Paul Smart and the 1972 Imola 200

| | World News
Picture: Ducati Corse

Rarely, if ever, has one rider, one circuit and one bike been so inextricably linked.

Paul Smart, Ducati and the Imola 200 in 1972 are part of racing history and his success in that one race probably meant more to him than his many wins on works Triumphs, Kawasakis and other makes.

And yet it was one race which he didn’t particularly want to do - a 6000 mile flight to ride a prototype he had never even seen before.

It was only insistence from his wife Maggie and support from Ducati dealer Vic Camp that persuaded him to make the trip from Atlanta to Milan.

But what a race it was. Modelled on the Daytona 200 but on one of the greatest circuits in the world, and with promoter Checco Costa receiving the backing of Ducati to promote the 750 formula in Europe, it resulted in a stunning last lap dash with Smart using all his short circuit experience to outdo team-mate and Italian hero Bruno Spaggiari.

Ducati were delighted to the extent they gave Smart the bike which is still in his possession.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of an event which gave a great boost to Superbike racing in Europe and Ducati’s position in it with Fabio Taglioni’s Desmo-twin. The relationship between Paul and the Italian factory remained strong - they saw him as part of the family and even named a model after him. His memory of the weekend remained fresh and nine years ago as an honoured guest at the 40th anniversary he
spoke of his adventure:

“I got on the plane tired having just finished a race at Atlanta. I was not really happy as I had a long trip to Imola for a race that my wife had committed me to. I was not at all sure I wanted to go.

“Arriving in Italy I was surprised to be picked up by a big car, you know the ones with curtains in the windows, the car of the Direttore or someone.

“That my initial attitude was negative is an understatement as I was totally prepared to find that my ‘ride’ was another old bike patched together for the weekend.

“I hadn’t been in Italy for a day yet by mid-day we were 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. The first time time I saw the bike I thought ‘This thing is so long it’s never going to go round a corner … and it’s got a hinge in the middle.’

“You get preconceived ideas just looking at a bike and I had just got off one of the most evil handling bikes in the world (a Kawasaki) and this new Ducati made me think I was stepping back in time. A four-stroke twin?”

His confidence rose during the tests with the Ducati easier to ride and faster than the Triumphs he had ridden the year before and especially when lapping faster than world champion Giacomo Agostini on a shaft-drive MV 750.

And he was in good company with riders he knew well like Jack Findlay, Jarno Saarinen, Peter Williams and others, some of whom started to grumble because they had been given a chance to ride the Ducati and chose not to.

He continued: “On race day I couldn’t believe how many people were there. The atmosphere was electric and full of noise like only the Italians can make. The track is one of my lasting memories. It was a wonderful old style Grand Prix circuit which did, and still does, run round the hills at the back of the old town of Imola.

‘Before the race the Ducati team manager Fredmano Spairani, an incredibly determined man, told
Spaggiari and I ‘Listen, you and Bruno are going to be first and second. I would just like you and Bruno to agree to share the prize money for first and second when we win.’ And to top it off he said if I won I could keep the bike!

“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. (Agostini and the MV later retired). Bruno and I quickly moved to the front. The biggest problem we had were back markers and in a tortuous
200 miles we were always dodging bikes retiring and running out of fuel.

“Spaggiari came past me but I went straight back and he didn’t press me again until the last lap when he tried to ride round the outside of me coming out of the Aqua Minerale section.

“At that part of the track we were completely flat out. 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 gone through the hedge or something.

“Bruno and I crossed the finish line first and second and I relaxed for the first time since boarding the plane in Atlanta. The realisation of what you have done really hits when riding the bike back into pit lane and seeing the faces of the entire race team, especially Taglioni and Spairani.

“Total elation. They had gambled and their bet paid off. The day was also notable for me in an other way, it was my birthday (April 23, 1943). A really good birthday.”

Paul Smart flew back to the States to rejoin Kawasaki and he went onto win the big money race at Ontario . But in the meantime, unknown to Kawasaki or team manager Bob Hansen, he had got Colin Seeley to make him a frame for the ill-handling bike.

Despite the win it did not go down well with his Japanese masters and it was the end of the relationship.