Cook Neilson was an Ivy Leaguer who became America’s preeminent motorcycle journalist during the 1970s. He was largely responsible for directing Cycle Magazine in the motorcycle boom years of the 1970s. It was during this time that the magazine became the gold standard of motorcycle periodicals. As a racer, Neilson was best known for being a top AMA Superbike rider in the early years of the series. He gave Ducati a celebrated Daytona Superbike win on a Phil Schilling-tuned Ducati 750 Supersport. Earlier in his career he was a nationally ranked motorcycle drag racer.
Neilson was raised in Wilmington, Delaware, in the 1950s. As a teenager, he longed for a motorcycle and his parents finally agreed to let him buy a Vespa scooter. He worked at a polo stable in an upscale area of eastern Pennsylvania to pay for the scooter.
“My parents consented because they thought a scooter would be less dangerous than a real motorcycle,” Neilson recalls. “Little did they know the Vespa was lethal. While it wasn’t fast, it had no brakes and wasn’t very stable with its wheelbarrow-sized tires. I crashed three times just getting it home.”
Neilson went straight from the Vespa all the way up to a Harley-Davidson Sportster. His reasoning for the major leap in machinery was straightforward.
“I was going to college and I knew that led straight into a job, and the real world and motorcycles would take a back seat,” he said. “I didn’t have time to work my way up from a Honda 160 to something real, so I just went right for the Sportster.” Neilson worked at a Harley-Davidson dealership to fund his brand-new 1963 model.
Neilson attended Princeton, where his love of motorcycling got him temporarily kicked out of school and cost him a slight detour to serve in the National Guard. Princeton had a rule against students having motor vehicles on campus. Neilson got around the statute by riding his bike but keeping it secretly stored away at night in the basement of a Princeton eating club. One day an officer pulled Neilson over for, of all things, having a bent license plate.
“That was it, I was had,” Neilson said. He was suspended from Princeton for a year.
Neilson joined the National Guard. After his service, Neilson headed back to Princeton to finish his studies. With his academic credentials, Neilson seemed destined for Wall Street. One year, his summer job was working as an assistant municipal bond trader.
Neilson ran his Sportster at local drag racing events and got deeper and deeper into the sport until his streetbike had morphed into a full-fledged Fuel dragster. His moto-journalism career started with a few submissions on drag racing for publications like The Enthusiast, Harley-Davidson’s monthly magazine, and Cycle World. Ziff-Davis, a giant family-owned publishing company that made a fortune with enthusiast publications such as Stereo Review, Popular Photography and Car & Driver, had just purchased Cycle from Floyd Clymer and moved the editorial offices to its Park Avenue corporate headquarters in New York City. Gordon Jennings was hired away from his job as technical editor for Cycle World and Road & Track and made editor of Cycle. In 1967, Jennings hired the young Neilson right out of college to the staff of the rapidly growing magazine.
Jennings soon moved to Car & Driver and at 26, Neilson suddenly found himself editor of the world’s largest motorcycle magazine. He immediately rolled up his sleeves.
“The first thing I did was call Phil Schilling and told him to get over here,” Neilson said.
Schilling, an academic teaching at the University of Wisconsin, also happened to be a life-long motorcycle enthusiast, racing mechanic and, most importantly for Cycle, a gifted writer. Schilling cautioned Neilson that he didn’t know anything about being a managing editor. Neilson casually replied, “Trust me, it’s easy. I was managing editor for a month.”
The next order of business was to get Cycle out of New York City.
“It made no sense to try to do a motorcycle magazine in Manhattan,” Neilson said. “Jennings had set up a small shop in Sea Cliff [on Long Island] to keep the bikes, but it took up to three hours to get there, depending on traffic. We were constantly flying to California to test bikes.”
Neilson met with Bill Ziff and convinced him that moving to Southern California would be a good idea for Cycle. Ziff approved and the staff was moved in stages to its new headquarters in Westlake Village.
Besides providing an oasis of good writing for motorcycle enthusiasts, Cycle also originated head-to-head comparison tests. While common and considered indispensable today, to be able to get the manufacturers to agree to such a test that would actually declare winners and losers at the time was nothing short of a minor miracle. Neilson credited fellow Ivy Leaguer and publisher Tom Sargent for clearing the path.
“You have to remember that the Japanese manufacturers were still relatively new to America,” Neilson said. “Sargent was able to convince them that honest, straightforward reviews of their motorcycles would lead to better products. He told them that this was the American way of doing business. He stood behind editorial in that way.”
At its zenith, Cycle had close to half a million subscribers.
A couple of things came together to get Neilson into road racing. A few years earlier, Ducati importer Mike Berliner had asked Neilson and Schilling to meet him at Bridgehampton Raceway to test a new prototype sportbike from the Italian maker. After some laps around the classic old Long Island circuit, both writers agreed the bike was something special. Its handling was better than any streetbike they’d ridden.
Berliner, a Hungarian immigrant who, with his brother, barely escaped a concentration camp during the Holocaust, rushed over to his Lincoln and on an early car phone called Bologna to give Ducati execs the news. The two did find fault, however, with the bike’s styling. Schilling went back and made some sketches that Berliner promptly sent to Italy. Neilson claims that when the production models came over they used much of Schilling’s design.
“Incredible! Can you imagine, teaching the Italians how to paint their bikes? It’s like carrying coals to Newcastle,” Neilson said.
As a result of the earlier Bridgehampton ride, Neilson eventually bought a Ducati GT and began riding it on brisk Sunday morning jaunts in the mountains above Los Angeles. Neilson also honed his skills by riding test bikes on twisty roads up from the coast to work every day. By 1973, he entered his Ducati into a club road race at Riverside International Raceway.
“I finished ninth out of about 36 riders,” Neilson said. “It sounds better than it was. I got lapped by (Reg) Pridmore and (Steve) McLaughlin in a 10-lap race.”
Though no one knew at the time, those Southern California production races of the early 1970s became the roots of AMA Superbike racing. Neilson was part of that SoCal mob that included riders on sweet-handling BMWs, Ducatis, Moto-Guzzis, Laverdas and Triumphs taking on powerful, but sketchy, Honda CB750s and Kawasaki Z1s.
In early 1974, Neilson moved up to a racier Ducati SS750. Over the next few years, Neilson and Schilling immersed themselves improving the Ducati. Nearly every waking hour, and then some, was put into either cranking out stupendous issues of Cycle or wrenching on the race bike that was affectionately dubbed “Old Blue”.
“I spent all the money I had on the bike,” Neilson confessed. “And what I couldn’t come up with I was able to talk out of Schilling.”
Schilling was masterful on the Ducati. He’d been an enthusiast of the brand since the 1950s, while growing up in Indiana, where a dearth of Ducati mechanics meant he had to learn out to wrench on them himself.
By the time the AMA Superbike Series formally launched in 1976, Old Blue was up to speed. At Daytona in 1976, Neilson finished third in the inaugural AMA Superbike Series race behind the one-two photo finish of Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore, both on BMW R90Ss. Neilson scored another podium at Riverside that year and wrapped up the season tied with Gary Fisher for third in the final superbike standings.
“I was sick about my finish at Daytona,” Neilson remembers. “Phil gave me the best bike out there. We had a top speed advantage over the BMWs and when you combine that with the other advantages of the Ducati, a good rider would have gapped those guys. I knew I had to improve.”
Neilson went to work in the off season between 1976 and ‘77, racing every club event he could find up and down the West Coast. Schilling, with generous help from legendary motor man Jerry Branch and creative chassis work by Pierre des Roches, continued to refine Old Blue. It was now an 883cc machine, up from its original 750cc displacement. By early 1977, Neilson was ready to tap its potential.
At Bike Week 1977, Neilson and Schilling set up shop in the Goodyear garage right next to the factory Yamaha gang of Kenny Roberts and Kel Carruthers. The banter between the camps was constant and the mood jovial. A special tech-inspection-only tachometer that just happened to read a few thousand below actual rpm helped the full-throated Old Blue pass AMA sound testing. Years later, Neilson would ride Doug Polen’s Ferracci Ducati Superbike and be amazed at how quiet it was.
Even though Neilson and Schilling had done everything possible to prepare for Daytona, one thing was different from the ’76 race. Kawasaki had clearly taken notice of the class and backed some serious efforts with the likes of Yoshimura Kawasaki’s Wes Cooley and John Bettencourt, Lester Wheels Kawasaki with Lang Hindle, and Keith Code on the Racecrafters Kawasaki. This was in addition to the Beemers of the previous year’s top two, McLaughlin and Pridmore. Throw in young guns David Emde, Mike Baldwin and Ron Pierce and you had the makings of a talent-laden field.
Cooley’s Kawasaki turned in the fastest top speed, being clocked through the speed traps at 153.06 miles per hour. Neilson and Old Blue were second fastest at 149.50 mph, but the stopwatch told a different story. Neilson was two seconds a lap faster than any other superbike in practice! His 2:15s were as good as Kenny Roberts turned on his factory Yamaha 250 Grand Prix bike. Champion Spark Plug’s Bobby Strahlmann, who could read a spark plug and tell what the bike’s rider ate for breakfast, looked at the plugs and the burn pattern on the Duck’s exhaust pipes and commented, “The thing must be making great power.”
One key advantage Neilson had over most of the rest was his Ducati had a rigid enough chassis to handle the grip of Goodyear slicks. The BMWs and Kawasakis were still too flexy to run them without going into crazy oscillations of one variation or another and had to use DOT rubber. The difference became obvious soon after the green flag flew on the Daytona Superbike race.
Rain washed out qualifying that year, so the riders started in order of the previous year’s points. Neilson started third, sandwiched between the BMWs of Pridmore and McLaughlin on one side and the Leoni Moto-Guzzi of Baldwin on the other. At the start, Cooley rocketed up from the second row on his Yosh Z1 to take the early lead.
Cooley and Neilson quickly gapped the field, and as they roared past the tri-oval for the first time it was Cooley in front by 30 bike lengths. But by the time the two hit the apex of turn one, Neilson was right on Cooley’s big Kawi. Making up so much ground in such a short distance going into the turn caused Neilson to think under his open-face Bell helmet, “Well now. This is gonna be good.”
He followed Cooley confidently until he saw a slight opening at the entrance to the second horseshoe on lap two. Cooley took a wide entry. Neilson, pumped with confidence, made the classic inside pass just before the apex. Giddy from his move Neilson somehow missed fourth gear on the chute between the horseshoe and the entrance to the West Banking allowing Cooley to take back the lead. It was short lived however. Neilson made the same pass on Cooley the very next lap and this time he shifted true and began to pull away.
At the checkered flag, Neilson won by 28 seconds over David Emde. Cooley was a distant third.
For Neilson, the feeling of finally winning Daytona was relief. It was sheer joy for Schilling. Neilson was ready to hang up his leathers for good after the victory. He’d accomplished what he’d set out to do. Only Schilling’s prodding kept Neilson racing the bike for the rest of the season. He skipped a couple of the East Coast superbike rounds and still finished the championship in second, just three points behind two-time champ Pridmore.
After the ’77 season, Neilson retired from racing. AMA Superbike was more and more becoming a game for the factory pros and Neilson had his work at Cycle. Less than three years later, though, Neilson surprised the motorcycling community when he resigned from the magazine he’d helped build into the most widely read motorcycle magazine in the history of the sport. He and wife Stepp moved to the mountains of Vermont. He started a commercial photography business and rarely showed at motorcycling events afterwards. His legend as a rider grew over the years as the popularity of superbike climbed and his long absence from the sport only added an air of mystery to his reputation.
“I was shocked when Cook decided to leave Cycle,” said Schilling, who took over the reins after Neilson and kept his friend on the masthead even years after he departed. “Maybe he had a sense he’d done all the stories he wanted to do and it was time to move on.”
Years later Neilson came clean. His chief reason for leaving was to make way for Schilling.
“He was ready to take over the magazine and I wanted him to have the chance,” Neilson said years later.
Neilson left an indelible mark on motorcycling. Superbike racing came to the fore, Ducati made it in America and Cycle Magazine reached heights never before realized in the genre.