MCN races a replica of Mike Hailwood's 1978 NCR Ducati
If the Truman Show had its own racetrack, it would look just like the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. This swooping 17-turn, 2.38-mile ribbon of ‘asphalt’ is lovingly draped across landscape so lush, green and manicured, it makes a PGA golf course look shabby.
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Circuit staff and racers alike are perma-smilingly friendly and dotted around the Park are peculiar sculptures, giant metal ants and spiders. Dangling beneath the footbridge over Turn 8, a lady mannequin swings in the hot gentle breeze and overlooking Turn 9, stands the world’s largest motorcycle museum.
Barber’s opulent, sun-drenched, three-tiered paddock teems with racing machinery rarely seen: EBRs, Pierbons, Zeros, a Suter 500 and sassy sit-up and beg, early Lawson and Rainey-esque 80s Japanese superbikes. Cheesy rock pumps from the circuit’s speakers and PA announcements are delivered in a sweet Dolly Parton drawl.
Sitting on the grid in humid, 35-degree, Deep South October heat, my Vee Two Hailwood’s (V2H) clattering clutch might be dry, but I’m drenched in sweat. Vibration has my eyes rattling in their sockets with every blip of the throttle. The piercing boom from the 903cc V-twin’s barely silenced, megaphone exhaust slowly erodes my hearing.
Mike Hailwood’s Ducati is extraordinary in so many ways. Built by NCR, when Ducati were in such turmoil they couldn’t be seen to be going racing, his 883cc original is one of the most famous and revered machines in history.
Only three were ever built 40 years ago: two for Sports Motorcycles’ riders Mike Hailwood and Roger Nichols (now owned by an American collector) and one for Jim Scaysbrook to race in Australia, which still lives down under.
Of course, you may have seen 1978 TT-winning Hailwood machines in museums and shows. Are they real? It depends who you talk to. Welcome to the world of intrigue surrounding Mike’s NCR 900 Ducati F1.
Replicas are even more controversial because no-one has ever been able to copy Hailwood’s souped-up (and some would argue, illegal, for production-based TT F1 rules) prototype bevel drive Ducati engine... until now.
Using original drawings the V2H has the correct engine, albeit lightly modified with strengthened crankcases and a 1mm bigger bore. Its rolling chassis and bodywork are built with such fastidious attention to detail it’s impossible to tell from the real thing. It’s been a hard slog for Vee Two to get it right; being led down the garden path by all and sundry, but they’ve got there.
But right now I’m not thinking about any of this. My stomach swarms with supersize butterflies and I can feel my pulse throbbing in my throat. Hand muscles are being given a workout keeping the V2H’s heavy clutch lever pulled in, as I wait to launch this $145,000 (around £111,000) machine off the line, here at the snappily-titled AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) Racing 14th Annual Barber Vintage Festival.
In this one-off Barber ride I’ve been plonked at the back with championship regulars up front. I’m a little British fish out of water and haven’t got a clue who I’m battling against, or how friendly they’ll be if and when I get close. Can they carry guns on track?
We don’t get a warm-up lap, so shortly after we’ve formed on the grid we’re off, after a strange, cheerleader-like start procedure. Static and spinning countdown boards are shown, followed by a green flag waved so rapidly I completely miss it. Before I can even think I’m funnelling into the downhill left hand Turn 1 (like a reverse Paddock Bend at Brands Hatch), plumb last, behind a bunch of old and modern classics.
When Mike Hailwood made the mother of all comebacks to win the ’78 TT, not to mention the famous Mallory race a week later (he beat P&M Kawasaki’s John Cowie and Phil Read on a Honda, which some say is even more impressive than the TT win) I was eight. More interested in my Raleigh Grifter than motorbikes, it’s hard to get a sense of just how special Hailwood was, or understand the bikes of that era. But as my race unfolds, picking my way past the clumsy fours, I get an idea.
I only took notice of bike racing 10 years later, when the Honda RC30 and Ducati 851 were kings. These machines had evolved so unbelievably quickly with hang- off riding styles to suit, they were almost unrecognisable from bikes like Hailwood’s, a decade on and have barely changed to this day.
Vee Two USA was formed to create this V2H Hailwood replica. It’s a collaboration between Vee Two Australia’s bevel drive maestro Brook Henry, who builds the motors and the rest is produced by Los Angeles-based Paul Taylor, of Taylor Made, a company that makes mouth-watering aftermarket exhausts and composite racing parts (and built McWilliams’ carbon-tastic 2014 Brough Superior Moto2 racer).
My V2H for the weekend is the first of 12 bikes to be produced (two have already been ordered) and Barber is all part of its shakedown process. It might seem daft to risk such a valuable, one-off machine in an actual race, but it’s in Brook and Paul’s DNA to go racing. Just like Hailwood’s NCR original, the V2H has been built to compete.
Attention to detail and the build execution is mind-boggling and more than just getting the bodywork, screen printed stickers (by LA’s Sign-All) and Castrol paintjob (Hailwood’s sponsors of the day; the bike left NCR’s factory in red and silver) just right. Vee Two USA could have easily produced a highly polished show bike, but just like the original it’s deliberately factory-raw around the edges.
Cradling its very special bevel-drive V-twin is a Pierobon chassis, built to ape the original Daspa frame, but it gave the bike a jilted stance compared to the original, so Vee Two cut the top frame rail and angled it up by three degrees to take the longer Girling shocks used by Hailwood.
Now it stands as it should, with the fins on the sump flowing horizontally. So perfect is the V2H’s posture that, as my lap times drop, I scuff the bellypan, exhausts, pegs, gear and rear brake lever in exactly the same spots as Hailwood.
The V2H’s NCR-aping details continue: yokes are 15mm narrower than previous Ducati racers to keep the whole bike slimmer and as a result the front wheel and discs just about fit, with a pancake-width gap to spare.
The clutch lever is longer too for extra leverage on the heavy springs and thanks to Hailwood’s weak right foot, Sports Motorcycles moved the gear lever over from the right to the left, using a Hutchy-style linkage through the hollow swingarm spindle.
Narrow Lafranconi-copy megaphone exhausts are the work of an artisan and replicate the original’s staggered length megaphones. Hailwood’s team had to quieten them for the TT, so they cut-and-shut Triumph T120 silencers, put them on the end with springs and taped over the joint.
Vee Two’s hard work is spoiled slightly by me. Over the weekend I’ve been slowly ‘de-Hailwooding’ the V2H to suit my gangly riding style. We push the narrow bars out straight and tape on copious amounts of ugly seat padding so I can hang off. Sacrilege, I know.
It would have been easy for Vee Two USA to uprate the forks, shocks, brakes and squeeze more power, but slight capacity increase aside, they wanted authentic performance to go with its looks.
Four fingers of front brake and a big bootful of the rear is the only way to get the V2H stopped... but only just, and the front end patters mid-corner. You can’t just play with the clickers on these 38mm Marzocchi forks, they have to be taken apart to adjust damping control and preload. Imagine telling Hailwood that 40 years later you could adjust electronic suspension at the touch of a button. It would blow his mind.
A modest 89bhp (at the crank, late 60s/early 70s at the rear wheel) was somehow enough for his TT win. The V2H has a nice, guttural spread of power, once you’re away from its slightly fluffy bottom end and feels swift enough in isolation, but it’s a struggle against the big 120bhp-plus Japanese superbikes up ahead.
The 18in wheels and a long, low chassis promote fast corner stability, but in the tight stuff the V2H is slow steering and cramped. I’m nose to nose with the big bubble screen every time I hang off, but it’s a joy to tuck behind its silent hugeness along the straights.
It might have 70s performance, handling, brakes, a slow gearbox and heavy clutch, but when you click into how the V2H needs to be ridden, it laps quickly. The slower and more gently you input the controls and the greater the corner speed, the faster it goes.
The only truly modern part of the V2H are the tyres adorning the gold Campagnolo wheels. Sticky Mezteler Racetec RR rubber (110/80 front, 130/80 rear) has the kind of grip Hailwood could have only dreamed of. Riding ‘knees-in’ on these supersport hoops would have everything dangerously decking out, so keeping it as upright as possible mid-corner is essential.
They say you never really know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, so spending a weekend in the saddle of this faithful Hailwood replica has given me an insight into the skill and bravery of the great man himself.
How he went so fast on a machine with such modest performance is staggering and the fact he squeezed 158mph out of it, tucked in behind the big bubble defies belief. Some 120bhp supersports bikes can’t manage that.
Inspired by Mike and his bike, I’m learning to ride the Hailwood way. Lap by lap we’re clawing back positions and every time I blast along the home ‘straightaway’ I glance right to see my weird race number 11N climbing steadily up Barber’s race tower.
A white flag signals the final lap and battling with a Katana for second I lose out by the width of an Alabama Mud Cake, but finishing on the final step of the podium is a nice way to mark my first ever Stateside race and show the V2H off to an army of adoring Hailwood fans.
Starting from the back for the next race, I’m up to second and closing in on the leader, but a slipping clutch drops me to sixth. A Hailwood-style win would’ve been the cherry on top of my incredible race weekend, but there’s only one man who could really pull off a result like that...
Vee Two USA
Brook Henry: "It began with the engine, which I’d already started using Ducati’s original casting patterns and drawings. Apart from the blank castings, I do everything else, from gear cutting, camshafts, crankshafts, pistons and rods. We decided to make 12 Hailwood replicas, to match his race number, in time for the 40th anniversary celebrations at the Classic TT.
"We were ecstatic when the Hailwoods officially endorsed it. No one has ever produced a Hailwood replica with the right engine, until now. I build the motor, test it, pull it apart, put it in five suitcases and travel to Paul’s place in LA. This bike has more bullsh*t talked about it than any classic ever. It wasn’t until I started I realised what a can of worms I’d opened."
Paul Taylor: "Brook had built the engine, so most effort was spent researching its authenticity, visiting people outside of Ducati who’d been involved, and looking for unobtainium parts to use and copy. We used pics from the day as reference, but we had just one of the right side, which was a challenge. Everything is made via documentation, not by hearsay."