Getting a call from Agusta to have the "first talkings" is roughly like being brought up from the farm club to open in the Series. Agusta dominates the European racing scene, so much so that he only enters bikes now in the 350-and 500-cc. classes. Britain's Hailwood, who some people still say is the best in the world, took the Agusta marque to victory from 1962 to 1965 in the senior class. Then Hailwood went over to Honda, and Agostini stunned everybody by beating his teammate out of the title at Monza in late 1966.
Now he faces the prospect of another season: roughly 100,000 miles of travel and more than 22 races through the year. There are short-circuit contests, which are grimy, one-night stands, and there are key world-title meets in 13 countries.
Interest in the sport is wild. Crowds of more than 300,000 attend the East German Grand Prix at Sachsenring, which, in attendance at least, makes it a sort of Red Indy. At Assen in The Netherlands the roar of the big machines draws crowds up to 200,000, and in the Isle of Man they take over the place.
And Super Italian has started fast for another title. At the Modena opener this spring he set a new lap record of 79.86 mph, but after misfiring finished ninth. He won Riccione, setting a new record average speed of 77.78 mph; won Cervia; and, hunched over the gas tank of his red-and-gray No. 1 Agusta, blew everybody off at Cesenatico. Hailwood's old lap record was an impressive 88.10 mph. Agostini made it 94.72 mph.
He has not, at this writing, "made the fall," as he puts it. He would like to put in a season without the three crashes, if it is all the same to everyone else.
He folds the black leather suit carefully and puts it back into the Porsche and heads off for the next meet. They are mostly in small towns and on unkempt tracks, and the people who attend are solidly working-class. They wear the same dull gray sweaters under their coats; the coat and pants never match. No matter. They know solid terror when they see it, and they understand the sensible insanity of it all.
Chiesa stands and watches Agostini pull away. "He is simpatico to everybody, to the world," he says, sighing. "What a figure of a man in that tight black suit, no? What a brave one he is to ride with death from now until September. He makes much money now and he has a fine watch and ring and big trophies in Signor Agusta's office. Life is very fast when you are 24 and so handsome you break hearts...."
The car turned the corner past the guards and was swallowed up in the fog.
"Ah, yes," said Chiesa. "He wants to do everything he can—while he can. Now all summer, in little towns all over Europe, the young secretaries look out the window when they see that yellow Porsche coming and they say, 'Ahhh, Agostini's back in town!' "