Backmarker: Finding Kel Carruthers’ TR2

November 27, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Chris Hill has three passions: Vintage Ferraris  vintage Yamaha race bikes  and dogs like these. There were about a dozen of them running around the shop when I was there.
Chris Hill has three passions: Vintage Ferraris, vintage Yamaha race bikes, and dogs like these. There were about a dozen of them running around the shop when I was there.

A friend of mine runs the annual Heart of America Motorcycle Enthusiasts’ vintage bike show here in Kansas City. This year, the prize for the top race bike went to a beautiful TZ250. It belonged to Chris Hill, a local mechanic whose specialty is vintage Ferraris. What got my friend’s attention though, was when Hill told him that he had an unrestored TR2 in his shop, and that bike had been raced by Kel Carruthers.

We arranged a visit to Hill’s workshop, where a pack of about a dozen French bulldogs range freely among six- and (for all I know) seven-figure sports cars in various stages of restoration.

Hill’s story was that in the ’90s, he’d worked out on the west coast, where he assembled a nice collection of bikes for Geoffrey Rappaport, the billionaire founder of Supercuts barber franchises.

“One day I got a tip that there was an old race bike on display in the parts department of a BMW car dealership,” Hill told me. “I thought that if anyone knew Yamahas from that period, it would be Don Vesco, so I called him up and described it. Vesco told me to feel along the frame rails behind the motor, for an extra welded-in section. When I found it, he told me, ‘That’s the last of the Carruthers bikes. We built five, and I know what happened to the other four; I always wondered about the last one.”

When the Rappaport collection was eventually sold, to George Barber, Hill kept the TR2 for himself.

I’d always thought that Yamaha brought Kel to the U.S. to act as a team-mate and road racing mentor to the young Kenny Roberts. It was curious that Vesco—who was in tight with Yamaha, but still a mere dealer—would have had a hand in the factory’s bikes. Vesco died a few years back so I couldn’t hear his side of the story for myself, but I’m Facebook friends with ‘Kel Carruthers’—which, it turns out, is a page that his granddaughter put up—through her, I got Kel’s number. Chris Hill and I called him up to get the story of the TR2.

“I rode for Aermacchi and Benelli in 1969 in Europe. At the end of that season, they passed a rule limiting 250cc bikes to two cylinders, so the Benelli 250-Four was banned,” Kel told us. “I still had a deal to run one of their 350s in 1970, but [in the off season] I was in Australia and I got a call from Benelli telling me that there was a national strike in Italy, and they would not be able to deliver my 350 until mid-season at the earliest.”

(Since it’s Thanksgiving, and you might want something to read while you digest, you can read more about the Benelli 250-fours, and see some great photos of Kel as a young racer, here.)

Carruthers rode the 350cc TR2 to Yamahas first-ever premier-class win in a road race National.
Carruthers rode the 350cc TR2 to Yamaha’s first-ever premier-class win in a road race National.

The writing was on the wall for the complex four-cylinder four-strokes anyway, and Yamaha’s production racers seemed promising. But late in the off-season, there were none to be found in Europe. Carruthers’ friend Rod Gould—another veteran of European GP racing—had moved to the U.S. Rod found him a 250 in San Francisco, and located a year-old but lightly-used 350 at Don Vesco’s Yamaha dealership in Temecula. Since Kel had to come to the U.S. anyway to pick up those bikes and arrange to get them over to Europe, Vesco suggested that he race his bikes at Daytona.

“I won the 250 race, and with a bit of luck I’d have won the 200,” Kel recalled. “I was surprised when I got to America, to learn that Don ran everything dead stock; he never changed anything on his bikes except the fairings. After practice I asked him, ‘When are we going to change the crank?’ and he said, ‘We’re not going to.’ It went out around half-distance.”

His work at Daytona finished, Kel was gathering his gear and getting ready to return to Europe and the World Championship. Vesco told him, “If you ever want to race in the U.S., you can work out of my shop.”

Despite finishing second in the 250 and 350 championships in 1970, Kel and his wife were ready to return to the antipodes. “We decided that on the way home, we’d spend one year in the ‘States,” he recalled. Vesco, true to his word, cleared a space in his workshop for Kel. Don supplied a 250 and 350, and Kel made a deal with Yamaha here in the U.S.; they supplied him with 250 and 350 twins at a good price, and offered to pay him a contingency.

It was Kel, not Don, who lengthened the Yamahas’ frames and swingarms—pushing the motor and c.g. forward—he’d used longer swingarms in Europe, on rough courses like the Isle of Man. Kel also brought Krober electronic ignitions to the U.S.

Don did, however, have a primitive dyno in his shop and Kel built a single cylinder test mule from half a TD2 motor that he used to test porting and expansion chamber modifications. Yamaha U.S. noticed that his private bikes were a lot faster than the ones they were getting from the factory.

This close-up shows both distinctive frame mods. There’s an extra section of tubing welded into the lower frame rails towards the back of the motor. The motor’s been pushed forward, necessitating much larger engine mounting plates at the back. And if you look closely, you can see that the swingarm was cut just forward of the pivot, and a box section was welded in, adding about two inches of length.

Kawasaki offered Kel a factory ride for the ’72 season. That prompted Yamaha to make a counteroffer, of a factory ride as Kenny Roberts’ in-house tutor. The next year, they asked him to run their whole U.S. road racing team. A side benefit, to Yamaha, was that they shipped samples of Kel’s motors back to Japan. Some of his porting mods were incorporated into later versions of the production racers.

The demands of preparing several bikes, including Kenny’s, meant that he barely had time to practice. “At some races,” he recalled, “Kenny would just take my bike out for a few laps in practice to shake it down. I didn’t put my leathers on until it was time to qualify.” In 1974, Yamaha asked him to quit racing and manage the team full-time, and Kel was happy to comply. (Kenny was the AMA Grand National Champion in ’73 & ’74)

Of course later on, Kel accompanied Kenny to Grands Prix, and stayed on as Eddie Lawson’s crew chief after that. He was involved in racing well into the ’90s. Although you can still hear traces of his accent, he’s continued to live in Southern California.

When I asked him about the original plan to spend one year in the U.S., on his way home to Australia from Europe, he said, “We never really decided [to stay]. But the first thing you know, your kids grow up. Then they’ve got girlfriends; then they’re married; then you have grandchildren… then you know you’re not going home.”

A 250cc Expert-class winner’s circle pic from Kel’s privateer season in 1971. Everyone in this photo has an important connection to the southern hemisphere. From left: Kel (Australia, World Champion, 250cc class, 1969), Ginger Molloy (New Zealand, second in championship, 500cc class, 1970) and ex-San Diego motorcycle courier, Cal Rayborn. Rayborn was probably the best American road racer of his generation. He won three Trans-Atlantic Match Races against some of the best European racers and may well have become the first American world champion, but for his premature death… in New Zealand in 1973.

So, 45 years on, he’s still here. And, now that Chris Hill’s completely established the provenance of his TR2, he’s determined to return it to as-raced condition.

It was cool talking to Kel, who, although he was Australian, played an important role in in Kenny Roberts’—and America’s—first World Championship. Kel’s son, Paul, grew up to become one of the U.S.’ most respected motojournalists. He spent years as the editor of Cycle News and recently left the job of Editorial Director here at MotorcycleUSA to take a position at MotoAmerica—the new U.S. championship that has, as a key goal, returning America to its former World Championship glory.

If MotoAmerica achieves its goal, it won’t be a first for the Carruthers clan.