Retired Dunlop Tire Engineer & Racer Jim Allen On King Kenny Roberts’ 70th Birthday

Handling on the 680 was the issue and Kenny wasn’t happy.

A testing story, never before told … to the best of my knowledge.

We are in Monterey, California. It’s late February 1983 and we’re testing at Laguna Seca, just a few days before the run over to Daytona for the 200. This of course, is back in the days when big international teams actually came to America to test in the off-season and suffer through crappy weather, rather than shipping everything off to Australia and testing in warmth and sunshine.

The cast of characters as I recall it … two Dunlop technicians, Pete Ingley and myself, joined by the FACTORY YAMAHA team … Kel Carruthers, Knobby Clark, Bud Aksland, various Japanese technicians and of course, “Almost-King” Kenny Roberts himself. Lawson was probably there too, but never mind him for now.

Machinery … two full-on Factory 500cc V4 road racers AND two Square-Four OW69 680cc machines, based roughly on the 500’s and built especially for Daytona, back when that race actually mattered on the international scene.

I don’t remember what day of the test we were at, but let’s just say that there had been considerable testing of both bikes at this point. Enough testing to establish that the 500 was “pretty good” (that’s the best comment you’re ever going to get out of Roberts) while the 680 was not. Handling on the 680 was the issue and Kenny wasn’t happy.

Wintertime testing, for those of you who haven’t been involved much, consists largely of sitting around while riders circulate infrequently, occasionally stopping to bitch about bike, tires, set-up, whatever, thus putting the mechanics and technicians back to work. Lots of time for boredom … and since Roberts is present, for practical jokes.

For some reason, I was in the know on this one, but in order to preserve my immaculate reputation I’ll hasten to add, involved only as a spectator. Out of sheer boredom I’m sure, and a possible prurient interest, Roberts had investigated the local sex shop in Seaside the evening before and purchased a rubber replica of … how can I put this delicately? Probably can’t be done, but let’s just say that it was relatively exact anatomical reproduction, and it definitely wasn’t male.

As all racing folk know, duct tape can attach anything to anything and so it came to be that during a break in the testing program, the item itself was affixed way up under the fiberglass seat of a priceless, only two-of-a-kind-in-the-world, Yamaha OW69, unbeknownst all the Japanese technicians, boss Kel Carruthers, Bud Aksland and soon-to-be-victim Knobby Clark.

Roberts could barely contain himself as he did a few scheduled laps on his 500 and then stopped briefly, insisting that he needed to test the 500 and the 680 back-to-back – right now! Just a few laps later he screams to a halt back in the pits, signals for a consultation with Kel and pronounces that, “After riding the 500, that thing”, now pointing to the 680, “handles like a ___ (insert suitable four-letter word applying to the rubber item above)!” Pausing for effect he insists, “I think the tire is hitting underneath the seat.”

At which point Kel turned to Knobby, just as Roberts knew he would, and says “Knobby, have a look will you?”

Now, at the best of times, it’s difficult to crane your neck just right to see whether or not a tire might actually be making contact under a Yamaha racing seat and when you do, there’s not much room between a person’s nose and that seat, so we can all forgive Knobby’s normally-analytical brain for not immediately computing just exactly it was under that seat that he was actually seeing.

When he did, Knobby, always a man of few words, turned his head and snarled just three words … “Roberts, you BASTARD!”

Happy 70th Birthday Ken. Humor got you this far – keep it up and you’ll get 70 more!

All the Best!
Jim Allen

— 30 —

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