New Blue, Ducati's latter-day tribute to Neilson and Schilling's 1977 Daytona winner.

MH: What are your thoughts now about your Daytona victory aboard Old Blue in 1977?  Was it the last perfect moment for a privateer in the class?  And, if that is the case, did you realize it at the time?  You stopped racing at the end of the season, which may suggest that you either saw nothing more to achieve, or perhaps you saw a closing of the window of opportunity.  Is either the case?

CN:  The Daytona Superbike was the one race I really wanted to win, for an infinite number of reasons. I know it sounds unsophisticated, but I always loved the track, especially Turn One, which I think is (or was, before they changed it) the most technical single corner in all of racing. There were multiple radiuses and camber changes, the final part of it has a decreasing radius, you're coming into it off the tri-oval at top speed, and if you do it right you have to be willing to use a lot of front brake while you're leaned over pretty far.  But the whole place just screams, "Big Time!" I only raced there five times, the last in 1977. Now, 30 years later, our win there has taken on a sort of dream quality, because for a whole week nothing went wrong, and as we all worked through the practice sessions toward the race we consistently had two seconds per lap on the field, an advantage that held until the checkered flag fell.

After that, I was ready to hang it up. I was 34, and had gotten involved in road racing only about five years earlier. But the hours Phil and I spent on our race effort were cutting into the time we had available for the magazine, which was something neither of us wanted.  Still, as Phil pointed out, "But the bike is so good!"  And it was, so we stayed with it for the rest of that season, and I retired after Riverside that year.

Daytona WAS magic for us, and for the stars to line up nowadays for a comparable privateer effort is difficult to contemplate. The rules, for starters, are different than they were then. Not to mention that the Japanese manufacturers are now building big, fast bikes that not only handle decently but can use the best tires available; they couldn't, and neither could the BMWs, back in 1976 and 1977. The riders as a group are better -- and certainly better paid. The amount of money we won at Daytona that year wouldn't be enough to buy a tank of diesel for Mladin's plane, and what sponsors we had were good for oil, sparkplugs  and not much more -- except people like Jerry Branch and Bob Gorsuch and Marvin Webster, who made available to us their extraordinary talent and undivided attention, which no amount of money could buy. They were essential parts of our effort -- along with a few other gifted and generous friends who lived in California and felt that what we trying to accomplish was worthwhile. The best of the best was Pierre DesRoches, who was building a Kawasaki for Reg Pridmore at the time and decided to just "do stuff" for Old Blue because he felt like it. Titanium tower shaft tubes; a magnesium rear caliper carrier; titanium axles and axle nuts; a reinforced chassis and swing arm -- these things just would appear, courtesy of Pierre. He was almost like the Tooth Fairy that way -- but he never took any teeth!

MH:  At Daytona, 1977 you had two seconds a lap on everyone else.  At the risk of asking you to confess something that will cause you to be stripped of your Hall of Fame medal (just kidding), just how legal was Old Blue?

With the passage of time, both Neilson and Schilling, seen here at Daytona in 1997, have become
celebrities, especially among those who
revere the Ducati.

CN:  Now Ed, you've got to lighten up and view the Superbike landscape of the Seventies the way we saw it. There were twin-shock bikes out there running with Monoshock rear suspensions. There was a very successful Japanese four-cylinder that was using a complete front fork assembly off its corresponding European GP race bike. At least one competitor fabricated a four-into-two-into one exhaust system which completely bypassed one of the two mufflers--and the dummy muffler was the one closest to where the AMA would set up its decibel meter. Cylinder
castings and cylinder head castings were not always the same as those used on the production versions, same with carburetor bodies, and it shouldn't surprise you that the 1000cc displacement limit was viewed by several competitors as merely a guideline. As for fully-functioning charging systems, at least one competitor removed the rotor and the stator completely, and fabricated a completely different alternator cover in search of more cornering clearance and less weight.

What did we have? One lousy little tachometer that read a couple thousand RPM higher than it should have for the purpose of passing the sound test.  Besides, we only used it a couple of times to get through the inspection. We were using the smallest-displacement engine (883cc) of any of the truly competitive teams, to the best of our knowledge all the titanium bits we built were fully approved (we were a bit worried about the axles, though), plasma-sprayed aluminum brake discs were legal, our chassis was completely legal, the front fork was legal, the lights all worked, the gutted muffler shells were legal. 

Cook Neilson receives his medal as a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in October, 2006.

I will admit, though, that we never knew if the 750 Ducati Desmo Super Sport was ever properly homologated. I seem to remember there had to be a minimum number of a particular model available for sale in the United States for that model to participate in AMA Superbike racing. I don't recollect exactly what that number was -- maybe 200 -- and I honestly don't know that there were that many Desmo SSs in North America in '76 and '77. Maybe there were. Maybe there weren't.  I do know this: if we were a little bit pregnant, there were teams out there already going into LABOR. 

MH: You had quite an entourage at your Motorcycle Hall of Fame induction dinner last October, and it had the flavor of a great party.  There seem to be many around you -- friends and family -- who are taking great joy and pride in your recognition as a significant person in the motorcycle industry.  Can you comment on this observation?

CN: An entourage? I think they'd all be flattered to be considered that way -- they were more like a lunatic mob at a British soccer match. There were nine idiots who came out from Vermont to surprise me, plus a dear and completely insane friend of mine, Doc Freudenberger, who flew in from Everett, Washington at the last minute, plus my two sisters and my older brother, plus Phil, plus my wife Stepper. I said during my acceptance speech that everybody I loved was in that room. That was true, and it made for a particularly gratifying moment in my life. I also said that every motorcycling hero I ever had was represented on the Hall of Fame wall there at the Museum, and that to have part of me in the same building with part of them was the greatest honor I could possibly imagine.

MH: At last, tell us about Cook Neilson during the nearly thirty years that you worked outside the motorcycle industry.  Did you continue to ride and stay in touch with what was happening in motorcycling? 

CN:  I do keep up. I read the motorcycle press, I watch all the races on TV, I write every now and then for Cycle World. But then was then and now is now. This was brought into startling focus for me back in 1993 when I had a chance to ride Eraldo Ferracci's Doug Polen Ducati at Laconia for a story to be published in Cycle World. Old Blue made 90.4 horsepower; Ferracci would admit that Polen's bike made 144, and he may have been low-balling a tad. Nowadays the 600s make around 150 horsepower – unimaginable -- and last year's 990cc MotoGP bikes made around 260 horsepower and weighed 325 pounds. The fastest I ever went on a motorcycle was 193 mph on my 90 cubic inch nitro-burning Sportster back in 1969 at Bonneville. Now stock street bikes can go that fast, on gasoline, with the turn signals flashing and the radio blaring, and the fastest MotoGP bikes have been clocked at well over 210 mph -- and they're not even racing at Bonneville!

Cook Neilson: Member of the U.S. Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

When I left Cycle Magazine back in 1979, I found that I was content to leave it all behind. My career as a journalist and as a motorcycle racer had been completely fulfilling. I had made lifelong friends. My magazine was in extraordinarily capable hands with Phil Schilling. Looking back, there were certainly stories I could have written better, decisions I made that could have been wiser, and races I rode that I could have ridden smarter. But I learned from it all, and I was better at the end than I had been at the beginning.  Good Lord, was it ever a blast knowing Cal Rayborn and Kenny Roberts and Gary Nixon and Dick Mann and Boris Murray and Mark Brelsford and Leo Payne and George Smith and Paul Smart and Sonny Routt and Mike Hailwood and Dick O'Brien, not to mention Schilling and Joe Parkhurst and Gordon Jennings and Kevin Cameron and Bill Ziff and Soichiro Honda and Jitsujiru Suzuki and Richard Petty and Reg Pridmore and Yvon duHamel and Tom Sifton and Fabio Taglioni and Keith Code and Warner Riley and Pierre DesRoches.  I could go on and on -- but I think I already have. For me it was a rocket ride from beginning to end. I'm a lucky guy. I'm also a grateful guy.

Now I've got to go scrape some snow off the roof.

Editor’s Note:  To read Cook Neilson’s official Motorcycle Hall of Fame biography, click here.

Posted March 12, 2007

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