"It's a great pure form of racing" Ducati legend: Cook Neilson

Coming off of a weekend filled with vintage motorcycles, old school apparel and thousands upon thousands of motorcycling enthusiasts at the Barber Vintage Festival, I was introduced to a trinket of gold in the midst of it all. Racing legend and 1977 Daytona Superbike Champion Cook Neilson – pilot of the No. 31 Ducati 750 SS – took some time to give me a history lesson. It wasn’t your typical, “okay class, turn in your textbook to page 723” type of lesson, it was the kind where you can sit all day and gawk as the stories are painting a picture in your mind.

Cook Neilson Display at Barber Vintage Museum

While Cook reminisced on the glory days and shared his triumphs in the 70’s, he also shared his memoir of American Flat Track racing back in the day. His story began with the explanation of the legendary Match Race series and went something like this:

“The Match Race series, which is a bunch of American riders that go to England and race against the British riders. It was a big deal back in the 70s. So the American riders showed up and all of these guys were dirt track racers. They were all dirt track racers.”

Followed by a quick interjection that he did not race dirt track but continued to share his account about a group of familiar American racers who competed in the Match Race series …

“So it’s raining and the American riders were reluctant to get out there on this rainy race track because a lot of them hadn’t raced that much on pavement to begin with, and they sure as hell hadn’t raced in the rain. So (David) Aldana goes out, and he buzzes around this race track and comes back and he says to the guys:

‘Look, this is easy! It’s just like riding dirt. The thing’s going to be skidding around just like you’re used to them skidding around – Just go out there and have a good time, it’s easy!’

And they all said, ‘Oh, okay!’”

No big deal, right? That’s what made these guys great. They knew how to adjust and that’s exactly what they did.

“Like I said, all of those guys were dirt track racers. What’s fascinating to me, really, is there was a time in MotoGP racing in Europe, when Americans won every single race for a period of almost three years.”

I had to ask the obvious question: Why do you think that is?

“Obviously Kenny Roberts had a lot to do with it but the kind of background that these guys had was dirt track racing. And Kenny never steered the motorcycle with the front wheel, even on pavement. He steered it with the back end and all of those guys did the same thing.”

Techniques that the Flat Track community can relate to.

“And you’ve got these motorcycles in Europe back then, they were 500cc two-strokes, for all intents and purposes they were basically un-ridable because they made a million horsepower, the frames were all flexies and they were really hard to ride. Compared to today’s MotoGP bikes, those things were just hellacious. And the American guys figured:

‘Shit, the thing is just sliding around and I’m used to that!’

But the number of consecutive races won in Europe by Americans because of the way they had learned to ride on American dirt made a huge difference.”

And it did. This form of racing is raw. It’s pure. It’s grassroots. Cook continued to brag on his friends, who we consider idols of the sport today …

Cook Neilson and Gary Nixon

“Then there was Freddie (Spencer). Freddie was a dirt track racer. Kenny was. Eddie Lawson was. Wayne Rainey was. These guys all came from what I consider to be the purest form of American motorcycle racing, which is American dirt track motorcycle racing.

If these guys can compete in the highest level of American dirt track racing, they proved you can take that skill to the absolute top of the hill and be successful doing it.

If you talk to these guys and ask them where they learned how to do this, they’d say, ‘dirt track.’”

As Cook and I continued to chat about the legends of the sport and old war-stories from the 1970’s, we started to talk about the new-generation of Flat Track.

“I’ve talked to some people and apparently in this new crop of American dirt track racers there’s some of that (old-school spirit) still there. These guys are characteristically classic American motorcycle dirt track racers. And the people who tell me that say it with the highest possible level of respect.

To watch these guys bail off into turn one on a big Mile track, under shaky lighting and dust, it’s so hard to imagine what it must feel like to do that.

They’re just amazing people. A tremendous amount of skill.

To see those guys in a nice little four, five or six rider pack, bail into turn one and bail into turn three is absolutely incredible.”

After talking about the talent in the American Flat Track paddock, Cook looked to the future of the sport and the progression into 2017. He also touched on the re-birthed on-track rivalry.

“Indian has looted the Harley-Davidson racing team, and Indian is serious. Now, I’ve been involved with motorcycles long enough to know that there have been a lot of other attempts to revive Indian and this one seems to be working.

I know you guys have your eyes on using some available horse tracks, which I think would be great, especially if they are near population centers. I have all of the optimism in the world for what you guys are up to. I wish you the best of luck.”

Created By
Shaun Melady


Photos courtesy of Vicki Smith and Cook Neilson

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