Racing, like relationships, can be defined by torrid excitement, gut-wrenching pain and everything in between, and after a certain number of years sometimes it just...ends. And so it was that after six years of continual development of Ducati 750 bevel-twins, at the close of the 1977 AMA Superbike season Cook Neilson decided to hang it up. Funny thing about time though: As it passes, key moments in history take on supercharged importance. And so it is with the legend of Neilson, Phil Schilling and their Old Blue racebike. The flames were fanned in the mid-2000s, when Ducati rediscovered its past and brought out the SportClassic range, and then conspired with NCR to build the limited-edition "New Blue."
Swept along by Ducati's current popularity, Neilson and Schilling attended numerous events-signing autographs, giving talks and generally supporting the brand that they had helped popularize through Cycle magazine's "Racer Road" articles. What was missing was the bike, locked away in a private collection. Unfortunately, Neilson without a Ducati was like Roy Rogers sans Trigger. And that's tragic, because the sight of Neilson, wearing his open-face Bell helmet, and Old Blue, with its open megaphones booming across the Daytona grandstands, imprinted Cycle and Ducati fans as indelibly as the volcanic blast at Pompeii. Cook and Phil needed Old Blue.
Enter Ducati restorer Rich Lambrechts and Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum's Jeff Ray and Brian Slark. "Wouldn't it be fun," Lambrechts mused at Daytona last spring, "to build a replica and present it to Cook and Phil?" One they could visit and ride whenever they pleased, take to the occasional event, and rejoin not only for their own edification but also for the enjoyment of the many fans that remember.
(Left to right) Rider Cook Neilson, Barber Motorsports Park founder George Barber and tune
Lambrechts had been considering just such an enterprise for some time, and had already acquired a suitable frame, fork and engine cases. Other than the Super Sport body parts, which are available from the aftermarket, the fabrication would come from Lambrechts dutifully studying photos of the original Old Blue, and through a series of innocent-sounding queries to Neilson. Because above all else, "Deja Blue" was to be a complete surprise to Neilson and Schilling, who were lured by Slark as guest speakers at a museum fundraiser in conjunction with the AHRMA vintage national at Barber Motorsports Park last October.
Tapping his immense bike-building know-how as well as the resources of various colleagues, Lambrechts created Deja Blue in just a few short months. He sourced Morris mags from two different suppliers. Had exactly the right shade of paint mixed and matched. Carefully built up an oversized desmodromic engine with a remote oil cooler and handmade exhaust system. Found original S&W shocks and refinished their characteristic yellow spring collars. But the piece de resistance is probably the twin aluminum front brake rotors, which took eight hours each to turn from solid billet and then were plasma-sprayed to match the original racebike's.
Just like in those made-for-TV chopper dramas, Deja Blue was finished in the back of a rental van on the way from Florida to Alabama with Lambrechts doing the wrenching as Ducati events wizardress Vicki Smith drove through a lashing storm. Arriving in Birmingham just hours before the Friday-night banquet, the bike was not sorted but it was done enough, and it was a runner. At the banquet, an unaware Neilson kindly presented a large original oil painting of the 1955 Moto Guzzi V8, once commissioned for a Cycle feature, to George Barber. After Schilling told the spine-tingling story of these ambitious-but-quirky V8s, Neilson then recounted his last trip aboard a bevel-drive Ducati: a 1997 session on Old Blue at Daytona. There couldn't have been a better setup for Lambrechts to suddenly roll Deja Blue into the light. Neilson raised his hands to his cheeks. Schilling gaped. And for a moment, neither knew whether it was the original or a copy-it's that good. As Schilling said later, "My first thought was, 'How in the hell did they get Old Blue?'" He only figured it out after getting close enough to see that the fairing was devoid of rock chips.
When the eyes had dried, the next day saw Deja Blue's few mechanical needs solved, and on Sunday, for the first time in nearly a dozen years, Neilson sat aboard a Ducati bevel racer, got a push-start, and merged onto the delicious Barber circuit for a good, hard blast from the past. With spectators cheering and waving, the rider who did more for Ducati in America than anyone in his time finally found his steed again. "It's really smooth, it runs like a mother and w Soon enough, Deja Blue will occupy its own place of honor in the museum, with Neilson permanently invited to come ride it whenever he wants. A perfect relationship reborn.