Racer Dennis Kanegae on King Kenny Roberts’ 70th Birthday

It sounded like his throttle was stuck wide open


It was the Ascot National half mile practice, 1974, and I went out feeling pretty confident.

Al Harmon’s Trackmaster Norton I was riding was pretty competitive in the weekly Friday night races, so I thought I had a decent shot at making the National.

Before practice, I saw some people gathered around Kenny Roberts and noticed his bike had a newish looking number one plate on and they were taking pictures. No biggie, I figured he’ll clinch it tonight and rightfully so. He’s earned it.

The track was in particularly nice shape for practice. Normally, it’s like a plowed field.

After a lap or two, I thought I would really bury hard it into the south turn when I heard a rider on the outside of me.
Nortons, for some reason, are quiet running, even at full throttle, so I could hear this rider’s engine really well, even though I was wide open coming off the corner.

It sounded like his throttle was stuck wide open (due to a massive amount of wheelspin) and then in a spilt second, Kenny went by.

He had the left cases dug in and as he crossed over into front of me, the spray off the cases and his rear wheel blasted me like an Asteroids video game. It felt like a fire hose stream of paint balls banging into my number plate and helmet.

To add insult to injury, his front wheel had about an inch or two of daylight under it.

At least he gave me plenty of room when he went by me. I shrugged it off thinking there’s one person I wouldn’t beat tonight.

Later, I’m sitting in the qualifying line, waiting to fire up and then Yamaha racing manager (Pete Schick, RIP) comes up to me and says to me “…Kenny’s going to clinch the championship tonight, so I want you to stay out of his way…”.

(At that time, I was a full-time Yamaha employee and Pete was actually my boss)

Then he adds “If you &%$# this championship up, I will fire you Monday so don’t even bother coming in…”

I asked Pete if he was watching practice a few minutes ago when Kenny humiliated me by passing me in turn two, on the outside, feet up while doing a wheelie. Pete just walked off without saying anything.

I must have qualified ok because I made the third heat, albeit back row. There were a few Experts who didn’t make the heats, so I was happy.

When we lined up for the heat, I took my position. And sure enough guess who is right in front of me in the front row? It’s Kenny Roberts!

Ok, this is a frickin’ national but all I can think about is my job, how broke I am.

After what seems like an eternity of introductions and whatever else Roxy Rockwood (RIP) was saying, we fire up and I get back to my starting position.

The starter wastes no time and jumps up on the stand. I look at Kenny and I can tell he’s in neutral. The engines are revving up and Kenny is looking up at the stands, waving with his left hand.

Did I mention this is the Ascot national and there’s a championship to win? Hello Mr. Roberts.

Now I am getting scared, really scared. I should be scared because in a few seconds all Hell is about break loose.

And it’s getting real loud.

But I’m more concerned about Kenny picking his nose and not paying attention to the starter.

And what if I ram him, and we both go down? Or I break his leg or wreck his bike or worse…it went on and on in my head.

In addition to those scenarios, I wondered how I will be funding college for my two kids without a job at Yamaha.
I was renting a room for $100/month (I was recently separated, kicked out of the house and virtually homeless) and how could I find a cheaper place to live? I had no college degree or any real skills. No money, no nothing.

My dad gave me a gas card and a van, I couldn’t afford to have either.

Nor could I afford to rebuild my own 750 Triumph Trackmaster, (crank broke previous year and took everything out)

My life was passing before me and how I blew a college education to “race” motorcycles at Ascot.

My then wife said “It’s me or the bikes…” and, well, you know the answer.

The flag drops and I get down the business at hand. Before modern timing/scoring technology, a back row start, can in some cases, work in your favor.

The best starter in the world is Eddie Mulder. Not only is he one of the greatest riders ever, but he just knows how to get to the first turn, first. Every time. I’ve studied him for years on grabbing the holeshot.

I timed it right and did the Eddie Mulder “back row roll”. I was up to the front row quickly and passed Kenny on the right side, he was still in neutral when I went by.

I got through the first turn mayhem, tucked in and headed down the back straight. I could see that I was a close fifth or so, not too shabby, semi at worst.

I tuck in not for aerodynamics but to stay out of the massive roost. The spray was so heavy, it was louder bouncing off my helmet and number plate than 10 unmuffled 750s.

Right after the pit gate, Kenny passes me and just about everyone else going into three. Coming off of four, I can see Kenny took the lead and 9 laps later, he easily wins the heat.

I pull into the pits and immediately start changing into my street clothes. Al Harmon yells, “what are you doing?! you’re in the semi…”

I said ‘I need a job more than anything’ and went in the stands to have a beer to celebrate having a job.

As they say the rest is history; Kenny clinched the championship that night, and later went on to even greater wins and championships.

The following Monday, I went to work at Yamaha. I got there earlier than usual. That day, I had a special appreciation for working at Yamaha.

Happy Birthday Kenny!

 


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