How and why Doug Polen and Fast by Ferracci Ducati won the 1991 WSBK championship in their first try can be explained by three factors.
Factor 1: Dunlop. Doug Polen was Dunlop’s not so secret weapon in the early 1990s. Ex-racer turned tire engineer Jim Allen, not renown for faint or false praise, has always maintained that Polen was head and shoulders the very best test rider he ever worked with. Allen, in several decades of Dunlop employ, worked with every decent rider of the era at one time or another: Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Fred Merkel, Miguel DuHamel, Mat Mladin and the rest. And Allen still says in terms of being a test rider, there was Polen, and then there were the rest, the difference wasn’t even close. He had a unbelievable memory and an analytical mind second to none for a rider.
“From time-to-time when we were testing or at a race, he would say the most outrageous things. Like, “I’m going to do a 1:37.0” when everyone else had been maxed out at 1:39’s for hours. At the beginning of our relationship we’d all say (to ourselves) “Yeah, sure.” Then he’d go out and do it … not a 1:37.2 or a 1:36.9, but a 1:37.0. We learned pretty quickly not to doubt him. The guy had a clock in his head and a memory for tires that nobody before or since, has ever matched,” says Allen.
The combination of Dunlop and Doug Polen was stout. Polen was a tire engineer in a leather suit who won races. He had helped develop Dunlop’s Supersport tires and then their Superbike slick, and that was an advantage that Polen took to Europe in 1992 with Ferracci and Ducati. It wasn’t until the end of the season that onlookers caught on to how good the Dunlop tire was by then.
Factor 2: Eraldo Ferracci. Outwardly, it would seem as if Ferracci was more an outsider at Ducati than an insider because, in the development of the 851 and then the racing of the Ducati 888, Ferracci’s name is rarely heard or mentioned. Ducati had a factory race team when the 851 and 888 were introduced, and Ferracci and his family run organization basically put the factory bikes on the trailer at a lot of WSBK races. How did this happen and why was it allowed to happen—that a scrappy privateer team using support bikes beat the factory?
Eraldo was and remains very special in terms of his tuning prowess. It is legend now—and Ferracci only smiles if you ask him if this story is true—but it is said that Ferracci knew that his Ducatis would beat the factory bikes the first time he heard a factory 888 run. Ferracci, it is said, thought that the factory 888s just sounded “unhappy”. With his drag racing background, Ferracci wasn’t a dyno-room closet case, always dependent on the dyno for signs of progress. He listened to how an engine ran, took it apart and intently examined every part. Then he’d modify parts and re-build the engine, listen to it run, tear it back apart. He did so until he felt the Ducati 888 engine sounded “happy”. His engines were fast and reliable where at times the factory 888 engines were either one or the other. Rarely both.
Ferracci was also a known entity in Italy. Born there, and a kid racer, Eraldo was fast on track and as he grew into a man, Ferracci was a person that people respected in the Italian motorcycle industry. The Benelli brothers just threw him in America to try and fix their American distributorship and he did. Being from America when Ducati began racing the 851 and 888 helped him because Ducati desperately wanted race results that would impress the American market. “Find an American rider,” they said to Ferracci.
Ferracci came to Ducati WSBK with their open arms greeting him. Many people in the power structure at Ducati or the race shop then had known Ferracci for decades. He was their friend, and knew he’d help them if they did the same for Eraldo. It seems odd now that a factory would need the help of one man but Ferracci was instrumental in helping to develop the 888 Superbike. He and Ducati enlisted the NCR race team to be his support structure, and that too was very key in the success they would enjoy.
Factor 3: Doug Polen.
In 1991, Doug Polen was a virtually unknown entity in World Superbike. He’d been racing in America and in Japan for years and had sporadic success but nothing which really foretold of the success he would immediately have in WSBK, with Ferracci, Ducati and Dunlop.
Case in point: Polen won the first WSBK race that he’d entered as a full time rider-the season opening event at Donington. But Polen had raced at the Match Races in the UK previously so he knew Donington well–that he won there wasn’t remarkable. Or as remarkable as it would one day become.
Dunlop tire engineer Dave Watkins tells the story of the second round of the 1991 championship at Jarama, Spain. “Doug had never been to Spain prior to this, never set tire on Jarama,” Watkins says. “So the entire WSBK paddock were shocked when Doug broke the existing Jarama lap record on the third lap of practice. He went to the top of the leaderboard in three laps. Then he pulls into the garage, takes off his leathers, puts on his street clothes. We wait. Raymond Roche on the factory Ducati, as the session winds down, finally goes quicker. Doug saw this, undressed, put on his leathers and goes back out. New track record and pole for the race!”
After qualifying, Polen openly predicted that he would win both races at Jarama, something the Euro press and the factory Ducati team found a bit presumptuous. Polen didn’t just predict a double win, he openly discussed winning strategy—should I go out and win it by a mile or should I make it close, win it by a whisker? Insulted, the other riders felt an egotistical psych job coming their way and had nothing of it, saying Polen hadn’t done enough laps to even know what his fuel consumption would be, let alone if he would win.
The very first sign that the 1991 WSBK championship was about to become a Doug Polen Riding Academy was discovered when they saw that Polen won the first race at Jarama by almost ten seconds. And in the second race, he decided to make it look not quite as bad—he only won by 1.5 seconds.
“He’d never seen the track before Friday morning,” remembers Watkins.