John Stein: 1974 Ducati 750 Super Sport - Riding A Legend

Hot Laps On A California Hot Rod

By John L. Stein, Photography by Cook Neilson, John L. Stein, Patrick Behar

What famous racebike would you give your left nut to ride: Kenny Roberts' Yamaha TZ750 flat-tracker? Mike Hailwood's Isle of Man Honda RC181? Rollie Free's "bathing-suit" Vincent Black Shadow? For many enthusiasts, it's probably Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling's Daytona-winning Ducati 750 Super Sport, nicknamed "Old Blue."

Prior to joining Cycle magazine in 1978, I made occasional forays to the offices in Westlake Village, California, to see what was going on. There Neilson and Schilling, along with Gordon Jennings, Dale Boller, Jess Thomas and Paul Halesworth, always made such groupies feel genuinely welcome. One fine day after college I arrived to find "Overdog," the 750cc predecessor to the 883cc Old Blue, ready for exercise in the shop. Unexpectedly, Neilson invited me to have a toot around town on it. Compact and lightweight, with low handlebars and feet-up rear-sets, it had the stance and the goods to take on any superbike of its day. I have an indelible memory of throttling it up in the Cycle driveway before heading out for a lap around the business park with that magnificent engine thundering away beneath the fiberglass tank (yes, maybe the one with the fly in it). Gulping race gas and sporting high-compression pistons and thigh-roasting high-pipes, it made a shocking amount of heat that only a long blast down Riverside's back straight could have quenched.

My next trial aboard one of the Cycle racers came at the late, lamented Ontario Motor Speedway in '79. When Overdog morphed into the "California Hot Rod" for the '76 season, new cylinder heads were required. Thus, Schilling built a completely new 750cc racer, based on Overdog's heads and keyed to the Superbike rules, which Pierre des Roches affectionately nicknamed the "Red-and-Silver Pile." But to me, it was the World's Most Beautiful Motorcycle. A mirror image of the blue-and-silver California Hot Rod in all but color, it was nearly as fast. Phil and I entered it in a "vintage" sprint race during the annual Ontario 6-Hour weekend, and riding it in that class wasn't like shooting fish in a barrel-it was like disemboweling them with a bazooka! With the hand-built crankshaft spinning with amazing smoothness at nearly 10,000 rpm, and the bike's tall gearing allowing effortless speed, its performance envelope seemed practically limitless. Older slicks meant cornering was less than confident that day, but the stability was obviously there-along with the power. The Red-and-Silver Pile charged through the infield and down the long front straight with hypnotic ease, and even this average pilot could tell its mission and calling was vastly higher.

In the end, perhaps only five or six guys-including "King" Kenny Roberts-ever got a chance to swing a leg over one of the Cycle magazine racers. Although I contributed little if anything to Neilson and Schilling's endeavors during that time, it's a tremendous honor to have shared the experience.

By John L. Stein
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