When Kelvin “Kel” Carruthers was inducted into the Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2018, the organization welcomed him as “a living legend”- high praise from the social organization comprised of enthusiastic motorcycling pioneers who’d been meeting annually since 1940. Carruthers had also been inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999; honoring his unique dual career as a world champion motorcycle racer and a world champion team engineer. Born on January 3, 1938, The Trailblazers award celebrated Carruthers’ 80th year of a rich life filled with riding, building, and tuning motorcycles.
Kel was practically destined to ride motorcycles. Kel began riding when he was 11 years old and started racing when he was 13. By the time he became 15, he began riding professionally. His father, Jack Carruthers, had been a champion Australian Speedway Sidecar racer whose motorcycle shop gave young Kel plenty of chances to explore their mechanical works. His father had a contract to repair the Australian army’s Harleys. Kel worked with his father on the Harleys and built his own racing bikes. He was able to road test the Harleys after applying for a special license. In those days, street licenses weren’t given to riders under 16 years of age, but Kel got one when he was 15. He had two licenses; one for racing and one for street riding. The Easter race at Bathhurst, Australia was his first big road race.
For a time, he raced modified street bikes called Clubmans, running 350 and 500cc BSAs, 125 Bantams, a 350 Manx Norton and a 250 Manx Norton he built with his father. When Honda built their 250 four- cylinder, Kel raced one for five years in Australia. He also rode a 500 Manx Norton, a 125 MV and a Honda CR93 which belonged to friends.
Kel married his wife Jan when he was twenty-one years old. When interviewed in 1996 for SuperbikePlanet.com, he told Dean Adams that not only did he “marry young”, but he bought his home and had his children young, too. He had a garage behind his house where he spent time working on bikes. He credited his father for helping, encouraging, and truly sponsoring him when he still a child. The close family went together when Kel moved from Australia to Europe. His mother and father, his wife Jan, and his children all stayed for the first year.
Kel’s first goal in Europe was to race on a factory team, but he started out racing as a privateer. The factories only competed for two years after he moved to Europe. He rode a 350 Aermacchi in a few races the first year. The company supplied him with an engine because the factory wasn’t ready to supply complete bikes early in the year. He bought Fontana wheels, a Rickman frame, and Ceriani forks and built a 350 Aermacchi by himself. Then, he raced as a privateer in the 350 class. The second year, Aermacchi gave him a special engine with bigger carburetors and he finished third in the 350 World Championship.
By 1969, Aermacchi signed Kel to a contract and he rode 125, 350, and 500 for the company. He made more money riding all three classes for the factory. He didn’t have a mechanic, but he did have a helper. His wife and kids hung out in the pit area and he remembered it as a busy, friendly and fun time. The Aermacchi factory provided three bikes, a spare engine for each. He raced for Aermacchi in Italy, in Spain, and the Isle of Man. Aermacchi allowed Kel to race for Benelli at the same time. This agreement was nearly unheard of at the time. After the Isle of Man, the Benelli brothers invited him to ride for the injured Pasolini. Kel won the Isle of Man and the Benelli brothers signed him to a contract to ride until the end of the year, completing eight of the eleven races scheduled. He was planned as a back-up for Pasolini, who crashed once more in Finland, leaving Kel to finish the last three races. Kel won two and came in second on the third, which gave him the championship. Kel also won the 250cc Grands Prix in Ireland and Yugoslavia for Benelli, which gave the company its second world title after none since 1950. Kel went home looking forward to racing for Benelli again, but there was a huge strike in Italy at the end of that year and Benelli sent him a letter notifying him that they would only be able to continue with Pasolini.
Ever resourceful, Kel picked up two Yamahas in America for the 1970 racing year. He won the 250 in Daytona riding Don Vesco’s Yamahas. He also returned to race in Europe once again for Pasolini who had crashed early in the racing season. He rode the 350 Benelli at Nurburgring, Yugoslavia and the Isle of Man. Then, he quit Benelli and finished out the year riding for Yamaha. He won the 250 and 350 World Championships.
When 1970 ended, he came to America at the invitation of Don Vesco, to run his Yamahas. He rode Yamahas because they paid well… nearly $40K. While working for Yamaha, Kel was required to look after Kenny Roberts bikes and to teach him how to race. Kel built the bikes Roberts rode. That led to Yamaha offering Kel a contract to run their race team. He signed it in 1973. He developed a workshop for Yamaha in El Cajon. Yamaha provided the riders, the equipment and the bikes. Kel provided the transporter and the mechanics. 1973 turned out to be the last year he raced. But Yamaha America also paid him to support Roberts in Europe. Kel originally agreed to stay for one year but ended up staying for 17 years. Yamaha America paid Kel to manage the race team. He never had to worry about money because Yamaha paid all expenses and Kel became the engineer in charge of all the racing operations. Kel also was paid by Agostini to do the same for his race team in Italy.
In 1996, Kel became head of the Sea-Doo watercraft factory racing team. For two years, the teams he led won national and world titles. Then, in 1998, Kel ran the national Supercross and motocross team; Chaparral Yamaha. He also took on the road racing SuperSport team for the American Motorcycle Association.
Ultimately, what distinguished Kel throughout his admirable career was his ability to solve problems on the fly. Kel won races using his uncanny physical abilities and competitive confidence to push his bikes to do their best. His mechanical skills told him what to do when his bikes weren’t running well. He engineered solutions trackside when others couldn’t. He used his practical experience to deliver indispensable fixes for problems and based his expectations of quality on years of personal racing successes. He not only won for himself, but he led numerous riders and teams to championships. Kel Carruthers has paid it forward all his life… the true measure of a champion of champions.