The high banks of Daytona International Speedway are a long way from the ivory towers of academia, but Phil Schilling made the leap look easy. Teaching at the University of Wisconsin when Hall of Famer Cook Neilson asked him to become managing editor of Cycle magazine, Schilling flourished in his journalistic role and became one of the most influential moto-journalists ever.
Together, Schilling and Neilson developed Cycle into the gold standard of motorcycle periodicals in the 1970s. Neilson, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, says Schilling's influence touched all those who worked there during his tenure.
“Phil Schilling joined Cycle magazine in 1970, and for 18 years -- nine as editor-in-chief -- served as our magazine's foundation and its conscience,” Neilson says. “During that rich and extraordinary two-decade span, when Cycle grew to be the largest-circulation motorcycle magazine on the planet, Phil found time to teach young racers how to race and young writers how to write. He provided the racers with wisdom, patience and fast equipment, and the writers with fluency and grace and perspective. Often the racers and the writers were the same people.”
Schilling’s interest in motorcycles began in the summer of 1958, before he headed off to Northwestern University on a scholarship. That’s when he bought his first bike, an 80-cubic-inch Indian Chief.
“It coughed and spit hopefully from time to time, but never started,” Schilling remembers.
Schilling’s first running motorcycle was a 1949 Indian Warrior, a 440cc vertical twin. When he bought it, it had no lights, very little in the way of suspension, and a “gearbox full of treachery.” Schilling remembers that to shift from second to third, he had to do a double snick from second to fourth and then click back down to third.
“The Indian episodes convinced me that dealing with The Big, The Old, and The Heavy was likely to ruin my budding romance with motorcycling,” Schilling recalls. “What I needed, I remember lecturing to my freshman college roommate, was an advanced, compact, lightweight, high-performance motorcycle. I had been dazzled by Ducati sport bikes, and wasted little time buying myself a hopped-up 200TS.”
After the bout with the Ducati, Schilling got serious about riding. He moved to Madison, Wis., in 1962 to start work on a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Wisconsin. Along with his history studies, he stoked a growing interest in roadracing and race tuning.
Schilling started attending races with friend Bob Oakes, and he and Oakes bumped into Jess Thomas—a top-tier roadracer at the time who also was the technical editor of Cycle magazine— at Daytona in 1970. Jess encouraged Schilling to write a couple of stories and submit them to Neilson. Neilson liked what he read, and invited Schilling to interview for Cycle’s managing editor position.
“In a matter of weeks, Cook had plucked me out of an academic life in Madison, Wis., and plunked me down in New York City, turning my life’s passion into my life’s work,” Schilling says.
After a few years, the magazine moved from New York to Westlake Village, Calif., a location much better suited for motorcycling, near the inviting canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains.
It was there that Schilling and Neilson really hit their stride, both at the editor’s desk and on the racetrack. In 1977, they entered a Ducati, famously known as “Old Blue,” in the Daytona 200 and gave Ducati its first AMA Superbike win in the United States.
“By this time, I had already had the good fortune to witness Paul Smart win the Imola 200, “ Schilling says. “Over the years, the 1972 Imola 200 has become one of three great corner stones of Ducati racing lore. The second is Mike Hailwood’s 1978 win at the Isle of Man, and the third is Cook’s 1977 win at Daytona, where, from a grass-roots effort against mostly factory teams, Ducati had its first AMA Superbike victory in the United States.”
Schilling was the turner for the effort. It was a role that was as broad in scope as it was simple to explain.
“Once, when I was pushing Old Blue back to our garage after a morning practice session, someone stopped me and asked, ‘What is it you do for this outfit?’” Schilling remembers. “I thought about it for a couple of seconds and replied, ‘It’s like this: I’m in charge of worrying.’ I further explained that the natural state of race bikes is to be apart, as in torn apart. The parts and pieces come together only briefly when they are reassembled and raced. After that, the bikes revert to their natural torn-up state again. When the pieces of Old Blue were all together out on the racetrack, I worried about every last one of those parts.”
While Schilling says that he’s proud of what he accomplished with Cycle magazine and in the tuner’s garage, his greatest achievements are tied to the people he worked with during his journalism career.
“I am happy to have played a small part in Ducati’s history, and to help bring its excellent and innovative engineering tradition to enthusiasts in the United States,” Schilling says. “I am also extremely gratified that Cycle magazine is remembered fondly by its readers and staffers, even as it has been out of production for more than 20 years. I am proud that Cook and I, with the help of many talented staff—editors, art directors, performance testers, photographers, etc.—were able to provide, for two decades, a smart, entertaining, and literate magazine for a sophisticated motorcycling audience that deserved no less.”
When Phil Schilling was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2011 he was living in Santa Barbara, Calif., with his wife, Allyn.