RACING LEGEND KEL CARRUTHERS INTERVIEW | Columns | Gassit Garage
Every weekday morning, Kel Carruthers and wife Jan are out the door of their Southern California home before 8am. They drive great grand-daughter Riley to kindergarten and then the 1969 world 250 champion puts in a seven-hour day rebuilding mobile homes.
Carruthers turned 79 on 3 January and jokes that he now works kindergarten hours, in a senior’s mobile-home park owned by his son-in-law’s family.
Carruthers has been based in So Cal since 1971. The plan was one year in the USA after Kel finished his European career and then back to Sydney. He’d won two Isle of Man TTs, another five world 250 championship races and narrowly missed back-to-back world titles.
But a successful 1971 racing season working out of motorcycle dealer Don Vesco’s San Diego workshop saw Yamaha America hire Carruthers as lead rider and to mentor precocious talent Kenny Roberts in tarmac racing. In 1978, Kel was back in Europe, managing Roberts’ successful rookie 500 GP campaign and ultimately overseeing six title victories – three each with Roberts and Eddie Lawson.
Carruthers admits to a knee problem and a sore back when he sits for too long, but is otherwise in good shape. It helps that in 19 years of racing, including scrambles and some of the world’s most dangerous public-road circuits, he did not break a bone.
He still enjoys demonstration riding at historic events, saying, “I’d do those things all day if they pay expenses for Jan and me.” On the radar for this year is the 50th anniversary Canadian GP at Mosport Park in August, celebrating the 1967 meeting where Mike Hailwood won two classes, and a dinner in Melbourne for the next round of Australian Motor Sport Hall of Fame inductees. Carruthers was one of the first 30 inductees announced last year.
“I see from (Scotland’s former racer) Alex George’s posts on Facebook that you can go to a historic gathering every week in the UK,” Carruthers said.
Carruthers watches every motorcycle and F1 car GP on television and has a full set of GP annuals stretching back to the 1970s for both sports.
“The GPs are good to watch, but I’m one of the old fogeys who say it used to be better. I’ve been to a couple of MotoGPs and it is interesting to see how good the bikes are, but they would be better with 150hp and no electronics!” (Interestingly enough, that is similar to the best two-stroke F750 racers at the end of the 1970s.)
“I understand the safety aspect, but I liked the old road circuits, when they were eight and ten miles around, and they were fast. You can’t do that now because of the safety aspect.” He once opined that the perfect race circuit would be to reproduce Northern Ireland’s 12km Dundrod road circuit on a greenfield site.
Carruthers reckons the modern Sachsenring is an awful track. He rode it during a historic meeting on his title-winning the Benelli 250-4 and said there were sections where he felt he could not ride slowly enough. He recalls the challenging downhill sweepers of the old Sachsenring, and how the top riders showed their class and gained slabs of time by choosing the best lines through a series of fast corners.
“Moto2 is not so interesting, because they all use the same engine and almost all have the same chassis. Moto3 is good because the kids are all crazy. But I miss the old stuff.
“I feel the same way about F1 cars. Now in the US we have a channel that shows the races uninterrupted for two and a half hours. Usually that happens in our time between 2am and 6am. Coverage on that scale is something I never thought would happen here. But every time I get to the end of an F1 race I wonder why I wasted two and a half hours.
“I see the Isle of Man too on TV and that is the best stuff to watch; I appreciate watching that. I was last in the Island three years ago and you can see why they’re going so fast. The track is so much better and the bikes are easier to ride. That might sound silly, but I realised how much better they are when I was invited to ride a lap on the prototype Benelli three-cylinder Superbike, the one Peter Goddard raced in World Superbike. I rode at reasonable speed for an old guy and it was really easy. It felt safe; the bike was good. But in 2013 I rode a Yamaha TZ350 (from 1973-74) and wondered how the hell we ever raced those things!”
In five seasons on the Continental Circus Carruthers never went to hospital and never missed a race through injury. He finds the number of crashes in modern GP racing amazing. There were 1062 crashes across three classes and all sessions in 2016, the most since records have been kept.
“The top guys don’t seem to crash that often, but the next level guys fall off all the time. Marc Márquez looks like he’s going to crash, but doesn’t.
“When I raced, the top guys tended not to get hurt because in their accidents they leaned over too far and fell off. It was the other guys, the ones who went off the road into the trees…
“Now the guys are just about on the ground anyway when they corner and the tyres are so good. Márquez is scary to watch, the way he has the back wheel in the air and waving around. But the modern tyres … they just grip and the bike goes around the corner.”
As for the 2016 title runner-up…“Old Vale [Rossi] is still going okay. He has just lost that last little bit, but he’s still good, still having fun and making bundles of money.”
Carruthers was Australia’s third world GP champion, after Keith Campbell (350cc) and Tom Phillis (125cc). Like Campbell in 1957 and Casey Stoner in 2007, he won a title the first year he had an Italian works machine – in his case a Benelli. But there are also things that set him apart. Of the six Australian GP champions, he was far and away the most successful on the national road-racing scene before he went away.
He recorded his first Bathurst top-three result at age 18 in 1956 on a BSA 125 and in 1957 was a podium finisher in both the Australian 250 GP at Bandiana and Australian 125 TT Phillip Island. From 1961 to 1965 Carruthers dominated the local scene, especially Bathurst, often winning four classes. He invariably won the 250/350 double on a works replica Honda 250-4 that the Honda sales department sent to Australia.
Kel won his first TT and his world championship at age 31, making him Australia’s oldest first-time champion, and rates his first TT victory above his world championship. And get this, he did not contest the first three rounds of 12 rounds in the championship he won. It was possible under the point-score system of the day, because riders counted their best results from half the number of rounds plus one.
Carruthers began the 1969 season riding works 125, 350 and 382cc machines for Aermacchi. Benelli offered him a 250 as a one-off at the Isle of Man and he won. It then signed him to support Renzo Pasolini. Injury to the Italian at the Finnish GP saw Carruthers assigned the best equipment for the final three races. He won at Dundrod, finished second at Imola and claimed the winner-take-all final round on a treacherous road circuit around the streets of Opatija on the Adriatic Coast.
He would later say it was one of those cases where it was better to be 31 years of age than 22. He was the last rider to win the 250 GP crown on a four-stroke machine.
Problems at the Benelli factory forced Carruthers to source alternate machines for 1970. He bought a Yamaha 250 and 350 from Don Vesco in the USA, a move that introduced him to a different make and a new country.
Carruthers had a serious shot at claiming the 1970 world 250 crown on his privately entered Yamaha TD2, winning more GPs than on the factory Benelli in 1969. He was stymied by non-finishes due to broken contact breakers, finishing runner up in the championship and second in the 350 championship as well.
The family then moved to California. It was great timing, with factories investing heavily in the US racing scene. Carruthers won six national 250 races in 1971 and the AMA national at Road Atlanta on his 350, earning more money than in his entire European career. At the Ontario circuit near Los Angeles he had a famous battle for the win with BSA’s John Cooper.
For the next two years Carruthers combined riding and team management. At the 1973 Daytona meeting Jarno Saarinen and Carruthers finished one-two in the 200-miler on 350cc machines Carruthers prepared, with Yamaha America team machines also one-two in the 250cc race.
In late July 1973, Yamaha flew Carruthers and Gary Fisher to Japan to test the prototype four-cylinder TZ750. The machine wobbled badly, but the ever-practical Australian had a solution – back to the workshop to lengthen the swinging arm.
Carruthers won the AMA national at Talladega at the beginning of September 1973 and rode his last professional race at the end of the same month at Ontario, finishing second in the 250 class to tarmac protégé Roberts. The then 21-year-old was on the cusp of the first of two AMA Grand National Championships. For Carruthers it marked the end of one chapter of his life, and the beginning of another. Taken together, they make up one of the greatest success stories in the history of Australian sport.
Kel Carruthers, we salute you.
INTERVIEW DON COX PHOTOGRAPHY GOLD & GOOSE, GETTY IMAGES, JAN BURGERS AND AMCN ARCHIVES