The Yamaha XS650 has been called the “best British bike never made” — a tongue-in-cheek reference to the large debt the bike owes to the British twins of the 1950s and ’60s — and the ways in which it surpassed them. Unlike the vertically-split parallel twins from Norton/BSA/Triumph, Yamaha’s 650 twin had a horizontally-split crankcase, which was oil-tight, and the XS quickly earned a reputation for both performance and reliability.
In 1973 and 1974, legendary race tuner Shell Thuet sold his Los Angeles motorcycle dealership to concentrate on building the Yamaha 650cc vertical twins that a young rider named Kenny Roberts would ride to two AMA Grand National Championships — catapulting Roberts into the Grand Prix world and securing the XS650’s place in flat-track history.
Our new friend Alex Leathers (@captain_slow380) is a heavy equipment operator from Battle Ground, Washington, who got a Honda Z50 for his 5th birthday and hasn’t stopped riding since. Although he competed in some motocross and WORCS off-road races, it wasn’t until Dirt Quake USA that he found his true racing passion:
“I was first introduced to flat track when I went to Dirt Quake USA and I decided that it was something I was going to pursue.”
Alex had been racing on a Kawasaki KX450 DTX machine — a motocross bike modified to create in flat track racing, as seen in American Flat Track’s AFT Singles class, but then he hopped aboard a friend’s XS650-powered framer:
“I built the bike after a friend let me ride his Ray Carroll framed XS650. I jumped back on my KX450 DTX bike and hated it. That moment I decided to sell my KX and build a vintage tracker.”
Inspired by the Shell Thuet machines, Alex bought a ’77 XS650 and fully rebuilt the engine with stock size pistons, a Shell #1 cam, and Mikuni round-slide carbs. The frame is a heavily-modified stock unit, de-raked to 25 degrees from 27.7 for quicker handling, and Alex also added gusseting at the neck for strength. The bike is now running twin 19-inch rims, of course, with a rear disc brake and some metal-flake paint by Rob Shaeffer.
Yamaha XS650 Tracker: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
My name is Alex Leathers and I was born and raised in Battle Ground, Washington. I am a heavy equipment operator by trade. It started with a Honda Z50 for my 5th birthday and I haven’t stopped riding since. Growing up I mainly rode in the woods, and a couple motocross races and WORCS races. But it really wasn’t something that I enjoyed. I was first introduced to flat track when I went to Dirt Quake USA and I decided that it was something I was going to pursue.
• What’s the make, model, and year of the bike?
It is a 1977 Yamaha XS650.
• Why was this bike built? (Customer project, company promotion, personal, etc.)
I built the bike after a friend let me ride his Ray Carroll framed XS650. I jumped back on my KX450 DTX bike and hated it. That moment I decided to sell my KX and build a vintage tracker.
• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
The design was mainly based off Shell Thuet’s XS650’s he built for Kenny Roberts. But I took a lot of ideas from any framer flat tracker from the 70’s.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
The engine is fully rebuilt with stock size pistons and a Shell #1 cam and Mikuni round slides. The frame has been de-raked to 25 degrees (stock is 27.7) for better handling and added gusseting at the neck for strength. Every stock tab was removed and then it was repainted.
• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride this bike?
I haven’t had the chance to take it out on the track yet, but it should be a blast!
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
My friend Rob Shaeffer did the paint and I couldn’t be happier!