It’s 2007, and promising 250cc rider Jorge Lorenzo has a problem. His riding talent arsenal is ready for anything any of his rivals can throw at him—until it rains. Lorenzo has the speed when the track is wet, but is unable to find the same edge he has in the dry. He crashes in the wet, and it costs him. The crashing perturbs him because, in each instance, when he hits the deck in the rain on a Grand Prix bike, he has no idea why he crashed. With no perceptible change in conditions or riding technique, one lap he’s happily sprinting away from his rivals, the next he’s sliding along on his back at 95 mph, covered in mud. Walking back to the garage, he’s furious and confused and has no earthly idea how to correct the problem. It’s starting to drive him mad; he’d crash in the wet, go back out, back off a full click from the pace he’d been mustering pre-crash…and promptly crash again in the wet.
Racing, for riders, is at times a series of compartmentalized puzzles that they need to solve quickly. Solving mental puzzles requires good data and analysis. Suffering bad starts? Get a video camera and film every start, and also film the start of the rider who’s usually first into turn one. Analyze, compare, frame by frame, what each rider and bike are doing.
Data and analysis. Lorenzo had neither in regard to his crashing-in-the-wet problem. Surveying a very dirty and bent motorcycle, his crewchief would ask the inevitable “So, what happened?” about his wet crashes and Lorenzo would reply the same way each time, ‘I have no idea! I did nothing different, nothing!’ he’d almost shout as he threw his muddy gloves and boots down and stalk off. Stoking his own mental furnace, Lorenzo would return to his motorhome, dial up his PlayStation to the same wet track and…crash again, virtually.
Lorenzo needed help from a higher power.
Enter King Kenny Roberts. At this point, Roberts didn’t know Lorenzo very well and was in the middle of trying to save his GP team, so he didn’t have a lot of time for favors.
On the subject of Lorenzo, Roberts is crisp. “I owed his, at that time, team manager and manager a big favor, so they collected from me saying I would let him ride at the ranch,” Roberts explained.
So Lorenzo flew to California and was driven to Modesto with a plan to stay for a few weeks with Team Roberts. That the program wasn’t going to be tailor-made for a Euro rider was clear at breakfast the first morning. Instead of the usual Spanish breakfast of coffee, a piece of toast and maybe some jam, Lorenzo was presented a huge ham and cheese omelet. Okay, now let’s ride.
Roberts has several different dirt short-tracks at his house. “So, what did you do for him,” I asked Roberts, “turn on all the sprinklers and let him ride all day?”
“No,” Roberts says, his voice sounding like a guy who has spent his entire life dealing with people who feel they know what he does or what he’s thinking when in reality they have no clue what he’s doing or thinking.
“Did you design a special program for him, to help him ride in the rain, then?”
“No,” Roberts says, his voice sounding flat. “We don’t really make special programs for people when they come to the ranch. We just let him loose on a mini-bike and rode with him.”
Ah yes, the Haul-Ass Hickman Club as writer Ken Vreeke famously called it. This is where Roberts and his cronies, most of whom ride his tracks every day, use the new guy as a berm. The new guy leaves bruised and battered, and two weeks later, when he blows his nose after he returns home, he’s still seeing dirt from Roberts’ roost.
Lorenzo knows his way around a Honda XR100 and was able to pick up the pace quickly at the Roberts facility. Time is magnified on a small track and track conditions can change by the minute when the moisture level drops. Costly, subtle mistakes become glaring omissions. Maybe you were doing something different that lap than the one before it. Short track laps teach a rider to hone his precision so that he is as sharp as a knife.
Asked to gauge Lorenzo’s progress while undergoing the infamous Roberts torture test, the former three-time world champion said, “He rode every day. And he picked it up quite quickly. He’s very aggressive. I mean, not because he’s faster than anybody I trained, obviously. It’s just that he don’t want you to go past him. He’s just got a, ‘No, you can’t pass me’ type of attitude. He’s in front; he’s just not going to let you by. The track seemed to get a lot wider than it ever had, with him, because of that. I’ve trained, and worked with, Wayne (Rainey), and Eddie (Lawson), and all the good guys, and he’s certainly one of them. And he’s very difficult on himself.”
“Wayne was a natural. We’d bump handlebars and laugh and ride. Wayne was very quick. Eddie, not as quick as Wayne, as finely tuned as Wayne. But Lorenzo isn’t that, but he’s got another thing that not many guys have: and that’s the brain power that he exerts to make sure that he’s faster than everybody else. I don’t think he’s, let’s say, the most natural guy, as far as the technique and the ability, but he’s got something that a lot of guys don’t have, and that’s the desire. The desire to push the rest of it to 100%.”
Lorenzo was awed that a man thirty years his senior could out-pace him so easily on a small off-road motorcycle.
Kenny Roberts Junior has said in the past that the basic rule at his dad’s ranch is that, if there is a race and his dad leads for one lap—doesn’t matter which one-then he’s won. Plus, you have to take the abuse—abuse which comes at a grueling pace. It’s not just that Roberts leaves rubber all over your left boot and leg and that side of your abdomen, it’s that, when you stop for water or gas, Roberts smokes a cigar and points out every single mistake you made. Two-wheeled boot camp.
Roberts admits that, by the time Lorenzo left the ranch after two weeks, he, King Kenny Roberts himself, age fifty-something, had to push hard to beat him. Lorenzo recounts that, on one day of bar-bashing, he felt a stab of fear as he saw Roberts go flying over the bars in a huge crash while they were battling. Roberts admits he did crash, and said it’s not something he likes to do these days.
“I’m old now,” Roberts says. “I can’t get pulled into these situations any more.”
“I think, once he gets the bit between his teeth, and he actually starts winning like he did this last year, it’s going to be somebody extraordinary to put him off of that mark. Because he’s probably the hardest guy I ever trained, to pass,” Roberts says.
Like many who know the reigning MotoGP World Champion, Roberts remarked that what he noticed about Lorenzo is his self-critical attitude, one that some say borders on self-anguish. The end result is that he’s so hard on himself that, once he finds a semblance of a satisfying performance, it’s at a pace that few can match.
Lorenzo left the ranch bruised and probably knowing right where the ibuprofen bottle was for a few weeks, but also with more ability than he had when he came to Modesto fourteen days prior. He went back to Spain and told Spanish TV and newspapers that his time spent in California was among the most productive times in his life, that he learned so much from the King.
A few days later Lorenzo went to Donington Park and, in a wet race, strung a series of laps together so that he had a huge lead. And then he crashed.
“He stayed two weeks,” Roberts says. “He probably needed three.”