Win Baby! Just Win!
Expose’ on the racing career of Kenny Roberts and his journey to become King Kenny Roberts a living icon of sportbike racing. His life long battle to make the sport he lives and loves better for the people in the industry of Grand Prix racing.
Sportbikes are hot! Just ask the guy living down your street who drives the 8-cyclinder gas-guzzler you see everyday to work as he pulls into his driveway. The street bike of the twenty-first century isn’t your father’s inefficient model of past times with its frustrating list of habits he lived with while he was riding. The modern motorcycle is every bit the nimble, space-age, invention it appears to be in the show room and on the Grand Prix tracks around the globe. Take a modern, high-powered, sportbike for a ride today, take it to its limits and you’ll feel what I mean the closer you get to the edge between maximum performance and disaster.
The icons of decades past routinely took their metal beasts beyond the confines set by their engineers while attempting to prove they were the best of their respective eras. Legends like Fast Freddie Spencer, Giacomo Agostini, Mike the Bike Hailwood and British legend Barry Sheene are a few of the most well-known heroes of past eras that some might consider for the moniker of greatest competitor to ever wear racing gloves.
Today we look at the story of a man many believe to be one of the most-celebrated motorcycle racers to ever walk toward the podium at the end of a GP race. A young boy who raced across the dirt tracks of America, accelerated through the lower ranks of competitive racing, to stand on the pinnacle of his vocation for a professional Grand Prix rider, by taking home his first world title riding for team Yamaha in 1978. A far cry from the humble beginnings of this future three-time 500cc World Grand Prix Champion we will talk about today.
The year is 1969 and in the sleepy little state of Oregon, on a 90cc Suzuki dirt bike, a 18-year-old boy is being crowned the Oregon state 100cc dirt track champion as the throng looks on. Trophy in hand he smiles at the crowds and dreams of going faster, riding harder and winning a bigger prize at the next competition down the road.
As his early years pass, the wins rack-up, the awards and championships accumulate on the mantel above his parent’s fireplace in California. And American motorcycle fanatics make a note to watch Kenny Roberts in the years that follow the formative years of his growth on the dirt tracks of America. Begin to believe in the incredible bike handling skill, technical talent, and management ability of a man destined to alter the very landscape of the sport he loves for coming generations of competitors and fans alike. A young man who would grow into one of the greatest legends of Grand Prix lore, a man simply known as the King to those who watched and admired him as he won his way into their hearts and minds. This little-racer would stand the Grand Prix world on its head before he was finished driving his sportbike across the racetracks and hearts of fanatics around the globe.
Born Kenneth Leroy Roberts on December 31, 1951 outside the quiet little American city of Modesto, California, to exhausted mother and proud father Buster Roberts, there was no star to indicate the arrival of a future King of sportbike racing. An individual destined to be World Grand Prix Champion, heralded as an endearing legend of motorcycle history and a candidate for the title of greatest racer to strap on a helmet. He would contribute to the design and development of the present generation of sportbikes engineered by manufacturers in the world today. Play a significant part in the development of the riding style of the present generation of adrenalin junkies speeding up and down the tracks of raceways around the world. And is the older, more mature, part of the first father-son racing tandem to both win World Grand Prix titles during their careers. Kenny senior would win three 500cc World Grand Prix Championships in fact, from 1978-1980, riding for Yamaha against a field of present and future champions. His second of two sons Kenny Roberts Junior would win his only world GP title in 2000 riding for Suzuki, while his older son Kurtis has yet to feel the thrill of winning a title but is currently the lead rider for Proton Team KR for the 2007 season.
The tale of Kenny Roberts rise to competitive glory, like all success stories, begins with his first racing failure at the ripe old age of 14, on a dirt track in the out-of-the-way city of Roseville. Persuaded by his father’s friend, Merle Mills, to go racing with him and his son at the AMA District 36 scrambles in Roseville that year. Kenny would feel the frustration of defeat as he sat in the third corner of that dirt track on his seized Tohatsu and watched his rivals go by him. But like all lessons of life this defeat only fed a will-to-win that would in later years drive him to become King Kenny Roberts an icon of Grand Prix lore.
Realisation had set-like-cement in Kenny’s mind as he sat in the third corner of that little dirt track in Roseville watching his smiling opponents go past him. To be a great racer he would need a great bike, or at least one that could finish the competition and give him a chance to taste victory instead of defeat. So investing $200 of his hard-earned Shekels on a Hodaka motorcycle, with riding fast on his mind, the growing King boarded his seat and headed to his next adventure. Kenny’s second start on his Hodaka earned him his first victory kiss to go along with the prize he really wanted from the pretty girl, the winner’s trophy. Kenny admitted later he really just wanted the trophy and if he had to kiss the girl holding the trophy to get it, he would survive the ordeal.
But unfortunately Kenny proved to be tougher than his little bike, as his mount came away from the race with a bent connecting rod that would need to be mended before Kenny could ride again. Kenny’s mechanical knowledge was on par with his mechanic during these early years, his father Buster Roberts, who like Kenny was learning with every race. So after they applied elbow, grease and mechanical skill to the problem, Kenny’s Hodaka was ready for the race bike bone yard.
It was while they were applying the finishing touches to Kenny’s Hodaka that destiny decided to lend a hand in the form of a guardian angel of sorts watching from the sidelines. Bud Aksland, a Hodaka dealer who would hang-out at the competitions, decided on this fateful day to lend a helping hand to the promising young prodigy. Bud helped Kenny survive that day and he’s still watching over him at Kenny’s racing team, Proton Team KR, today as they make another bid for the world title. Without Bud’s guiding light and the help of people like Bud Aksland to provide guidance and direction to the aspiring champion looking to make his mark in the record books. King Kenny Roberts may have never emerged from within that little boy to light the Grand Prix world on fire in the late 70’s. Provide the developmental input that helped create the modern sportbike loved and ridden by millions of fanatic’s around the globe everyday. Or pass on racing knowledge to a generation of impressionable young riders who learned to love sportbikes as they watched legends like the King become icons, and dreamed of racing their metal-steeds to future titles like their hero. For at that moment a partnership was formed between these two men from different worlds that would ultimately lead to a changing of the guard in Grand Prix racing. Develop into a professional and personal relationship between friends in the following years, with Bud becoming Kenny’s first sponsor in 1968, which is still driving them toward a better future for themselves and the sport they have given so much to.
The first bike supplied by Kenny’s sponsor was a Suzuki 90, a small but reliable motorcycle for a 17-year-old prodigy to earn his racing strips on the dirt tracks of America with. Providing Kenny with the only tool he needed to compete and win, besides his riding skill, a reliable and fast sportbike upon which to prevail. And win he did, in fact, Kenny won so many races during these years, the opposition complained so vehemently about Kenny winning every competition so easily. The race organizers felt it was necessary to provide the young prodigy with a handicap to push his development along a little. But starting a quarter-mile behind his opposition waiting at the start line or beginning with his bikes rear tire facing the wrong direction as the start flag fell. May have been annoying to Kenny, but made no difference as Kenny Roberts continued to win despite the uneven ground he was expected to manoeuvre his bike around.
Having won enough times on his Suzuki 90, Kenny decided it was time to move up to the expert class if he was to progress as a rider and fulfill his dreams of glory. So boarding a 250cc Suzuki Savage in 1969, at the ripe old age of 18 years of age, the growing champion prepared to meet the destiny awaiting him on the tracks of America. Kenny Roberts hit the road to race for money for the first time that year in indoor short-track races held in the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Kenny would win his first professional contest but the $175 Kenny won didn’t wear any holes in Kenny’s pocket, being immediately invested in the purchase of a Honda motorcycle Kenny spent so much time on, he felt like he lived on it.
Well that’s it for the first part of the story of King Kenny Roberts and his rise to the pinnacle of motorcycle racing glory. Join us next issue for the next part of the Kenny Roberts story, as we follow his journey through the Grand Prix jungle to the top of the sportbike racing mountain and look at his personal battles with the racetracks, other racers and gods who make the rules in the GP world.