Cook Neilson became one of Ducati's racing myths when he won on the Daytona track in 1977, on his California Hot Rod, a Ducati 750 SS that his friend Phil Schilling prepared for him. This was the first time an Italian motorcycle won a production-based race in the United States, and it opened the public eye to the speed, style and overall potential of the Bolognese company to succeed on the American market.
Before Nielson's memorable victory, really the only Ducati in the USA was the Scrambler, an imported off road model that the Berliner brothers imported from Italy. Nielson was not only an expert rider, he was also a journalist for the specialised magazine, Cycle, and knew all about the history and characteristics of Ducati, having long been fascinated with the Bolognese company. Cycle magazine had frequent articles comparing Italian and Japanese motorcycles, and each review was impartial and done with care.
Even as a kid, Cook was always taken with the particular sound of the two cylinder engines; his fascination began with Harley-Davidson motorcycles, famous American two cylinders. In 1973, Cook was assigned to review the Ducati 750 GT and he fell in love with the character of the motorcycle and the sound of its engine. The similarities between the Ducati's desmodromic distribution and the engines of the Harley-Davidsons (in those days, Harley-Davidson was building their custom production bikes as well as racing bikes) made it easy for Cook to get used to riding the Ducati.
Cook was pleasantly surprised by the speed of the Ducati on the track, especially considering it had less power than its competitors. In 1975, Cook entered the prestigious race on the Daytona track reserved for production-based motorcycles. This was a well known race in the USA and held on the spectacular Daytona track full of challenging curves. At Daytona, one simple error could make riders and the public go from great euphoria to panic.
Cook raced on a Ducati 750 SS, (nicknamed: California Hot Rod). The 750 SS was the motorcycle that Cycle readers had voted as the favourite for the final victory. It was a risky endeavour; there is a big difference between the public's favourite on a theoretical level and actually living out those expectations on the track. As Nielson said "you've got to hope that the ones who work hard are also the lucky ones." Cook asked his friend Phil Schilling to prepare the motorcycle for the race. Schilling was another journalist and crazy about Italian motorcycles. The two of them prepared for the race during the day and dreamed about winning at night.
It was quite a challenge, seeing that they would be competing against many four-cylinder Japanese motorcycles, official BMWs receiving direct assistance from the German factory and other riders with much more experience than the American journalist.
When the bike was finally ready for track tests, Cook and Schilling realised that the frame couldn't handle the increased power they had added and risked breaking during the race... They still had work to do. When they finally got the motorcycle tweaked to their liking, Cook was optimistic about their potential for winning.
The Ducati worked perfectly during the race. Cook did make a mistake or two, and once he was a bit too forceful and his bike went off the track but luckily, he was able to get back on and from that moment on, he rode much more carefully. Although he didn't win the race the experience taught Cook a lot about his motorcycle and especially, where to focus on to improve it for the future: the stability and the aerodynamics of the fairing. Improving these elements would help on the straights at Daytona, and Cook demonstrated just that in the next year's race.
In 1976 there was a new category, special for production bikes; the motorcycles that could race in this Class could only have slight modifications from the production version. These rules were great for riders like Cook who had limited means; finally the smaller teams had the chance to make their dreams come true. Cook still had work to do to make his Ducati winning material but he and Paul gave their best to improve and perfect every aspect of the motorcycle. They even increased its power up to 883 cc.
The meticulous preparation transformed the Ducati into a race motorcycle. Cook & Schilling based some of their ideas on the experience of the Spanish team Grau-Canella that won the 1975 Montjuich 24 Hours on a Ducati 860. In 1976, Neilson successfully finished the raced in 3rd place, following behind the two official BMWs... close, but not the winner yet.
Cook didn't stop working towards his dream. When he began the Daytona race again on March 11, 1977, he felt that he finally had a motorcycle that was tuned to perfection and reached 90 hp. Dave Emde on his Kawasaki and Wes Cooley on his Kawasaki Yoshimura tried to beat him, but Cook and his Ducati were victorious. Cook finished the race in firs place!
Cook was not the only Ducati to do well in the race; another Ducati 750 SS ridden by Kurt Liedman, came in 7th .
The American team had made its dream come true! Fabio Taglioni, the designer of this fantastic motorcycle, and everyone back at the Bolognese factory celebrated the triumph along with him--a Ducati had won the prestigious race across the Atlantic! Cook's victory was not quite as sensational as Paul Smart at Imola in 1972 or Mike Hailwood® on the Isle of Man in 1978, but it was an important step for Ducati in the USA, making people aware of the name, history and passion of these amazing Italian motorcycles.
Originally published in Passione Ducati encyclopedia by Altaya/De Agostini and reprinted with permission of the original publisher.