We didn’t know anything about dirt track or where he came from, we just saw this black and yellow thunderbolt beating the best of British in the Transatlantic Trophy and giving Ago a hard time at Imola. OK, we thought we knew something because we’d seen On Any Sunday and what we knew was that Americans were dirt-track racers, they were not fast on tarmac. So Roberts went to Assen for a one-off 250 GP and qualified on pole, beat Hailwood’s long-standing lap record and finished third after crashing and remounting. So that’s five points more than Barry Sheene on a 500 in his first race series in Europe, a close second to Ago on a 750, and a GP podium on a 250. Clearly, we knew nothing.
Then came the full-time Grand Prix rides. A podium in his second race, a win in his third. a rookie world title and two more to back it up. `We, us Europeans, thought he had a very special factory bike and magic tires from Goodyear (he didn’t). Again, we knew nothing. We saw a brash, cocky little hard case who didn’t care who he upset. It took us a while to admire that side of him. We did admire his riding, he wasn’t the first rider to get his knee down, steer with the rear, or to hang off a bike, but he analyzed and perfected what he saw Saarinen doing at Ontario in 1973. He’d been told by a Goodyear engineer that Cal Rayborn set his bikes up to push the front in slow corners and slide the rear in fast ones. That’s what Kenny brought to Europe. That, and of course, a brutal will to win. We were starting to understand.
Chief among the people Kenny Roberts enjoyed upsetting were the FIM and race organizers. He was a central figure in the World Series plan to break away from the FIM, it never came to fruition but he revolutionized the way bike racers were treated. Roberts clearly understood the Catch 22 of every racer wanting to be World Champion but that meant submitting themselves to humiliation at the hands of greedy organizers on tracks where the sentence for a mistake on a motorcycle was capital punishment. Kenny did not like this so he did something about it. All, note, while he was still a rider.
Three titles and 24 race wins later he went to team management, first with Wayne Rainey and Brit Alan Carter on 250 Yamahas. Taking full advantage of the massive budget afforded by tobacco sponsorship, Roberts built his team into an empire that dominated the paddock, and he enjoyed playing the part of Napoleon. In a precursor of the VR-46 Academy (although nowhere near as formalised) he guided Rainey and Eddie Lawson to 500 titles and John Kocinski to the 250 crown.
As if being a champion as a rider and a team manager wasn’t enough, he then became a constructor. First taking the tobacco money off Yamaha and building a two-stroke triple with Malaysian manufacturer Modenas. It was a curious choice. Kenny as a matter of policy went for the lightweight, lower-power design that was fine as long as it didn’t find a V4 in the way in corners. I have always harbored a suspicion that this decision was driven by his defeat at the hands of Freddie Spencer and the lightweight Honda NS triple in 1983. That was the one year the triple won the title. Further back in history, Geoff Duke was 500 champ on a single-cylinder Norton in 1951. That too was the only year the lightweight, corner-speed friendly single beat the Italian fours, taking advantage in the small window available as the opposition learned how to get all their power on the ground (actually it was the only 500 title won by any single).
Kenny pushed the 500 triple through several name changes, achieving the last ever two-stroke pole position along the way. It was also Bridgestone’s first. That was Phillip Island in 2003, the second year of MotoGP. Such is the nature of the world’s best race track that it was an all two-stroke front row. They were trampled to death by the four-strokes on the run to the first corner. So in ‘06 Kenny leased four-stroke Honda V5 motors to build his own bike around. This was one of his most astonishing achievements, Honda simply don’t do things like that. They did for Kenny, and it was the only time as a constructor he really had a competitive motorcycle. Attempts to build his own V5 motor by throwing money at various F1 luminaries did not work. It was a sad ending. I suspect he doesn’t give a sh***.
I wish King Kenny a very happy birthday.