Another Kenny Roberts Story

WELL THEN WHY DO YOU EVEN LIVE IN WISCONSIN? Roberts asks. All eyes on me.

Warren’s carbs, at about the midpoint of his quest for answers, on a KR3 two-stroke engine. DEAN ADAMS

We’re in KR’s expansive, luxurious motorhome sitting in his driveway in Hickmann and the talk is fast. It was like 109 degrees a few hours earlier but now it’s time to relax.

Roberts is pretty comfortable in the motorhome so we don’t go into the house. The local “friends of Kenny” troupe are seated on the plush leather; Bub Monaco, Chuckie, Big Mike, both of Monaco’s fast kids are there, as is Roberts’ wife Tomo. It’s bench racing at its finest. But Roberts is in one of his moods–he challenges every notion or perceived fact that comes up.

I am smart enough to know to keep my head down and let everyone else walk right into the verbal wood chipper. About ten minutes ago I brought up the late engineer and Roberts’ friend Warren Willing. I’d interviewed Warren a few times so I mentioned that Warren said that he loved working at Team Roberts in the glory days of their two-stroke GP program and the four-stroke KR5 effort because it was like starting with a blank sheet of paper. Anything was possible. Warren said it was refreshing that he could try to fix things that had bothered him about motorcycle design.

“And he did,” Roberts says. “Everything. He tried every single thing he could come up with. Did he tell you about the carburetor project?” he asks.

Uh, no.

Roberts tells the story about Warren Willing being frustrated by the then-current offerings from Mikuni and Kehin and his long-harbored suspicion that all modern carburetors were designed poorly. So, when the Modenas KR3 bike was designed, Warren decided that he’d start at ground zero on the carbs for the new 500cc two-stroke V3 engine. The first carbs that Warren designed were almost unrecognizable as carbs; they were a block of aluminum with a intricate power-valve and fuel pump—almost fuel injection but not quite. Roberts explains that he gave Warren a clean sheet of paper and let him go. They were moto-pirates: take no prisoners! Reject current engineering conventional wisdom! Shove it in their faces!

Did he ever make a conventional carburetor? I ask.

“He tried everything,” Roberts says, this time a little louder because clearly I did not hear him say EVERYTHING the first time.

He built so many different carburetors and systems or had the KR engineering department draw up basically every  conceivable way to deliver fuel to a two-stroke engine short of fuel injection. “In the end, Warren was happy because he had been able to try all of his induction ideas and was able to, kind of, cancel them all out.”

Lines were drawn through a punch list of carburetor ideas that Willing had scribbled down. “We should have just bought Mikunis, and later we did, but Warren thought there was something there.”

“Was that the $100,000 carb project?,” someone else asks Roberts. He looks at them blank-faced but says nothing.

Someone else gets misty-eyed about the former two-stroke era and how it really was a shame when four-strokes took over, because the sound of the two stroke is so seductive, the power intoxicating. Roberts is not nostalgic as a rule and he slices through the bench racing romance with one razor-sharp question/statement. “Well, what would have happened if they gave us (the two-stroke teams) the same capacity as the four-strokes?”

A 1000cc two stroke V-4. Hmm. It is an interesting thought: a 1000cc two-stroke engine controlled by ECU and traction control. That would have been something.

They make snowmobiles with big two stroke engines in them, someone else says to Roberts. Fuel injected, and controlled by an ECU, they are shriekingly fast and bad-ass. It is said.

“Don’t they make snowmobiles with 750cc two-stroke engines in them?” Roberts asks. I look up to see who he is asking for this information and am surprised when I realize that Roberts is asking me.

I go with the bold truth: I have no idea, I tell him, not a clue. I have never ridden a snowmobile in my life. I’m a motorcyclist. I’m sure riding a snowmobile is a very enjoyable pastime, going 90 mph on bitter cold trails that make the Isle of Man TT course look like safe. Just not to me.

WELL, THEN, WHY DO YOU EVEN LIVE IN WISCONSIN? Roberts asks. All eyes on me.

I don’t, I explain, I live in Minnesota.

Roberts rolls his eyes and you can see the ‘why do I hang out with idiots?’ notion cross through his brain.

He switches gears, hard and fast. “Did you ever finish your RZ350?”, he asks me. I did, I tell him, thanks again for the help.

“We were going to make a Proton club race bike that would have been kind of a modern RZ350,” he says. “400cc two-stroke twin with modern chassis and electronics.”

What happened with that, I ask, remembering for a while that Roberts and his friend Sparky Edmonson were brainstorming that project as an off-shoot of Team Roberts.

“The executive at Proton who was going to sign off on it got killed in a helicopter crash,” Roberts says, and looks out the motorhome window. It is quiet.


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