Red Bikes at Red Rock: DRA Las Vegas, 2001

by Brian D. Day

We’ve all heard the murky rumors and snide remarks. Many of you think Ducati owners are elitist, rich, frivolous sissies, obsessively polishing their precious garage queens instead of riding hard like Real Men. Listen up, binky: I own a brace of beautiful Ducks and a bunch of big-bore handguns. I am so un-rich it hurts, and I think your snickering about pansy-ass Italian bike owners is best directed elsewhere. The truth is that Ducatisti, like their four-wheeled Ferrari-obsessed counterparts called Tifosi, merely inhabit a rarefied, richly textured and complex subculture within the broader umbrella of mass-market motorsports, much like the WWF but without so many bad haircuts and phony grunting. Nowhere was this more obvious than at last fall’s 3-day celebration of all things red, fast and Italian at Ducati Revs America in Las Vegas, Nevada. The self-proclaimed “largest Ducati event the Americas have ever seen,” DRA took place October 26-28, 2001 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway about 15 miles North of the infamous Vegas strip. LVMS is a huge, ulta-modern complex consisting of a drag strip, a banked oval track, an infield road course, some dirt tracks, smaller road tracks and acre after acre of parking. Dozens of various warehouses and storage facilities shelter premium motorsports businesses like Shelby American, and huge grandstands painted red, white and blue combine to serve notice this is one serious motorsports venue.

feature47aThe Italians create glorious machines but they are clueless about effective American-style event promotion. If you didn’t already know that DRA was taking place in Las Vegas, you would not have been able to find out. There were no billboards, signs, banners, newspaper ads, TV spots, radio announcements nor any other form of promotion for DRA that I could find. It was a lack of flash in a town where flash is often the only thing of real importance. For most visitors to Nevada’s MegaSin City, DRA was harder to find than truffle sauce at the Rio buffet. I conducted my own unofficial grassroots spot quiz, collaring people at random in casinos and on the street, and most had no clue what the heck DRA was. “So you mean like the Harley guys?” “Ducati? Never heard of it…” “Aren’t they all red? My wife wears red lipstick!” Attendance, for whatever reasons, was a modest by national-level motorcycle standards: 5000 people. Betcha more folks got H-D “Screaminí Eagle” tattoos on their butts and breasts in Daytona Beach last year than showed up for DRA in totality. If DRA was under-attended, those of us who made the effort were richly rewarded.

Registration was quintessentially Italian. A cramped tent in the dirt far from the actual site, long lines of supplicants shuffling listlessly in the sun and dust filling out forms by hand. Nary a computer nor Palm Pilot to be seen, no alphabetizing, no separate press or will-call, just a bunch of minimum wage order processors looking up names laboriously on thick paper printouts. At least there were free cigars, since Partagas was a prominent sponsor of DRA. You had a much better chance of being wreathed in fragrant Partagas fumes than enjoying the heady aroma of 110 octane racing gas or castor bean oil. This is event schizophrenia at its finest: Sir draws languidly on his mellow Corona while a high school dropout tries to find his name on a hand-scrawled list in a dusty tent.

For most of the 3-day show, happy Ducatisti mingled and gawked in the warm desert sunshine under a bright but hazy desert sky. DRA was held in the infield garage area of the LVMS oval track, accessible through tunnels dug under the racecourse itself. Intelligently laid out as a series of long buildings with large rollup doors, hundreds of lithe and colorful Ducatis parked on the tarmac in between. It was a great setup. Traffic control was excellent with a palpable expectation that just around the next corner something very exciting was always set to happen. With over 70 separate organized activities, I found it impossible to be bored with loads of fantastic bikes to drool over plus beautiful women posing in leather jackets and much, much less. Ceremonial guards in stylized Renaissance-type costumes twirled banners and tootled horns, bocce balls clicked, a rockabilly band played while the stunt riders did wheelies, stoppies and tire-smoking donut burnouts for the benefit of a highly entertained crowd. Happy fans munched on pizza, pasta and crusty thick Italian peasant sandwiches, sipping strong espresso straight from the cup. It was a carnival of pure pleasure for the faithful who had made the long trek to Vegas. feature47b

All 3 days, LVMS hosted other events: NHRA drags, Legends cars, Formula Ford driver’s school, dirt races. Loudest of all were the Petty Driving School cars, NASCAR quasi-racers with paying amateur drivers aboard thundering around the big oval track. These steroid-soaked sedans ran in 160-mph pairs all day, every day, and the biggest baddest noise on the DRA infield was the hollow roar of pushrod American V-8 engines turning seven grand or more. The delicate tympanic rattles of dry clutches and basso-profundo sub-bass pulses of beefy V-twin desmo motorcycle engines were frequently smothered like fine caviar under chicken-fried gravy. The Petty Car & Superbike Expo on Saturday afternoon finally proved just who was king of the oval. Carl Fogarty himself literally blew past the bulky sedans like they were running backwards, much to the delight and approval of the motorcycle-loving masses.

The desert skies overhead were churning with activity too. LVMS is right smack-dab next door to Nellis AFB, one of the main military staging facilities for Air Force operations in Afghanistan. More than once I looked up from a particularly choice 2-wheeled Italian stallion to see massive B-52 bombers circling overhead and lining up on the runways for landing. There were A-6’s, F-117 stealth fighters and B-2’s incoming as well. It was sobering to think that these pilots and tens of thousands of other American servicemen were putting their lives on the line every day so we could enjoy our leisure activities in peace and harmony.

Friday evening’s premiere event at the Venetian hotel was the press intro of a new Ben Bostrom 998 Superbike at Zeffrino’s restaurant. Rather than making the Testaretta engine available to the real world, Ducati chose to create yet another exclusive limited-production niche machine. Only 155 examples will be built but at least you can buy one at your local dealer instead of having to order it over the Internet. The talented Bostrom is a friendly and well-mannered 27-year-old who cheerfully posed on the 123 bhp bike as photographers flashed away for posterity. Personally I think the paint job on this machine is confusing and chaotic. The bike’s graphics are way overboard with busy stars and stripes and flames all poorly combined but luckily for Ducati I don’t anticipate having a spare $22,695 any time soon and will have to be content seeing it on the road.

Many of the weekend’s events like the Ducati University, Ducati Tech, seminars, various talks and Q&A sessions were truly inspiring. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a bunch of lucky souls jammed the media room to hear Pierre Terblanch, the South African-born, London educated, ex-German Ford employee who heads up Ducati Design. Terblanche’s thick black eyebrows quivered and arched emotively as he told of creating the original show model Mh900e in just 11 weeks. He and his team pulled multiple all-nighters using CAD tools, handwork, machine-modeling software, sketches overlaid with mathematical plot points, digital photos manipulated with painting software, pencil doodles and full-sized clay carvings for what was clearly a grueling yet inspired project. He spoke fervently of the brave new world of concurrent engineering and his conviction that process is God when it comes to designing motorcycles. I bet this guy drinks gallons of black coffee and sometimes talks in phrases that even humans can comprehend.feature47c

Terblanche is witty, outspoken and extremely opinionated. His tiny department-only 4 full-time staffers-has already taken a highly visible run at design immortality with the MH900e. He spoke in depth of his own path to Ducati, and shared a detailed presentation on the Mh900e design process. Terblanche gave the audience a teasing indication of major changes shortly to come at Ducati, a company which as recently as 1996 had only 40 personal computers. There are clearly new bikes in the pipeline that will surely set the motorcycling world abuzz. Terblanche also has a finely honed ability to communicate truth through carefully staged denial. Answering “no comment,” and ìI can’t tell you that,” and “That’s corporate-level information and I can’t divulge it,” plus a few “They (Ducati executives) are in the audience and they would kill me if I talked,” he hinted that future Ducatis may not use desmo valve gear and the Supermono might be resurrected as a 90 bhp supercharged supermotard style city bike. He also opined that our current obsession with lowering the center of gravity on two-wheelers was all wrong (are you listening, Buell?) and that riding his old Cagiva 600 was more fun than straddling a new 996R.

The Ducati Museum showcased some nice examples of historically significant bikes. Rather than air-freighting machines from Italy, many were sourced from local collections including Guy Webster’s famous Italian Bike Barn near Santa Barbara, Ca. Another excellent session was ì75 Years of Ducati History” with Livio Lodi, Curator of the Ducati Museum. Lodi separated the company’s timeline into specifically themed eras much like the formal scientific organization of natural history. Some of these demarcations were the “Flower Power” courting of the American market in the mid- 60ís, the “New Life” of 1968 when the first prototype 500 V-twins were created, “Dreams and Fears” in 1972 which beget the ìÖ mindless management of Ducati by the Italian government…” in the Ducati Dark Ages. 1985 was the low point (only 4000 bevel engined motorcycles rolled off the assembly line as opposed to more than 40,000 bikes in 2000) 1996 was the “Changing of the Guard,” a reference to TPG’s acquiring the firm. No reference was made to “Status Symbols and Weenies,” which is where some folks think we are now on the Ducati Curve.

Lodi told us that one of the only 2 Ducati Apollos in existence had been acquired from a Japanese collector, restored and was at the museum in Bologna. This prototype bike was extremely important even though it was never produced commercially, representing a leap from 250cc singles to a massive 1267cc V-four motor in one huge jump. Porky, ungainly and prone to vibration, the Apollo was clad in 750GT style livery when Ducati purchased it back from a Mr. Iwashita in 1986. Iwashita had gotten it from Domiracer who in turn had wangled it from Berliner. Lodi also commented on two well-known historical Ducati victories, the Neilson/Schilling “California Hot Rod” Daytona win in 1977 and Mike Hailwoods’ fairy-tale Isle of Man comeback on a 900SS bevel twin in 1978. Lodi said that while the Daytona race was probably more important from a company perspective because it was Ducati’s first big-time win in the United States, the Isle of Man generated a lot more media buzz. In Livio’s terms, “Sadly, Hailwood buried Daytona.”

Each day, wave after wave of DRA attendees ran hot laps on the road course snaking through the infield. Amazingly a few overeager riders couldn’t even keep the rubber side down for a few circulations. Friday afternoon one ran off big-time and earned the feared “ambulance-of-the-stars” ride back to a Las Vegas hospital. Many of the current and past Ducati race champions appeared at DRA, including 2001 WSB champ Troy Bayliss, the affable Ben Bostrom, Rueben Xaus, rising stars Steve Rapp and Larry Pegram, legendary Imola winner Paul Smart,’79 Daytona winner and former Cycle magazine editor Cook Neilson (wearing his lucky LA Lakers cap, now badly tattered and faded), classic Ducati singles man Paul Ritter, 916 star Carl Fogerty and Best 2000 Privateer Andreas Meklau to name but a few. Some even gave pillion rides, and if you think winning $1000 at craps is thrilling, try slipping and sliding around the LVMS road course while holding on for dear life to Ben, Foggy or Troy. Safe to say none of the real racers crashed, but you can bet a few passengers needed clean undies after a couple of laps at WSB speeds.

Another Saturday highlight was the Sotheby’s benefit auction, where many Ducati treasures were sold off to the highest bidders with all proceeds donated to the Red Cross and Riders For Health organizations. Deal of the Day was one of the very last 916ís made, a yellow 1998 bike signed by Ducati Team Riders including Ben Bostrom. It went for a paltry $15,000, far below list price even without the DRA/racer connection. A one-off road bicycle with titanium Litespeed frame and high-end Campagnolo components was purchased by Bostrom himself for $6,000. Other folks picked up used WSB brake disks for $400, an electric guitar from the collection of Sammy Hagar, coffee table Ducati books, something called a “Stealth Golf Bag” and the ubiquitous boxes of Ducati-logo’d Partagas cigars also went under the hammer for charity. C. Hugh Hildesley, the Sotheby’s VP Celebrity Auctioneer enjoyed himself at the track immensely. His next gig, he confided, was hawking cast resin Snoopy busts decorated by semi-famous artists to a blue-haired charity crowd in Minneapolis… I’ll take fast bikes and sexy women any old time.

Not really part of DRA but highly recommended if you’re in Vegas is the astonishing new Guggenheim Museum at the Venetian Hotel. The museum itself was designed by edgy architect Rem Koolhaus, and the first exhibit is “The Art of the Motorcycle” an installation created by equally experimental architect Frank Gehry. Words simply cannot convey the heroic and innovative presentation found within these walls. Gehry’s setting creates expansive, airy and mythically large spatial context for the densely engineered motorcycles. The installation uses large, soaring tilted stainless steel funnel-shaped pipes, immense curtains of chain link metal, mammoth chunks of art and overblown photography interwoven skillfully with printed fabrics, floating panels, massive undulating metal ribbons and sandblasted glass floors. This unabashedly post-modernist love letter to two-wheelers serves to enhance and intensify the bikes instead of merely overwhelming them. Large video screens set high up in the walls run snippets of motorcycle-themed film and TV commercials. Everywhere light reflects in unexpected and dramatic ways off polished metal, mirrors, paint, glass and concrete. The exhibition runs through winter 2001 and is very well worth the price of admission. It’s a majorly outstanding exhibition, but yours truly found a glaring mistake in one of the exhibit captions. (I have written curator Ultan Guilfoyle to confirm, will let you know if it was true. Hint: Vincent Black Shadows were not first produced in 1923…)

After 3 days of eating, breathing and living Ducati motorcycles virtually nonstop I was beat but happy, sunburnt but oh-so-satisfied. Walking away from the track at dusk, I stopped to watch the hazy desert sunset through the tunnels for one last time. The warm air was dusty and my ears still rang from the rolling thunder of big-bore desmo engines echoing in the distance. DRA was a hugely satisfying experience for me, seminally American yet so gloriously Italian at its very core. Most of all, this event made me want to fire up my vintage Darmah SS or ’92 851 Strada and take to the hills for an afternoon of spirited canyon-carving. In spite of the thoroughly artificial glitz and glamour of Vegas, the blather and hoopla and wheeling and dealing of the DRA weekend, the most fundamentally satisfying thought of all was to go for a ride. After all is said and done, the essence of motorcycling happiness is simply a rider, a bike, and a road that spins out to the horizon in an endless ribbon of pure pleasure.

M.M.M.

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