Shell Thuet is one of the legendary race tuners and builders in the history of AMA Grand National racing. Thuet, who began tuning racing motorcycles in the 1930s, went on to be the mechanic behind many AMA greats such as Kenny Roberts, Hank Scott, Ted Boody, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey, just to name a few. Thuet is perhaps best known for building winning Yamaha 650cc vertical twins during the early-to-mid-1970s that helped Kenny Roberts win two AMA Grand National Championships.
Sheldon Thuet was born in Tulare, California, on August 1, 1912. The oldest of four brothers, Thuet had to go to work to help support his family at an early age after his father died working in the California oil fields in 1923. Thuet became an auto mechanic by practicing on an old Model T Ford as a teenager.
In the late 1930s, Indian factory-supported rider Jimmy Kelly needed a mechanic. He knew Thuet and asked him if he would be interested in giving it a try. Thuet’s experience working on motorcycles up to that point consisted of restoring a dilapidated old Class A Harley-Davidson racer that one of his brothers tried to race briefly. Kelly was one of the biggest names in racing on the West Coast in the rapidly growing Class C racing division, and working as his mechanic was a great opportunity for Thuet. He proved good at it and Kelly won many regional races and was always a leading contender in the nationals on Indians tuned by Thuet.
In those days, the Harley-Davidson and Indian rivalry was one of the most contentious in the history of the sport, and Thuet’s work with Indian made him view Harley-Davidson as the enemy camp. That would prove to be a theme throughout Thuet’s career.
World War II brought a temporary end to racing in America, but after the war Thuet bought a used Indian Sport Scout and made it available to top riders. He would make a deal with the riders who raced his bikes to share the purse money.
"It was usually a 50/50 split," Thuet recalls. "We had enough races back then that you could make a living, I guess. You weren’t getting rich though, that’s for sure."
Thuet’s Sport Scout not only proved fast on half-mile and mile horse racing tracks, but also set numerous speed records on the dry lake beds of Southern California.
In 1949, Thuet opened a motorcycle dealership in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood. He was an Indian dealer, but that brand was in its last days and Thuet’s dealership sold a variety of smaller brands of motorcycles and eventually became a Yamaha dealership in the 1960s.
One of the early brands Thuet carried was Royal Enfield. In the 1950s, a Michigan native named Elliott Schultz came to Los Angeles and quickly became one of the leading racers on the Southern California flat track circuit riding Thuet’s Enfields. For a period in the mid-1960s, Schultz was one of the biggest stars of the famous Friday night Ascot Park races. He broke several track records on the somewhat oddball Royal Enfield racer.
Other riders such as Al Gunter, Don Hawley, Galen Brookins and Bob Shirey all were successful on Thuet-built bikes and his reputation as one of the leading builders on the West Coast was solidified.
In the early 1970s Thuet began tuning Yamaha twins for Keith Mashburn in the AMA Grand Nationals. That led to Yamaha contracting Thuet to build its XS650-based flat track racers during the 1973 and ’74 seasons. He sold his dealership to concentrate on the Yamaha racing effort. Young Kenny Roberts rode the Yamahas to victory in the AMA Grand National Championship in 1973 and 1974. While Thuet was working with Yamaha, the company published a booklet on competition tuning of Yamaha vertical twins. Thuet provided the technical expertise.
When Yamaha focused its racing budget on road racing in the mid-1970s, Thuet’s contract with the company was not renewed. In the late-1970s, Thuet became an independent tuner again and went on the road with Hank Scott and later, Ted Boody. He and his wife, Maggie, traveled the country in a motorhome, following the racing circuit. Maggie was famous for handing out tuna-salad sandwiches to struggling young riders.
Two up-and-coming riders who rode under the Thuet Racing banner in the late 1970s were Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. Thuet’s machines helped launch both young riders’ racing careers. Lawson and Rainey would eventually go on to become multi-time world champion road racers.
Rainey smiled when he talked about Thuet. "He was sort of a gruff kind of guy," Rainey said. "As kids, we were maybe a little intimidated at first by him, but under his grizzled exterior he was a person who cared a lot about the guys who raced for him."
In the mid-1980s, Thuet finally retired from following the racing circuit fulltime, but he continued to build racing engines out of his shop near Victorville, California. By that time, vintage racing was becoming very popular and Thuet’s expertise in building fast Yamaha vertical twins was once again in demand.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001, Thuet, at nearly 90, was still hoisting engines, splitting motors apart, pressing crankshafts, porting heads, boring cylinders and welding crankcases at his little shop on a gravel road in the high desert at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountain Range.