IN­SIDE TEAM OB­SO­LETE

Be­hind the Brook­lyn doors of one of clas­sic rac­ing’s best known rac­ing teams

Classic Bike (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: OLIVIER DE VAULX

Think of hus­tle and bus­tle and you can’t help but think of New York City. A hub­bub of noise, with a non-stop flow of hu­man­ity along the side­walks, over­shad­owed by the loom­ing sky­scrapers of Man­hat­tan. It’s a city con­stantly in tran­sit, al­ways mov­ing for­ward. It’s also the city in which Team Ob­so­lete has its base – al­though it feels like it’s in a dif­fer­ent world en­tirely.

The fourth floor of an old red-brick build­ing in Brook­lyn is the place Team Ob­so­lete calls home. This is where founder and owner Robert Ian­nucci con­ducts the team’s busi­ness of keep­ing a mouth­wa­ter­ing se­lec­tion of clas­sic rac­ers fit to line up on grids all over the world. It’s a place where time seems to stand still... un­til you see at least a dozen em­ploy­ees beaver­ing away on bikes be­hind the glass par­ti­tions that sur­round the huge, cen­tral open space. Thirty-plus bikes are ar­ranged on pad­dock stands and, seated in the mid­dle of the room on a com­fort­able couch, Robert wel­comes his guests with a big smile...

BE­COM­ING OB­SO­LETE

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from law school, Ian­nucci en­rolled in the US Peace Corps, with his fi­nal as­sign­ment be­ing a fish­eries project in Bar­ba­dos in 1970. While there, he or­dered a 1970 Com­mando Road­ster in blue met­alflake. “I took de­liv­ery with great joy!” he says. “Af­ter get­ting ac­quainted with each other, the Nor­ton and I trav­elled by tramp steamship to Ja­maica and par­tied till the money and rum ran out. Then we both flew to Mi­ami and rode back to New York. I still have the Nor­ton.” Back in the USA, any free time the young Amer­i­can lawyer had was con­sumed by his new pas­sion for mo­tor­cy­cles, es­pe­cially Match­less. “I raced for two sea­sons in the late ’70s with a G50 and a 7R. My rid­ing skills were lim­ited, but I learned how to set up and tune a race bike.” Soon, his en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit came to the fore and he cre­ated Team Ob­so­lete in the late ’70s. “I re­cruited Dave Roper and later on other riders,” he says. “The rest, as they say, is his­tory.”

The driv­ing prin­ci­ple be­hind the team was to use clas­sic race bikes for the pur­pose they were in­tended – to

race them, rather than moth­ball them in static dis­plays or hide them away in pri­vate col­lec­tions. To this end, he bought rare and ex­otic bikes and hired me­chan­ics and rac­ers to fet­tle and ride them. Then it was a ques­tion of fight­ing the re­luc­tance of the Amer­i­can as­so­ci­a­tions in charge of clas­sic events to pro­mote the con­cept of real clas­sic races. At first, own­ers of fa­mous old bikes showed lit­tle in­ter­est, ar­gu­ing that their mo­tor­cy­cles were too valu­able to race. But, as Ian­nucci puts it: “If you’re dat­ing a top model, you would still be sleep­ing with her, right? So why should a nice bike stay in the garage?”

The ma­jor­ity of riders were on Robert’s side and the races soon started to be­come more com­pet­i­tive. Thirty years on, Team Ob­so­lete has es­tab­lished quite a legacy, with over 400 vic­to­ries un­der its belt. The out­stand­ing bike in the team roster is the G50 Match­less, se­rial num­ber 1709, rid­den by Dave Roper; this mod­i­fied ma­chine has won 51 out of 96 race starts, in­clud­ing the only Amer­i­can vic­tory at the Isle of Man Clas­sic TT.

KEEP­ING ’EM READY TO RACE

Tun­ing clas­sic race bikes is not an easy task – es­pe­cially when Ian­nucci’s aim is to keep his bikes in the same shape as they were in their prime. To that end, each hour on track is fol­lowed by 100 hours of main­te­nance in the shop – an as­tro­nom­i­cally costly busi­ness. But money alone can’t buy the ex­pe­ri­ence you need to main­tain th­ese bikes. Knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence are key, so Robert spent time in the UK to learn about the Match­less G50 and AJS Por­cu­pine, and in Italy to dis­cover the se­crets of the MV Agusta en­gi­neers. Be­ing close to the brands helps. “When the MV Agusta fac­tory fi­nally went into bank­ruptcy,” re­mem­bers the now-re­tired lawyer, “the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment of­fered to buy 20 fac­tory bikes and all the parts for one mil­lion dol­lars. At this time, I was broke. But with only five bucks in my pocket, I took a gam­ble and gave the Ital­ians a cheque for 10% to make them wait. The, over in the States, I sold half of the bikes and raised the funds I needed. At the end of the day, I owned all the parts and 10 fac­tory bikes for free!”

With the parts, the bikes can be prop­erly main­tained, with the com­po­nents only im­proved us­ing tech­nol­ogy avail­able in the ’70s. “We mod­i­fied some five-speed gear­boxes to six-speed­ers – I don’t know why the fac­tory hadn’t done it by then,” says Ian­nucci with a sar­donic smile. If an engine is re­built with new ma­te­ri­als, the new parts are al­ways made in an iden­ti­cal shape to the orig­i­nal ones. So when a Team Ob­so­lete Match­less, MV 500 or the fa­mous Honda RC165 250cc six are go­ing full speed in front of the stands, the spec­ta­tors hear ex­actly the same sound they made back in the day.

Team riders are for­bid­den to over-rev the en­gines, how­ever. Dave Roper, who still races the team’s bikes, says: “You need to know and re­spect th­ese en­gines if you want to de­serve the op­por­tu­nity of rid­ing th­ese won­der­ful fac­tory bikes. This is clas­sic rac­ing – you need to be more care­ful, but it’s not re­mov­ing the thrill of the win!” When asked about safety is­sues, Roper an­swers bluntly: “Th­ese bikes were de­signed for the most fa­mous cham­pi­ons. They are pretty safe. We keep the fair­ings and the tanks in their orig­i­nal con­di­tion, with all the small cracks and dents they had back then. It’s the proof the bikes are not too of­ten on the ground!”

They might be safe enough, but they still have wristkiller clutches and not-so-ef­fi­cient drum brakes. Enginewise, the team is al­ways very cau­tious: “Be­fore each ride, we check oil level, oil qual­ity and engine com­pres­sion. We lis­ten to the in­ter­nal op­er­a­tion us­ing a stetho­scope. If the bike is sick, it will talk to us,” jokes Joshua Macken­zie, the team’s me­chanic who was in charge of re­build­ing the leg­endary 250cc Honda six.

UNIQUE COL­LEC­TION

With all this manda­tory main­te­nance, keep­ing the whole col­lec­tion in rac­ing con­di­tion is ex­haust­ing, es­pe­cially when you at­tend an in­ter­na­tional race like Day­tona with no less than six bikes! In 2002, Robert de­cided to put the rac­ing pro­gramme on standby, giv­ing the team the time to re­build all the bikes per­fectly. One af­ter the other, they were sent down to the base­ment, us­ing the old freight el­e­va­tor. There, thou­sand of parts are stored, along­side ma­chin­ery straight out of the old man­u­fac­tur­ers’ fac­to­ries. This is where Josh works his magic, of­ten with­out any ref­er­ence ma­te­rial. He has to deal with ex­otic Ital­ian ma­chin­ery such as MV triples and a Benelli 350/4, Ja­panese ma­chin­ery like the Honda RC165, an Amer­i­can XRTT Har­ley-david­son raced by Cal Ray­born, as well as the Bri­tish Match­less G50, AJS Por­cu­pine, AJS 7R3 and other BSAS and Tri­umphs.

With 80 bikes in to­tal, this col­lec­tion is his­tor­i­cally in­valu­able. But it doesn’t stop Ian­nucci rac­ing them – the team has racked up 1500-plus races on three con­ti­nents us­ing 50 riders – in­clud­ing 26 starts at the Isle of Man, with two wins and two lap records.

THE FU­TURE IS OB­SO­LETE

It re­quires a lot of ded­i­ca­tion to show the pub­lic th­ese clas­sic bikes in their nat­u­ral el­e­ment – and it’s some­thing Ian­nucci takes very se­ri­ously. “We have a great re­spon­si­bil­ity to his­tory and the new gen­er­a­tion,” he says. But ev­ery­thing could change soon: “No­body lives for ever,” he whis­pers. “All the knowl­edge I stored in my mind dur­ing th­ese years is dif­fi­cult to share with the young col­lec­tors. They come to the vin­tage world to make busi­ness, not to ride the bikes.” With no de­sire to sell his bikes to mu­se­ums, he’d love to trans­fer this her­itage to au­then­tic hard­core fans of rac­ing. And he seems to be re­ally ea­ger to sell this her­itage to an ex­pert. “Ev­ery­thing has a price”, he con­fesses with a lov­ing look at his well-used race bikes...

‘IAN­NUCCI STARTED RAC­ING A MATCH­LESS G50 IN LO­CAL SPEED­WAY RACES’

40 Team Ob­so­lete’s neat New York pad

Dave Roper (bearded) won the 1984 Se­nior Clas­sic His­toric TT with this 1959 Match­less G50

Team owner Robert Ian­nucci is a clas­sic ob­ses­sive and ex-racer In­valu­able bikes, but they’re all used as in­tended – for rac­ing

Su­perbly equipped work­shop is a tool fetishist’s dream

Dave Roper still races Team Ob­so­lete bikes ev­ery week­end – and he’s still win­ning races

Th­ese G50s are all ex-dick Mann. He won the 1963 Amer­i­can Na­tional Cham­pi­onship on the green one (cen­tre)

Where pos­si­ble, en­gines are re­built us­ing orig­i­nal parts and ma­te­ri­als Joshua Macken­zie had to be cre­ative to re­build this fa­mous 1964 Honda RC165 six

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