It’s astounding to consider the scope of Shell Thuet’s career as a motorcycle race mechanic and engine builder.
In many ways Thuet’s history is our history, the history of motorcycle racing in America. Born in 1912, he had worked nearly his entire life as a motorcycle race mechanic and engine builder—a career he started on the 1930s. Thuet built bikes that were raced by Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. Thuet’s family and racing team were a rough finishing school for riders from three generations—or more. Thuet was still building dirt track engines into his nineties.
Consider this: Thuet began working at a mechanic in the mid-1930s. US racing back then was very tribal—you were either an Indian rider or a Harley-Davidson rider. Like Rollie Free, Shell was very anti-Harley and he stayed that way throughout his life. Why? He didn’t really say. Nearly all of the old guys who were in racing in the 1930s-1950s are gone now but a great many of them hated Harley because they felt Milwaukee controlled the AMA, controlled the press and tried to strong-arm their way in racing.
Lanky and a man of very few words, Shell didn’t like to wax on about old times or share tales about how, for example, he molded Kenny Roberts into the racer that won world championships. Before his hearing took a dive, I called Shell once and asked him which of the “famous three” he liked working with the most—Roberts, Eddie Lawson, or Wayne Rainey? Shell took a long breath and said it was hard to say, but honestly “probably none of them”. What followed was another long silence.
I think Shell had favorite riders, but they were men like Tom Horton, Hank Scott or Jim Kelly, not icons like Kenny Roberts.
While this may give the impression that Shell was jaded, most who knew him well would dispute that characterization. Shell had been around a long time in the racing game—this is a man to whom iconic racing names like Joe Leonard, Dick Mann and Roberts were just some of the rookie then vet riders he had seen come and go, forty years or more after he bought his first mechanic’s pass at a race.
Fate is the great unknown. Who can know how much importance one phone call or one favor asked can have in the grand scheme of things? In the late 1970s Shell called one of his ex-riders, Hank Scott, and asked him to help out this promising kid he’d gotten to know. Okay.
Barely old enough to drive, the kid lumbered an old van from California to Scott’s place in Ohio. When he stepped out of the van, Scott took one look at him and told the kid he looked more like a surfer than a racer. He took him to Daytona anyway for the dirt track races. Racing against the surfer kid, Scott Parker later recalled that he went, in one day, from not knowing who Wayne Rainey—on a Shell bike—was, to having absolute respect for him. The three world championships that later came to Rainey—would they have happened if Shell hadn’t called Hank Scott and called in a favor? Maybe, maybe not.
Shell always had a strong reverence for the sport and to what was the most important component in winning—a fast rider. That quiet respect made it hard for him to lavish kind words on the latest fast guy to ride his equipment. For example: in the 1970s, a friend of mine convinced Shell to build a Yamaha dirt track engine for him to use at Ascot, a track my friend was respectably fast in a very fast crowd. He drove out to Shell’s shop to pick up the engine, and after they loaded it in his van and he’d paid Shell, my friend asked him, “How much power does this thing make, anyway?”
Curtly, Shell replied, “More power than you can handle.” With that he turned and walked back into his shop, closing the door.
Shell’s shop was next to his house and he seemed to like a bit of separation, some distance, between work and life. There were a few racing momentous on the walls but mostly Shell liked cowboy and native American art.
Thuet’s grand-daughter, Melissa, was a decent race mechanic and tuner from hanging out with Shell. She married racer and promotions man Steve McLaughlin. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that in 1970s AMA racing hundreds of riders, mechanics and fans had a hard crush on her. They divorced and she later died of cancer. Thuet’s wife, Maggie, was well known for her amazing paddock meals. She died in 2001.