Text: Ken Aiken • Photography: Ken Aiken

It was the sound of tuned exhausts echoing from ancient walls that did it. Until then it was just another great ride on another great motorcycle. Riding down that steeply pitched, much too narrow, ancient Etruscan street I was captivated by the Ducati mystique and it's been with me ever since.

Ducati began as a high-tech, cutting-edge firm, a leader in the production of state-of-the-art electrical components; the Ducati brothers never intended to build motorcycles. In fact, Societá Scientifica Radio Brevetti (a.k.a. Ducati) didn't manufacture their first motorcycle until 1951, twenty-five years after the founding of the company, five years after the government forced them to produce the little Cucciolo engine (which had been developed by another firm), and three years after Ducati declared bankruptcy and was taken over by the government. The only reason they began to produce motorcycles was due to the success of smaller companies who were purchasing the two-horsepower Ducati engines and mounting them in proprietary, custom-designed frames. Initially they contracted with an aircraft company to manufacture the motorcycle to which Ducati mounted their new 2.25- horsepower, 60cc engine, but when Aero Caproni of Trento decided to produce their own motorbike, Ducati was forced into the motorcycle business.

Fifty years later it's hard to imagine this legendary motorcycle company had to be pressured into the business - especially this weekend, when thousands of Ducati motorcycles surround me. Especially here, in Las Vegas, where five thousand ducatisti (Ducati people) gathered for the first annual Ducati Revs America rally. And most espec­ially by me, who flew from the mountains of Vermont to this desert oasis just to take a few photos of a particular model.

For the past three years the Bologna-based company has thrown an annual party in Italy called World Ducati Weekend (WDW) and they're now looking to duplicate that success in the United States. It's an impressive turnout and it becomes clear to me that the company has embarked on a new phase of its history: the Ducati lifestyle.

In 1951, Societá Scientifica Radio Brevetti made a decision to promote the little one-cylinder Cucciolo (puppy) as a performance motorcycle. That year Ugo Tomarozzi, on a specially modified Cucciolo, established twenty-seven world records at Monza, Italy. The decision to link marketing to racing was highly successful and in 1953 the company split into Ducati Elettronica SpA of Milan and Ducati Meccanica SpA of Bologna. The Ducati legend was born.

The sun is hot, but I wander up and down the rows of parked bikes anyway. The motor­cycles I'm seeing recall how the fortunes of the company during the last five decades have been on a roller-coaster ride as the company has tried to combine innovative engineering with marketing success. How many people remember the futuristic Cruiser, a scooter with a 175cc, four-stroke, twin overhead-valve engine, automatic transmission, and electric start, which was introduced in 1952? Or the E-900 Ducati (a.k.a. Cagiva Elephant) dual-sport and the cruiser-styled Indiana, both produced in the late 1980s? Here the famous and the forgotten are parked side by side in the desert sun. But I'm concentrating on the model Ducati introduced in 1994: the one that couldn't be ignored by the public, the bike around which innovative engineering and marketing finally meshed, the 916.

Although plenty of events are scheduled for DRA, there's no doubt the biggest draw of the weekend is track time: the opportunity for Ducati owners to run their bikes at triple-digit speeds on the track at the Las Vegas International Speedway without fear of adding points to their driving licenses. After all, the legend of Ducati race performance that began in 1951 is very much alive today, and those who own a motorcycle whose pedigree was established on world racing circuits can't resist the offer of 'Customer Track Rides.' This event has brought together the largest number of 916 models that anyone has ever seen in the United States, and I'm busy taking photos, talking to riders, and thoroughly enjoying myself.

But even as I'm connecting with Ducati's past, I'm also seeing its future. The company has discovered that winning races is just a small part of a much larger and tougher competition, that in order to win in the marketplace they have to offer something beyond innovative engineering and high performance. DRA turns out to be something more than just another rally: it's a celebration of shared interests and the recognition of a common lifestyle. Wrapped up in a public relations and marketing package, DRA still manages to convey that it doesn't matter whether a person works in the corporate offices of Borgo Panigale, spins a wrench in a shop in Maryland, or spends weekends riding on the roads of America - he or she is part of the extended family of Ducatisti. I like that almost as much as the echo of those tuned exhausts.