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The madness of ‘King’ Kenny Roberts

I’ve just been writing about King Kenny Roberts for an upcoming edition of Motor Sport magazine – the made-from-trees version – regaling readers with some of his top tales.

Roberts is a great storyteller: dry as dust one moment, cursing the next. There’s only one problem: there’s never enough room for all of his stories, so here are a couple of my favourite one-liners from the man.

Before I go any further I should add that that The King rates as one of my top three road racers of all time. I would also put Mike Hailwood in there and probably Valentino Rossi too, though what to do with Mick Doohan and Wayne Rainey? Okay, let’s make it the top five. I’ll let you argue about who’s first and who’s fifth.

motogp race  The madness of King Kenny Roberts

Anyway… before Roberts came to Europe in 1978 to win the 500 world title at his first attempt, even though he had never seen most of the tracks before and even though he only had one bike for most of the season, Roberts was by profession a dirt tracker. He won the AMA Grand National championship twice (and would’ve won it many more times if he’d been on a Harley instead of a Yamaha) – at a time when the AMA title was won by combining points from various different disciplines, from dirt track to TT racing (a kind of mixed-up dirt track/motocross thing) to road racing.

After he switched to road racing full-time Roberts went on to win three 500 World Championships (in 1978, 1979 and 1980), 24 Grand Prix victories and three Daytona 200s.

Now hear these words he told me when I visited him at his ranch in California a few years ago. “I never really considered myself a road racer, I just did road racing to get Grand National points”.

I beg your pardon, Mr Roberts?

King Kenny loved dirt tracks so much that for several decades his Californian ranch was a mecca for road racers hoping to acquire some tail-sliding skills. The Roberts acres were criss-crossed with all manner of dirt tracks, the man himself taking part in the training sessions aboard easy-to-handle Honda XR100s. His maverick tutoring technique usually involved drinking a few beers, then riding round the outside of his pupils, fully sideways, while hollering expletive-filled instructions in their ears. Quite frightening, I’m told.

Roberts didn’t stop at dirt tracking bikes either. After winning one of his world titles he blew some of the bounty on a flash car, even though this wasn’t his usual style.

“I had a Ferrari 308 once,” he told me during that same visit. “I liked the look of it because it was yellow. I used to motocross it.”

motogp race  The madness of King Kenny Roberts

That’s quite an image to summon up in your mind: Roberts tearing round his motocross track in a Ferrari, the canary yellow paint spattered in mud, wiping tens of thousands off its value in a single crazy jump. Kenny was always a bit mad that way.

Some years ago I gave Roberts a lift in my own very messy and clapped-out car. I felt slightly embarrassed as the King climbed inside and struggled to find space for his feet in the rubbish-strewn foot well.

“Don’t worry,” was his reply to my mumbled apology. “My car is even worse than this. The thing is, I never gave a damn about nice cars and all that stuff. Still don’t. [Johnny] Cecotto and all those guys, they had to have the latest Ferrari, the latest whatever. I don’t think [Barry] Sheene was into that stuff either, it was just for his image.”

If flash street cars held no allure for Roberts, the thing that did fascinate him about the four-wheel world was car racing – specifically the amount of money and technology available in that world. The Team Roberts nerve centre that King Kenny established in Banbury during the 1990s was his attempt to go about MotoGP the way car teams go about Formula 1. He wanted to build a centre of excellence that had a more creative, more experimental way of going about things than the established factories. Remember that during the 1980s his team had brought new technology like data-logging and carbon brakes into bike racing.

Roberts’ KR500 two-stroke triple – manufactured in Britain – was a beautiful piece of kit. It never beat the factories to win a race but it was the last two-stroke to score a premier-class pole position, at Phillip Island in 2002, with the great Jeremy McWilliams bettering the factory four-strokes. His V5 four-stroke – born in 2003 – may have gone onto great things if the money hadn’t run out.

motogp race  The madness of King Kenny Roberts

Engineers and mechanics who worked at Roberts during the Banbury years still speak of those days with a real fondness, even though lack of budget often made life hellish.

Dani Pedrosa’s long-time mechanic John Eyre worked at Roberts’ Banbury nerve centre in 2003 and was like a kid in a sweetshop. “I was only there for a year but I learned so much because you had all the facilities you could dream of,” says Eyre. “You could learn to weld, learn to lay carbon, you could learn everything at Team Roberts. A lot of guys who worked there are now in Formula 1. It’s a shame it had to shut down.”

For engineers, Roberts gave them the chance to experiment and take risks – like John Barnard’s carved-from-solid frame, as used on the KR5. That frame wasn’t an immediate success, but the point is that here was someone willing to allow engineers to go their own way in the hope of finding a new way forward.

If the facility was still operating there’d be a whole new generation of motorcycle engineers growing up and learning in the white heat of MotoGP. It’s a tragedy that the money did run out, leading to King Kenny’s exit from GP racing at the end of 2007.

motogp race  The madness of King Kenny Roberts

Add your comments

20 comments on The madness of ‘King’ Kenny Roberts

  1. vincent gilligan, 30 January 2013 10:02

    You needn’t concern yourself with top 5 all time or even top three. Best road racers ever were Hailwood & Roberts. And Roberts was also one of the best flat trackers ever.

  2. wosi, 30 January 2013 10:43

    Surprised not to see Casey in there after the recent gushing.

    Enjoyable piece nevertheless, keep up the much improved work.

  3. RC, 30 January 2013 16:11

    I raced flat track at the same time Kenny did and he was on another Planet from everyone else in terms of what he could do on a bike. He could create lines that no one else could make work -one time at Harrington he came into Turn 1 so high and straight it looked like his chain broke and he was going to collect the wall. At the last possible second he flips the Bike into the turn and turned the whole turn into a straight. Let’s not even talk about the night at Indy and the 750 two stroke. But even though this era was probably the high point of talent in the flat track years there was some awfully good road-racing talent at the AMA tracks then and Daytona was a high point. Ago, Hailwood, Smart, Saarinen, Sheene. I walked out towards the kink in the old infield to watch people’s lines and once again no one could do it like Kenny. His line was completely different and visibly faster. This was when he was a just a dirt track kid! Go Kenny

  4. Mat Oxley, 30 January 2013 16:58

    Thanks RC – great to hear from someone who was doing the dirt with Mr Roberts!

  5. spdmon, 30 January 2013 17:45

    Surprised to see Rossi on your list. Actually, I’m suprised that you put him before Agostini. I think that he has achived everything in his career without great competition and on the best bike, pretty same as Ago. About Rossi, as soon as competition arrived, he started to lose, his magic has disapered, and now he is a full time quiter.

    Dani and Jorge will grind him (Rossi) this year! But he will be third, because there is no Stoner this year! Oh I forgot, he will be third until Marquez gel himself with the machine.

  6. Steve W, 30 January 2013 23:11

    While I’ve never really followed bike racing, I do remember reading an article back in the day talking about when Kenny burst onto the European scene in the late ’70s. The article mentioned that Kenny was actually sliding the bike a bit through the corners and that was a technique unheard of by the regulars of the day.

  7. Listerine, 31 January 2013 00:13

    Although I enjoy motorcycle racing as a casual fan and always enjoy your magazine column, Mr Oxley, I cannot claim to be an expert follower and so I will largely leave analysis of your Top 5 to those who are (I say “largely” though because I too am surprised at the omission of Agostini, but certainly not at the inclusion of Roberts). But what drew me to comment here was your description of the aforementioned magazine as the “made-from-trees version”. It’s not the first time lately that I have seen this expression for the print media. and it strikes me as slightly contemptuous, intentionally or otherwise. Those who use it, particularly in the context of those websites which would not exist if they had not been built on the back of solid wooden platforms such as the near eighty year old oak called Motor Sport magazine, should think twice. In this particular case, one should be conscious of the subject matter. When the King Kennys of the future are whooshing round silently on their underwhelming electric contraptions, will we fondly remember the smell and the sound of the magnificent engines of yore or will we dismiss them sniffily as the “powered-by-fossilised-plants-and-other-organic-substances versions”?

  8. Listerine, 31 January 2013 00:24

    That should, of course, have read “near ninety year old oak”, but even eighty year old ones tower over saplings, particularly virtual ones.

  9. DM, 31 January 2013 03:35

    Mr Oxley

    Now you’ve whetted my appetite. You should definitely serialize your Top 20 riders of all time. I want to know why you’d rate Rainey ahead of Lawson, Rossi ahead of Agostini, etc etc.

    By the way, is your book available in the US? Or do I have to go through tax-dodging Amazon?

  10. Mat Oxley, 31 January 2013 10:01

    Hello Listerine, my comments re the made-from-trees magazine was not meant to be contemptuous at all, just a statement of fact and a change from saying ‘paper’. I much prefer paper magazines and books to the e equivalent, but having both isn’t a bad thing at all. And I much prefer an internal combustion engine to an electric motor.

    Hello DM, I always think it was Ago who had it the easiest of anyone since the dawn of GP racing. A great rider and a great man, but no one in bike racing has enjoyed such a technical advantage over the vast majority of the rest of the grid for so long.

    Re my book – yes, they are all available on tax-dodging Amazon. I need to find an alternative to help me kick my own Amazon habit. Anyone got any suggestions?

  11. Marty Harris, 1 February 2013 09:14

    With due respect Mat, I think you’re doing the same sort of underestimation job on Agostini that a lot of F1 followers do on Prost! Fair enough to notice Ago and MV had the field to themselves for several seasons but that was hardly his fault and don’t forget his first two 500cc titles came against Hailwood and his last two titles came against the best a new generation had to offer – guys like Sheene …

    Ago was a rider who could switch to Yamaha, have his first test on Saarinen’s 350 in Japan on a unknown track, do a handful of moderately quick laps, park it, ask for set up changes (moving the engine slightly etc), come back the next day … and obliterate Saarinen’s fastest time. On his first ever run on a racing two-stroke.

    Ago was smooth, stylish and glamorous – but he was also blisteringly quick and a fierce racer.

  12. Larry T., 1 February 2013 11:16

    Nice piece! My favorite memory of the King was at Sears Point in an AMA pro roadrace – this must have been mid-70′s I guess. Kenny’s bike wouldn’t go into neutral so he rode around in circles at the back of the grid, ending up facing the wrong way when the green flag was thrown. Needless to say, he got it pointed in the right direction and won the race, lapping the field in the process, though don’t hold me to that part!

  13. Phil, 2 February 2013 01:10

    No Freddie Spencer in that list?

  14. appleracer, 13 February 2013 16:59

    love the artical. ask Kenny if he ever heard of a guy named Calvin Rayborn.

  15. Pen Pendleton, 24 February 2013 09:21

    My favorite memory of KR was at a race at Laguna Seca in around 1988 (?). I think it was an AMA “Formula 1″ race or maybe it was one the early USGP’s – but the entire race featured Roberts and Randy Mamola effortlessly pulling wheelies at the exit of every turn and constantly trading the #1 and #2 places – all seemingly just for the entertainment of the spectators (and themselves). I think they were also trying to promote the dying two-stroke formula. Notably, in third place, pulling no wheelies and seemingly riding with all the effort in the world, was Eddie Lawson, desperately trying to keep up with KR and Mamola, both making it look so fun and cool. This race also had a memorable cool-down lap, with Mamola doing a hands-off-the-bars wave to the fans in the Corkscrew and losing control of his bike and running right into the hay bales – we could all see (sense?) him – and Roberts – laughing their asses off inside their helmets as RM picked up his bike, jump-started it and rode into the pits. (…Don’t think I saw or sensed Lawson laughing too much that day…) Wish I could have seen KR ride the Yamaha 750cc two-stroke dirt-tracker. But I guess I can’t complain.

  16. Michael Esdaile, 27 April 2013 22:54

    Nice piece on Kenny Mat, and yes, there is so much to write. The indelible memory of KR I have comes from Sears Point in July 1977. To set the grid for AMA Nationals, riders had to compete in heat races. The grid was set from the fastest race times (not single lap times) in the heat races. KR failed to get past the first corner in his heat (word was the rear axle nut had not been fully tightened, the axle ‘cocked’ and the chain de-railed. So KR starts at the back of a 40 bike grid, almost all TZ750Ds. He held it out wide to the right for the first turn, clipping the grass – and was seventh through the first corner. He then worked his way up past riders like John Long, Aldana, Romero, Nixon to arrive in second behind a young Skip Aksland. He followed Skip for a lap or so, then pulled the pin, streaking off into the lead. He built such a lead that exiting the Carousel you could hear the TZ750′s revs rising and falling as the rear tyre spun and grabbed, spun and grabbed. KR squeezed everything out of that bike in his run through the pack in an incandescent performance then, when he had a big lead, proceeded to pull wheelies down through the esses from the top corner. Months later when I read Barry Sheene’s season preview for 1978 I burst out laughing at the Englishman’s ignorance when he said KR would not be able to deal with “all the travelling.” Back then, there were around 25-28 AMA Nationals a year, all over the USA…

  17. jim wulzen, 25 August 2013 05:22

    I’m an old AMA guy and started in the dirt myself, nothing like it anywhere in the world. I went to road racing because if you had any thought of turning pro and going for it you had to road race too, I got on a road racer and loved it. I’m 74 now and still building classic road racers!

  18. jim wulzen, 25 August 2013 05:24

    Roberts on the mile, OMG what a treat to see him do that, will never forget the San Jose Mile.

  19. Alan Bell, 18 September 2013 14:06

    The top 5 riders I saw in their prime, Rainey, Doohan, Rossi, Roberts, Spencer,in what order I’ve no idea, all this lot on late 90s two stroke 500s what a race that would have been.
    Regarding Agostini, his record will always be looked down upon somewhat because of his easy run on superior kit but it should be remembered that he came straight in at the top against seasoned hard men like Hailwood and Redman, and when Hailwood left in 67 Ago went on to beat a lot of his race times in 68.
    That in itself is testament to his talent.

  20. Donald N. Mei, 24 October 2013 16:53

    Any list of the top road racers of all time that does not include Calvin Rayborn and Gary Nixon is, well…wrong. Hailwood of course at the very top then Roberts, Rossi, Rayborn, Nixon and Ago.

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