old Blue at Sears Point.
There was something else, more important. It was Phil's turn to be Editor. He'd been with Cycle for almost a decade, first as Managing Editor then as Executive Editor. Neither of us was getting any younger; I was 36 years old in 1979. I had talked Ziff-Davis into letting us leave New York City, Phil and I had gotten our magazine headed in the right direction, I was very pleased with the staff we had, and we had had a fine time building and racing Old Blue.
Plus Phil was better than I at every important phase of putting out a monthly publication. He was better organized, he was better with people, he was a better writer and editor, he worked harder, his view of what we were trying to do was broader. I was a tree guy; Phil saw the forest. He stayed with Cycle for almost another decade; the magazine kept getting better and better. So my leaving was the right decision; I've never regretted it. Before Cycle I had spent some time as an amateur steeplechase jockey; after Cycle I spent 15 years here in Vermont making a living as a commercial photographer. But when anybody asks, I tell 'em I am a motorcycle guy from California. That's how I see myself, as a motorcycle guy. When it's time for the Big Dirt Nap, the last noise that'll come out of me I hope sounds like a V-twin.
you have any comments on what motorcycle journalism has become?
Is it a field where you would be comfortable full-time today?
CN: Everything's different not just in the publishing world; it's different in the WHOLE world. The competition out there for eyeballs is ferocious: TV, video games, the Internet, all different kinds of other magazines. So at the same time the motorcycle magazine press is becoming more and more stratified and "niche-ified,” it is being forced to move faster and faster. It strikes me that it's not as contemplative as it used to be, and I feel the decibel level has gone up. There are pluses, though. The quality of the graphics is much stronger than it used to be. Cycle World and Roadracer X both look terrific, and they both seem to have unlimited color budgets, which we never had. My sense is that circumstances are forcing the publishers and editors to go for maximum impact, all the time. I read a while ago that Roadracer X didn't feature the Suzuki race bikes on their covers as much as they otherwise would have because the Suzukis are blue and therefore don't have the kind of eye-catching instant newsstand appeal that red or yellow bikes produce. I understand that speed, immediacy, loudness, urgency, and impact are seen as essential. I'm not sure I like it. Phil and I have talked about this quite a bit; I'm not sure he likes it either. But it is what it is.
being gone almost 30 years, several factors seem to have converged
to bring you back into motorcycling's public eye. You were
brought to AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days two years ago to appear in
the Ducati exhibit with your Daytona-winning race bike, Old Blue.
Cycle World has recruited you to write several nostalgic or historical
features recently. There is the "New Blue"
project. Then you have been elected into the Motorcycle Hall
of Fame. In each case it has become apparent that there is
a large fan base out there who remember you well and love your writing.
One might get the idea they have just been patiently waiting
for three decades. What are your thoughts and feelings about
these events of the last three years?
CN: I must confess that it has, more than anything else, taken me by surprise. There's a great quote that goes something like this: "The moving hand writes, and having writ, moves on." (Don't hold me to the exact language, but this is the sense of it.) I found out about the AMA Hall of Fame last Spring; then Phil and I were inducted into the Ducati North America Hall of Fame last August; then we saw the first pictures of New Blue last November. Three major events, all in a relatively short period of time. At the same time that all this fuss is gratifying and flattering, I have to wonder if we deserve it. For all those years Phil and I were perfectly happy being minor hairballs in the dustbin of motorcycle history. It is nice, though, that people remember Cycle Magazine.
Old Blue ran its last race at Riverside in 1977
with Neilson dogging Wes Cooley but unable
to pass him for the win.
But it's not that Phil and I were in any sense "waiting" for all this to happen; as far as we were concerned that hand had writ and moved on, and by and large, so have we, even though both of us do write the occasional piece now and then.
us about the New Blue project from your point of view. What
has been your role, and has Phil Schilling also contributed to the
concept and design of this commemorative bike?
Editor’s Note: For more information about New Blue, see Motohistory News & Views 12/15/2006 and 1/27/2007.
CN: Like everything else that has happened recently, the New Blue project took us completely by surprise. I saw the first pictures of it on November 12, 2006 and it was unveiled in Milano on November 14. Here's how it came about. Phil and I gave little speeches at the Ducati dealers' meeting in Salt Lake City back in August. Then the next day I had a chance to ride the NCR Millona at Miller Motorsports Park. After I was finished, the NCR guys, Michele Poggipolini and Joe Ippoliti, asked, "What do you think?" I said, "The bike Phil and I used to race was called Old Blue. This is New Blue." I just loved the Millona: light, torquey, unbelievably responsive, forgiving, rideable, fast. It had an 1100cc V-twin Ducati engine, NCR's own chassis, it was slathered in titanium and carbon fiber, and it weighed 285 pounds. It had a titanium rear sprocket, for crying out loud; I'd never seen that before, and neither had Phil.
So time goes by, and now it's early November, and all of a sudden New Blue pops up in Milano. Phil and I had no idea that Michael Lock and NCR were up to this mischief, and of course we were blown away. Some time earlier Cycle World had published a computer simulation of what an Old Blue replica might look like; they appended it to their road test of the Paul Smart Sport Classic 1000. It was presented in street trim -- headlight, turn signals, all of that -- and Phil and I thought it looked neat. At the same time, though, we felt that Old Blue was above all a race bike. So when we saw the first pictures of the real New Blue and saw that it was built for racing only, we were thrilled.
The first time I saw New Blue in person was in New York in January. I went over it with a fine-toothed comb (and also a magnet), called Phil, and said, "Ducati's New Blue project is in good hands." The paint scheme is faithful to the original's (which Phil designed), and there is not a single square centimeter on the bike anywhere where there's evidence that NCR has cut any corners. It's not supposed to be a replica of Old Blue -- that wouldn't make sense -- but if you took the original and added 30 years of technical development, New Blue is what you'd end up with. I think it's a stunning creation. Think what you want about the seat color (NCR is making a black seat optional); the rest of it is just about perfect. My favorite part: there's a loop of exhaust tubing that makes a 180-degree turn just in front of the rear tire. The whole exhaust system is titanium. You can't bend titanium on that tight a radius, so this one loop is made up of a dozen or so little segments, all welded together to form the shape NCR wanted. That one little part is emblematic of NCR's thinking, care, and passion. Another part: Michele Poggipolini's grandfather hand-made the titanium upper shock bolts. They're indescribably beautiful. Imagine being made to feel unworthy -- by a pair of shock bolts!
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