La Dolce Vita!

Living the sweet life with the Ducati Owner's Club of Canada at its annual Grattan Raceway Rally.

If you didn't know it was there, you'd probably drive right past it. In fact, the only clue to its presence is a small, weathered wooden sign sunk right next to the narrow driveway. It reads--in what looks like hand-carved letters--"Grattan Raceway ."

Driving through the faded gate, you spot a rustic house with an adjoining pool. A little farther, and suddenly it comes into full view--two miles of snaking, rolling, undulating asphalt situated amongst thick grass, blue-green lakes and thousands of trees. It's likely one of the most idyllic settings for a racetrack you'll find anywhere.

There's another house, a big, wooden, two-story affair (the owner's) sitting smack-dab in the infield, next to the nicely appointed pits. As we drive in, we imagine actually living there, jamming the garage with all manner of sportbikes, grabbing laps whenever we felt the need to blow out the cobwebs. Pure bliss.

We found ourselves in this little slice of heaven at the invitation of Alex Fischer, president and chief instigator of the Ducati Owner's Club of Canada. A committed and highly enthusiastic bunch, the D.O.C.C. membership gets together every year at Grattan (and Mid-Ohio as well) to do what most motorcycle enthusiasts only dream about: spend an entire weekend riding their Italian (and/or European--the club isn't exclusive) motorcycles on the racetrack. There's also plenty of fun, camaraderie and late-night shenanigans to go along with that riding, but then, that's another story....

This was the 15th year at Grattan for the D.O.C.C. folks. "The original club organizers just wanted to get Ducati owners together where they could ride their machines the way they were designed to be ridden," Fischer told us. "They'd heard about Grattan Raceway, and rode down to Michigan to check it out," he adds, "and once they saw the place, they knew they'd found a good spot for a weekend rally."

One of the last privately owned racetracks in North America (E.J. Faasen and his family still run the place), Grattan is unique in that it can be safely run in both directions. It's a trait the D.O.C.C. uses to its advantage, running one way Saturday, the other on Sunday. The bit of misdirection adds spice to the weekend, as the track's complexion changes completely when the directions are reversed. And unlike most racetracks, both directions are highly entertaining.

Overnight camping is available, and most of the attendees use the opportunity to either sit back over a nighttime barbeque with the family, or shoot the breeze with friends over a campfire with a few cold ones. The prevailing atmosphere is one of friendliness and hospitality--you can walk up to someone's campsite and be welcomed like an old friend. There's not much tension here--just an easy-going bunch of people out to have a great time.

Which is exactly what we had. Good folks, plenty of fascinating--and fast--motorcycles, and a seriously fun racetrack to ride them on can have that effect. In fact, we're already making plans to attend later this season.

See ya there.Keep scrolling for Holy Ducati and Tribal Thunder.

Holy Ducati

There were three NCR900 Ducatis at Grattan this year. They received so much attention from the knowledgeable Ducati loyalists that you'd think their paint would've started to blister under the steady gazes. Gregg Rammel brought his time-warp example (never ever ridden); and John Lumley and Jerry Dean hauled in their superb restorations (both with racing histories), John's being the ex-Jimmy Adamo NCR. These things are probably the biggest, most brutal-looking racebikes built, but that doesn't account for the fuss they occasioned with this crowd.

Ducati is making history today with its string of consecutive World Superbike Championships, but it's enjoyed an outsized heritage for several decades, the biggest chunk of it coming from one man's ride on a Ducati 17 summers ago. One of motorcycling's fairy-tale-come-true stories is Mike Hailwood's 1978 Isle of Man victory on an NCR900, an event well-documented in Mick Walker's Ducati Twins.

Arguably the greatest racer ever, Hailwood had been unbeatable in the '60s on factory Hondas and MV Agustas, and moved on to a promising Formula 1 auto racing career in the '70s. But a crash injury left him with a bad foot that forced him out of GP cars just as he'd become a front-runner. Evidently a motorcyclist at heart, he went into the motorcycle business, and by and by got the notion that it might be fun to race at the Isle of Man just once more. Hailwood chanced to connect with the enterprising U.K. Ducati dealer Steve Wynne, and an NCR900 was prepared for him to ride under Wynne's Sports Motorcycles banner. It was an amazing coincidence that he landed on a Ducati; they were still a minor player in racing, but he'd ridden them briefly early in his career, winning his first GP at age 19 on a Ducati in 1959. But Hailwood had been everything Ducati wasn't: brilliant always, consistent always.

The NCR900s, about a dozen total, had been built earlier in '78 by Ducati in collaboration with Nepoti-Caracchi Racing (NCR), the firm's "independent" raceshop. These big-bore production racers were a development of the successful 864 endurance racers of the mid-'70s, and they in turn had been derived from the 1972 Imola 200-winning 750cc V-twins (Ducati built the first of this series, the 750GT streetbike, in 1971). And so it came to pass that June of '78 found an out-of-practice Mike Hailwood back at the Isle of Man after an 11-year absence, entered on an NCR900 and facing the best riders of the day, 10 to 15 years younger and mounted on the latest Japanese factory equipment. They were in turn well aware that they'd be riding with a legend, whatever that might actually mean on the track.

Against all realistic odds, Hailwood broke the lap record in practice, averaging 111 mph, and won the race decisively, with the factory Honda (which ran second) blowing its engine trying to catch the flying Duck. Hailwood credited the bike after his victory, and it was probably more than the usual Hailwood modesty. The remarkable event resounded throughout the motorcycling world, and some Mike Hailwood stardust attached itself to Ducati, vaulting the company--and the NCR900--into motorcycling's Magic Kingdom.
--Bruce Finlayson

Tribal Thunder
I like to take a midnight walk through the pits on Saturday at the D.O.C.C. Grattan rally. Most folks have turned in, but I walk by a dozen or so gatherings, some around bonfires, others in small areas enclosed by clusters of still, silent motorcycles and parked vans, enormous in the darkness. I catch snatches of conversations, echoes of a day of exuberance--and a night of merriment, too, in some cases.

Everywhere are motorcycles, lots of newer Ducatis, of course, but a healthy assortment of older Guzzis, BMWs, Triumphs, Nortons, and the usual strong turnout of older Ducati twins and singles, some of them faithful track hacks, others real museum pieces. Here in the quiet darkness, their inert repose gives them each such presence--perhaps it's the contrast to the booming and blasting they did all day, and will do again tomorrow. Or maybe it's because you know that these bikes are privileged to have owners who use them for the purpose for which they were designed.

My stroll ends at our area in the lower paddock where a group of 15 or 20 sit around a bonfire, just beyond Jerry Dean's NCR, Mach 1 and Montjuich, their old-world shapes emerging in the firelight. Jonathan K. White has just returned to the circle from his van and is dispensing bottle rockets, one each to everyone, friends and newly met acquaintances alike. A couple of blissed-out souls are reminded why they're called bottle rockets when they light them handheld, and Jonathan resumes his description of how he managed to simulate the factory metalflake paint on the Imola 750 Ducati vintage racer that he tunes for Yvon DuHamel: scattering dime-store glitter over wet lacquer and patting down the pieces that landed edge-up. Laughter brings our little party to life again, all of us--everyone at the track--brought together by the mutual respect and admiration of people who really do things with motorcycles--and in some depth.

Privately, I salute the Canadians, whose event this is; they seem to understand more about motorcycling than we'll ever learn.

--Bruce Finlayson

Bruce Finlayson raced Honda twins and a Ducati single in the '60s, and won the first Nelson Ledges 24-hour race with his team in 1970 on a C&D; Triumph triple. Today he heads an industrial design consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin.

For more

With its green grass and thick forests, Michigan's Grattan Raceway impresses with beautiful surroundings as well as with a seriously challenging layout.
Grattan is a favorite of D.O.C.C. members, who return every summer to test their machinery and skills.
The perfect place to sample such exotic machinery as Tony Foster's Ducati 748SP.
Coordinating this gathering was a full-time job for D.O.C.C. prez Alex Fischer (shown giving Sport Rider's Jason Black some pre-practice instruction).
Can you say "serious pavement shredder" in Italian? After riding SuperMoto Italia's (516/584-4340) 150-horsepower Bimota SB6, whose long list of features includes an 1192cc GSX-R mill with full-on Sims & Rohm head mods, high-compression Wiseco pistons, modified Euro-spec 40mm CV carbs and a SuperMoto Italia-modified exhaust, we certainly can, grazie.
Bob Robbins's sano '91-spec 900SS racer features a 944cc Fast by Ferracci engine, while a Fox shock and Lindemann-valved fork control 17-inch Marchesini wheels in 6.0- and 3.5-inch widths. A nice touch is the 916-spec nosepiece grafted to the standard 900 fairing, which gives the bike a much more aggressive look than the stocker.
Another SuperMoto Italia creation, this yellow '95 Ducati M900 Limited (only 25 were imported) features an engine with head and manifold porting by Doug Loughgrin of Motorcycle Performance Services, 11.2:1 compression pistons, Keihin 41mm flat-slides and SMI-modified exhaust. Various carbon-fiber bits make this 89-horsepower Monster one sweet ride.
A trio of vintage Ducks, all owned or restored by noted Ducati singles expert Henry Hogben (Ducati Singles Restorations, 519/582-2153). On the left is Hogben's original, mint-condition '71 450 Desmo single, along with Peter Calles's perfectly restored 1966 Mark 1 250 (center) and Jay Richardson's Hogben-built AHRMA championship-winning '66 Mark 3 250 racer.
Tony Foster of Daytona Beach's Personal Cycle Service (904/253-2586) was kind enough to let us thrash on his Ducati 748SP (yes, he's crazy). Using the Euro-spec ignition chip and Termignoni exhaust that came with the bike, the 748SP revs quicker than a 916, with only a shade less power, while maintaining the 916's impeccable handling manners.
Another rare bird is Team Obsolete's 1972 Ducati Imola 750 racer. Only three of these bikes were actually built by Ducati's factory racing department, with only two known to still exist. The "short-stroke" mill revs to 10,500 rpm, a lofty ceiling even by today's V-twin standards. Yvon DuHamel won several Formula 750 AHRMA events on this bike last year.
The second generation of Ducati V-twin evolution is represented by Bruce Finlayson's '85 750 F1A (left) and Jerry Dean's '86 750 Montjuich (right). Uncompromised sportbikes for their day, the Montjuich (only 20 known examples in the U.S.) differs from the F1A by its hotter engine (different pistons and carbs) as well as bigger brakes and wheels.
A blend of English ingenuity and Italian passion, Andy Jacobsen's '87 885cc Harris-Ducati ambushes your visual senses with its screaming yellow paint and nickel-plated frame. With a heavily modified '82 Darmah bevel-drive motor feeding its power through the Steve Wynn-designed Harris chassis, this hybrid's performance is as eye-opening as its looks.
Mike Cecchini's '90 Bimota DB1SR was yet another rare gem present at Grattan. Called the "Final Edition" series, this is one of the last seven DB1s ever made. Powered by a 750 Montjuich engine, DB1SRs featured port-work, trick carbs, high-compression pistons and top-shelf chassis components, as well as the "pizza" (red, white and green) paint scheme.
One of only 50 residing in the U.S., this Frank Dalton-owned '94 Bimota DB2 was a genuine blast to ride. The Gregg Rammel-built 944cc engine and nimble DB2 chassis made for a devastating combination, one that permitted us to scythe through traffic at will. Dalton also fitted a Euro-spec half-fairing that further accentuates the bike's lean look.
Bob Smith of MotoCycle (Bimota's official U.S. importer) allowed us to take his Bimota Supermono racer for a quick roost. With better power than the stocker due to increased displacement (720cc versus 652cc), higher compression, head porting, hotter cams and fuel injection, the racebike shredded through Grattan's tight, twisting layout.
Another wild ride was Geoff Mellinger's 900SS/888 SPO hybrid. Built by MCC Inc. (708/782-2010), Mellinger's racer features an 888 SPO chassis powered by a built-to-the-max, bored-and-stroked 999cc, air-cooled, two-valve mill. Boasting a parts list that could fill a book, the twins racer was likely the fastest two-valver we've ever ridden.
Great motorcycles, friendly folks, fantastic racetrack, beautiful scenery and perfect weather--what more could you want?
Grattan rally attendees were treated to an extremely rare occurrence: three NCR900 Ducati racebikes (out of the handful known to exist) brought together in one spot on the North American continent.