Tuesday, January 01, 2013


By Vicki Smith, as posted in her excellent Ducati.net website:
Cook Neilson racing 'Old Blue' - a heavily modified Ducati 750SS - at the Daytona Superbike race in 1977
"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 - but 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 its followers. Cook was editor for 10 years and during that time he changed the vernacular of motorcycling, coining the term Superbike, and editing Cycle with a style of writing that set a gold standard.  He also introduced the multi-brand comparison test; getting the Brands to agree to the new concept of a heads-up test, surely saved more than a few lives. Cycle was known for its “can’t be bought” honesty, and the Japanese manufacturers understood honest reviews were important to their development; one-on-one brake and handling tests began the march towards better and safer motorcycles.  That’s why Cook remains important to motorcycling. But its not why he's important to Ducati, and that’s where this story begins.
Maintenance on the bevel-drive Desmo engine was a delicate matter...but Ducatis are tough
1971 – Bridgehampton raceway - Ducati’s US importer, Mike Berliner invited Cook Neilson and his managing editor, Phil Schilling, to test a prototype 750cc Ducati v-twin.  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 gave Berliner a few drawings with styling suggestions, and eventually the production bike made its way to the US as the 750GT, which incorporated most of Cook and Phil’s suggestions.  Cook bought one and in 1973 entered it in a race at Riverside. Not long after he upgraded to the new 'desmo' 750 SuperSport, and began the project documented in the 'Racer Road' series, which was followed by over a half a million readers. Always good at coining a catchy  phrase, they called their Ducati racer 'The California Hot Rod', but to Cook and Phil she was just 'Old Blue'.  
Victory at Daytona; Neilson and Schilling, with Dave Emde (2nd, on left) and Wes Cooley (3rd), both on Kawasakis
If you've read the series you know their mesmerizing tales of long nights working on Blue with the radio playing in the background, clever fixes with the help of friends, and bleary mornings that came too soon.  It must have been a very crowded place... Cook, Phil, the Ducati and 500,000 readers waited 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 in 1977 which really put Ducati on the map in America, delivering a market which until then had been very small.  The Ducati factory acknowledges that Daytona Superbike win as the most important Ducati race victory in America to this day; Ducati might not have survived the late 1970s without the American sales generated.  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.
Cook Neilson in his old 'Cycle' leathers, at the Barber Motorsports race track
Barber Motorsports Park, October 2012 – Cook decided quite some time ago that when and if he took his last ride on a racetrack it would be at Barber, on “Deja Blue”, an exact replica of the California Hot Rod. It had been 35 years since he and Phil won Daytona, and the original 'Old Blue' quietly resides in a collector's living room, atop an Oriental rug, that glorious music bottled inside the engine.  A few years ago, the Barber museum staff commissioned Rich Lambrechts of DesmoPro to replicate the Daytona 750SS, and exact, which is so accurate that both Cook and Phil assumed the Barber Museum had managed to buy Old Blue.
The replica of 'Old Blue' built by Rich Lambrechts.  I wonder if he researched all the little racing modifications done by Schilling and Neilson?
Deja Blue was built as a labor of love, and in anticipation of Cook's last ride, the Barber Festival weekend felt like stepping back in time. Some of the original Cycle staff were there, and looking thru the garage door you could see Cook’s wife Stepper quietly reading in a corner, as Cook (in his Daytona leathers) conferred with Phil, while Barber staff fueled the machine and fiddled withe the bike.  '1977' is the name of an Instagram filter; this scene could have been the inspiration. Cook and his friends have attended the Barber Vintage Festival every year, as a Grand Marshall and Hall of Fame’r, he rode demonstrations every year, but in 2011 he took a tumble, ironically on the Ducati with which 848 Jason DiSalvo had won the Daytona 200.  A sudden rain shower combined with a slick paint stripe, the 848′s quarter-turn throttle stepped the bike out, and down it went.  

It was a low-speed incident; 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 - the 848 was the only Ducati ever 'binned' by the only two guys ever to win Daytona on a Ducati; did that make the 848 worth more?  All joking aside, Cook came to the conclusion riding Ducatis on a race track might better be left to others, so he asked George Barber for one last ride on Deja Blue. That day come, we all stood behind the museum, as Cook watched the Barber staff crank the bike up on rollers. Word had spread that this was Cook's last ride, and the space began to fill with people important to Cook’s (and Ducati'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.  I was surrounded by people 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."
- Vicki Smith


Anonymous said...

Good looking 'Old Blue'

- Walter Ulreich

Anonymous said...

Sad day/ great day. Oh how I remember the 'Racer Road' series...


Anonymous said...

They have a candlelight dinner at the Barber Museum on Friday during the vintage Festival. My wife and I were there the night they rolled out the Ole Blue replica for Cook. A very special night!

- David Morrill

Anonymous said...

Hi, Paul,
Happy 2013! It’s always good to read about my #1 magazine editor hero, Clarence “Cook” Neilson, particularly in my favorite motorcycle blog. Cook was responsible for me changing my college major from American History to journalism, me having been a Cycle subscriber since 1970.

- Lindsay Brooke

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Miss Vicki. Thanks, Paul. It seems not so long ago when we were battling fouled plugs and the mystery of shim caps, amongst others. And Cycle? I still have some old issues lying around...

Will there ever be another "golden era" for bikes?

Team Benzina - making the finest motorcycle magazine on earth? said...

Brilliant and moving. I'm in the UK and although I've accumulated most 1970s British motorcycle magazines, Cycle remains elusive. But when I do find one it reminds me it's not just rose-tinted goggles, that was a special era. With the X-Box genertion taking over it's gone forever and it was a privelege to have been one of the 500,000 readers and to have finally got a bevel twin of my own. Best wishes to you all

Greg at Benzina magazine

Tim Kern said...

Cook's was truly the era "When the Big Guns Fired at Once." Yeah, I read every issue...

Racer Road, where street riders just set their throttles to one opening and hung on, vs. race track, where they accelerated and braked, hard. What a revelation to so many of us! And why several of us went racing, too.

...and don't forget Bonneville, where some guy named "Clarence" Neilson set more records.

Thanks, Cook.

Nick McCabe said...

Well said, Vicki!