In racing, change is inevitable. But change being unavoidable doesn't make accepting it any easier--especially when it's news no one wants to hear.
This weekend, for the first time in nearly 40 years, Kenny Roberts won't be racing or running a race team that he owns. Team Roberts is absent from the 2008 MotoGP grid because they were unable to secure sponsorship and MotoGP machinery.
Roberts has been racing since he was 13 years old and his direct involvement in the sport has not stopped since that day. So, while there probably won't be a national day of mourning declared when the MotoGP grid takes to the track under the lights at Qatar on Sunday and Team Roberts isn't there, it remains a blow to the series and to motorcycle racing that Roberts will probably be on the golf green or trail riding when the race is started.
When asked on Wednesday if this may be the end for Team Roberts as a Grand Prix team, Roberts answered, "Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine. As normal, there's all kinds of people talking, of course, and some small deals to large deals. Just nothing came together quick enough for me to commit like I did last year."
Roberts has both made and spent a fortune in racing in the past three decades. Yet, this year, unlike years in the past, Roberts wasn't interested in floating his team with his own money in the hopes that most of the investment would come back in sponsorship dollars. "I'm not going to go forward and ask for machinery if I don't have the money to successfully do the project," Roberts said.
The Roberts Resume
1969: First dirt track race at age 13
1970: AMA Novice National Champion
1971: AMA Junior National Champion
1972: 4th, AMA Expert National Championship
1973: AMA Grand National Champion
1974: AMA Grand National Champion
1975-77: Grand National Championship (2nd, 3rd, 4th, respectively)
1978: Grand Prix World Champion, 500cc
1979: Grand Prix World Champion, 500cc
1980: Grand Prix World Champion, 500cc
1981-83: Grand Prix World Championship, 500cc (3rd, 4th, 2nd, respectively)
1984: Marlboro Team Roberts Yamaha (Riders Alan Carter & Wayne Rainey)
1985: Won Laguna Seca, Won Pole For Suzuka 8 Hours (RACED A FREAKIN HARLEY AT SPRINGFIELD--DEAN)
1986-89: Lucky Strike Team Roberts Yamaha, Final Race As Rider At Suzuka 8 Hours, 1986. Final race as GP rider at Monza 1986 where he practiced on one of his team bikes.
1990-96: Marlboro Team Roberts Yamaha
Team Roberts Modenas
1997: Marlboro Team Roberts Modenas
1998-2007: Team Roberts (Modenas 1998-2000, Proton 2000-2005, KR/Honda 2006-2007)
-- Sean Bice
The fact that the man who has had the most influence on the sport of Grand Prix racing and making it more professional is the very one left in a lurch as the series jumps to a status just short of Formula One in Europe is painfully ironic. But Roberts knows that this day has been coming for a while. "Well, it's been--the last few years, ever since the fiasco with the KTM project, and of course sponsors bailing the year after, too, GP's getting tougher and tougher to put all of it together to do the project. It's not getting easier. It's getting tougher. Motorcycle racing, in general, is a lot of work for very little financial gain, at the moment, anyway."
Six-time Superbike champion Mat Mladin has been vilified in the United States for possibly over-staying the national Superbike period of his career, with some fans wondering why he didn't win a few titles and then jump to Grand Prix racing. Mat Mladin has been more successful in the United States than Roberts was as a rider (two Grand National championships) but the simple fact is that, when Roberts made the jump to Grand Prix, any good national rider could do so. All he had to have was the desire and enough points to qualify for an FIM license. Yamaha and Suzuki made production race bikes nearly anyone could buy that could be raced at the top level of the sport. Obviously, this situation no longer exists. MotoGP bikes are prototypes made and maintained by the factories. To enter a Grand Prix now, one would have to have access to a MotoGP bike and essentially be invited either by Dorna, rights holder of MotoGP or by one of the factories. Without that, riders stay here or in England or perhaps move to WSBK.
Roberts seems to see problems in motorcycle racing no matter where he looks, not just in Grand Prix and their closed society. "Everybody needs to look at the motorcycle racing industry. It is a tough industry to get into. Michael Jordan, for example. When he can't bring a team in and win, (in Superbike) you need to look strongly at the series, and why, in my opinion. Mr. Ecclestone said years ago to me, 'You'll never build this sport with Japanese companies.' So far--so far--he's not been wrong. And it's not their fault. Entirely not their fault. It's nothing to do with the Japanese factories and that they hate racing or they hate anything. They run a very efficient company. Unfortunately, where we butt heads is sometimes to help the racing or to help the factories. They naturally, being very good businessmen, always go in line with the factories. They have to. So there needs to be someone above all that saying what needs to happen for the betterment of racing."
There will only be 18 bikes on the MotoGP grid on Sunday. In today's racing climate, this is seen as a healthy grid because they're all factory, or factory-supported bikes and one of them is piloted by Valentino Rossi. Eighteen years or so ago, the entire world's press was holding a collective freak-down because the 500 grid was dipping below twenty. To help bolster the number of bikes entered in the series, Roberts demanded that Yamaha make customer Grand Prix engines that could be sold to privateer or satellite teams.
"I really got a black mark on my career with Yamaha over that," Roberts remembers, "because I was the one that forced them into making a motor to sell. Nobody even knows how many meetings ended up in yelling matches over that. They were forced into it. But that was then and this is now. It's a lot different ballgame. The four-strokes are more expensive. When you consider that I won a World Championship in '78 for $300,000 was our budget, and I did 250 and 750. It's changed a lot. But you can't go back and say it was better then or different now. It's different now. There's nothing you can say about it. I think it's never been as good as it is now, as far as the amount of talent and equipment that's on the racetrack, and I would say you can't dispute that. Hopefully, they have a good race."
So MotoGP rolls on without one of its most influential and highly recognized boosters, King Kenny Roberts. But, even now, while sitting at home while bikes glide down the pit lane in Qatar, Roberts is hopeful that the series will become successful. Even without him.
"I hope that everybody survives. I know that a lot of the private teams are struggling. That's not a good series, in my opinion. All the teams that are there need to pay their bills. That's a good series. Now, if there's too many teams, then you could say, "Okay, you can lose a few." When you get down to the numbers that we're in, it's hard to lose a few. So I don't know, and they don't know, why it's so tough in MotoGP to secure the budgets. I have my views, but they may be wrong. They may be way out. And, of course, Dorna has their views and the factories have their view. Who's right? No one knows."