From the June 2007 issue

Much of our older content has been stored on the back shelves of our offices... we always have fun looking back at days gone by and we hope you enjoy these little gems as well!

The booming staccato roils through the Daytona tri-oval a full 5 seconds before the Ducati hurtles along the bottom of the banking, the pilot flat on the gas tank well past the first braking marker. He pops up, brakes clenched and the Cycle magazine logo jumps off his white Bates leathers. Announcer Richard Chambers' voice floods the Speedway: "It's Cook Neilson on the Ducati, all by himself into Turn 1. He pitches the bike through Turn 2, past the armco and pins it toward the International Horseshoe. I was here 30 years ago when Cook ran away from the best Superbike riders in the nation on the Phil Schilling-built Old Blue…it looks like he hasn't lost a step!"

cook neilson aboard ducati ncr new blue racebike
The Bologna Hot RodRiles & Nelson

Indeed. Neilson (pronounced Nelson, by the way) took control of New Blue–Ducati and NCR's $50,000 tribute to Old Blue–for a pair of "parade" laps with the Great Men of Motorcycling feature at the 2007 AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) Daytona event. But putzing around waving isn't Neilson's style. He still fits in his 1977 leathers, and he still hammers the gas–at 63 years of age a model for us all.

Cook snuck in an extra lap, and only the waving red flags convinced him to return the NCR racer to the pits. The proverbial 2 x 4 couldn’t knock the smile off his face or the happiness from all those involved with the Ducati/NCR New Blue project as we gathered around post-ride. Garage 25 was packed and everyone present felt the magical combination of historic men and unique motorcycles. Only Schilling, under the weather back home in California, could have added to the enchantment.

cook neilson and nick ienatsch
The Cook Neilson story, short version: English major, hired to write for Cycle in '68, moved magazine from New York to California in '72, became self-proclaimed street squid on Mulholland Drive, discovered roadracing, developed Old Blue with fellow staffer Phil Schilling, won Superbike race at Daytona 1977.Riles & Nelson

Pulling off his Bell helmet, Cook enthused, "Daytona is certainly one of the greatest thrills of all time, period! These high banks are my home. I felt instantly familiar, right away on the first lap." When someone asked him about his deep first-lap entrance into Turn 1, Neilson laughed and said, "Hey, why not? I know where the track goes, and I'm on a Ducati!" Neilson had to hustle off to an autograph-signing with the AHRMA Great Men, but the tingle of what we witnessed remained.

If you weren't around 30 years ago when Cycle magazine Editor Cook Neilson smoked the Superbike field on The California Hot Rod (a.k.a. Old Blue), it was a seminal moment in Ducati history. The Hot Rod gained instant legend status, put Ducati on the Superbike map and helped lead the way toward the popularity the brand now experiences on these shores. Ducati North America CEO Michael Lock realized all this and contracted noted Italian racing house NCR to build a 30th-anniversary replica based on a current Ducati Sport 1000S. It would be New Blue, the Bologna Hot Rod, and only 50 would be made. Veteran racer Larry Pegram and I would debut the bike in the AHRMA races at Daytona 2007.

ducati ncr new blue flyer on-track action
The Bologna Hot RodRiles & Nelson

A pair of New Blues arrived in Daytona with the NCR factory crew, headed by Michele Poggipolini. All of us with a lust for titanium, magnesium, aluminum and carbon-fiber will recognize Poggipolini as the company supplying the world with awesome bits and pieces, building abject trickness for most of the Formula One grid and just about every supercar made. Michele is the grandson of Calisto Poggipolini, who started the high-tech manufacturing company in 1950. Poggipolini and NCR combined in 2002, and by 2005 NCR prototype Ducati-based racers were being produced for public consumption. And they were winning…frequently. In 25 races, NCR bikes have won 20 times, with the Millona One Shot model doing the dominating. New Blue doesn't rival the Millona in weight or power but is advertised as an out-of-the-box track bike for the discerning Ducatisti, delivered with slicks and no street equipment. And as Pegram, Neilson and I discovered, NCR has built a magical machine.

There is nothing on this bike that hasn’t been massaged, tweaked, changed or modified, and the more details Michele described, the more Cook was reminded of the efforts he and Schilling put into the California Hot Rod. The ’77 Superbike winner had the profile of a Ducati 750SS but every bit had been Schillinged toward the goal of victory at Daytona.

ducati ncr new blue racebike stripped view
New Blue weighs 319 pounds dry, 84 pounds lighter than a stock 1000S, and 22 of those pounds are taken out of the engine. Titanium rods, fasteners, valves and a Superbike alternator get the weight off, plus magnesium NCR cases. Ti bolts everywhere. Ti Zard exhaust. There really isn’t much steel left. It dynos at 102 rear-wheel horsepower, up from 76. Rear-wheel torque is 83 foot-pounds.Riles & Nelson

"This is amazing," said Cook. "Michele lists the artisans in and around Bologna who contribute to the building of the NCR bikes and that's just what we had in California in the mid-'70s. Phil and I knew somebody who knew somebody…I mean we had Toyota wristpins and Yamaha rings in the pistons we designed and Venolia built. Phil found the best of the best. Jerry Branch did the heads, Marvin Webster built us a transmission. I remember going to the airport to pick up the tranny and just staring at the silver-gold color of the gears. It cost us $2000, which was a lot of money back then, and I teared up at how beautiful it was.

“But the best of all was Pierre DesRoches. What a fabricator! His efforts…well, he was the greatest of all and contributed so much to Old Blue.”

The late DesRoches’ hand-made works of art are echoed by the rapid-prototyping and laser-cutting done at NCR. Time and technology change, but the personal involvement that Neilson and Schilling had with their suppliers lives on in Italy. “We share so much with the high-performance automotive world–Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborgini. We trade work, use the same painters, inspire and feed each other,” Poggipolini told us. “Everything on New Blue and Millona can be changed and adjusted for the owner; everything is optional. We wanted New Blue to resemble what Cook won on, but the customer can then change many things.” All NCR bits are available for those with stock SportClassic Ducatis, as well.

ducati ncr racebike track action
The Bologna Hot RodRiles & Nelson

In 1975 Neilson won a production-class race on a Ducati 750 GT at Daytona, and a year later finished third in the Superbike race on a new 750SS. The Daytona bug bit deep and all stops were pulled to win in ’77. “Hey, we were driven, intent on winning at Daytona,” he recalls. “We’d set a goal and nothing was going to stop us. The dragstrip served as our performance yardstick, and after Branch redid the heads for the ninth time, Old Blue ran a high-10 or low-11 at 123 mph. We knew we had something.

“I remember following Wes Cooley into Daytona’s Turn 1 at the end of the first lap in ’77. His Kawasaki had pulled about 60 bikelengths on me around the banking but I made it all up on the brakes. At that moment, I thought we could win it.”

Cook continued, “Old Blue ran a set of Harry Hunt plasma-sprayed aluminum brake rotors with magnesium calipers, and it was always strong on the brakes. That bike never liked dinky little tight corners but loved fast sweepers like Daytona used to have.” Cook paused and then the racer in him came back. “And by the way, this new infield is bullshit, a complete lack of imagination in design, just a bunch of stop-and-go corners. Old Blue had so much geometry and wheelbase that these tight little corners would have been difficult. That’s where New Blue really surprised me. It’s Cadillac-steady on the banking, just like Old Blue, but it turns so beautifully in the infield.”

ducati ncr new blue track action
Footpeg and exhaust placement initially limited foot space, but NCR techs Walter Bonara and Mirko Sarrino quickly changed the hangers to move the pegs forward and down. Zard exhaust’s heatguards were removed for extra room, but boots got singed. Upper shock mount was hand-formed by 81-year-old Calisto Poggipolini. True story.Riles & Nelson

Pegram and I agree with the ’77 Superbike winner. New Blue railed right from the first practice, and we both came back to Garage 25 extremely happy with the bike NCR provided. “It’s so light…feels so much smaller and lighter than you expect, and on the banking it’s perfect,” Larry enthused after the first practice. I had almost put New Blue in the dirt on the inside of the corners because it turned so well, so I began turning-in later and later, allowing me to accelerate and brake longer.

“Light” best describes New Blue because the brakes, clutch, throttle and handling proved lighter and better balanced than on a top-line production bike. Aren’t racebikes supposed to be taxing, abrupt hard work? “Man, that thing’s just fun,” Pegram laughed. I couldn’t wait to ride it again.

New Blue came off the truck armed with the knowledge of NCR; the number of adjustments Larry and I made were reduced to a turn of spring here, a click of damping there. I stiffened and slowed the front end to use the front Dunlop a little better but neither Larry nor I adjusted the slipper clutch, engine programming or the dual rear Öhlins shocks. We both went a tooth taller on the gearing to 16/34 and would have gone even taller had the sprockets been available. It’s as close to a turnkey racer as either of us can remember.

ducati ncr new blue retro racebike track action
The Bologna Hot RodRiles & Nelson

In the infield, we were on fire and ran up into the top three several times. But as the laps stacked up, the competition aboard Ducati 749Rs, 996s, Triumph 675s, full-race Buells and one super-hot Moto Guzzi wore us down on the banking. With 102 (rear-wheel) horsepower on tap, Larry and I could only watch as NASCAR 3 and 4 took their toll. Drafting really wasn't an option as bikes went by us with 15 to 20 mph in hand. The AHRMA classes put us into some pretty hefty company, and even NCR development rider/racer Valter Bartolini struggled on the Millona, finally carding a win after several top-three finishes.

Pegram grabbed a best finish of third, I brought home a fifth, and we hate the woulda-coulda-shoulda game but on a more technical track New Blue would have given our competition fits. Hey, if the checkered flag was thrown at the end of the first lap through the infield we’d have both been on the box! I habitually launched New Blue from the fifth row to third place, the clutch hooking up perfectly and the precise, willing chassis allowing me a choice of lines around all those “heavy” bikes. And speaking of choice, the torque pumped out by this 1100cc engine allowed us to run first or second gear through the infield and second or third gear through the chicane with no dent in the lap times. This thing is rideable–high praise for a track bike.

ducati ncr new blue racebike in action
The Bologna Hot RodRiles & Nelson

One final thought on racing New Blue at AHRMA: Our 1100cc engines bumped us up to the Formula One class in Battle of Twins, pitting us against some high-horsepower machinery. If you opt for a 1000cc NCR engine, you could run BoT Formula Two against bikes more closely matched in power, something for racers to chew on. After all, riding a great bike is terrific; winning on it even better.

Thanks, Cook Neilson. Thanks for getting off your Harley-Davidson fuelie drag racer to take canyon-riding lessons from friend and fellow staffer Dale Boller. Thanks for moving Cycle magazine to California and hiring Phil Schilling. Thanks for your "Beyond Racer Road" articles that hooked so many of us on roadracing. Larry Pegram and I thank you and NCR/Ducati for two unforgettable days at Daytona.

But most of all, the lucky North Americans who buy New Blue should thank you for kicking ass on the California Hot Rod 30 years ago.