By Mat Oxley
It would be wrong to publish a tribute to Barry Sheene without talking some more about King Kenny Roberts. The careers of the Cockney and the Californian were inextricably entwined during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Roberts was a maverick racer, afraid of no one and unafraid of informing anyone of that fact. Over the years he has been a US dirt track champion, a world road-racing champion, a titlewinning team owner (above with Eddie Lawson, John Kocinski and Wayne Rainey in 1990) and finally a constructor who counted John Barnard among his employees. He is also a great storyteller his yarns always strongly flavoured with profanities.
In the winter of 1979 Roberts and Sheene were ringleaders of a breakaway Grand Prix series that planned to wrest power from the FIM (the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme) and give it to the riders and teams. For various reasons their World Series failed. Roberts was angry about the collapse and partly blamed its demise on the British press, which had sided with the FIM. The former cowboy (he used to train Tennessee Walkers) exacted his revenge after dominating the opening Grand Prix of 1980 at Misano and gaffing a bit squiffy with the winner’s jeroboam.
“They were giving me champagne at the track and I rode to the hotel on the luggage rack on top of the car. The guys tried to get me off the roof but they couldn’t. I ended up eating at the hotel, with Randy (Mamola).
“There were these English journalists, eating at a corner table. They’d really pissed me off because they’d helped kill World Series. They wrote all the wrong stuff and blew it up front page. I remember telling those guys: if you ever do that again, I’m not going to get a lawyer I’m not going to sue you, I’m going to kick your ass. Boy were they nervous, they were shitting bricks.
“So we’re in the hotel dining room and I shout to these journalist guys: ‘you guys want some champagne?’. ‘Oh yeah, thanks, Kenny!’ So I throw this bottle, it goes flying across the room and smashes against their table and the wall. All of a sudden they were eating so fast, trying to get out of there. Then I say: ‘you guys want some more champagne?’. ‘Oh no, no thanks, Kenny!’ I never got along with the British press I wasn’t diplomatic back then.”
Roberts has mellowed with age (he recently turned 62), though not that much. These days he rides a Harley, cruising around sans helmet. And he tries hard, really hard, not to race.
“One day this guy comes by me real close on some Honda sportbike and it was uncool. I said to myself, ‘nah, don’t do it… no, don’t do it, you couldn’t catch him anyway.., he’s gone, he’s gone by now… mmm, well, I could probably catch him if I really wanted to.’
“So I downshifted the thing and took off. He was probably a mile or two ahead and I’d seen him turn off down a road I know. My thing is a pretty fast Harley I’ve pegged the speedo a couple of times. When I catch him I get right on his ass and go, ‘Rraaah, rraaah!’ (Kenny mimes pulling in the clutch and twisting the throttle, then mimics the Harley’s unsilenced roar.) The guy almost jumps out from the fairing, gathers it all up, then looks in his mirrors. I’m just sitting there. (Kenny pulls the same cheesy grin he gave the freaked-out ‘sports’ rider.)
“So he downshifts and goes, but I get right up behind him again and go, ‘Rraaah, rraaah!’ (He does the big, cheesy grin again.) So he starts going even harder till the bike’s bouncing around, so I get right on his ass again and go, ‘Rraaah, rraaah!’ Then he starts running wide and overshooting, so he’s gonna meet someone head on.
“I thought I’d barter stop it and let him live, because no way was he going to live. The poor guy obviously wasn’t very good.”
If you’re in the States and you see some old dude on a Harley, don’t get involved.