On Friday, last year at Austin, out of the corner of his eye, the man employed by Suzuki to check credentials at the door of the Suzuki MotoGP hospitality area saw something odd.
Some fellow, not immediately recognizable, was sitting in the near-empty hospitality area, drinking a bottle of water and eating a banana. The stranger wore sunglasses and a baseball cap, and was slightly hunched over. He looked like an American guy: t-shirt and jeans. One moment he was not there, it seemed to the guard, then the next he was. He’d slipped in un-noticed. What’s this? A fan? Sometimes fans are able to get into the less guarded hospitality areas and enjoy how the other half live at a MotoGP race. Worse, some people gain access to the paddock intent on theft.
The guard quickly walked over to where the stranger was sitting and asked the man, ‘Excuse me, sir? Can I see your pass?’
The man looked up, and held his pass up for the doorman. He watched as recognition eventually washed over the guard’s face. The stranger had the “go-anywhere” Dorna ex-world champion pass. The name on the pass was Kenny Roberts Jr–2000 world champion.
The door guard apologized profusely.
While some ex-world champions might have reacted differently, might have had some fun by pulling rank on the working stiff or making him feel terrible for this incident, Roberts wasn’t actually too bothered by not being recognized by a Suzuki MotoGP representative. In 10 minutes he and the guard were friends.
Kenny Roberts Junior didn’t exactly plan on visiting the MotoGP race at CoTA; he and his family had actually planned another ski trip, but his father mentioned he’d be in attendance, so Roberts Junior and his wife, Rochelle, said sure, why not?, and drove a few states over to see his dad. As a family the Roberts Junior clan have done 42 ski trips in the last year (Junior is 42 year old) and this race coincided, kind of, with one of the trips to the mountains. Roberts Junior enjoys a very close relationship with his father. It’s his dad, of course, but they are so close they might as well be brothers. Junior is the first to bow at the altar of King Kenny Roberts. When he speaks about his father he refers to him just as often as “the King” as he does “my dad”.
While at CoTA, Junior was in spectator mode. You’d see him pushing a stroller, walking around the paddock or in different parts of the track, with Rochelle and their two kids. They did all the fan stuff: collected posters and stickers, stood in line for autographs, looked at the MotoA’ bikes and talked with friends. Every once in a while Junior would say to his wife, ‘I’ll be right back,’ and he’d walk into the back door of, say, the factory Yamaha garage, cruising past as people in the garage went to stop him, but decided not to when they saw his face. Roberts honestly wasn’t too bothered, and if someone had stopped him and told him to leave the garage he would have done so without protest. At Yamaha he walked in the back door and strode a familiar path to the front of the garage and asked, ‘Hey, Valentino around?’. Rossi recognized his voice and left a debrief with his mechanics to come over and chat with a guy he once raced 500s against. The same thing happened at the other factory garages: he walked in, saw friends, talked.
While at Yamaha he saw Rossi’s new “riding coach” Luca Cadalora standing against the wall.
They were once teammates, he and Cadalora. Here’s a story: Roberts remembered the time when Cadalora, feeling like he was ready, in pre-season of 1994, had asked Team Roberts and Yamaha to allow him to ride Wayne Rainey’s 1993 YZR500. He didn’t want to ride a bike that was merely close to the spec of Rainey’s GP bikes, he wanted Rainey’s actual bike–one set-up and developed exactly for Rainey with a dump-box powerband and steep head angle. With Rainey gone from racing, Cadalora was confident that he was ready to step into Rainey’s role, and be the new Wayne Rainey. Team Roberts Yamaha brought Rainey’s bike to a Phillip Island pre-season test and even though Kenny Roberts Senior and others didn’t think it was a good idea, they fired it up for Luca.
Junior remembers talking with Cadalora just after the Italian had ridden a session on Rainey’s 500. They leaned on the Team Roberts shipping crates in their still soaked-with-sweat leathers.
“Luca’s face was as white as a ghost,” Junior remembers. “After he rode Wayne’s bike he said that only two people could ride it: Wayne Rainey and God.” He did not ask to ride that bike again.
Cadalora as a riding coach was a popular subject in the paddock, producing much skepticism. Roberts Junior won’t join in when it’s suggested that Luca Cadalora being Rossi’s riding coach is preposterous. In fact, just the opposite. “I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t really follow racing as closely as I once did. Whatever Luca is doing for him seems to be working.”
Junior is comfortably retired today, and has been for years. He has a California house, a house in the mountains and some other places to park his motorhome. His life is a picture of stability: he and his wife Rochelle have been together for 20 years, and they have two children. They have only slept apart once in those twenty years. They are on the road for many weeks, traveling to all the national parks and seeing historical sites. Roberts Junior wasn’t super-impressed by the school system he attended/endured as a kid, so they home-school their own children. Roberts left school perturbed but not unintelligent. Case in point: when he decided to become a pilot he absolutely smoked the written exams and the actual flying lessons. He loves to tell people that before he opened the ‘how to fly’ manual that he had never read a book. Now his kids’ education comes from both books and also life. “You want to learn about the Civil War?” he asks hypothetically, “let’s go see some Civil War battlefields, some re-enactments. See where the first shots were fired.”
Roberts Junior and his father enjoy time spent together. They finish each others sentences, and Junior knows which stories his dad likes to tell, which will get the biggest rise out of him. King Kenny Roberts is a larger than life figure and Junior is usually there to steer a way out when situations get too large. He concedes that for most of his life his role has been to be a concerned voice of reason for his dad. Are you sure you want to put that giant Yamaha engine in a small duck boat? If you’re going to try and flat track the streetbike Yamaha left here, make sure you’re wearing a helmet–okay?
Sixteen years later the truth about how the 2000 world title was won by Roberts is finally beginning to leak out. A good number of people who actually had nothing to do the title being won accepted credit. Some people and firms accepted the laurels of that world title when they were actually an impediment. Stories have long been whispered of Roberts Junior and the late Warren Willing (his crewchief) having to use a JB Weld-like epoxy on the bike’s cylinders in the championship winning race because they had no more spare cylinders due to budget cuts.
Roberts isn’t too bothered about that whole 2000 championship saga, to be honest. He sums it all up as just a roll of the dice, that Suzuki just did not have the funding to really challenge for the championship. They worked hard, got lucky and with that he became the only father/son combo to win the 500. In fact, Roberts Junior doesn’t really dwell on the obvious aspects of the achievement, that he won the title racing against Valentino Rossi, Roberts on an underfunded effort. What he seems most proud of is that he and his dad are in a very exclusive club together.
On Sunday night at Austin a group has gathered outside Kenny Roberts Senior’s motorhome. They are King Kenny friends and admirers, distant family and friends of friends. Drink is flowing and the King is telling one story after another; every story that comes slightly tops the one before and he has the audience in stitches. At the same time, Roberts Junior is a genial host–re-filling drinks and offering food he has cooked on the grill. He laughs along with Senior’s hilarious stories, shaking his head at times but the smile never leaves his face as he listens to his dad’s stories.
Just before he steps away to put his kids to bed, there is a quiet moment between King Kenny Stories. Junior seizes: “Hey,” he says to his dad, “why don’t you tell them about the latest time that you almost drowned again?”.
“Oh yeah!” King Kenny says to his friends, “did I tell you that I almost drowned again?”.