Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hunter Thompson's Song of the Sausage Creature

Ralph Steadman's original illustration for Cycle World

In 1995, "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson reviewed the Ducati 900 SS/SP for Cycle World Magazine. The resulting piece, entitled "Song of the Sausage Creature" doesn't give much detail on the machine itself, but captures the mental experience of riding on the edge of sanity quite well.
Hunter S. Thompson

There are some things nobody needs in this world, and a bright red,
hunchback, warp-speed 900cc café racer is one of them -- but I want
one anyway, and on some days I actually believe I need one. That is
why they are dangerous.

Everybody has fast motorcycles these days. Some people go 150
miles an hour on two-lane blacktop roads, but not often. There are too
many oncoming trucks and too many radar cops and too many stupid
animals in the way. You have to be a little crazy to ride these
super-torque high-speed crotch rockets anywhere except a racetrack --
and even there, they will scare the whimpering shit out of you.... There
is, after all, not a pig's eye worth of difference between going head-on
into a Peterbilt or sideways into the bleachers. On some days you get
what you want, and on others, you get what you need.

When Cycle World called me to ask if I would road-test the new
Harley Road King, I got uppity and said I'd rather have a Ducati superbike. It seemed like a chic decision at the time, and my friends on the superbike circuit got very excited. "Hot damn," they said, "We will take it to the track and blow the bastards away."

"Balls," I said. "Never mind the track. The track is for punks. We are Road People. We are Café Racers."

The Café Racer is a different breed, and we have our own situations. Pure speed in sixth gear on a 5,000-foot straightaway is one thing, but pure speed in third gear on a gravel-strewn downhill ess turn is quite another. But we like it. A thoroughbred Café Racer will ride all night through a fog storm in freeway traffic to put himself into what somebody told him was the ugliest and tightest decreasing-radius turn since Genghis Khan invented the corkscrew.

Café Racing is mainly a matter of taste. It is an atavistic mentality, a peculiar mix of low style, high speed, pure dumbness, and overweening commitment to the Café Life and all its dangerous pleasures.... I am a Café Racer myself, on some days -- and many nights for that matter -- and it is one of my finest addictions....

I am not without scars on my brain and my body, but I can live with them. I still feel a shudder in my spine every time I see a Vincent Black Shadow, or when I walk into a public restroom and hear crippled men whispering about the terrifying Kawasaki Triple.... I have visions of compound femur-fractures and large black men in white hospital suits holding me down on a gurney while a nurse called "Bess" sews the flaps of my scalp together with a stitching drill.

Ho, ho. Thank God for these flashbacks. The brain is such a wonderful instrument (until God sinks his teeth into it). Some people hear Tiny Tim singing when they go under, and others hear the song of the Sausage Creature.

When the Ducati turned up in my driveway, nobody knew what to do with it. I was in New York, covering a polo tournament, and people had threatened my life. My lawyer said I should give myself up and enroll in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Other people said it had something to do with the polo crowd.

The motorcycle business was the last straw. It had to be the work of my enemies, or people who wanted to hurt me. It was the vilest kind of bait, and they knew I would go for it. Of course. You want to cripple the bastard? Send him a 130-mph café racer. And include some license plates, so he'll think it's a streetbike. He's queer for anything fast.

Which is true. I have been a connoisseur of fast motorcycles all my life. I bought a brand-new 650 BSA Lightning when it was billed as "the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine." I have ridden a 500-pound Vincent through traffic on the Ventura Freeway with burning oil on my legs and run the Kawa 750 triple through Beverly Hills at night with a head full of acid.... I have ridden with Sonny Barger and smoked weed in biker bars with Jack Nicholson, Grace Slick, Ron Zigler, and my infamous old friend, Ken Kesey, a legendary Café Racer.

Some people will tell you that slow is good -- and it may be, on some days -- but I am here to tell you that fast is better. I've always believed this, in spite of the trouble it's caused me. Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba....

So when I got back from New York and found a fiery red rocket-style bike in my garage, I realized I was back in the road-testing business.
Ducati 900 SS/SP Supersport
The brand-new Ducati 900 Campione del Mundo Desmodue Supersport double-barreled magnum Café Racer filled me with feelings of lust every time I looked at it.
Others felt the same way. My garage quickly became a
magnet for drooling superbike groupies. They
quarreled and bitched at each other about who would be first to help
me evaluate my new toy.... And I did, of course, need a certain
spectrum of opinions, besides my own, to properly judge this
motorcycle. The Woody Creek Perverse Environmental Testing
Facility is a long way from Daytona or even top-fuel challenge sprints
on the Pacific Coast Highway, where teams of big-bore Kawasakis
and Yamahas are said to race head-on against each other in
death-defying games of "chicken" at 100 miles an hour....

No. Not everybody who buys a high-dollar torque-brute yearns to go
out in a ball of fire on a public street in L.A. Some of us are decent
people who want to stay out of the emergency room, but still blast
through neo-gridlock traffic in residential districts whenever we feel
like it.... For that we need fine Machinery.

Which we had -- no doubt about that. The Ducati people in New
Jersey had opted, for reasons of their own, to send me the 900SP for
testing -- rather than their 916 crazy-fast, state-of-the-art superbike
track racer. It was far too fast, they said -- and prohibitively expensive
-- to farm out for testing to a gang of half-mad Colorado cowboys who
think they're world-class Café Racers.

The Ducati 900 is a finely engineered machine. My neighbors
called it beautiful and admired its racing lines. The nasty little bugger
looked like it was going 90 miles an hour when it was standing still in
my garage.

Taking it on the road, though, was a genuinely terrifying experience.
I had no sense of speed until I was going 90 and coming up fast on a
bunch of pickup trucks going into a wet curve along the river. I went for
both brakes, but only the front one worked, and I almost went end over
end. I was out of control staring at the tailpipe of a U.S. Mail truck,
still stabbing frantically at my rear brake pedal, which I just couldn't
find.... I am too tall for these New Age roadracers; they are not built
for any rider taller than five-nine, and the rearset brake pedal was not
where I thought it would be. Midsize Italian pimps who like to race
from one café to another on the boulevards of Rome in a flat-line
prone position might like this, but I do not.

I was hunched over the tank like a person diving into a pool that
got emptied yesterday. Whacko! Bashed into the concrete bottom,
flesh ripped off, a Sausage Creature with no teeth, f-cked-up for the
rest of its life.

We all love Torque, and some of us have taken it straight over the
high side from time to time -- and there is always Pain in that.... But
there is also Fun, in the deadly element, and Fun is what you get when
you screw this monster on. BOOM! Instant takeoff, no screeching or
squawking around like a fool with your teeth clamping down on your
tongue and your mind completely empty of everything but fear.

No. This bugger digs right in and shoots you straight down the pipe,
for good or ill.

On my first takeoff, I hit second gear and went through the speed limit
on a two-lane blacktop highway full of ranch traffic. By the time I went up
to third, I was going 75 and the tach was barely above 4,000 rpm....

And that's when it got its second wind. From 4,000 to 6,000 in third
will take you from 75 to 95 in two seconds -- and after that, Bubba, you
still have fourth, fifth, and sixth. Ho, ho.

I never got into sixth, and I didn't get deep into fifth. This is a
shameful admission for a full-bore Café Racer, but let me tell you
something, old sport: This motorcycle is simply too goddamn fast to
ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic unless you're ready to
go straight down the centerline with your nuts on fire and a silent
scream in your throat.

When aimed in the right direciton at high speed, though, it has
unnatural capabilities. This I unwittingly discovered as I made my
approach to a sharp turn across some railroad tracks, saw that
I was going way too fast and that my only chance was to veer right
and screw it on totally, in a desparate attempt to leapfrog the curve
by going airborne.

It was a bold and reckless move, but it was necessary. And it
worked: I felt like Evil Knievel as I soared across the tracks with
the rain in my eyes and my jaws clamped together in fear. I tried
to spit down on the tracks as I passed them, but my mouth was too
dry.... I landed hard on the edge of the road and lost my grip for
a moment as the Ducati began fishtailing crazily into oncoming
traffic. For two or three seconds I came face to face with the">
Sausage Creature....

But somehow the brute straightened out. I passed a school bus
on the right and then got the bike under control long enough to gear
down and pull off into an abandoned gravel driveway where I stopped
and turned off the engine. My hands had seized up like claws and
the rest of my body was numb. I felt nauseous and I cried for my
mama, but nobody heard, then I went into a trance for 30 or 40
seconds until I was finally able to light a cigarette and calm down
enough to ride home. I was too hysterical to shift gears, so I went
the whole way in first at 40 miles an hour.

Whoops! What am I saying? Tall stories, ho, ho.... We are
motorcycle people; we walk tall and we laugh at whatever's funny.
We shit on the chests of the Weird....

But when we ride very fast motorcycles, we ride with immaculate
sanity. We might abuse a substance here and there, but only when
it's right. The final measure of any rider's skill is the inverse ratio
of his preferred Traveling Speed to the number of bad scars on his
body. It is that simple: If you ride fast and crash, you are a bad rider.
If you go slow and crash, you are a bad rider. And if you are a bad
rider, you should not ride motorcycles.

The emergence of the superbike has heightened this equation
drastically. Motorcycle technology has made such a great leap
forward. Take the Ducati. You want optimum cruising speed on
this bugger? Try 90 mph in fifth at 5,500 rpm -- and just then, you
see a bull moose in the middle of the road. WHACKO! Meet the
Sausage Creature.

Or maybe not: The Ducati 900 is so finely engineered and
balanced and torqued that you can do 90 mph in fifth through a
35-mph zone and get away with it. The bike is not just fast -- it is
extremely quick and responsive, and it will do amazing things....
It is a little like riding the original Vincent Black Shadow, which would
outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the takeoff runway, but at the end, the
F-86 would go airborne and the Vincent would not, and there was
no point in trying to turn it. WHAMO! The Sausage Creature strikes again.

There is a fundamental difference, however, between the old
Vincents and the new bred of superbikes. If you rode the Black
Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost
certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the
Vincent Black Shadow Society. The Vincent was like a bullet that
went straight; the Ducati is like the magic bullet that went sideways
and hit JFK and the Governor of Texas at the same time. It was
impossible. But so was my terrifying sideways leap across railroad
tracks on the 900SP. The bike did it easily with the grace of a
fleeing tomcat. The landing was so easy I remember thinking,
goddamnit, if I had screwed it on a little more I could have gone
a lot further.

Maybe this is the new Café Racer macho. My bike is so much
faster than yours that I dare you to ride it, you lame little turd. Do you
have the balls to ride this BOTTOMLESS PIT OF TORQUE?

That is the attitude of the New Age superbike freak, and I am one
of them. On some days they are about the most fun you can have
with your clothes on. The Vincent just killed you a lot faster than
a superbike will. A fool couldn't ride the Vincent Black Shadow
more than once, but a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and
it will always be bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed
which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone
they will carve, "IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME."