The voice sounds familiar, not unlike Kenny Robert Senior, just different in tone. Nearly everything else is the same. But, this is not Kenny, nor is it Junior (number one son and namesake). This is the second son, the one with red hair and light skin. The one everybody around the Roberts camp has been talking about for years, the son they refer to as “the fast one”.
And the tall one. Kurtis, at perhaps five foot nine, is taller than any Roberts we’ve seen. Don’t get the wrong impression—he’s not a freak of nature and not above average for an American boy, but most of the Roberts clan from Grandpa Buster to King Kenny to Current 500 Yamaha man, Junior, run along the short side of the chart. Makes you kind of wonder, is this kid really a Roberts?
Seventeen years old, that would make him a high school junior, right? Don’t waste any time on academic accomplishment, he’s already out of school. “I passed my high school proficiency test,” Robert replies, giving one the impression he had little patience for books. School never was a strong point for any of the Roberts boys; their education took place at the ranch, riding motocross bikes and Honda XR100s on the dirt ovals, trying to keep up with Dad and friends, Filice, Chandler, Rainey, and Lawson, et al.
From that group, one rider compares Kurtis to his brother, “Well, at least he listens. With Junior it’s always ‘I know. I know’ but Kurtis asks questions, learns fast and is fast.”
Kurtis Roberts is new to racing in America but not new to racing. Last year Kurtis spent some time in Spain riding a 125cc GP bike in the Ducados series. “It wasn’t very good,” Roberts says honestly of the adventure. “The bike was really slow and I’m just too big for a 125, it doesn’t fit my riding style very well.”
1996 will be split between the United States and Spain for the youngest Roberts boy; in Europe he will ride a Yamaha TZ250 with American great Jimmy Filice (as team-mate). Not the 1996 model though, Roberts reveals. “We’re having a really bad chassis problem over there with the new bikes and we can’t use them. I’m like two seconds slower on the 1996 than on the 1995 bike. And that was only my third race on a 250 when I set that time. We were like a half second off the track record.” As for the AMA schedule, the informal plan now is for Roberts to ride all the remaining AMA 1996 nationals except Loudon.
Laguna Seca, for rookies, can be tough: the Corkscrew, the hump in Turn One, and trying to adapt to the rhythm of the circuit are big obstacles for a new rider. But, apparently, not if your name is Roberts. “This place is no big deal,” the boy says matter-of-factly. “The Corkscrew really isn’t a problem, braking into the Corkscrew is a little tough.”
Interesting that Laguna is the first American race for the teenager because it is the first race he can remember seeing his Dad race. “I think it was 1984, the last year he did any riding. I watched him race here and his gearshift lever broke in the race. “What could that have been like, to stand at Laguna Seca, six years old and watch people paw at your father for an autograph? “I don’t know,” says Kurtis, “I just looked at him as my dad and he raced motorcycles.”
At Laguna Seca, details were taken care of in typical Kenny Roberts fashion for his son. A cargo van and a trailer were on site and two gorgeous 250s were being maintained by Brian Turfrey and Bud Aksland. Kurtis explained the differences between the two bikes. “My spare bike is really slow and only revs to like 5000 rpm. And it’s got different geometry; the steering angle is brought in. It turns better but the engine is just so bad, and we have a really bad chatter problem from the Ohlins forks. Those things are really hard to get dialed. The bike that I’m going to race, I’m using the standard front end.”Of his faster equipment the red-haired adolescent said, “It’s really good. I got in (Rich) Oliver’s tow and I could hardly stay in his draft with my slow bike. But my other bikes, it’s the fastest bike here.”And it was, if one took a blurry 16mm camera and shot footage of Kurtis sliding the PJ1 bike, lofting wheelies around Laguna, you’d swear it was the old man on his 1983 OW70—minus a couple of exhaust pipes.
With Roberts Senior on hand, one might wonder exactly what the King was telling his boy, what with all the whispering and hand gestures going on. “He really hasn’t said too much,” revealed Kurtis. “I guess I’m learning pretty good. Everything is coming along pretty good; maybe if it wasn’t coming good he would be talking to me more. I thought it would take awhile to come along but it seems to be coming good.” Indeed, in his heat race Roberts got a beautiful start from the sixth row of the grid, passed at least 10 bikes before Turn One, circulated in seventh on the first three laps, and later finished fourth in his first-ever AMA 250 GP heat race, almost nipping Roland Sands at the line. In the 250 GP Final, Roberts again finished a convincing fourth, after battling the latter two-thirds of the race with 40-year old Randy Renfrow on the Moto Liberty Honda.
And where, pray tell, where does the lad plan on going with all this talent, enthusiasm and opportunity staring back at him in the mirror?“I want to win a 500 World Championship,” he said non-boastfully. Yes, so don’t we all; but what before that, perhaps a Superbike ride?“No, I have no interests in Superbike,” he states. “I would like to ride one just to win Daytona, but really I’d like to stay away from Superbikes completely. I want to ride a 500.”
Yep, he’s a Roberts.