In Italy, they still call him “Il Leone” (the Lion). His exit from World Superbike was as quick as it was painful, but Giancarlo Falappa left an unforgettable mark on World Superbike racing.
America saw Falappa for the first time at the first World Superbike races at Brainerd in 1989. Falappa, although he would play no real role in the races that weekend, was still the belle of the ball, the talk of the paddock that weekend so long ago. Riding then for (Yamaha-powered) Bimota, Falappa—a former motocrosser from the Italian town of Jesi on Italy’s Adriatic coast—rode like a mad-man at Brainerd. Early in practice it seemed as if he was intentionally taking all of the Brainerd corners 10 mph faster than conventional wisdom, and his fellow riders, say is prudent. I think he wildly rode off the course on five or six consecutive corners on one lap, seemingly trying to go as fast as humanly possible, using that as the limit, and backing off from there. It was an interesting technique.
“Who’s that guy?” I asked his teammate, American Mike Baldwin, early in the ’89 Brainerd weekend. Baldwin looked in the direction I was peering, then smiled like he was seeing a mental repeat of a favorite sit-com in his mind. “That’s Falappa. You’ve got to see this guy,” he answered.
And, he was amazing. Aside from the sliding and near high-sides, Falappa did something we Brainerd club racers had never seen anyone do. He yanked gigantic wheelies out of (the then) new turn nine, stood on the Bimota’s pegs when he went under the pedestrian bridge and as he passed under the cement, he’d brush his helmet against the cement girders of the bridge, lightly. Standing by the side of the track, to us it looked like the Italian bike and rider were twenty feet tall and taunting God to kill him. It was insane.
The World Superbike series itself was a little rough back then, really only Fred Merkel was the polished PR gem in the grand scheme of World Superbike (sponsored in that era by Diesel Jeans, which now, a more than a decade later, are finally in style). Giancarlo fit right in. His riding was completely over the top, meanwhile off the bike, he was like a randy sailor traveling from distant Singapore to New York: he liked life. And, lets face it, when a man rides like Giancarlo did early in his career, he may as well live like every day may be his last. Before the Brainerd races, he limped around the paddock in his white Bimota jacket, smoking constantly and “talking” to every available local girl he happened upon. Did I mention he spoke essentially no English? Still, each morning of the race weekend different Minnesota girls dropped him off at the Bimota garage, Giancarlo in the same clothes he’d worn the day before. On the grid, Giancarlo had a pre-race stare that would melt men and machines. The only other fellow who could match him in that department was Eddie Lawson; put them together and they could probably change the tides.
Longtime fans probably remember Giancarlo wining World Superbike races after when he’d made the swap to Ducati in 1990, but, actually, Falappa won races in 1989, when he was still on the Bimota. In fact, he won at horsepower-hungry Mosport, the race that preceded Brainerd. The Ducati 851 Superbike was still very much hit and miss in those days. Sure future WSC champion Raymond Roche could ride off and be passed by six riders and still occasionally come back and win if he had things right in some races, but many times the then very technically advanced Italian Twin was not in the same ballpark as the Yamaha and the Honda. The Yamaha-powered Bimota was about in the same league as the Ducati then, even though Bimota’s Davide Tardozzi almost won the first WSBK title in 1988. It was occasionally a very decent racing motorcycle, and at other times it was not.
It wasn’t until his second WSBK season that Giancarlo really began his descent/ascent into riding within known human limits, which brought more race wins and occasional consistency to his riding. By this time he’d switched to the Cagiva/Ducati team, spearheaded by coolly adversarial rider Raymond Roche. Roche seemed clearly threatened by having Falappa in the team, but Falappa acted and rode like he didn’t even know Roche was alive.
Like many overly-aggressive young riders, Giancarlo’s inevitable crashing gradually taught him to slow down, and with that came more race wins. There were injuries over the course of the next few seasons, all of which seriously damaged his championship hopes. He crashed at Mosport and broke his wrist, and then crashed in a big way in Austria of that year, breaking both femurs, a shoulder and re-breaking his wrist. It was a long climb back from that crash.
In time, things came around. In 1992, he doubled at Austria, the scene of his big fall, won race two at Assen (Doug Polen won race one) and left his competitors with a strong memory at the end of the season by winning the final race of the year at New Zealand. He was back, calmer than before and faster. The new Falappa.
Giancarlo matured over time and his wild man days were slowly left in his dust trail. It all came together in 1993 when he won both rounds at Brands Hatch and topped everyone in the first race at Hockenhiem. He doubled again at Misano that year, won the second race in Austria and also the second race at Monza. He led the world championship that season and finished the season in fifth place.
1994 looked to be the season that Falappa could put together both the race wins and the consistency. Early in the season, he won race two at Misano and was second in the world championship to our Scott Russell. Giancarlo’s then team-mate, Carl Fogarty, was fourth. After Misano came Albacete in Spain, and that’s when it all came apart for Ducati’s Giancarlo Falappa.
Falappa was testing a new swing arm on the 916 Ducati at Albacete when something went very wrong and he was highsided off the machine, suffering grave injuries. For weeks news filtered back to the US and other parts of the world that Falappa “would not last the night” but he did. He was in a coma for four weeks. Some feared it would be forever. While under the care of Dr. Costa at the Bellaria hospital in Imola, Neurologists were not hopeful of Giancarlo ever regaining consciousness.
Dr. Costa knew that to bring Giancarlo back he must draw on Falappa’s racer instinct, the one that instills that ‘nobody is going to beat me, nobody is going to pass me’ . Every day he put headphones on Falappa’s head and played recordings of his best races, of him beating the world at Monza, Misano and Brands Hatch. When they did this, Falappa’s face would contort and his eyelids would flicker. However, Giancarlo would not regain consciousness. After a month, some started to lose hope.
On July 19, 1994, famous Italian television commentator Giovanni Di Pillio stopped by Giancarlo’s hospital room in Imola. He had been the Italian broadcaster for many of Falappa’s World Superbike races, and he sat next to Falappa’s bed, talking to him like he was announcing a very dramatic race. “Giancarlo,” he said, “wake up! You must wake up, Scott Russell is coming too close to you! He’s going to pass you, speed up! Speed up!”
And at that moment, 33 days after his shocking crash in Spain, Giancarlo Falappa regained consciousness. He had a very long recovery period and never raced again after that day at Albacete, but Falappa now works for Ducati Corse, signing autographs at the World Superbike races and putting in appearances at Ducati dealers and clubs.
I’d see Giancarlo at European WSBK races after his crash. I’d like to say that he immediately recognized me from the old days but after he suffered his TBI (traumatic brain injury) he struggled with names and faces. I’d repeat my name to him a few times, then I’d say “Remember? Brainerd in Minnesota USA. Dean!”.
Usually after a few “Dean … Brainerd”s it came back to him. And like seemingly all Italians, he called me “Dan”, gave me an embrace and kissed my cheeks. Then, after pulling out of the hug he always did the same thing: he closed his eyes and held his hands up like he was grasping handlebars. Then he’d do a lap of Brainerd in his head, talking me through it.
“Turn one, Brainerd, top gear, full gas,” he’d say, leaning to the right and his fist cranked to mimic full throttle.
“Turn two, Brainerd, downshift one, then full gas,” and he’d lean over more.
“Turn three, Brainerd, two downshifts and brakes …”
He remembered Brainerd very well. I asked about the full-on Minnesota farm girls he liked so much and he’d grin wryly.
In 2007 or so we ended up at the same dinner table on Saturday night at Monza. I sat on one end and he the other of a small table, with various people between us. They wanted to hear about his glory days, of racing Merkel, Foggy and Roche, but Giancarlo was at that time struggling to remember any details. He looked tired and the more they asked him to tell the stories the more frustrated he became.
He wanted to tell these stories but he was just unable to remember much. This weighed on him heavily. I would wave to him from across the table and try to placate him a little. How many autographs did you sign today, Giancarlo? I saw the long line of people who wanted to get a picture with you, their hero. How are things at Ducati these days? He would smile a little; his short term memory was very good, but the dark mood never left his face, that he was unable to remember his triumphs. He started to avoid eye contact with everyone.
That night in Monza ended with Giancarlo telling us that he was still traveling around Europe in his old camper van without a map, and that he rarely got lost. He said what was hard for him was to leave home, because he had become very close to his pet cat. He talked a lot about the cat; it was clear he was quite attached to the animal. And then all the frustration and loneliness poured out of him. He cried in his plate because he said that he missed his cat so badly. The table went silent, no one knowing what to say, really. I think I tried to jump-start him by saying he’d be back with his pet cat very soon. He was confused and mad; the tears hit his plate like big Spring rain drops.
Sometimes I think it’s actually easier to be a rider than an ex-rider.