Ex-Team Roberts Mechanic & Racing Exec Merrill Vanderslice On King Kenny Roberts’ 70th Birthday

Here are some stories which can be told from that period:


My friendship with Kenny Roberts goes well back–I knew him a bit when we came from Oklahoma to race Yamahas in AMA racing. We raced against him and I met everyone around him over the years while he raced dirt track and roadraced. He has always been “Kenny” which if you know him needs no definition. I helped him get started at his Yamaha dealership in the 1980s and that transitioned to me being on the AMA 250 team as a mechanic, then a mechanic on the Team Roberts Lucky Strike team with riders Randy Mamola and Mike Baldwin, and others. Here are some stories which can be told from that period:

Kenny Roberts Yamaha Country

Kenny started his own Yamaha dealership in Modesto in the 1980s and hired me as his service manager. Kenny had just retired from racing and had some time on his hands so he spent a good bit of time with us at the dealership. Bikes were selling and the service department was quite busy. Kenny had a lot of people helping him in those days including his brother Rick who I never got to know that well. Rick and Kenny did not seem to be alike in any way but they were both Alice’s boys. Kenny spent a lot of time with his dad, Buster, over the years but if you knew his mom, Alice, then you know where he got most of his personality.

Kenny has many qualities: team owner, fearless racer and a really good fabricator, which can be quite rare in a rider. But one talent that he has is a very priceless sense of comedic timing. It made it hard to get work done at times because you were laughing so hard at something Kenny said, or did.

I remember once we sent Rick upstairs at the dealership to find something. Kenny’s dealership was a typical California shop; it had a main level then sort of an attic above that where things that were not needed on a day to day basis were stored. Again typical California shop and the attic wasn’t really finished, you really needed to be careful where you were stepping up there because some of it had a floor and some of it the floor was just the false ceiling in the shop area. Anyway, Rick was up there looking for something and Kenny, me and some other guys were standing by the counter waiting for Rick to come back down. He was up there for a while; you could hear him walking around up there looking for a gasket or something. While he was up there, one of Rick’s friends came in the dealership, walked over to us at the counter and asked for Rick. Rick here?

We didn’t even have time to open our mouths to tell him that Rick was upstairs when CRASH Rick’s leg came right through the false ceiling, up to about his thigh, over our heads.

Kenny looked at the friend and said, “He’ll be right down.” I still laugh hard when I think about that.

Kenny’s shop

Kenny’s home shop was better outfitted than the dealership was for race bike repair or upkeep. I think I was transitioning from the dealership to the race team in this period so I was working at Kenny’s shop one day and he asked that I prep the new V-Max motorcycle he’d gotten. Okay, prep it for what, Ken? Going for a ride or how far will you be riding it?

“No, I am going to dirt track that bike,” he said. Kenny had a short track right off the house in Hickman there, of which a lot has been written about. Kenny decided the V-Max was going to be a dirt track bike. Okay, so I think I put gas in it and maybe checked the tire pressure before he was on it, did a long burnout on the cement and then went out on his dirt track on the V-Max. He was tearing around on that bike, sliding it in these giant slides, left foot down and huge rooster tail behind him. We stood in amazement watching him. He burned a half a tank of gas doing that and then brought the bike back to the shop. He seemed quite disappointed in the V-Max because he’d been told the bike was very powerful and I don’t know, I rode it on the street and it scared me so I was almost shocked when he said the V-Max was slow. “We need to gear that thing better,” he suggested and I told him that–look Kenny–the V-Max is shaft drive. Oh, he said, well why the (heck) did they do that? That’s stupid.

He lost interest in the V-Max after that but seeing him out there with a giant clay rooster tail behind him is a mental image I will never forget.

Kenny’s shop 2

Kenny’s kids were still little when I was there. It was Christmas eve and I was finishing up something on one of the Team Nordica TZ250s when he came in the shop and asked me to help him assemble a giant trampoline on the back lawn of his house. He wanted to have it ready the next morning so his kids would get up on Christmas day and see that Santa had delivered the trampoline they wanted. So that meant setting it up after they went to bed, so it was dark by the time we started and we only had one flashlight and alcohol had been consumed waiting for the kids to go to bed so we could play Santa.

Anyway we are putting it together on the lawn, getting all the springs connected and what not. We flipped it over and we working on the underside when something snapped and the entire trampoline swallowed us like a giant Venus fly trap. We were flailing around in the fabric of the trampoline, in the dark, trying to get out. I think I got out first and finally got him out. Somehow we did get that thing assembled and the kids looked out the window Christmas morning and there was the trampoline Santa delivered. Again, alcohol.

Team Lucky Strike Yamaha

I did the Team Roberts 250 team for a few years and then Kenny started his own Grand Prix team so I went to Europe to be a mechanic on the team.

I think it was the very first race for the team, the Spanish Grand Prix, and we were just trying to get our feet under us and learn the bikes and the schedule and what not. It was my first race in Europe.

I think it was the first practice session of the year. Both riders were out lapping so we went to the garage and made sure things were ready if the riders came in and wanted to switch motorcycles or make changes. Kenny was on the pit wall with his stop watch.

From the garage one of my co-workers noticed that there was a big commotion on the pit wall and we all went to look.

I guess an overzealous security guard didn’t like where Kenny was standing on the pit wall and told him to move. I think Kenny’s response was to suggest the guard to perform a sex act on himself. So the pit guard came back with a member of the Spanish Police and this police fellow immediately “escalated” the situation by sticking his fully loaded machine gun in the King’s chest and telling him to vamoose. Note: do not do this with Kenny. Soon more police and more machine guns were pointed at Kenny so we mechanics got behind the King. I could see myself spending race day in a Spanish jail. I had been holding a very crude and heavy laptop in the garage and I still had it in my hands and was wondering whether I’d be using it for a weapon or to deflect bullets when a senior member of the police came by and told his men to stand down and explained who they had all been pointing their guns at–a GP racing God, Kenny Roberts. The one who had stuck the gun in Kenny’s chest was so sorry that he began to cry. Roberts said not to worry about it, he knew by looking at him he didn’t have the balls to shoot anyone.

Those are the stories I can tell. I wish my old friend and boss King Kenny a happy birthday.

Even today if someone says to me “they’ll be right down” I chuckle a little thinking of that hairy leg hanging out of the ceiling and what Kenny said.


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