Wow, the things you find on the interwebs. Here’s a photo of a young Keith Code aboard his Ducati 200 Supersport, aka Elite, shot at Vineland Raceway in New Jersey, 1962, at a US Motorcycle Club event.
MO: Dang, Keith, how old were you then, like eight?
Keith Code: No, I was 17. I was born in 1945.
MO: You look a lot younger. Blessed with youthful good looks even then.
MO: Where’d you get a Ducati in 1962? Were there a lot of those around?
KC: There were two in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. My friend Fred, who was a lot older than me, like 26 or 27, had the other one. It was a beautiful bike. I got it when I was 15. I worked in an auto repair shop, and I used to hitchhike out to Pittsburgh Cycle Center to look at bikes and ask questions starting when I was 13 or 14. When I decided I had to have that bike, I traded in my Triumph Cub and, I owed like 625 bucks. I told the dealer I had a job, and he took my bike in trade and said, pay it off from your work.
There were no papers, my sister signed for the bike, a handshake nod agreement. Don Martin, the owner, knew I didn’t have a driver’s license yet and he trusted me anyway; $625 was a lot of money back then, like $6000 or $7000 probably. I rode the thing out of there, told him I’d pay him every week and I did. I rode it on the street, all over the place. Western Pennsylvania is all curves and hills, every moment I could I was riding.
MO: Who shot that photo? You look like you already really know what you’re doing.
KC: A guy who was my sister’s boyfriend from design school who was into photography shot that. It was my first time on a racetrack! But the bike came with Pirellis, and I’d been studying all the pictures of guys in the English paper, Motorcycle Weekly, so I kind of had an idea, that was my orientation. I was taken by that scene, absolutely enthralled. I knew the right helmet and goggles. I also had a 33-1/3 LP from the 1957 Isle of Man Golden Jubilee, with lots of strange-sounding two- strokes and Manx Nortons and I think a V-8 Moto Guzzi. I was ready.
MO: How’d your parents like their child’s motorcycle racing habit?
KC: They weren’t exactly supportive. My mom knew a guy who’d lost a leg, so I was completely on my own. I got a Harley Hummer, my first bike, when I was 12 and I rode it on the street – mostly at night since I was still four years away from a license. You had to be 16 to get a race license, too, and your parents had to sign off on it. I told my mom I was moving out if she didn’t sign, and she knew I would. So, she signed.
There were only a very few races on the East Coast at the time. This one at Vineland, unusually, was a two-day event, and that photo was shot in practice. The race on Sunday didn’t turn out terribly well. I did practice run-and-bump starts, but in the race I couldn’t get my bike started, everybody took off. I finally got tired of pushing and just let my bike slide into the fence. I was so upset.
My friend Fred had opened a bike shop in North Carolina, and I worked there in my 16th and 17th summers, basically for free so I could race. Fred had been keeping lap times, and there’d been an Italian guy there too on a factory Ducati. Fred got a letter from the Berliner guys [Ducati importers] like two weeks later, that my lap times were only ½ second slower than his. I think that made me even more disappointed. But maybe gave me hope, too.
MO: Whatever happened to the Ducati?
KC: There were only two or three races on the East Coast at the time. The bike just kind of melted into the shop, became shop property I guess – and I didn’t really race much after that in the `60s – mostly because it was the `60s. There were a lot of drugs around, and I was just smart enough to realize it wasn’t a good idea to mix those two. Later, after I made it to California in 1970, I got back into racing.
The rest is history. Keith had some success as a racer, but has to be the all-time champion of coaching. Twist of the Wrist appeared in 1983, and has sold a bazillion copies since. The California Superbike School will be kicking off its 38th season February 17 in Las Vegas. Viva, Keith Code.