What would you say if you were asked; What do you think about racing an ultra-rare '49 Moto Guzzi Dondolino 500cc racer? Are you kidding me... this April 1st?, was my response. Okay, well also add to the fact that this "factory-built race" bike would be one of six in the U.S., making the thought of it actually happening perhaps even a little tougher to swallow. To the best collective knowledge, a Dondolino hasn't been raced in the States in 30 to 40 years. Talk about a potential landmark occasion.
This all started innocently enough. My very good bud and ex-MGNOC SoCal Rep. Bill 'Big Daddy' Ross, happens to be very good friends with a one fellow Guzzi single-ophile, Jerry Kimberlin of San Francisco. Bill has traveled with Jerry to points around the globe with the Moto Guzzi Classics single/bacon slicer group, and knew Jerry was in possession of a particular '49 Moto Guzzi Dondolino ex-factory racer. Bill had also mentioned that he thought, quoting Jerry, "(I) don't think having machinery is as much fun as using machinery".
Cool deal I thought, I admire anyone who feels as though a bike's true place is to be ridden. Bill mentioned it to Jerry, put us in touch and away we went.
Thanks to the World Wide Web, Jerry and I communicated efficiently and effectively as we analyzed what the condition of the bike needed to be in, a few potential events we might be competitive in, and the logistics of getting the bike there. We settled on a target, an AHRMA event hosted for the first time by Moto-Euro Magazine at Firebird International Raceway in Phoenix, the last weekend of March. Moto-Euro is staffed by avid Guzzisti, and happens to also house fellow MGNOC'er Nolan Woodbury. I wrote Nolan and told him of our plans to participate in the upcoming Phoenix BikeFest weekend. He was as jazzed with the idea as I was. I threw out an idea of possibly wearing the Moto-Euro colors as a sponsored rider for the weekend. As luck had it, Moto-Euro had just received a beautiful set of red & black Vanson leathers, complete with brazen M-E logos. Perfect colors, all seemed to be going well. In typical Guzzi brotherhood fashion, Nolan offered to put me up for the night at his place when I arrived in town via SW Air, AND he offered me his gorgeous LeMans to ride for the weekend. Guzzi folks are the absolute best.
With much anticipation, many e-mails, and weeks later the day had arrived. With gear bag in hand, I boarded the plane. Off I went. I greeted Nolan in the airport, gathered my gear bag, and he snapped a few pictures. After a "find the nut under the shell" car locating session in the monstrous Sky Harbor parking garage (which just also happens to house Phoenix's airport), Nolan and I were then off to finally meet Jerry and company at the a hotel. While Jerry and I had exchanged tons of e-mails, this would be the first time we would meet. Looking very forward to it, I was also equally as anxious to meet the two guys that were to make the weekend happen, Miles Carnahan and Larry Gardini. The gang was everything I was expecting them to be and more... more true Moto Guzzi 'people' that I have grown to love. After a few pleasantries and a target morning meeting time, Nolan and I decided to head south to his house in Coolidge. All of us had a big weekend ahead.
The simply gorgeous sun-filled morning started with Nolan lighting off his LeMans for me, pointing me in the proper direction, and turning me loose. Off I went blasting past the roadrunners and huge roadside cacti. Trying to keep the Goose below triple digit speeds was tough... luckily I just let go of the throttle just in time to avoid a local constabulary approaching in the other direction. Having tempted fate, I continued to push my luck, and won. What a way to start an adventure, I thought, by riding a Guzzi through the surreal landscape of the desert Southwest. Breathtaking!
As I pulled into Firebird International Raceway, there awaited Jerry, Miles, and Larry. They were putting the final touches on the simply gorgeous Dondo. The bike was far more intense that morning in the daylight, then it had been at night. The level of dedication that had been put into this bike was most overwhelming. Every detail had a human, hand-sculpted, touch, things like the magnesium cases, to the camelback oil tank and hand-formed race-plate rear fender. This bike beamed with Guzzi detailing, showing the many things that makes them so desirable. The bike looked ready for the Guggenheim, not the racetrack. It was nearly that perfect.
Today was Friday, and we had secured an A.M. practice session to give the bike some shakedown runs. The "crew" put on my racing number with black electrical tape keeping with the "period feel", Jerry liked it. The number, by gracious doing, was to be '1x'. For those of you who know my online persona, 'Racer X', the 'x' had significant meaning. The bike was ready to be started, which would be the first time I was to hear it run. We used our pit neighbor's auto-assisted starting rollers. Good thing too, as the minute it went, the bike roared to life, and was "idling" at 2,500 rpm. Perhaps this contributed to the first mishap before the bike had ever made its journey for the weekend. You'll have to ask Jerry himself for the details on that one. It turned out that the throttle cable, on the carburetor side of things, had a pressed end that was a bit too long, holding the throttle open. This was quickly resolved, but we missed the first practice session.
I first needed to be given an instant, though VERY thorough history lesson. While I had ridden quite a few older bikes in the past, most likely nothing was ever going to top this. Jerry proceeded to ask me, "Have you ridden anything like this before?"
"Well... not really", was my reply. I'm sure that made him feel very relaxed.
"Ok, shifter on the right, reverse shift", Jerry said.
"Uhhh... Okay, got it, I think..."
I could see Jerry was becoming even more enthused at this point. In short, the quick history of the bike went like this... Jerry originally hoped to purchase the bike at a Vegas auction in January of '02. As it made its way to the U.S. in a container from Europe, it was overturned. Jerry's wishes seemed near hopeless at that point. He spent much time tracking the bike down, and eventually purchased it well damaged at the St. Paul Mid-America auction in April. After many, many man-hours, and much custom work/machining by Jerry himself, there we stood... ready for it to be raced.
Okay... oil on, gas on, tickle the carb... then going with, to me, my much appreciated former dirt-track bump start procedure, I put the bike into third gear, backed the bike up until it hit the back of the compression stroke, and off we went. The bike fired right off, and alive it became... bellowing out some of the most magical sounds that one might ever imagine an open-pipe single could make. It pretty much sent that tingly sensation down the back of my neck. Off to the track I headed... on an unfamiliar bike, at an unfamiliar track, off to a good start.
I was instructed to take two laps, and pull in to allow the valve clearances to be re-set while the bike was hot. Common Italian race procedure I was told. The first practice was a time to become accustomed to what the "rocking chair" was all about. On the thinnest of 21" rimmed tires, I set off to try and bring the bike slowly up to speed. My first impression was that the bike was amazingly light and agile, super stable, and very flick-able. Super torquey as a high-compression single should be, yet offering impressive high rev pull. The only thing to be somewhat lacking were the brakes. While I realize not to expect much from drum brakes, the front was nearly non-existent, but the rear would be key to making it through the weekend.
After two laps, I pulled in and shut the bike off. As Jerry and "the crew" jumped to do the adjustment, I saw that my boots had been heavily misted with oil. Larry and Miles pointed out a few oil hemorrhages, and a carburetor gas leak. Behind the wall we went. Jerry, Larry, and Miles went to work on the bike with 'NASCAR pit crew' like speed and precision. This is where I have to add my weekend was off to yet another notable first... One in which I would never have to touch a wrench as a racer, my first time ever.
The leaks weren't fixed in time in order to make the next practice, but we had one more to go. This is a time when I would need to get fully acquainted, and be sure that we had no other issues. The "crew" gave me the thumbs up for the last practice session. This time, we figured we would set the valve lash in the pits before the session started. The starting procedure was done again, this time using our pit neighbor's rollers, in which I'm sure the "crew" was happy about. Once fired, I rode around the pits and couldn't help to notice all the folks this bike stopped in their tracks. Yielding some of the biggest smiles I had seen in quite some time. Bringing the bike back after lapping the pits, the lash was set. Already in the M-E leathers, I pulled my helmet on, then gloves. Oh, did I forget to mention that the motor still needed a bit of break-in?
I set off to do some easy laps, and glancing occasionally at my boots for oil. Within three laps, I could feel the motor bedding in, and decided at that time to let'er go. Bringing the bike quickly up to speed, I made a few quick mental notes... the bike was surprisingly vibration-free for a single, and it spun up very quickly, most likely the extensive lightened exposed flywheel that Jerry had told me about. Within a lap I was reeling in and passing traffic, and within several laps, I had noticed I was the only one left on the track. The tachometer had snapped it's cable on the third lap, but it was more then enough time for me to get in tune with what the motor was doing. I glanced down again and noticed that my boots were once again starting to get misted. I looked back at the rear tire going down the front straight while tucked in, and saw that it was clean. I figured I'd keep going until they told me I was done... figuring that with no one else on the track the only person I could harm with an oil leak would be myself. Not once did it go through my mind about the value of the bike I was on. Racer mindset I guess. The checkered flag flew, and the practice day was done.
I pulled into the pits, and as I stepped off I instantly noticed that the carb float bowl lid was missing. Bummer I thought, as I pointed it out to Jerry. Funny thing is I said, is that I couldn't even begin to tell you when that happened. The bike ran spectacularly nonetheless. 'Now what' went through my mind. Luckily Miles had brought his Falcone for weekend entertainment. Glad he did, it served as a donor for the lid, and only by our continued good luck and fate did it fit. The rest of the day was spent with the "crew" pulling the rocker assembly off to make a better attempt to correctly fix the oil leaks, which uncovered a new bag of worms. The valve cap shims had been pulverized, beaten into submission and one was even split. The "crew" set off around the pits to try and track down a Ducati singles racer that they were hoping might have an extra set that Jerry thought might work. They found a set compliments of Larry Poons, on with our good fortune. Also to be done was levering on a set on even thinner Avon Tires, which were to be race compound. The tires I had been on were the non-race tires that came on the bike. The bike did slip and slither around a little, but not too disconcerting at all. The fresh tires were well needed for race day. We parted ways for the night, with me heading to stay with good friends north of Phoenix that I hadn't seen in quite some time. Plans were to meet back at the track at 8:00 A.M. for race day practice.
In the morning, the AHRMA officials had asked for us to re-tech the bike after we ran it to prove to them that the oil leaks were fixed. I again paraded it around the pits to operating temperature, and shut it down. Good, no leaks to be seen, it passed tech inspection. The "crew" informed me that they had raised foot-pegs for me, and tried snugging the shifter bushing, which had been a bit too sloppy. The bike was now ready to go. In the morning practice I had one hair-raising incident. Upon entering the fastest corner on the track, the bike stepped the rear end out over a foot, at about 80+ mph. At first I had thought that it must have been a major oil leak. I straightened the bike up, and glanced down while trying to keep the bike on the track, and saw no oil. Good I thought, and as went to lean into the next corner, it did it again. I pulled off at the first corner station, which happened to be furthest possible point from the pits. As I came to a stop, it was easily evident that the rear tire had gone completely flat. I spun the tire around to find what was left of a pop-rivet end sticking out of the tire. I had to personally push the flat-tired bike, in full race leathers, over a half-mile to get back to the pits due to a yet non-existent pick-up/crash truck. Only later was I told that the straight-away used for the road course, had functioned as the locals drag strip last night. Great, thanks. Once again the crew jumped into action and we were ready to go in no time flat. Thankfully Bill Ross showed at this point, driving in from San Diego, just in time with a well-needed portable sunshade, and joined the "crew". It was good to have him.
I had timidly entered it in only one race that day, fearing putting the bike in any overly competitive classes might be too taxing on it. We were entered into 'Class C' whose outlines are pulled from the AMA rulebook. Basically it states that the bike could be any "foot or hand shift, single or twin cylinder bike pre-dating 1951" to be eligible. It made perfect sense to me, as most of the other classes offered much newer machinery options. It seemed to be a good choice as I looked at the other entries. The other bikes in the class were comprised of BMWs, Nortons and a lone beautiful Vincent Comet single.
We were in race 3... so as the green flag was thrown for race 2, I geared up and the Dondo's valves were set. This time, I was even more astonished by the amount of people that had congregated, and were taking pictures and asking questions as we finalized everything. Nolan had came by with a few of the other event photographers to document the start of the race, and to wish us luck. I was beginning to feel like a Rock Star.
Geared up and ready to go, we attempted to bump start the bike having the start ritual pretty well down, but this time couldn't get the bike to fire... nearly wearing out my crew in the process. A rush back to our neighbor's rollers again, and the bike fired... sending me rushing out to the grid, and causing me to miss my warm-up lap in the process. I was sent directly to the start line. I was gridded on the front line, and was as ready as I was ever going to be.
As the green flag flew, I was instantly in tune with what I had thought to be a very tall first gear, as I watched the other bikes leap off the line before I had the clutch fully engaged. They pulled me a few bike lengths, and then it was the all out sprint to turn one. One of the two BMW twin rider's started a frustrating pull on me as we continued towards one... That's okay I thought, the first turn of the race has always been one of my stronger suits. As we went into one, I rode around the outside of the two that were ahead of me, leaving me coming out of turn one in first. Gitty-up! I led the entire first lap only to have that dreaded BMW pass me again on the half-mile long front straight. I passed him again in the back technical section, only to have him pull me yet again the next lap around. The only thing that slowed my pace was the mis-adjusted shifter. A few missed shifts allowed the BMW to pull me further. In the end, even though I could out-ride him through the back section, his bike and my gearing were the limiting factors. I ended up in second place... not bad. I wheeled back into the pits to be greeted by a smiling crowd, and again most of the Moto-Euro crew and cameras. This put almost a bigger smile on my face then the actual race did. Everyone was elated, and I was most enthused to see the look on Jerry's face. That made it all worth it. The rest of the day was spent fixing a few minor oil leaks, adjusting the front brake, and talking about gearing which we had none. These obviously couldn't be bought/begged/machined or wished in time. The crew and I joked that they thought that the gearing was going to be the least of their worries, turned out to possibly be the limiting factor. This day was run with 91 octane unleaded pump gas, as I didn't want to gamble on the first race day by changing fuel midstream. We spoke of trying a higher-octane race fuel in the morning. Done.
That night was spent at a local restaurant bench racing, and taking turns telling motorcycle stories. What a tremendous Guzzi group that assembled that day. Tom Short, the Arizona MGNOC Rep, and Tim Crump of Nevada had made other dinner plans. We missed their company.
We met back bright and early the next morning, and this day was off to a far more relaxing pace. Today was a fresh start using 108-octane race fuel. Jerry had originally told me of how the custom made J&E piston should be yielding 12-13:1 compression, definitely in territory that would respond well to race fuel. I was a bit concerned with jetting changes, so we figured we'd give it a go to see how it looked, felt, and ran. From the instant the bike fired that morning, I could feel we were onto something. The throttle response snapped, and the exhaust note was far more Bellissimo. Heading out for practice, I jumped into my rhythm, and on the first lap I felt that the bike had awakened. It was finally pulling third gear (out of four) to the end of the half-mile straight. Now we're talking. One more practice that morning, and then I was quite anxious to get out there and give the BMW rider Ralph Auer a new dose of Guzzi power. Another gorgeous SW day led to some relaxed pre-race time, allowing us to chat with people asking questions and taking more pictures of the bike. As race time neared, I geared up in the M-E leathers and was greeted again by the M-E staff who had swung over again to wish us luck. The valves were set, then "Third and final call" was announced. I idled across the pits with great anticipation, eager to give the fans and the BMW guys a good showing. On the grid and ready, the green flag flew. The extra snap of the motor took me off the line first, and I led into turn one! Continuing in the head-down mode, I kept my moderate pace leading 4 laps. Coming up on lap 5, I was pushed wide by a lapped rider, aiming me right at the outer concrete wall coming around the final turn for the front straight. I gathered the bike up on the brakes, and as I corrected, the BMW rider Auer had slipped under both of us. Down the straight we went, and he had put just enough distance on me by T1 again, that I didn't have the drive to pass him. I nearly hit his rear tire in the back section, and in the final few tu r ns, we came up on yet another lapped rider, in which Auer got by and my line was blocked, forcing me to shed some much needed corner speed. The final corner that led onto the straight to the checkered was the only one left, and I knew that I didn't have the time or distance needed to pull it off. I watched as the BMW went past the stripe not 50 feet ahead of me. Second again. Such is racing, but I was still stoked feeling I had put on a good show.
Coming back to the pits this time, an even larger crowd slowly started assembling than the day before. The crew came back and congratulated me on a job "well done". They said it was a very entertaining and intense race to watch. My only comment at the time was that it sure was fun. One thing that I do distinctly remember is that only once did I discover what the "rocking chair" was all about. The term describes a situation where the bike, under load, would pogo from front to rear suspension alternating while in a turn. I made quick mental note on what not to do to have that experience again. I think we made peace.
A few new fans had made their way over from the bleachers, including a few new Guzzi faces that I had been communicating with online, one all the way from New Jersey. This started what seemed to be a good solid hour picture session with fans, the bike, and myself. Now I really was feeling like a Rock Star. Nolan came over and wanted to line the crew and me up for some post-race photos, we obliged.
Nolan is planning on writing-up the weekend for the Summer Issue of M-E. So watch for it. Sure to be a good read with Sir Woodbury at the pen and lens.
The crew... Jerry, Larry, Miles, and Bill packed up, and I wished them a safe journey. I then spent the rest of the afternoon perusing the paddock trying to catch up on all the other events that were happening that weekend. From the live bands, to the MGNOC Arizona Booth manned by Tom Short and Tim Crump, to the Guzzi demo rides and all the vendors including Jim Knaup of E.P. & F. Good also seeing Tyler of Las Vegas, and Turin of Arizona.
The intact Dondo was heading home with two Second places under its belt. Not too bad for a first attempt I thought. I do want to again mention and thank all the following people, for without any one of them, the weekend would not have happened. Of course the BIGGEST THANKS to Jerry Kimberlin and the BEAUTIFUL Dondolino, Larry Gardini to whom was the Dondo's transport and helpful wrench. Thanks to Miles Carnahan for all his help and support with wrenching, his donor Falcone and video filming. For those of you online, Miles composed a few small video clips, which can be viewed online at GuzziTech.com under the "Guzzi Racers" Features section. Also big thanks to Bill Ross and family for the smiling faces and lifesaving shade. Tom Short and Tim Crump for all the moral support, and Tim's dedication to getting me numbers for the bike's Sunday race... they looked great. Kelly of Texas and his friend who were also around for the entire weekend helping out as needed. I have to add here that both Kelly and his GTV, and Bill Ross' Falcone took home first in show for the weekend. Also, the biggest of thanks to Nolan, Larry, and the entire Moto-Euro crew for ALL the hospitality throughout the weekend. It was GREATLY appreciated guys! I also want to thank my good buds John Casimir (and Julie), and Jason Colon who put up with me, and put me up for the weekend. They were also contributors that made it such a memorable time.
As the day closed, John and Jason took me to the airport. I made yet another mental note as I awaited the plane: Yep, this is what it must be like to be a Rock Star. One pair of worn out toe/boot sliders, sunburned, and tired... When can I do this again? What a tremendous Guzzi weekend! I don't think that it would've happened as smoothly with any other folks involving any other marque! Guzzi Power!!! - T.E.
I have to say that Todd became acquainted with the Dondolino in 3 laps. Even his learning period was fascinating to watch.
Yes, he took 2nd place in Class C on Saturday using 91 octane pump gas. He also took 2nd place on Sunday using 108 octane. He lead for more then half the race, but traffic in the last turn before coming onto the straight forced him to turn wide and his close competitor got inside and ahead. It was an unfortunate break, but it is all in the spirit of racing.
The Dondolino was new to all of us and had never been sorted out. Had I put a 38 tooth sprocket on the rear wheel instead of the 36 tooth sprocket, we would have had at least one 1st place.
We had many comments about how we had the best looking bike at the races and how smooth and easy Todd made the race look. There are going to be many pictures of this machine appear here and there as we probably had a hundred people take pictures during our three day stay at Firebird raceway.
Ultimately I think we accomplished our purpose: "Have fun and show off our favorite Marque!" We pretty much proved that a 54 year old Guzzi single has not lost the competitive edge.
Todd said the bike is REALLY long legged. 50 mph in first! The gearing was too tall or Todd would have had two first places! In the second race on Sunday, Todd led 4 of 6 laps. He can really pilot the warhorse! He said that he never even got it into 4th gear the entire race!
You have to remember that this bike was built to compete in TT races like Isle of Man and 24hr endurance races, not the environment it was racing this past weekend.
The crew that brought/worked on/piloted the race bike did a fantastic job. Just don't ask about oil leaks and parts falling off!
This Phoenix thing was to be the first annual BikeFest, and I hope it survives. It was a really great weekend, kind of a mini-Del Mar. The weather was beautiful, and the bikes were awesome. The babes were hot, and the bands were good. Both Guzzi and Aprilia were booked solid on their demo rides. I got to help Tom Short with the MGNOC booth, and that was fun, answering questions about Guzzis, and the Owners Club.
The racing was phenomenal. Todd, Jerry, and the rest of the team did a great job on the bike. I know Todd will give more details on the Tech website, but what he won't talk about much, being the modest guy he is, is what really happened out there. On day one, he had problems with the shifter, so he only lead one lap. The second day he got that sorted out, and he led the entire race, until the end. His only competition was a cocky young lad on a BMW twin, a '39, I believe. The BMW was fast in a straight line, but Todd gave that youngster a lesson in REAL road racing, making him work in the twisty part of the track.
The track favored the BMW since the Start/Finish was quite a ways down the front straight, actually the drag strip. If the track did not have such a long straight-away, the advantage would have been all on Todd's side.