On that hot August night in 1975, I would not have given great odds that Kenny Roberts would live to celebrate his 70th birthday. At the legendary Indy Mile, America’s reigning Grand National Champion saddled up a TZ750-powered dirt tracker, Yamaha’s answer to Harley-Davidson’s superior horsepower on mile tracks. In a straight line this was one hell hound of a motorcycle. When it came time to turn a corner, it was the Devil’s own disaster!
Always laser focused on the problem at hand, KR learned through methodical experimentation that he could force the beast to turn by bouncing it off the haybales! This solution – albeit life threatening – enabled him to pass the entire field, draft past the hated factory Harleys in the final run to the checker and score perhaps the most memorable win of his career.
The winner interview was among the most quoted of all time. “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing” became a fixture in the lexicon of dirt track racing.
Eventually Roberts and Yamaha conceded American dirt track hegemony to H-D and took on a new challenge, Grand Prix road racing. In cowboy boots and straw hat, armed with the long gun that allegedly shot down the inflatable Michelin Man, Roberts arrived in the GP paddock like something from another world. “El Martiano” the fans called him – “The Martian.”
Knee down, spinning the rear tire and sliding around corners as if on dirt, Roberts rewrote the Grand Prix style book. He won three straight championships in his own right, traded his helmet for Yamaha’s Team Manager jacket and ruled the world with rider Wayne Rainey. Then, ever the contrarian, he left Yamaha to form his own team – and to build his own motorcycle!
But among a multitude of choices, Roberts’ signature achievement was to revolutionize the hierarchy of Grand Prix racing. When “King Kenny” arrived in Europe, the paddock was a slum and the riders were treated like chattel, their safety a non-issue. He changed all of that, demanding that the competitors be heard. When the aged bureaucrats of the FIM turned a deaf ear, he rallied the riders behind the threat of a rival series. That did the trick. The hidebound elders recognized an existential threat to their power and yielded. The resulting changes laid the foundation for the modern day success story that is MotoGP.
Now safely retired, Roberts has arrived at that 70th birthday amid world-wide congratulations. And so we say Happy Birthday to “King Kenny.” “El Martiano.” The original alien.