D-Day for Ducati

When Paul Smart flew into Imola in 1972, he learned that Ducati had bet the farm that he and Bruno Spaggiare would finish 1-2 at Italy’s inaugural ‘Daytona 200’. When he broke Agostini’s lap record in practice, Smart had a pretty good idea who #1 would be…


Forty years ago, the Imola race track in Italy was the scene of one of the most famous victories in the history of motorcycle racing. Not only did it put the Italian track on the world map, it put the home manufacturer Ducati into the history books and laid the foundation for their amazing record to date in production-based racing.

From a British perspective it elevated an English rider by the name of Paul Smart into the history books and arguably made him more famous than some riders who have won world championships. Coincidentally, Smart’s win at the inaugural “Daytona of Europe” race was on his 29th birthday, making it memorable in more ways than one.

It all started when Checco Costa, a leading figure in Italian motorcycle sport, decided the “Autodromo Dino Ferrari” (named after Enzo Ferrari’s son) needed a 200-mile race similar to the one run at Daytona in the U.S. Through the auspices of the Moto Club Santerno, he organized the event and offered what was then a world record prize of £24,000.

Little did he know that while this was the main headline prior to the event, it was something very different that was to grab the headlines post-race and forever fix the inaugural event high in every motorcycle enthusiast’s consciousness. It would also link Paul Smart to Ducati and start a timeline for Ducati race (and road) bikes.

Smart’s wife committed him to ride an untried bike

Ironically Smart had been intending to ride the event on a Triumph, but had left the firm two months earlier to ride for the American Team Hansen on Kawasakis. To add further to the story, it was Paul’s wife Maggie (sister to Barry Sheene) who committed him to riding the untried Ducati. Ducati had already approached other top riders, including Sheene, who had rejected the Italians’ offer. 

It is now a matter of record that on a dull damp race day 70,000 spectators crammed into the 3.1-mile anti-clockwise circuit to see 21 works and semi-works machines start the race after a nostalgic parade of ex-champions like Stanley Woods and Geoff Duke. Among the works entries were Norton and Moto-Guzzi.

When the flag dropped, world champion Giacomo Agostini on the MV went into the lead as expected, but Smart and teammate Bruno Spaggiari had passed him by lap four. After that, the two Ducati riders circulated together, way out in front, as Agostini dropped out due to mechanical failure. Then five laps from the end, team orders were finished, and it was every man for himself.

Smart took the checker and rode into the history books for a whole variety of reasons. Despite many other victories and racing events, the memory of that day is still fresh, so I asked Paul to recount his story firsthand.

I was prepared to find another old bike patched together for the weekend

 “I got on the airplane tired, having just finished a race at Atlanta in the USA. I was not real happy, as I had the long trip ahead of me to Imola for a race that my wife had committed me to. I was not at all sure that I wanted to go.

Arriving in Italy, I was surprised to be picked up at the airport by a big car. You know the ones with the curtains in the windows, the car of the Direttore or something. That my initial attitude was negative is an understatement; I was totally prepared to find that my ‘ride’ for the race was another old bike, patched together for the weekend.

I went straight from the airport to Modena racetrack and was greeted by a great mass of mechanics and race personnel in their blue overalls. I certainly got the message that something important was going on. Franco Farné, who was heading up the race department, spoke a little English, and thank goodness there was Angela, his English-speaking South African secretary. From them, I got the feeling that something very important was in the works.

We went straight to the practice circuit in Modena, which was right in the middle of town. The circuit was also an airport, with airplanes parked along the sides of the track. This is the same place they used to hold a round of the Italian Championship. The track was completely surrounded by apartment blocks.

With all of the airplanes lining the circuit, it was very easy to be totally distracted.  I hadn’t been in Italy for a day, yet by midday I was at the Modena track, ready to test a brand new motorcycle with the entire team and management looking on. The Imola 200 was only days away and we were desperately short of time.”

This thing’s so long, it’s never going to go around a corner

“The first time I saw the bike was at the track. I thought, ‘This thing is so long, it’s never going to go around a corner…and it’s got a hinge in the middle.’ You get preconceived ideas just looking at a bike. I had just gotten off one of the most evil handling motorcycles in the world, and this new Ducati made me think that I was stepping back in time. A four-stroke twin?

So I just went out and did 10 laps. Right away I could tell the engine was the story. Ducati had obviously been working hard and put a lot of effort into it. It just felt slow revving, like it fired every lamp post (well it wasn’t slow, it just felt it) but still quick enough, and the chassis seemed to work fine. 

After the first 10 laps the only thing I had to criticize was the TT100 street tires. I wanted Dunlop race tires. The mechanics were sure they wouldn’t last for the 200 miles of Imola, but I kept insisting that they were changed before we went to Imola. We made a few minor adjustments – footrests, handlebars and the like – and in 20 minutes I went back out. I did about 10 more laps and headed back to the paddock.”

I had just broken Agostini’s lap record – on street tires

“Remember, I was really tired and my mood poor, and when I came into the pits I was ready to criticize and rip the bike to bits, but as I came in to the pits I knew something was up. The whole team was jumping up and down, clapping and patting me on the back. It seems I had just broken the World Champion Agostini’s lap record – on street tires!  And of course standing there was Ingenere Taglioni. He always had a smile on his face and was constantly talking to you, asking questions, analyzing the situation. I will always remember that broad smile.

The bike had only just been produced, created from bits and pieces from the GT models that had just been introduced. My feeling was that it was unlikely that such an unproven thing could finish a 200-mile race. The bike was a lot quicker than I expected 84bhp to be, and it didn’t lose power when it got hot during the race, like the two strokes I had been riding. It made really tractable power and allowed me to be more aggressive with the throttle. All this was a surprise to me and the new Ducati was much easier to ride and more powerful than the Triumph I had ridden the year before.

There wasn’t much more to do, Ducati had it all pretty well sorted. The biggest hassle was the tires, they just wouldn’t listen; so I just insisted, if we were down to the carcass at the end of the race, we would deal with it then.

The race was the biggest thing in Italy. Checco Costa’s grand event, and he really wanted every Italian manufacturer there, and all the top riders. No excuses accepted, he wanted them all there.
Arriving at the track I knew a few people – Agostini, the English riders and a couple others who were all surprised to see me there. The secrecy in the Ducati pits, Taglioni’s smile and my presence occupied everyone’s thoughts. Something was up at Ducati.”

A ride on the new Ducatis was offered to a number of top riders, but all declined

“All the top names and teams were on hand. Agostini with his world-beating MV Agusta, Villa on a very strong Triumph, Jack Findlay on a really trick Moto Guzzi, Saarinen on his Yamaha, Peter Williams and I think Croxford on the Nortons, plus the extended Triumph team with Pickford and Jefferies in the saddle. There were also teams from Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki.

A ride on the new Ducati mounts was offered to a number of top riders, but all declined to go out on such an unproven thing.

Practice went extremely well, with Bruno Spaggiari – my teammate – and me setting most of the fastest laps. Immediately the grumbling started by the people who had the chance to ride the bikes and chose not to. Much to their surprise the bikes were up front.

Agostini’s plan was to go like stink and win, or until his MV broke. I think he was on the pole. I am pretty sure he was behind me in practice, but he was on pole. He was the World Champion after all, so no one argued. I wasn’t too fussed or intimidated by the competition or my teammate Spaggiari, by this time in my career, my attitude was that no one was going to faze me. I didn’t care who they were, as long as they were second.

On race day I couldn’t believe how many people there were. The atmosphere was electric and full of noise like only the Italians can make. Thousands of people clogged the roadways and it took forever to get into the circuit. Everywhere you looked there were race fans watching from any vantage point, from rooftops to the tops of trees; everywhere you saw a mass of faces.”

The track was a bit damp, and I could see this would be a sprint – no backing off

“The track is one of my lasting memories. It was a wonderful old-style Grand Prix circuit, which did, and still does, run around the hills at the back of the old town of Imola. The race was run primarily on closed-off public roads and its layout encourages really high speeds.
My only worry was rain, as the track was lined in many places by steel Armco barriers and trees, and putting a wheel off could have some rather unsavory consequences. The track was a bit damp and I could see this would be a sprint – no backing off or cruising for the entire race. The critical part of the circuit was the Tamburello corner, the same one where Senna crashed.

To win, you would need to go through flat-out and be in the right place for the exit. It took more than skill to get this turn right; it also took a fair amount of courage or insanity to get through at race-winning speeds. From the bottom of the hill and through the turn it was full throttle situation and we were pulling 150mph-plus. These bikes were not slow, and the tires were absolutely skinny, by today’s standards. 

Ducati team manager Fredmano Spairani was an incredibly determined man totally focused on winning.  Before the race, to stop any fighting, he told Spaggiari and I, “Listen, you and Bruno are going to be first and second.  I’d just like you two to agree to share the prize money for first and second when we win.” He was so convinced and convincing that we all agreed.  And to top it off, he said if I won, I could keep my bike.  

During the race, there was no pit board, just three batons: red for danger – someone was close; yellow – hold your speed; and green – slow down. We would have to pit for fuel during the race, and again, no signals. We had a clear stripe down the side of the fuel tank, which would allow the mechanic to be sure he had filled the tank at the refueling stop. Definitely an “analog, no excuses” system.

As we rolled out to the start, all the drama and screaming fans begins to fade, and by then you’re oblivious to the amount of people around and you’re on your own. I was looking at the sky thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s going to rain’ It was a full-stop, engine-running start. When the flag dropped, Ago’s MV shot off, but I was cautious as I wanted to keep both the clutch and me in one piece. I was very aware there was a whole field of very hungry competitors just behind me; I really didn’t want to mess it up at the first hairpin.”

I lost first gear early on; it amazed me that Bruno never figured that out

“Bruno and I quickly moved to the front, but I lost first gear very early on. It always amazed me that Bruno never figured that one out and blasted past me. Again it’s just possible that without first gear I saved a couple of gear changes and maybe I couldn’t have gone through those first-gear corners any quicker.

The biggest problem we had was passing the back markers, with Imola being a fast track and there some slow riders on some slow bikes out there. Moreover it was a tortuous 200 miles and we were always dodging bikes (which were) retiring and running out of fuel. The attrition rate was pretty high.

Ducati wanted the bikes in first and second; they wanted it all

“We did just one refuel and this was the tensest part of the race, and just to add to the drama, both Spaggiari and I came in for fuel at the same time. It all looked (and was) even more spectacular running together up front and then pulling into the pits and refueling together.

Ducati didn’t just want to win – they wanted the bikes first and second, in formation for the whole race and even for refueling. Ducati wanted it all, and to pull it off would be a magnificent achievement (actually it would be a miracle). 
Spaggiari had come past me during the race, but I had gone straight back past him. He didn’t press me again until the last lap when he tried to ride around the outside of me coming out of the Aqua Minerale section. At that part of the track we were going completely flat out and I saw his front wheel coming alongside, and to communicate my displeasure I just let it drift wide.

I didn’t see him after that, and when I did look back I wondered if he had just gone through the hedge or something. We were a long way ahead of everyone else. During the last few laps of the race you could hear the screaming voices of the fans above the sound of the engines.  Really impressive fans. 

Bruno and I crossed the finish line first and second, and I think I relaxed for the first time since boarding the plane in Atlanta. The realization of what I had done really hit when riding the bike back into pit lane and seeing the faces of the entire race team, especially Taglioni and Spairani. It was total elation. They had gambled and their bet paid off.

The day was also notable for me in another way – you see it was also my birthday (April 23, 1943). A really good birthday.”

Thousands of people surrounded us, and we just joined in the party

“They really made a big fuss about Bruno, me and Ducati in Italy. They put our bikes in this big glass-sided truck and us on the top, and that evening we had a grand tour around Bologna in a long procession of cars honking their horns and waving flags.

We stopped for what was to be a minute outside the railway station, but thousands and thousands of people surrounded us and we just joined in the party. I was still in my leathers and so tired and jet lagged, but there was no way you were going to get any sleep at this party. It seemed an entire city came out to celebrate this glory for Ducati, Bologna and Italy.

The next day Spairani reminded me that I would get to keep the bike, subject to me racing at some international meetings in the UK. The Ducati 750 and I went on to win the Hutchinson 100 at Brands Hatch, besting then-dominant Phil Read.

With the Imola 200-mile race and subsequent races I developed a real affinity for the bike.  It was quick and it just didn’t do anything wrong.  If I could find a fault it would be ground clearance, but my ‘hanging-off’ riding style didn’t allow it to become a big problem.

Paul still owns that historic machine, which sits proudly in the Ducati Museum in Bologna, Italy, although it can never be started and run after all this time, as to do so would probably destroy one of the most important bikes in motorcycle history. However, Paul can still be seen on one of the many replicas that have been built and, having watched the reaction of some of the fans who were there on that historic day, it is enough to take them back.”

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