One Man’s Heaven

Adrian (Buzz) Palmer

The mention of heaven probably evokes a variety of images in different individuals. Depending on one’s religious orientation, heaven could represent a physical location, a metaphysical place, a state of mind in the here-and-now, or perhaps just wishful thinking. Nonetheless, regardless of what any individual might take heaven to be, most of us would probably agree that whatever it is, it’s surely a good thing. However, I doubt whether Las Vegas would be the first location to pop into your mind if you imagined where your experience of heaven would take place. And what would be the odds of finding heaven in Las Vegas without even wagering a cent? Strange as it may seem, I did find my little piece of heaven there.

I turned onto my own twisty road to heaven way back in 1976. Inspired by Cycle Magazine editor Cook Neilson’s “Racer Road” accounts of his and Phil Schilling’s learning curve in developing their 750 Ducati Supersport (which the Guggenheim’s “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibitors characterized as possibly the most beautiful motorcycle ever made) into its ultimate 1977 Daytona 200 winning form, I finally bought my own Ducati: a 1977 900 Supersport. For the next five years, I studied Cook’s and Phil’s articles, corresponded with them, talked with Cook on the phone at Cycle Magazine, and even met the two of them face to face at a Superbike race at Laguna Seca. In the process, I learned what I needed to learn to modify my 900SS into the second coming of Cook’s “Old Blue,” my own Ducati 905-CNR (Cook Neilson Replica).

I campaigned my CNR in two venues just for the heck of it: an AFM club race at Laguna Seca and drag racing at the Bonneville Drag Strip in Salt Lake City. But over several years I raced my Ducati at one venue, the Bonneville Salt Flats, with a tightly focused passion, until finally in the cool of one early Sunday morning in July, I kicked the motor to life, tucked in, felt the L-twin hammering through the open megaphones, finally saw 9000 rpm on the tach, and knew that this time I must have gone really fast. Pulling off the racetrack, I parked in the silence of the salt to read the plugs and gaze at that extraordinary Ducati silhouetted against the “floating mountain” shimmering above the mirage. When I finally arrived back at the starting line, the officials were shouting, “You went 141.” I sat on my bike and stared at the 141.06 mph on the timing slip; the fastest I had ever been able to go heretofore had been 136. Then I stared into my own mind—normally cluttered with items on my motorcycling “to do” list—and saw nothing. At that moment, I knew I was complete with motorcycle racing.

For the next twenty years, My 905-CNR spent most of its time in my basement in exactly the form I had raced it, same gears, same plugs, same jets, same chain lube on the rear wheel from that final Bonneville sprint past the clocks. I continued to follow Ducati racing in motorcycle magazines, make yearly trips to Laguna Seca to spectate at the AFM, GP and Superbike races, and appreciate the huge successes Ducatis were having after those challenging early years when, after all, racing Ducatis was a fairly lonely endeavor. Then about two months ago, a friend told me that the Ducati factory was sponsoring a Ducati Revs America (DRA) event for Ducati enthusiasts at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and I thought to myself, now’s the time to participate again.

Among the many facilities at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway are three contiguous raceways: A NASCAR oval track, a drag strip behind it, and a road track inside it. In addition to the road track, DRA had rented several large buildings for the displays, the vendors, and the Ducati Concours. Of course there were some regulations, as anyone would expect, but this the first event of its type in the U.S. was, fortuitously, optimally organized, finding the middle way between chaos and strangulation. In fact, we could actually drive our cars and trailers right up to within fifty yards of the entrance to the roadrace course and park anywhere we wanted; and while some of the organizers apologized for the occasional organizational teething challenges, I thought to myself that we would never again be so lucky.

At the very last moment, several of my buddies in Salt Lake figured out a way to truck my bike down to the event, and I looked forward to contributing my well-used piece of Ducati history to the collection of some of the finest existing examples of Ducati mechanical beauty. I knew that among all of the pristine examples of ancient and modern Ducatis, mine wouldn’t be the cleanest, or the quite the rarest, but I felt fairly confident that with all of its as-raced modifications and vintage chain lube spatter it was a very good example of a working bike. And more importantly for this kid, with its Imola racing cams, high compression pistons, factory high pipes, and open megaphones, it had damn well better be the noisiest. Wheeling that bad boy up to the technical inspection with surely an inordinate amount of adolescent pride, I heard a couple of guys comment, “Wow, I bet that’s loud!”

Buzz’s Ducati 905-CNR at Ducati Revs America

One might expect that my experience of riding my CNR one more time might prove to be the jewel in the crown of my weekend at the DRA event, and it certainly was a blast, though not necessarily a revelation. In fact, I was actually scared to get out on the track at first, having broken my collar bone in a street riding accident on another bike a couple of years ago. But once the CNR exploded into life and I motored slowly around the track a couple of times, I began to relax. The others on the track at the time quickly pulled ahead of me as I rode around alone at a relaxed pace—just listening to the rise and fall of that amazing Bonneville proven motor. After the initial lap, I had the front straightaway to myself, and for the first time in twenty years, I pinned the throttle, my eardrums itching with the familiar crackling howl of that motor, once again pounding Joel Elial Gonzales’s mantra into my heart: Motorcycles transport the body…Ducatis transport the soul! (Joel was the almost mystical president of the original U.S. based Ducati International Owners’ Club during the 1970s & 80s.)

Of course this noisy ride was an answer to a dream and was, as such, expected; after all, I’d come down to Vegas knowing I’d be able to ride my Duck. But for me, heavenly events tend to occur in less predictable ways, and while slightly ajar, the pearlies hadn’t fully opened yet. Yet, God willing, I was sure enough ready to ride through them if they did. On Saturday morning I stood outside one of the big exhibitor’s areas and looked around me. Inside one of the venues was a large, well attended food court. To my left were hundreds of vintage bevel drive and newer two and four-valve Ducatis. Behind me were the factory team bikes, vans, tents and riders. Gorgeous pit ladies promoting all manner of temptations circulated in masculinely appreciated ways. But these goodies were all mere ornaments in a rich background tapestry for what really counted. In the foreground, on the infield track an “A” group of DRA participant riders thundered around the road course. On the oval to my left, two NASCAR racers hammered around the high banking. Behind the grandstands, the bellow of a top fuel dragster obliterated all other manner of noise for six seconds or so. And to top all that, a formation of F-15 fighters blasted by overhead before banking in to land at Nellis Air Force Base. One of the club members standing somewhat stupefied next to me commented, “My God!, they’re all here at once, every kind of noisy motor!” And as a prickly feeling spread through my chest, the Pearly Gates rumbled open for the first time.

Later in the day, in the middle of the afternoon, the DRA organizers convened a panel of old time racers, guys who largely on their own had modified and raced their own Ducatis to astounding levels of success with a motorcycle manufactured by what was, in that era, a very small company. Among these invitees was the above mentioned Cook Neilson, whom I had not contacted since his retirement from riding and writing in 1979. A group of perhaps fifty of us, many of whom had been enthusiasts back in those good old days, sat in the audience and listened while the ancient ones told their stories. Hearing those fellows talk about the old familiar facts was like listening to a favorite song just one more time. However, as beloved as this old time music was, what I was really interested in was those racers’ internal experience of the events. And here’s what was on my mind as I started to listen to them.

Over the past decade, I had been trying to figure out what contributed to people’s experience of meaningful work, whatever that work might be. For a while I tried to reduce this to a single factor but was never able to make the reduction work, so I ended up with three levels, each of which involved a different kind of relationship between our internal worlds (what goes on inside us) and our external worlds (what happens around us). Here’s how I line them up.

First, I think of Level 1, pleasure, as the experience of what is going of our external world providing us what we enjoy. So pleasurable work might provide a middle level manager with a pleasant working environment, interesting co-workers, a livable salary, decent working hours, and so on.

Next, I think of Level 2, satisfaction, as the experience of giving from our internal selves—our talents or gifts—and receiving the appreciation of individuals from our external worlds. So satisfying work for a motorcycle mechanic might be giving of his or her abilities as a mechanic and receiving the appreciation of the riders whose motorcycles he or she repairs.

Finally, I think of Level 3, privilege, as the experience of participating in our work as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we are simply lucky to be able to take part in. At this level, our experience of privilege is created entirely from within our internal worlds and, as such, is independent of any feedback from the external world. For example, a doctor might experience the opportunity to heal as privilege regardless of the appreciation of others, or a teacher might feel that it is a privilege just to know his or her students.

As for my own work, actually, I am a teacher. In fact, I’m a university professor at the very same university that takes pride in having graduated two of motorcycling’s most enthusiastic current editors, Nick Inatsch and Mitch Boehm. As a professor, I’ve spent a number of years “seeking the heart of teaching,” searching for the essence of what can make teaching such a rewarding profession, and the framework I outlined above is the outcome of my search. I appreciated my own life as a teacher at the first two levels quite early on in my profession, but experience of Level 3, privilege, developed rather later on in my life as I became more aware of the preciousness of my opportunities in the context of a limited lifespan. (See Palmer & Christison, Seeking the Heart of Teaching, University of Michigan Press if you want the whole story.) And I actually had my first direct experience of the level of privilege in my long time love affair with my wife—which may be a bit difficult to believe given my adulterous passion for Ducatis.

For those of you who happen to be graphically minded, I’ve put the three levels of appreciation into three little figures. The arrows show the primary direction of flow of energy. In Level 1, energy flows from the external world (environment) to the individual. In Level 2, energy flows out from the individual and back from the external world. And in Level 3, energy flows from the individual into the external world independent of feedback.

Now, if you will, imagine my listening to the panel discussion while obsessing over my latest way of looking at the heart of teaching and even–what the heck–the meaning of life itself! Well, after the panel had answered a number of rather technical questions about their external worlds (their equipment and the like), I finally had an opportunity to ask my long-time hero, Cook, a question which might provide me with a snapshot of his internal world. So I asked him if he might think back to his winning the Daytona 200 in 1977, recall his experience of completion, and share with us what went through his mind when he realized just what he and Phil had accomplished.

Cook thought a moment and then started to talk. Now you’ve got to realize that I had been anticipating an opportunity like this for over twenty years, and all of my anticipation was focused into my total absorption in the moment. Well, Cook began by saying that his experience of completion took place on many different levels, and then he identified three. At the first level, he realized that the Ducati was good enough to win: the Ducati pleased him. At the second level, he realized that he was finally good enough: he gave of his ability, and the Ducati—and race results—responded with their own versions of appreciation. And finally, at the third level, he realized just how lucky he was to have that Ducati: what a privilege it was.

Well, I doubt whether what Cook said had anything like the impact on others as it did on me, but when I heard what Cook said in context of my preoccupation with Seeking the Heart of Teaching, my eyes got really wide. Cook had just described his experience of his passion for motorcycle racing with what seemed to me to be the same number of levels and roughly the same constructs that I had come up with to describe my experience of the heart of teaching. At this point, I was actually tempted to go up in front of the audience and ask Cook if I might kiss his ring, but I was already thinking that in some versions of heaven good things come in threes, so I hurried outside to see what might come next.

Buzz, Cook Neilson, and Buzz’s Ducati at Ducati Revs America

My cycling friends from Salt Lake City had spent a good part of the afternoon on their Ducatis, and for most of them this was the first track time they had ever enjoyed. As the formal portion of afternoon’s program finished up, they pulled off the track and I joined them while they talked about how much they appreciated the opportunity to open up their Ducatis–and their egos–on a real race track. We stood chatting in a group as the sun set, the blue of the sky deepened, and a warm breeze wafted gently across the emptying venue. Out on the huge oval track and behind the gigantic red Ducati team trucks and tents, a pure, white light from the high intensity halogens around the NASCAR oval began to blaze in the silence, and the empty banks of seats glowed red, white, and blue.

Hanging out by the fence between the infield and the high banked NASCAR oval, my friends and I continued to be absorbed in sharing the excitement of the day when the murmur of three NASCAR racers behind the infield track swelled into a roar, shattering the evening’s quiet. But as the automobiles motored higher onto the banking, several different motors barked in the distance. What in the world was that? Jesus Christ! Three red Ducati superbikes—with factory riders aboard, no less—materialized way behind the hulking NASCAR racers on the high speed oval and proceeded to hunt them down! And as they closed in, we began to cheer: “Go Ducati’s! Stick it to those bastards!” Those three bikes accelerated along side and just played with the NASCAR racers; and as if that weren’t already over the top, get this: the Ducks were honking their horns! Move those crates out of the way! We’re comin’ by!

Then as the NASCAR machines hit the top of the high banking running hard, one of the Ducati riders turned his head, stared at a NASCAR driver, launched a hundred-yard-long wheel stand, and disappeared into the distance: Take that! And I knew for sure that under this surreal white light, at this magical place, in this once-in-a-lifetime moment that brings tears to your eyes, there was a Heaven, there was a Creator, and by God he was riding that Ducati.