Laguna Seca 1978 and Ducati 905 rider Paul Ritter (96) is looking for a way around Steve M
Roadracing motorcycles come in three flavors: 1) Factory-built team bikes as in MotoGP; 2) national distributor-based machines such as American Honda's current AMA Superbikes or the 1976 Butler & Smith BMW R90S Superbikes; and 3) privateer-built machines such as the California Hot Rod, a.k.a. "Old Blue", the 883cc Ducati Desmo created by Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling of Cycle magazine fame.
Superbike racing, an outgrowth of AMA Production racing, started in '76 as a privateer/distributor-driven event. Without any pure factory involvement, privateers and small national teams fought technical and on-track battles that made the first three years of AMA Superbike racing legendary. The racing equipment typically arrived at the tracks in the back of pickups and vans. The lighter, better-handling European twins were often able to overcome the horsepower disadvantage they faced against the bigger-but less developed-Japanese fours. BMW, Ducati and Moto Guzzi all scored national wins.
The most celebrated Superbike of that early Golden Age was the California Hot Rod, which appeared in 883cc form in '76, won Daytona in '77 and retired at year's end after finishing runner-up to Reg Pridmore on the Racecrafters Kawasaki. Some 30 years later, the California Hot Rod remains the only Ducati ever to win a Daytona Superbike race.
Paul Ritter, riding Dale Newton's 900SS-based twins, was a gifted racer who beat Neilson to win the '77 Sears Point national. The Ritter/Neilson one-two finish was a victory among friends. Newton's equipment was first-rate, and at year's end he strengthened his racing effort by buying the California Hot Rod and every part that went with it.
Ritter takes up the story: "In '77 I was riding for Dale Newton at club races in California, and helping develop a Ducati Superbike. Dale started with a '76 Ducati 900SS instead of a 750, making many of the same modifications that Neilson and Schilling had. Dale didn't modify the intake and exhaust ports as radically, so our bike had more low and midrange power than Neilson's bike, which had a clear top-speed advantage. When we decided to contest the AMA Superbike series in '78, Dale bought Cook's bike for high-speed tracks like Daytona, saving our '77 bike for tight ones like Sears Point and Loudon."
There was one more part to Newton's plan: the 905. The 883cc California Hot Rod was at its limit in terms of breathing, and increasing its displacement wouldn't help because the intake ports wouldn't flow any more charge. After Neilson won Daytona in '77, the Ducati factory gifted him with a pair of the special 60-degree heads and 88mm pistons developed for endurance racing. These came to Newton with the California Hot Rod.
Newton began work on the 905 early in '78 and faced a daunting task because this was no bolt-on kit. He had to make new rocker arms, or somehow modify the old ones. The available "Imola grind" camshafts wouldn't work, so he had to grind his own desmodromic cams-a staggering task for a privateer. But Newton's handiwork made his 905 the pinnacle of the American-built big-twin Ducatis.
Teething problems sidelined the 905 at the few races in which it was run in '78. Laguna Seca was the last race of the year, and Ritter was anxious to ride the bike there. "Laguna Seca in the'70s was different than it is today," he recalls. "The track ran from Turn 2 directly to what is now Turn 5. Bevel-drive Ducatis loved fast sweepers but didn't do so well in tight turns. I got a good start in the five-lap heat race and took the lead at Turn 4. The 905 kept the lead until I slowed to see who would be the first to catch up. On lap three Wes Cooley came by on his Yoshimura Suzuki and I tucked into his draft.
"Approaching Turn 2 we both started braking at about the same time, and as I released the brakes and started to turn, I was stunned. Wes was still braking hard! I had to get back on the binders to keep from smacking his rear tire. The 905 was a lot faster through the first half of the track. Wes had the advantage at the entry to the Corkscrew and in the final hairpin, and he could accelerate faster up the start/finish straight. Laguna, because of its high overall speed, is a very narrow track. Finding a good place to pass was going to be difficult. Satisfied with what I had found out, I finished the heat second behind Wes.
"In the 20-lap final I got my usual mediocre launch, sixth at the end of the first lap. Cooley had gotten the holeshot and built up a pretty good lead. Just before the halfway point, I worked my way into third. Steve McLaughlin, riding the Racecrafters Kawasaki, had caught Wes and was pestering him. They were 10 seconds ahead of me, but I closed that gap in three laps, setting a Superbike lap record of 1:11.4. Cooley's best was a 1:11.8.
"Getting around McLaughlin and Cooley proved difficult. After maybe eight laps running nose to tail, I squeezed past Steve on the inside into Turn 4 and held second all the way to the start/finish straight. There Wes pulled away slightly, but I knew the 905 could catch him in the Turn 2-3-4 stretch. I planned to do to Wes what I had just done to Steve. The race was almost over, but when the white flag should have appeared, it didn't. To my utter surprise, we got the checkers! I found out later the race was being run under international Formula 750 rules, with no white flag. Cooley won and I finished second, riding a bike that was easily the class of the field. One consolation was that Dale and I knew just how good the 905 was. Just wait until next time!"
To Ritter's disappointment, Newton was unable to take part in the '79 Superbike season, so the 905 was never raced again. Then, in '80, everything changed. Honda and Kawasaki got serious about Superbike racing and hired Freddie Spencer and Eddie Lawson. In this new world, the 905 had no place. But the 905 will always be remembered as the ultimate expression of the bevel-drive Ducati built for American Superbike racing.