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.
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.”
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.
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.