It takes a special cocktail of skill, knowledge and reverence to restore a classic race bike properly—especially if it’s a rare one. It’s a recipe that Mike Watanabe and Luke Ransom know by heart. They run Union Motorcycle Classics out of a barn in Nampa, Idaho, where they concoct the handsomest of restorations and customs.
They have a knack for finding vintage motorcycles with deep backstories too—like this race-bred Yamaha TR2B. Originally built and raced by AMA and Australian sports Hall of Famer, Kel Carruthers, it eventually made its way into Union’s hands in need of restoration.
Born in Sydney, Kel Carruthers was neck deep in racing and wrenching on motorcycles before he was even a teenager. As an adult he found a measure of success racing in Europe—like winning the 1969 250 cc motorcycle Grand Prix championship. He would later guide Kenny Roberts to multiple national and international titles, as his crew chief.
But before the Roberts era, Yamaha enticed Kel with an offer to race in the USA in 1971. He was partnered with another racing legend, the late Don Vesco, running a pair of modified Yamaha TR2Bs.
If you don’t know the TR2B, it was the successor to the TR2—an over-the-counter race bike first sold by Yamaha in 1969. The TR2B came out two years later, with a revised compression ratio that bumped the power up from 54 to 56 hp, in a machine weighing 115 kilos [254 lbs].
The Vesco team bikes were faster though. Don and Kel worked their magic on them, with Kel rebuilding the engines with specially ported cylinders, among other things. The guys each owned one of the Yamahas; the one you’re looking at here was Don’s.
“It was ridden only a few times throughout the 70s, and put away in storage still retaining the Carruthers ported engine,” Luke tells us. “Don traded it in the 90s for a 60s Pontiac GTO for his wife. The new owner installed an aftermarket fairing (the original Vesco fairing was missing), and it was ridden once in 1996 at a vintage event by Cal Rayborn Jr.”
The Yamaha’s current owner purchased the bike in 2018, before finding itself in Union’s barn for a full restoration. But without the original fairing, Mike and Luke had their work cut out for them.
The solution came from another classic motorcycle restorer and retired racer, Mark Seifried. Mark had previously bought and restored Keith Mashburn’s 1972 Yamaha TR3 racer, and was generous enough to loan the Union guys the fairing to copy.
“Mark also has the ‘track notes’ for many of Vesco’s 1970s bikes,” adds Lukes. “These notes are arranged by VIN number and include dates, tracks, jetting, miles on machine, who rode what bike, and other info. The 900501 machine (this machine) is in these notes, with Carruthers as the rider.”
The TR2B and TR3 share the same upper fairing section, so Union used the borrowed part to make a mold for that. For the lower half, they studied photos of the bike Kel raced in the 1971 season to replicate it as faithfully as possible.
Next, they repainted the Yamaha’s OEM aluminum fuel tank and Vesco tail section. But they resisted the urge to reupholster the seat, option to refit the old cover instead. “We thought the original patches were too cool to replace,” explains Luke.
Going deeper, Union rebuilt the motor by sourcing engine parts from helpful suppliers like Theo Louwes Racing and Mead Speed. But they didn’t dare mess with Kel’s original configuration.
“Internally, the engine is ‘as modified by Kel Carruthers’ (confirmed by Kel himself),” says Mike. “The port work is a masterpiece. Kel’s porting and engine tuning was cutting edge at the time, which is one reason why Yamaha was so interested in employing him.”
Union have been known to throw subtle curveballs into their resto jobs, but this one is as true a restoration as you’ll find. The Yamaha’s chassis still has the original mods and engine brackets that Don made in 1971. The exhaust’s expansion chambers are original too, though the silencers were added some time between then and now.
Union also restored the controls, suspension, brakes and wheels, using new N.O.S. spokes at the back, and re-plating the spokes and nipples at the front. The only truly ‘modern’ parts are the ignition and the tires.
Even the new paint job is an accurate replica of the original, right down to Kel’s number, his name below the screen, and the gold-leafed ‘Vesco Yamaha’ team logos on the fairing. All that’s missing is a few sponsor stickers.
It’s another smash hit from the dream team at Union Motorcycle Classics. We don’t know what its owner intends to do with it, but it would be a crying shame if this fine machine didn’t make its way back onto the race track.