INSIDE TEAM OBSOLETE
Behind the Brooklyn doors of one of classic racing’s best known racing teams
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...
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.
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