Ex-Cycle News Editor Gary Van Voorhis On King Kenny Roberts’ 70th Birthday

The list of suspects was very, very short.


Warming up in order to go out and shut Sheene’s mouth. GVV

Sometimes you get lucky and are in the right place at the right time. I got lucky more than once. And unlucky as well. And you learn damn quick that asking Roberts even a simple question is asking to be slapped down as only Kenny could do. Over the years covering Roberts I felt a lot of sympathy for any track announcer who had to interview KR.

Daytona International Speedway, early 70’s. He wasn’t “King Kenny” yet or even ‘prince Kenny’ but 80y made people notice his style; his speed; and a bit of swagger even way back. Daytona through the years became a love hate relationship for Roberts, a win some and lose more but not because he didn’t ride the wheels off his mounts.

Before KR went off to the GP wars he was the hero (or nasty Yank if you were a Brit) when racing in the 1974 Easter-time Trans Atlantic Match Race Series. Roberts reputation as America’s hottest racer preceded him, and the Brits – led by 500ccGP World Champion Barry Sheene – – gleefully anticipated a royal butt whipping. Whoops. Sheene, the Rolls Royce-driving hero of Britannia, and his mates quickly found out that KR was for real. As the series raced through Mallory Park and Oulton Park and then Brands Hatch (all tight and twisty ‘scratchers tracks’ in Brit slang) the smile on Bazza’s face (Barry Sheene) disappeared and so did the walkover plans. Nothing like watching Roberts, wrapped in Old Glory, sitting next to Sheene in the back of a convertible touring the tracks for the riders parade. Steely Roberts playing head games and winning. The team won the series and another chapter in Roberts’ history was written.

Back in the U.S., Roberts got back to being Roberts again. The little quirks that could, and were meant to, unnerve some folks mostly went unnoticed. But not at a Laconia roadrace national. Dunlop Tire shod Roberts was always battling the Michelin Tire boys. In the paddock the Michelin Tire work area was easily spotted because they flew a good sized Michelin Man inflatable. On race day the unthinkable happened… the Michelin Man slowly deflated and crashed. Once the Michelin crew found a puncture (caused no doubt by a ‘stray’ .22 cal bullet) they wanted to find the culprit. The list of suspects was very, very short. It took AMA referee Charlie Watson telling the riders in a meeting that there would be no Laconia National until someone fessed up to letting the air out of Mr Pibb. Roberts finally did.

And now the rest of the story: When Roberts retired from active GP road racing and came back as a team owner, Michelin was the control tire. “I had to pay for all my tires” Roberts told me “Michelin had a long memory.”

Most folks recall Roberts’ classic quote from the Indy Mile DT National that “they (Yamaha) don’t pay me enough to ride that.” That being the Yamaha TZ750 road race engine stuffed into a DT frame. My go-to quote was uttered by Team Harley-Davidson’s Corky Keener: “I heard that screaming S.O.B coming and I knew we (teammate Jay Springsteen) were in trouble”. Indeed. Keener and Springsteen had the race locked up. So much so that they were playing draft-and-pass on the straights of the 25 lap Indy Mile to give the fans a show. Meanwhile Roberts was playing ‘bounce off the haybales with a bike which was a rocket in a straight line but didn’t want to turn. And the rest is history. Roberts won and team manager Pete Schick was in shock. Keener and Springsteen were in shock also. Even more so as they had to stand for an atomic butt-chewing by H-D team manager Dick O’Brien. OB was pretty good with words: “They (H-D) could hire anyone to lose; they hired me to win.”

Congrats on 70 KR. It’s been a helluva ride and I’m glad I got a small chance to tag along.

 


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