Nearly everyone who was in racing in the 1990s has a Doug Polen story. His accomplishments have faded slightly as the years have passed but if you had seen him race with your own eyes back then, the first memory that would come to mind whenever his name is mentioned, would most likely be Polen on the Ferracci Ducati at full honk—winning race after race after race. Together man and bike won the WSBK title twice when most Americans didn’t even know what World Superbike was. Subsequently, Polen returned to America and won Ducati’s first AMA Superbike title, a feat that engraved both Polen and tuner Eraldo Ferracci into the record books.
Kawasaki Superbike tuning legend Rob Muzzy talks about riders that he worked with in his long career that obviously Muzzy felt, with cause, had really no idea how a racing motorcycle worked. “Many, many times we would discover with (name removed) that after a full day of testing that the bike was the same at 4:00 in the afternoon as it had been at 8:00 AM that morning when he said it was unrideable. We looked at the set-up sheet and realized that we had chased our tails all day trying to find him a way out. He really had no idea what he was doing.”
Polen, for the record, was not that kind of rider. He was the absolute opposite, in fact. Polen was usually the smartest rider in the room and while you might become worn out listening to his seemingly endless hypothesizing, you never lost respect for Doug, because he could back up nearly everything he said—if not with words then deeds and if not with deeds, then, frankly, with balls.
Case in point: The “Doug going straight at Daytona” story.
This particular story starts with most of the toes on Doug Polen’s left foot being cut off.
In his last days as a Yoshimura Suzuki rider, Polen had crashed a GSX-R at Willow Springs. In the crash his left foot went through the rear sprocket area of the bike. When he stopped tumbling, Doug realized he’d basically just ran his foot through a big table saw. There wasn’t much for surgeons to re-attach so they sewed the wounds back up and told him to stay off his foot for six months and they’d re-evaluate then. Polen, however, had other plans; he’d just signed with Ducati and the momentum was irresistible.
First, there was testing to be done and Polen was a wonderful test rider, maybe the very best Superbike test rider of all time. He was tireless, smart, fast and he really didn’t see testing as the endless and sometimes pointless drudgery that other riders did. He loved figuring things out, collaborating with mechanics and engineers and learning new things.
Dunlop scheduled three days of testing at Daytona that fall, with Polen as the only rider attending the test. Since his riding and analytical ability were truly second to none, Dunlop realized they could invite five riders for three days or just Polen for three days and probably get better information from Polen solo. Ducati shipped in an 888 Superbike.
Polen rode for two days at Daytona before he even began to wince when he shifted the Ducati’s transmission or used his feet to help leverage the bike into a corner. He was bleeding of course, his boot was bloody. He was stuffing napkins into the toe of the boot after a day so that it would sop up the blood. For two days this did not slow Polen down.
On the third day, however, his injured foot was not a happy camper and was making its unhappiness known with bolts of pain and even more blood than normal. All of the tire engineers in residence and even one of the Daytona pit guards were shown Polen’s swollen, bloody and very ugly foot and asked for their medical opinion. All said the same thing: “Holy Sh*t! You better get to a doctor.”
People who personally know Doug Polen will not be shocked to learn that Doug actually had a better idea.
Polen suspected that it was the act of shifting that was making his toe-less foot bleed so much, sending bolts of pain to his brain and making him sweat bullets. Thus, he suggested no shifting. While at first the Dunlop engineers thought he’d leave the v-twin in top gear and just wobble around the infield, after a few moments they realized what Poeln was hatching a plan not to use anything but the oval. Instead, he’d run that Ducati NASCAR-style, full throttle all the way around in top gear to “see what’ll happen”. This mean he’d be riding the entire tri-oval, both the front and back straights at Daytona, both bankings, at full top speed on a factory Ducati Superbike. Riders had ridden the oval in qualifying for the 200 in the 1960s, but this was a Superbike. And for more than just one lap, multiple laps, in fact.
Then Dunlop tire engineer Jim Allen remembers the day very well. “He had already tested for a day or two and by then, the stubs of his missing toes were rubbed raw and bleeding from shifting. He asked if we would learn anything if he just went straight around the banking instead of using the infield. When we told him “yes”, he volunteered to do it and in typical Polen fashion did it to the max. He held it wide open around the banking, or as close to wide open as he could for every tire. We (the tire guys) were much more spooked and concerned than he was … we made him change the front tire for every rear we fitted.” Polen ran the NASCAR-oval for an entire afternoon, enjoyed the challenge of it and how it made the tires react.
“We learned a ton,” remembers Allen. Polen finished the day and hobbled off.
Not many people were told about Doug’s accomplishment; Dunlop didn’t want anyone to know but word leaked out eventually. Whispers grew to rumors and then other riders came to Doug and asked him, wide-eye’d, if it was true, that he’d lapped the entire Daytona NASCAR circuit on a Ducati Superbike. Uncharacteristically, Doug said very little, for once, and just smiled.