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A touch of evil (and Evel)

Ducati's 999R, a hyper-fast race bike for the street, has designs on your soul.

November 03, 2004|DAN NEIL

If you enjoy the wide-open freedom of a motorcycle, the wind in your face, the carefree, horizon-chasing moment, then by all means avoid the 2005 Ducati 999R.

This thing is misery on two wheels, a wickedly disposed and temperamental exercise of sheer mechanical narcissism upon which you assume a posture like it's flashlight inspection day in prison. Its 150-hp V-twin motor runs on damned souls and is lubricated with the fat of unbaptized children. All this bike wants to do, all it dreams about at night, is catapulting you over the handlebars or pitching you backward onto the streaming concrete so you make one of those slo-mo, Evel-Knievel-at-Ceasars-Palace death rolls in your fancy Italian riding leathers.

So plan your day accordingly: After riding this bike, you will need some time to unwind. Go for a Polynesian fire walk, perhaps. Play some "Deer Hunter" roulette. Or, if so equipped, have a vasectomy.

The 999R is one of a mutant species of vehicles built to meet the production-based rules of a racing series, a process called homologation. The American Superbike Championship requires that competing bikes must be largely based on series-production motorcycles. In order to make the Ducatis more competitive, the company has built a limited number (500) of 999Rs, which are, in fact, pitifully disguised racing superbikes with just enough street-legal spit on them to pass DMV inspection. The badge on the carbon-fiber fender is that of the factory racing operation, Ducati Corse.

Made of steel, titanium, carbon fiber and sadism, the 999R is as close as you are going to get to a grand prix motorcycle, and unless you are a fantastic rider with years of experience, you don't want to get that close. This bike will beat you down like you said something bad about its mother.

Look for my name in the annals of motorcycle glory. You won't find it. I am a competent but by no means expert rider. I accept this. Call me a wimp, a weenie, a wuss, if you are inclined to excessive alliteration. But this bike scares the pudding out of me.

So, there I was on Sunset Boulevard, puttering along in first gear with about 1,500 rpm showing on the tach, hunched over the handlebars. My sunglasses slipped down my nose.

When I took my right hand off the accelerator, there was the briefest moment of adhesion between my palm and the gummy rubber grip -- just enough to goose the throttle slightly. The bike jumped like it had been poked with a cattle prod. Baaaa-WHAAAYH! The force of the acceleration whip-lashed my helmeted head, wrenching my neck.

This was the first sunglasses-adjustment injury I have sustained.

One sunny Sunday morning, I got up early, determined to take the bike for a proper stretch of the legs. Velcro'ed and zippered into my motorcycle fetish leather, I pointed it down the 210 West and wrung the throttle, working up through the gears yet shifting well short of the bike's howling 11,000-rpm redline. In the 20 seconds or so that it took me to reach fifth gear, the speedometer read ... well, I'm not going to tell you what the speedo read.

The point is, the bike was just waking up, just beginning to shake its strange, low-speed awkwardness. The super-stiff springs and shocks, which burr and tremble on the patched concrete around town, went all velvety; the aero cowling, useless at 60 mph, threw the jet stream over my ducked head, creating a small pocket of tranquillity inside the headlong tornado; the engine -- all chatters and clatters at low rpm -- began resonating like a cathedral pipe-organ keyed with a Hallelujah chord.

My license would last about a week with this bike, maybe less.

So it is fast -- top speed is about 190 mph (you didn't hear that from me). But it's also quick.

The fundamental ratio of performance machines is power to weight, usually expressed as pounds per horsepower. A Ferrari F430 with driver weighs about 3,300 pounds, a burden shared by its 490 horsepower, which the abacus tells us is about 6.7 pounds per horsepower. The Ducati 999R (dry weight of 398 pounds) weighs about 600 pounds with me on board, which means each of its 150 horsepower must move only 4 pounds.

It's hard for those who have not saddled a superbike to appreciate the sick, perverted violence of this equation. If you rev the 999R's engine to about 6,000 rpm, shift as much of your weight as possible over the front wheel, and gingerly slip the clutch for a couple hundred feet -- and if you can hang onto it -- the bike will accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 3 seconds. Your wits might take a bit longer to catch up.

But woe betide the rookie who fails to execute the full-power launch precisely right: The bike will be delighted ... delighted, thank you ... to wheelie over onto its, and your, back. Even in second and third gear, the bike's massive torque (at 8,000 rpm) will easily pull itself over your head in an asphalt full gainer.

Oh, and what's that smell? Why it's my roasting thighs.

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