Lunch with Kenny Roberts
He might be the best bike racer of all time, but he’s much more than that: ‘King’ Kenny worked tirelessly with car people to make his sport ever better
Most race fans would argue that Valentino Rossi, Giacomo Agostini or Mike Hailwood are the greatest motorcycle racers the world has ever seen. But the cognoscenti might disagree; some would suggest Kenny Roberts. The Californian won fewer Grands Prix than Rossi, Ago and Hailwood, but his range of achievements is much greater.
He began his world championship trail later than most, after winning two US Grand National titles, disputed on both asphalt and dirt. When he did hit Europe he hit it hard, unseating Barry Sheene to win the 500cc crown in his rookie season. Over the next two years he completed the title hat-trick. When he retired from racing he moved into team ownership, winning a further four world titles. And when he got bored of winning races with other people’s bikes, he built his own.
No one in motorcycle racing has come close to matching those achievements, which is why people call him the ‘King’. But Kenny has done much more. He revolutionised riding technique, using wheelspin to help steer the bike. Then he transformed GP racing by leading a riders’ revolt that improved safety and helped riders earn better money. Later Team Roberts was the first motorcycle outfit to use Formula 1-derived technology, like data-logging and carbon brakes. In the early 1990s Roberts helped save the premier 500cc class – then on its last legs, with just 13 bikes on some grids – by convincing Yamaha to sell engines to European chassis builders. In the late 1990s Team Roberts became MotoGP’s first F1-style constructor, engineering its own engines and chassis, employing John Barnard, Tom Walkinshaw Racing and others. The team’s KR3 motorcycle was good enough to score the last two-stroke MotoGP pole position.
All in all, not a bad life’s work for a cowboy from the farmlands of California, who’s only got one testicle (the result of a motocross accident) and a bullet lodged in his left leg (the legacy of a hunting mishap).
Roberts is now 65 years old. He still shows up at the occasional GP, projecting that same powerful aura and telling the same bawdy jokes. This is possibly the most remarkable thing about the man: he has achieved so much and yet is still the wild cowboy he always was.
And he really was a cowboy. Roberts was 12 and training Tennessee Walkers when he discovered the joys of multiple horsepower. “One day I go to feed the horses,” says Roberts as we eat lunch in downtown Austin, Texas. “This guy says I should have a go on this minibike with a lawnmower engine. I said, ‘No way.’ So, he says I’m a baby, a chicken, so I ride the bike and it scares the shit out of me. I was lucky I didn’t crash. Okay, so I had to have one.
“I built my first bike out of a bicycle; robbed an engine from one of my dad’s lawnmowers. It had a lawnmower back tyre and a centrifugal clutch. You put it in gear by tightening the drive belt. It was a helluva thing to ride. I got a scar on my knee two inches wide from that. The front wheel was off a parachutist’s motorcycle, Second World War. I didn’t have a new tube for it so I put a bunch of rags in there.
“About that time my parents bought my older brother a used Honda 50 so he could go to summer school; so I had to have one too. We lived by a canal. I rode that thing up and down, up and down, only fell in the canal once. We traded that for a Tohatsu 50cc two-stroke, a racy-looking thing. It blew up, so this guy fixed it for me and when he saw me ride it, he said ‘That kid needs to be on a racetrack.’ He asked, ‘You want to go to the races with me?’ I said ‘no’ because I thought it’d be big guys with beards. We ended up going to the races at this old fairground down the street. They were just normal kids. I said, ‘I can beat them guys.’ That’s how I started.”
Ever since, Roberts’s life has been devoted to figuring out how to make motorcycles go faster and how to ride them faster. “It’s like a curse,” he laughs as he carves his way through a juicy Texan steak. “The drive to make it better is still there. That’s my interest as a human being: to make a better motorcycle.”
That obsession has brought him into contact with all kinds of people outside the motorcycle industry, especially car folk, because there’s more money in cars, which means more technology. And Roberts has always wanted more technology, first when he was racing, then when he was running teams and most of all when he was building motorcycles, first the three-cylinder 500cc KR3 two-stroke, then the five-cylinder 990cc KR5 four-stroke.
Roberts hired John Barnard in 2003. “If I’d had more money John could’ve made some real improvements to racing motorcycles. He did some good things. A lot of the things you see on the latest MotoGP bikes are because of what John did when he was with us.
“Back in the day when I raced, I’d have one bike that was good and another that was no good, then we’d go to the next track and the second bike would be good and the first wouldn’t be good. John was the first guy who said, ‘You can’t weld and bend; it’s all got to be machined.’ And that’s why the MotoGP chassis you see now are machined, snapped together and welded. It’s no longer bending materials, because heat changes everything.”
Earlier Roberts got to know Mario Andretti and Paul Newman, who wanted him to race cars. “Mario always told me he was a frustrated motorcycle racer. I let him ride one of my team’s Marlboro Yamaha 500s around Laguna Seca. I told him, ‘Just don’t gas it on the side of the tyres.’ Afterwards he says, ‘Man, I owe you so much, I’ve never driven or ridden anything that wants to leap out from underneath you at a quarter throttle.’ He says, ‘How do you come out of the corner on one of these things?’ Well, it takes a lot of work.
“Newman called me when I stopped racing bikes; he wanted me to drive his Budweiser Can-Am car. A few years earlier I’d scared the shit out of him. I was testing Goodyear tyres at Riverside and we gave him permission to test some Ferrari sports car when I wasn’t on the track. I was testing a TZ750 and it was wobbling so bad. Anyway, he pulls onto the track when I’m still going around. I passed him in fourth gear, probably doing one-fifty, inches from his bumper. He said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I ever did, I could’ve killed you.’ I said, ‘Dude, I saw you coming onto the racetrack, I just wanted to scare you’.”
Roberts did race cars for a while. “Ford wanted me to race their GTP car, so I went to Mid-Ohio and tested it. But the money wasn’t anything like I’d been earning in bikes and I wanted to be home, not racing. I’m not saying cars are easy because the breakaway point in a car is quite different to a bike. It sticks and it sticks and it sticks and then it’s gone. But they never got my heart beating. When you race a motorcycle there are times you’re thinking, ‘If I don’t pull this off, I’m dead.’ And in a car I don’t know if I’d ever feel that. I always say you never have to pick a haybale out of your ass when you’re racing a car. On a bike, every crash hurts.”
Roberts wasn’t a big crasher – he rode too well for that. Like any great bike racer the cornerstones of his success were talent, intelligence, bravery and dedication. He turned pro when he was 18, riding his first professional dirt track race at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in January 1969. A year later he started road racing, because he needed both dirt and asphalt skills to challenge for the USA’s biggest prize, the Grand National.
“I grew up to be a dirt track racer, to ride that dirt track bike better than anyone else. Road racing I just did to get Grand National points. I never really considered myself a road racer. I’m probably still that way.” Quite a statement for arguably the greatest road racer of all time.
Roberts won the 1973 and 1974 Grand National titles, riding Yamaha’s plodding XS650 four-stroke on the dirt and its outrageous new TZ750 two-stroke on the asphalt.
Both bikes wore Yamaha USA’s iconic yellow, black and white livery, derived from the two-stroke sound: like angry bees. It was a genius piece of visual branding. “Everything I had was yellow and black. When I was 19 or 20 I bought a Nissan 240Z and painted it yellow and black; the whole Yamaha deal.” Roberts also owned a Ferrari 308 but not for long, “because I would only have wrecked it”.
Pretty soon he was as quick on asphalt as he was on the dirt. He brought his oval skills to the racetracks and learned his asphalt skills by watching Europe’s best road racers when they visited the US, most significantly Jarno Saarinen who used a distinctive hang-off, knee-out riding technique.
“I started hanging off at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1972. The track had this horseshoe where I felt so uncomfortable, like I was going to crash. So I watched Jarno. He leaned off the bike with his knee out, so I leaned off and all of a sudden I didn’t have that bad feeling.
“By the end of ’73 I started sliding road bikes. I’d be in a foot and a half drift with my knee on the ground. People said ‘You’re the craziest sonofabitch I ever seen in my life and you’re going to die’.”
Roberts led the 1974 Daytona 200 on a TZ750 but didn’t win the race until 1978, just weeks before he commenced his first Grand Prix campaign. He won the 200 – the world’s biggest bike race at that time – on two further occasions, using an over-bored version of Yamaha’s 500 GP bike. This motorcycle was bad enough to scare Roberts.
“That bike was a brute. Coming onto the banking it would spin the tyre in the first three gears. In them days, with the little-bitty tyres and the little-bitty forks, it was an experience trying to get that thing around Daytona. I remember the first time I rode it, the thing went sideways going over the start-finish line at one-eighty and I thought, what happened? It couldn’t have done that! Next lap it went sideways again, so I came into the pits and I’m jumping up and down. I said to Kel [Carruthers, a former 250cc world champion and Roberts’s chief mechanic throughout his road racing career], ‘Hey, that thing’s going sideways over the start-finish line.’ Kel says, ‘So? What do you want us to do about it?’ ‘But I was going completely sideways!’ ‘Okay,’ says Kel, ‘just shut the throttle off.’ I was like, ‘Shit.’ So that’s how I rode that thing: throttle on, throttle off.”
Roberts’ rookie world championship campaign of 1978 is the stuff of legend. What he did that year should not have been possible, which is why it’s only been done once since, by Marc Márquez in 2013.
He showed up in Europe, knowing few of the tracks, using untested tyres, and with only one bike, because he was contracted to the American Yamaha importer, not to the factory. His 0W35K was a piston-port, inline-four, 500cc two-stroke; often unreliable and mostly unpredictable, with a precipitous delivery that overpowered the chassis and tyres.
“Everyone said it couldn’t be done. Even Sheene said, ‘Kenny’s a good rider but the first year he’s not going to be a threat, he’s got to learn all the racetracks and all that stuff’, so it was a big achievement for me to do all the tracks, take Goodyear, who had never been there, and win it.”
On top of that he had to deal with some major culture shocks. “Wherever Kel went, I was in his draft, driving my motorhome with Patty, Chrissie and Kenny (his wife, daughter and eldest son). When we arrived at Hockenheim for a race it was dark and the only thing I knew about Germany was the war. At seven the next morning there was this screaming noise: ‘Achtung Fahrerlager! Achtung Fahrerlager.’ I said: ‘Oh f**k, we’re in the wrong goddam place and they’re going to shoot us.’ I ran out of the motorhome and was beating on Kel’s door and he said, ‘That means attention paddock, now go back to bed’.”
Worse was to come: the old Spa road circuit. Roberts may have been used to picking haybales out of his backside, but stonewalls were something altogether different.
“Spa scared the shit out of me. The walls and guardrails were real close, it was raining, there were puddles. On the first lap Wil [Hartog, the race winner] came past, hit a puddle, his feet flew off the footpegs and he was gone. I was like ‘Jesus, that guy’s going to kill himself!’ I was scared to death, I didn’t know where I was going, couldn’t see nothing. I was racing with Sheene, thinking ‘This is so stupid.’ The only reason I beat him was because he was more scared than I was. One time I was off the racetrack and sideways up against a wall, doing one-thirty. I got it straight, looked behind and Sheene’s eyes were that big.”
Roberts won the title, beating the 1976 and 1977 champion into second place. With a year’s Grand Prix experience behind him, surely he would be unbeatable in 1979? Not quite. In February Roberts nearly died when he thumped into a guardrail at 90mph while testing Yamaha’s new 0W45 at the factory’s test track. He broke his back, a foot and a collarbone and ruptured his spleen.
“I remember laying there, going, ‘I’m toast, I’m toast.’ My back was numb. For three days I thought I was going to die. They wouldn’t give me pain shots because it would slow the healing. Then they said, ‘We’re going to operate.’ I said, ‘No way, I’m going back to America.’ They said, ‘You won’t make it.’ Well then, I was dead because from what I was looking at they didn’t have good medical facilities. I remember them putting the gas mask on me to put me out and thought. ‘This is it, I’m not waking up.’ I was very surprised when I did wake up.”
These experiences got Roberts thinking about track safety and other matters. He started working on World Series, a breakaway championship that would bypass the blazer-wearing fogeys at the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme. Bernie Ecclestone took a serious interest in the project.
Meanwhile he had the 1979 FIM championship to win. Roberts missed the first race, returned for round two at the Salzburgring and left everyone trailing. He retained the title with another four victories, including Jarama, where the FIM-approved promoters had reduced the already risible start money.
When a Spanish dignitary handed Roberts the winner’s trophy he refused the silverware. “No, you keep it,” he said. “Maybe you can sell it. I understand you need the money.”
Roberts has always been a rebel with a cause and here was a cause worth fighting for: safer racetracks, more money and better paddock conditions. Unfortunately his plans for World Series turned to dust. He returned to Europe in 1980, faster and angrier than ever. Roberts has always liked a drink and his victory celebrations at the season-opening Misano GP may never have been surpassed.
“I’d put so much into World Series: money, time and effort, meeting Bernie and all those people. So when we got back to racing at Misano I was ready to drink. After the race 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, Suzuki’s number one] and some other guys. There were these English journalists eating at a corner table. They’d really pissed me off because they’d tried to kill World Series. They wrote all the wrong stuff. 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 journalists, ‘Hey, do you guys want some champagne?’ They go, ‘Oh yeah, thanks, Kenny!’ So I throw this bottle, it goes flying across the room and smashes against 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.”
Later that evening Roberts was getting some fresh air on the restaurant’s first-floor balcony when some paddock friends stopped below in their rentacar, on their way into town. They suggested he join them, so he did.
“Kenny jumped from the balcony onto the roof of our car, collapsing the roof down on top of us,” recalls Kawasaki mechanic Stuart Shenton. “Then he insisted we drive through the town with him sitting there.”
World Series may have failed but it worked wonders, scaring the sport’s governors into making major improvements.
“The old promoters and the FIM treated us like shit. It was just wrong, they had everybody by the balls. We got close enough to making World Series happen to scare them. After that it was like heaven. We turned it around from not being able to talk to the promoters about safety to being able to talk to them. And they increased prize money by 300 per cent and everyone knew what they were paying, so you didn’t have to play with the promoter’s balls to get 500 bucks more. The whole mafia thing went away. Now it’s easy, the riders go talk to Carmelo (Ezpeleta, CEO of Dorna, the current MotoGP promoter) and it’s fixed. Back then, Jesus Christ, it was a nightmare. A lot of people didn’t know how big an achievement that was. I didn’t do it for money, I had more to lose than anyone else. I did it because I thought it was right, because the sport needed it.”
Roberts completed the 500cc world title hat-trick in 1980, riding a bike that was becoming increasingly inferior to Suzuki’s RG500. He was the only non-Suzuki rider in the championship’s top six. What made the difference was his riding style, evolved in the heat and dust of American dirt track. King Kenny’s ultra-aggressive technique, loading up the rear tyre, then sliding the tyre to turn the bike onto a tighter line, leaving more room for acceleration, left his European rivals in a spin. It was years before they caught up.
Now Yamaha knew they had to give him a better bike. Piston-porting is the most basic way of getting fuel/air mix into a two-stroke engine and exhaust gases out. It uses the rise and fall of the piston to uncover and cover the inlet and exhaust ports, which restricts port timing. This wastes fresh fuel entering the cylinder and fails to fully eject the exhaust gases, thus squandering horsepower.
In 1981 Yamaha built an RG500 clone: a rotary-valve square four. The advantage of rotary-valve induction is that it allows engineers to play with port timing, opening the ports early or closing them late. The 0W54 made more power, but not the right kind of power, so whenever Roberts opened the throttle its impressive speed was frittered away on wheelspin. He won two races that year and the title went to Suzuki’s Marco Lucchinelli.
So Yamaha started from scratch once again, building the 0W61, a rotary-valve V4 which used a complex system of gears to drive the rotary valves. The bike was a disaster. “That thing was so bad that Mike Maekawa [Yamaha’s race chief] personally pushed the bikes into the crusher at the end of the season.”
Yamaha made a better version for 1983. The engine was refined and the chassis featured one of the first aluminium beam frames. “When they started stiffening everything up, I could go faster and smoother for longer.”
In 1983 Roberts fought one of the all-time greatest duels for the 500 crown, with compatriot Freddie Spencer. You could hardly imagine two more different Americans: King Kenny, the profane, hard-drinking cowboy, and Fast Freddie, the shy southern boy from the Bible belt. The pair raced neck and neck throughout that summer, Roberts on his 0W70, Spencer on Honda’s first two-stroke GP bike, the sublime NS500. Each won six races, the title going down to the wire at Imola.
The pivotal moment of the championship came at the penultimate round in Sweden. As usual, Roberts and Spencer raced way ahead of the pack, counting down the laps. Spencer’s three-cylinder NS was nimbler in the turns but slower on the straights, so he worked out a plan to slow Roberts onto Anderstorp’s back straight. During the final laps he started showing Roberts his front wheel into the corner that led onto the straight, tricking his rival into using a defensive line as they contested the final lap. Meanwhile Spencer made sure he got a super exit, enough to get him level with Roberts, who ran off the track at the next corner. Spencer won the race and the title, by two points. Roberts is still angry about that one.
Roberts retired at the end of that season, so his Grand Prix career only lasted six years, against Agostini’s 15 and Rossi’s 22 (so far). “I started getting arm-pump in ’82 and ’83 and if that hadn’t happened I probably would’ve carried on for another year or two. It just got to the point where I was worn out, I just didn’t want to race any more. So I started a team, helping this young kid, Wayne Rainey.
“I didn’t enjoy it like racing, but I always enjoyed the technical part: what made the motorcycle better, what made it worse. And I enjoyed working with the younger guys, watching them progress.” Rainey commenced his 500 GP career in 1988 and went on to become another of the sport’s greats. This was when Yamaha allowed King Kenny to start pushing forward with new technology.
“That was my quest. I’m just not a person who goes, ‘Yeah, this is good enough.’ It’s never good enough. It’s haunted me my whole frigging life. Nothing I can do about it.”
During 1988 three new technologies appeared on the Team Roberts Yamaha YZR500s: carbon brakes, data-loggers and Öhlins ‘upside-down’ front forks. Most of these ideas came from King Kenny and his engineers Warren Willing and Mike Sinclair. Yamaha had nothing to do with any of them. And the money didn’t come from Yamaha; it came from Lucky Strike and then Marlboro. “If I had told Yamaha, ‘Hey, I want to run carbon brakes,’ they’d have said, ‘No, no, too early, too early’.”
And Yamaha was very nearly right. Roberts fitted carbons to Rainey’s bikes at the 1988 British GP. Rainey immediately loved the lighter rotors because they made his YZR500 steer quicker. The carbons also improved braking, but only once the rider had them up to temperature, a tricky job on a bike. That’s why Rainey nearly crashed on the warm-up lap at Donington. In the race he cleared off to beat reigning champion Wayne Gardner by seven seconds.
It was Roberts’s early adoption of data-logging that had the greatest effect on bike racing. He hired Tom O’Kane, a young electronics engineer straight out of university, to build a data-logger. O’Kane sourced a crash-test-dummy black box, with 326Kb of memory.
“Tom, Warren and Mike would sit there arguing all day about what sensors they needed and all that stuff. At the time we had the money to do this work. I could’ve just stuck the money in the bank, but making more money wasn’t my interest; my interest was making a better bike.”
Yamaha became less happy with Roberts messing with their bikes, but they put up with it. The team made its own cylinders, heads, pistons and exhausts, plus different chassis kit and the data-logging gear.
By 1990 the Roberts/Rainey combination was unbeatable. Rainey matched his mentor’s achievement by winning three consecutive titles, a remarkable accomplishment in a golden era of racing when he was up against Kevin Schwantz, Mick Doohan, Eddie Lawson and Gardner.
“Me and Wayne just clicked. It was almost like we were related. I knew what he was going to say before he said it and vice versa. He was like a sponge, everything you told him would sink in and he always wanted to know more. He would store all that for when he was racing.
“And when he was down I was someone to talk to and lift him back up. And when he was too high I was somebody to say, ‘Hey asshole, just back her down a bit!’ ”
In September 1993 Rainey was fighting for a fourth world title, trading blows with Schwantz, when he crashed at Misano and broke his back. He was paralysed from the chest down. Roberts was distraught. Still is. Many expected him to quit but he didn’t. “I had a business going, 40 people working for me, so I couldn’t just say I’m done. And I didn’t want to stop, the team was part of my life.”
Results crumbled, however: no one could replace Rainey. What Roberts needed was a new challenge. “With Yamaha it got to the point where I wanted to quit because I couldn’t do it the way it needed to be done, so I said I’m going to build my own bike. Dumbest damn thing I ever did, but I wasn’t interested in racing a Yamaha any more. I’ve got this disease which makes me want to do everything myself.”
Roberts has always been rebellious. “I was always in trouble at school, when I was there. I have dyslexia, so when I left high school I couldn’t read or write. When I was 19 and Yamaha threw my first contract in front of me, I was like, ‘What do I do with this?’ ”
By the time he got to building his own motorcycles he was more accustomed to the business side of things. “Marlboro put 17 million dollars into the KR3 in its first season, 1997, then dropped it. If they’d stayed, we would’ve had the right motor in three years.
“When I told Bernie [Ecclestone] I was going to build the three-cylinder engine with TWR, he said, ‘Don’t do it, they’re over-extended.’ He told me to go with Hart, but by then TWR had done the drawings. It was a disaster. The KR3 never really panned out for a lot of reasons.”
Roberts now had his HQ in Banbury, close to Britain’s so-called F1 belt, but he had the second-generation KR3 engine done in Japan. The engineers were retired Yamaha race chief Maekawa and retired Honda Racing Corporation chief Youichi Oguma, who had only recently been sworn enemies.
The Maekawa/Oguma engine was a huge improvement. Roberts had chosen a three-cylinder because of his experiences duelling with Spencer. Since then racetracks had got shorter and tighter, so a small, nimble motorcycle made a lot of sense against the heavier, more ungainly four-cylinder machines.
But then someone threw a curveball. Michelin released a new rear slick with a different profile that allowed riders of the four-cylinder bikes to get on the throttle earlier.
“The problem was, and always is, that something blindsides you. Michelin changed the rear tyre and we were done.”
The final 2002 iteration of the KR3 was a thing of great beauty and very effective. However, it had to race against MotoGP’s new 990cc four-strokes, including Honda’s awesome RC211V. That didn’t stop Jeremy McWilliams from putting the bike on pole at the 2002 Australian GP, despite giving away 50bhp.
Next Roberts built a four-stroke, with his own V5 engine. The machine was a masterpiece, but doomed to failure due to lack of budget.
“The bike I’m most proud of technically was the last V5 we made in 2004 with John Barnard. It was so nice, every piece was made just for that motorcycle.”
In 2006 Roberts switched to Honda power, which took his eldest son, Kenny Junior, to within 0.178sec of victory in the Portuguese GP. Six years earlier KRJR had won the 500cc world title on a Suzuki RGV500 that had been largely engineered by Team Roberts, unbeknown to Suzuki management.
The money finally ran out at the end of 2007. Many of Roberts’ staff had been with him since the 1980s. Most moved to rival MotoGP teams. The Banbury operation shut down, a huge blow for motorcycle racing, because this small, independent centre of innovation and excellence was unique in the sport.
Roberts went home to the States, where he still rides on the road, in between long motorhome trips to see old racing friends. And whenever he is on two wheels he finds it difficult to supress the urge. “One day this guy comes past, real close, on some sportbike. It was uncool. I said to myself, ‘Nah, don’t do it, you couldn’t catch him anyway. He’s gone. He’s gone by now...’ Mmmm, well, I could probably catch him if I wanted to. So I downshifted and took off. He was probably a mile ahead and I’ve 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 (Kenny mimes pulling in the clutch and opening the throttle) ‘raah, raaah!’ The guy jumps up out 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 ‘raah, raaah!’ (He does the big, cheesy grin again.) So the guy starts going even harder, until his bike is bouncing around, so I get right on his ass again and go ‘raahh, raaah!’ Then he starts running wide and overshooting, so he’s gonna meet someone head on, so I thought I better stop it and let him live because no way was he going to live. The poor guy obviously wasn’t very good.”
Roberts made his most memorable recent visit to a MotoGP event at Indianapolis in 2010, when he rode some demo laps at the Indy Mile dirt track, aboard one of the most malevolent race bikes ever to turn a wheel: Yamaha’s TZ750 dirt tracker.
In 1975, Roberts’s XS650 was outgunned on the dirt by the ubiquitous Harley Davidsons. This didn’t stop him from regularly defeating them, but he did need more power, so someone had the bright idea of replacing the 70bhp four-stroke XS motor with a 120bhp engine taken from Yamaha’s TZ750 road racer, which was already frightening riders on the asphalt, let alone the dirt. Madness, but worth a go.
Roberts rode the bike for the first time at the Indy Mile in 1975. “It freaked everybody out. We had it geared for 150mph and they put a cut-out switch on the handlebar to kill one cylinder, for when I needed more traction.”
He won the night-time, floodlit race, drafting two Harleys out of the final turn and zinging past them to win by a foot. “To do what I did that night, that was a stupid thing to do, it was crazy. People still walk up to me and say, ‘I was at the Indy Mile in 1975’.”
Roberts rates that Indy win as the greatest of his career, but also the most frightening. So much so that dirt track’s governors banned TZ750 engines from the ovals.
At Indy in 2010 he rode a restored TZ dirt tracker, watched by a sell-out crowd, including a dumbfounded Valentino Rossi. “I hadn’t ridden a bike for at least a year, so I can tell you I had some sleepless nights,” says Roberts, who didn’t even practise before the demo. “I wanted people to see it full throttle and go ‘Wow!’ I didn’t build my career the way I did to ride around waving to the crowd. Once I kicked into Turn One and got it sideways then I was okay. Obviously I can go sideways till I die...”
Dirt track is a much-diminished sport in its American heartland, but to Roberts it is still the purest form of motorcycle racing.
“Dirt track is more brutal than road racing but teaches you a lot in a very short period of time. The natural stuff comes out much quicker because you can make adjustments. Weight distribution means a lot, how you set it into the turn and what the suspension does and all that stuff. With a road racer you have all that but it’s much more precise.
“When I was doing dirt track there was much more to figure out. Road racing was easier because the pavement hardly ever changed, whereas the dirt, from the qualifiers to the main event, would sometimes be completely different, so you’d have different tyres, different cuts on the tyres, different everything, so it was much more complicated. Road racing was easy, you just put on your leathers...
Although dirt track isn’t what it used to be in the States, it’s enjoying a revival in Europe, largely thanks to reigning MotoGP champion Márquez, who trains on the dirt every day, just like Roberts did. This explains the Spaniard’s astonishing riding technique: happily allowing his Repsol Honda RC213V to kick and squirm beneath him, just like a dirt track bike.
“It’s still useful to a road racer, even with traction control,” says Roberts. “The more you know about what a bike does, especially when it’s out of control, the better off you’re going to be, no matter what, traction control or not.”
By the end of our meal Roberts is looking distinctly rosy on the red wine. We’ve had a great chat, with much hilarity along the way. He saunters out of the Odd Duck restaurant, his gunslinger’s swagger still perceptible, looking for a cab back to watch Márquez, Rossi and the rest do their thing in MotoGP. Tomorrow is a big day. King Kenny was named a MotoGP Legend years ago and now it’s the turn of Kenny Jr. That’s another of his endless list of achievements: he was MotoGP’s first champion father of a champion son.