A stunning tribute to the Shell Racing trackers of the 1970s…
Shell Thuet was one of the greatest motorcycle tuners of all time. Born in California in 1912, he had to begin supporting his family at an early age when his father was killed working in the state’s oil fields. After WWII, he built an Indian Sport Scout that he would let various racers ride for a 50/50 split of the winnings.
In the 1970s, he began working with Yamaha parallel twins. He built the XS650-based tracker that a young Kenny Roberts rode to victory in the AMA Grand National Championship. Later, in the late 70s, Shell Thuet trackers would help launch the careers of Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. Shell and his wife, Maggie, were famous for traveling the country in their motorhome, handing out tuna salad sandwiches to struggling young racers. Truly, the Thuets were not just legends in the flat track world, but some of the most beloved people in the sport.
Enter Josh Keel (@okwajosh), a native Californian who grew up around motorcycles. When his brother, the accomplished builder Jeff Palhegyi (www.jpaldesign.com), invited him to the 2016 Quail Motorcycle Gathering, Josh got the two-wheeled building bug. First he built an SR500, which he showed at Quail in 2017. He knew his next build would be an XS650, and he was able to buy the bare skeleton of this bike from his brother, who’d become focused on other projects.
Josh decided to build a tribute to the Shell Racing Specialties machines, a street-legal framer that pays homage to the Shell Thuet trackers of Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson. The bike is built on a J&M Racing frame, with motogadget electronics and an exhaust hand-built to mirror the pipes on the Shell race bikes. The paintwork is by artist Hal Tacker, a motocross and flat track racer in the 60s and 70s, who hand-lettered the tank. We especially love how purely track-focused the build looks, a deliberate design move:
“I wanted the bike to look as little street legal as possible by hiding the signals, tail, and headlight as much as I could.”
We could not conceive of a more stunning, fitting tribute to the Shell Thuet legend. Below, we get the full story on the build.
Yamaha XS650 Street Tracker: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
I’m based in Sacramento California and grew up around motorcycles with my dad having a steady stream of Harleys in the garage. I’ve always been on the periphery of the motorcycle world with my brother Jeff Palhegyi being an accomplished bike builder who works almost exclusively with Yamahas. Oddly enough, I was on the hunt for a vintage car to restore in 2016 when Jeff invited me down to Carmel to check out the Quail Motorcycle Gathering. This was just the nudge I needed and within a month I had my first motorcycle project, a 1978 Yamaha SR500 which I showed at Quail the following year. From then on, I was hooked, as soon as the first bike was nearing completion, I was scouting for the second build. Jeff had built an XS650 tracker that is probably my favorite bike he’s ever built (and there have been many many close seconds). I knew bike #2 would be a tracker.
• What’s the make, model, and year of the bike?
1979 Yamaha XS650.
• Why was this bike built?
When my brother’s Kenny Roberts tribute was completed, he started collecting parts for a second XS tracker build. Fortunately for me, he quickly lost interest and/or became focused on other projects. Timing was right for me and I was able to purchase the frame, engine, suspension, and fiberglass from him and began the process of collecting the remaining parts necessary.
• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
Right away I knew I wasn’t going to do another black and yellow speed blocked Yamaha. There were a couple of design ideas that I was playing around with but thankfully settled on the classic Shell Racing Specialties design. The more the bike came together, the more I was happy with this decision. As a tribute bike, my goal as for the bike to homage to the Shell Trackers of Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson. I wanted the bike to look as little street legal as possible by hiding the signals, tail, and headlight as much as I could. Hiding all wiring was another challenge. Fortunately, a generous amount of Motogadget bits made the job much more manageable and allowed me to pull off a very clean look.
Hal Tacker, an accomplished motocross and flat track racer from the 60’s and 70’s, did the paint work for me. I was blown away by his attention to detail and hand painted lettering on the tank.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
Cognito Moto supplied the rear hub and Cheney Engineering the front, Buchanan’s supplied the hoops and laced them together for me.
Foot controls were a major challenge as I knew I had to get the positioning right and there was no specific “kit” to accommodate the J&M Racing frame. Yamaha R1 rear master, YZF450 brake pedal, and Suzuki DR650 pegs and lowering brackets got the job done with the use of brackets that I fabricated to bolt directly to the frame. I shaped the seat and had it covered locally.
The pipes had to mirror the racing style pipes on the Shell race bikes. I fabricated the header pipes out of 1.75” stainless and used Cone Engineering “Big Mouth” mufflers to accomplish the look.
• How would you classify this bike?
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
For me, I just love how clean everything came together. Everything on the bike has purpose and there is a clear connection with the Shell Thuet racing machines of the 1970’s.