Agostini, Roberts, Baker et al | Brothers in Arms

Planets align, stars come out for the inaugural Imola 200 Revival

Holy smokin’ racing rubber! I had been led to believe that everyone understood this wasn’t supposed to be a race. Maybe that was just a hopeful notion; a kind of disclaimer, circulated between organizers and fans to let the insurance guys breathe a bit easier. But let’s be realistic: Cut a bunch of professional racers loose—including a number of world champions—on professional-caliber racing machines and what you get is a race. The racers may be retired and the white-hot force-of-will to win may have cooled a bit, but such men remain capable of going very fast. The bikes—mostly 500cc Grand Prix and Formula 750 machines—are at least as capable. Like the men, their performance belies their age. They might not be MotoGP-fast, but the two-strokes in particular bring with them a certain violence that makes them singularly impressive and downright frightening in a way modern four-strokes are not.

So it was that on the afternoon of Sunday, October 3, 2010 at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy, Steve Baker came by on a Yamaha TZ750 (OW31) going like he was hell-bent on election. On the first lap Baker had opened up about a 1-second lead on similarly mounted Christian Sarron, who was giving chase like he meant business. Not far back, perhaps another second, Kenny Roberts Sr. on a Yamaha YZR500 (OW60) was clearly determined to stay in the hunt. In fact, most of the 36 starters hot on the heels of the lead trio looked damn serious!

The inaugural 200 Miglia Di Imola Revival was underway. The spectacle was worth the wait and, somehow, pre-ordained. The 25 years since the last Imola 200—the shorthand by which it was known in America—dissolved in the intensity of these first few laps. We were drawn back three decades by a rush of real-time images that could have leapt off the pages of the magazines we pored over all those years ago. The time warp occurs quickly in this environment. But if the last impression you have of your racing heroes comes from those old magazine pages, it can be startling to get up close and personal 30 years later. Few of us become more beautiful with age, and racers pay a particular cosmetic price for all that adrenaline. But most of them are still in good shape. Thus suited up and mounted on invariably pristine, swift machines, they look awesome flying around the track as new and beautiful images form.

Things settled down a bit in the early laps, as each racer found a pace that provided the greatest pleasure. Up front, that pace was still pretty fast. Sarron and Baker soldiered along. Roberts, with his own particular score to settle, drifted back to find Carlos Lavado. They rode together, wheel to wheel, going fast, trading places for the remaining laps. It was great to watch and the camaraderie was palpable: a high-performance version of what many of us experience riding with our pals. But with two world champions, it was different: They’re comrades-in-arms; survivors of a time when international roadracing claimed too many lives. These racing men had to be missing those who couldn’t join them this sunny afternoon in Italy.

Many of the racing fraternity were thrilled to be together at a racetrack to share so many memories. The camaraderie, the wandering back and forth exchanging words, laughter and photo opportunities continued until minutes before the start. Then things became decidedly unpleasant for Roberts. He returned to his Yamaha to discover that his helmet, placed at the ready on the bike's gas tank, had vanished. We all assumed an overzealous fan—which does derive from fanatic—made off with King Kenny's crown during the pre-race distractions. Roberts didn't seem overwrought, but he didn't seem especially amused either—until he spotted Lavado a few rows back unable to contain gales of laughter. Roberts burst out laughing himself before retrieving his helmet, vowing, "I'll get you for that!"

In addition to Baker (first American roadracing world champion, winning the F750 crown in ’77) Roberts (first American 500cc GP champ in ’78, ’79 and ’80), French- man Sarron (’84 250cc GP champ), and Venezuelan Lavado (’83 and ’86 250cc GP champ), there were other world champions on hand at Imola: Italians Giacomo Agostini (122 GP wins and 15 world titles, the most ever), Marco Lucchinelli (’81 500cc champ) and Virginio Ferrari (’87 TT F1 champ), plus Lavado’s compatriot Johnny Cecotto (’75 350cc and ’78 F750 champ).

The caliber of the machinery on hand was a match for riders of this stature. Living in America, where GP culture isn’t terribly deep and genuine relics are few and far between, we forget just how much genuine factory racing paraphernalia there is. Bikes we thought were one-offs appeared in multiples. Can there be _that _many MV Agusta GP bikes still in existence?! Then there were the real rarities: the over-the-top Moto Guzzi V8, with its infamous dustbin fairing and weight-saving green-primer finish. Spectacular both to look at and to hear, it fired after a push-start of just a few yards. From the high-rent district of the pit-road garages to the suburbs out back, there was an extraordinary expanse of exotica. Dutchman Ferry Brouwer’s Yamaha Classic Racing Team had so many factory OWs, one could get lost in the numbers.

Then there was the exotic managed by one impassioned collector and a pal or two. Ever hear of a Cardani? There’s one: a three-cylinder, 12-valve 500. A brass plate on the aluminum tank specifies years of construction: ’65-’68, four years of a work in progress. It truly looks handmade—as in one drill, two files and a torch. Many machines at Imola were so perfect that the workmanlike Cardani’s patina was satisfying in comparison. Inevitably, there were replicas; some so studiously replicated as to be indistinguishable from the real thing. They left us wondering what their historic value might be. But artful reproductions have always had a legitimate place in history, and they played a worthy supporting role here.

So, how do you attract racers, both human and mechanical, of this stature from all over the world? First, you need an inspired organizer with passion, knowledge and the capacity to see the Big Picture. He also needs enough stamina to maintain unrelenting standards of excellence. Properly executed, the process of building such an event becomes synergistic. Present a champion with a compelling program and he may well endorse it. That endorsement will, more often than not, mobilize collectors, mechanics, sponsors and volunteers.

Or it may work the other way around: Build it and they will come. As excellent program components begin to accrue, broader, deeper support becomes more feasible: the circuit, event sponsors and surrounding communities become increasingly drawn into the project. Promote the affair properly and the contagion spreads to enthusiasts, who create the sort of atmosphere that only a large, passionate audience can. At Imola that audience numbered more than 10,000 very enthusiastic fans—impressive for a first-year effort.

The Imola organizers are an expert and enthusiastic group based in Belgium. Christian Jupsin heads up the organization, DG Sport. If you’re aware of the June Bikers Classic held at Spa-Francorchamps, a mythic circuit in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, you’re aware of DG Sport. The Bikers Classic is the standard by which other such events are measured in Europe, but the Imola 200 Revival was better. It’s difficult to say why, except for the fact that Belgium isn’t Italy. Nobody celebrates quite like the Italians. The superstars seemed more visible and accessible at Imola, and the good times they were having flowed out to the fans. In the end, that atmosphere carried the day.

Jupsin associated himself with Dr. Claudio Costa in this historic endeavor. The support of the good doctor of the Clinica Mobile counted for a lot in several significant ways. Costa, a legend in his own right as the dedicated provider of medical assistance to MotoGP racers, is the son of Checco Costa. And as he himself will tell you, his father is the _real _legend.

Checco Costa’s legend runs too deep to detail completely here. Suffice it to say that without him, there would be no Imola. He decided as far back as the late ’40s that the town of Imola needed an arena where the centaurs of motorcycle racing had free rein. Initially, it was an Italian version of what American racers call a TT track, winding along the banks of the Santerno River through Imola’s Acque Minerali Park. In the ’50s, with the help of fellow enthusiasts, 5 kilometers of asphalt 9 meters wide, carefully engineered and laid by professionals translated the vision into reality.

The elder Costa didn’t stop there. By ’72 he was thinking bigger and better because by then the bikes had become bigger and better. Americans think big, but so did the Romans, and there’s plenty of evidence all over Italy to prove it. Costa considered it was time Europe had an equivalent of the Daytona 200; thus his 200 _Miglia di Imola _was commonly referred to as “The Daytona of Europe.”

Extending a sort of foreign-exchange program for roadracers, the Imola event hosted a number of firsts. Don Emde became the first American to race there in ’72. Paul Smart’s win on a 750cc Desmo that same year gave Ducati the storybook start for its long history in Superbike racing. The ’72 Imola 200 was arguably the first F750 race, as that prototype format would be formalized the following year. Imola was also the first place outside the USA to which one very young and very American Kenny Roberts came to challenge the Europeans’ way of racing in ’74. It began as theater, with Roberts wondering out loud in front of the press that if Agostini was the racer everyone claimed, why hadn’t he been to Ascot Park?

But there they were, both Roberts and Agostini, at Imola, at this fabulous revival some 36 years after they’d first encountered each other. They stood shoulder to shoulder in front of Ago’s pit and joked with each other on the starting grid. Judging from the fans’ reaction, you couldn’t say who was the greater star—and it really didn’t matter. Dr. Costa sat astride the Guzzi V8 for a few minutes before the start. Without him, would all of this have happened? Roberts allowed that it was out of respect for Dr. Costa that he was at this first Imola Revival at all. Surely there were others who felt the same way. And surely, Checco Costa was smiling down on the whole affair.

The 2011 running of the Imola 200 Revival is scheduled for October 1-2, with the addition of a 100-mile race for 250s and a 4-hour vintage endurance race like that which DG Sports organizes annually at Spa-Francorchamps. For details, visit www.200miglia.com.

The media was out in force, Here, Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto is interviewed by an an Italian journalist.
In Italy, Agostini is legend. Wherever he went, his legions of fans (and the paparazzi) followed.
Mob scene: With some 10,000 spectators on hand, Roberts et al were surrounded all weekend.
Roberts (2) leads fellow American Baker (32) and Venezuelan Carlos Lavado (3), all on Grand Prix two-strokes. Clearly, these former world champions have not forgotten how to ride a motorcycle!
Cagivas? How many do you want? Lineup of V4 500cc GP bikes formerly raced by Randy Mamola, Alex Barros, Eddie Lawson and John Kocinski.
Smart rode the very Ducati 750 on which he won the 1972 Imola 200. The factory gave it to him as a gift.
One guess whose bike this is: Roberts and friends are never above a practical joke.
Ever heard of a Cardani? Neither had we, until we spied this one. It’s a one-off 500cc, 12-valve triple.
Baker, from Washington state, rode a Yamaha OW31 like the one on which he won the ’77 F750 title.
Agostini is almost synonymous with MV Agusta, but he switched to Yamaha late in his career.
Roberts rode an ’81 OW60, the last Yamaha 500 with a square-four engine before they switched to a V4.
Baker, Roberts and Agostini mug for the cameras as Frenchman Christian Sarron has a laugh. They may look like old men, but they’re still racers at heart! Baker, from Washington state, rode a Yamaha OW31 like the one on which he won the ’77 F750 title. 76 MOTORCYCLIST