When Ducati showed up at the Imola 200 with a glass-sided transporter containing seven brand-new V-twin Formula 750 racers in April 1972, no one could believe it. The small company was known mostly for its single-cylinder streetbikes, making such a big factory effort outlandish for the time.
Those racebikes used desmodromic valve trains for the first time in a big V-twin, a technology that is still Ducati’s signature today. To eliminate valve springs, the desmo’s unique camshafts both open and close the valves, eliminating high-rpm valve float and potential spring breakage.
To Build A Brand
Although based upon Ducati 750 GT architecture, the Imola racers were actually hand-built in Ducati’s race shop, using special steel frames, sand-cast cases, lightweight crankshafts, high-flow twin-plug cylinder heads, high/low exhausts, racing suspension, revolutionary triple disc brakes, and, suiting the psychedelic era, silver metalflake bodywork. Today, just two or three original 1972 Imola racers survive with this unique gelcoat finish, in which the metalflake was molded directly into the fiberglass.
On race day Paul Smart won, going away with the victory putting Ducati on the superbike map. After, Imola team bikes raced in countries where Ducati wanted to expand, including England and South Africa. The bike shown here last raced professionally in the South African TT, where it bent a rod and was retired. And then in 1996, chance brought it to America, where it was mechanically repaired but not restored.
A Fabergé Egg
Imola 200 champion Paul Smart owns his race winner, making this his backup bike. Every time I put my hands on it I am aware of the privilege and burden of owning a piece of history. It’s so original and authentic that it’s both mystical and terrifying, all at once. Since there are no known factory spares, there’s no recovering from a crash on this bike—and that’s where the terror comes in. The old bodywork is as fragile as butterfly wings, and so even routine servicing must be done with the utmost care.
Before firing the engine, the camshafts must be pre-lubricated by spinning the engine with the plugs out to circulate oil to them through the remote oil cooler. And when it fires up, the straight-cut primary gears, desmo valve train, 40mm pumper carbs, and open megaphones make a gutsy cocktail of noise.
We took the Imola to Corsa Motoclassica at Willow Springs International Raceway for its first track time since Smart rode it there in 2007. There is everything to lose and nothing to gain by running this bike, and yet this is what it was built for, and where its soul lives.
Harder Than It Looks
The ride looks easy but it’s actually not: At 6 feet, I’m too tall for the Imola, and struggle to tuck in my knees and elbows. The Ducati’s long wheelbase and raked-out steering make it super stable at speed but difficult to turn; it tends to push the front end and you must hang off to avoid grounding the right-side exhaust. Another worry is that 18-inch race tires are scarce today, and bombing around on street rubber feels exceedingly perilous.
Famously benefiting from perfect primary balance, the 90-degree V-twin runs as smooth as a lathe. Due to the simple total-loss ignition, there’s minimal flywheel effect and the revs spike quickly. But still, at Willow little happens below 6,000 rpm; instead, the engine just stumbles and misfires—mimicking a dead battery. Then magically at 6,000 rpm, the motor awakens and pulls hard to redline. Ecstasy on wheels.
The Long Run
Designed to survive a 200-mile race, the engine’s powerband flattens purposefully above 8,000 rpm, yet it’s so grunty between 6,000 to 8,000 revs that it always pulls the next gear with no difficulties. Smart remarked once that the engine felt like it fired at “every other lamppost,” and indeed, once in the powerband, the bike rushes along with little drama—except for the ripping wind and that gripping desmo V-twin oratorio.
Top speed is estimated at 150 mph, but there’s not room at Willow to get there. Instead, pulling through fifth gear, the Imola hits probably 130 on the straightaways. Rated at 84 hp, the Ducati has less than half the output of a modern superbike but is potent for a nearly half-century-old piece, and is still willing to run hard.
Speaking of which, over the decades I’ve ridden the Imola as hard as I can on many occasions, but these days, just being aboard it and safely under the limit feels right. As such, worry and excitement turn to joy and relief at the end of our Willow Springs session; there’s no more history to create with this bike, but its history can be easily ruined. Like their legendary riders, legendary bikes need respect too.
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