It happens, oh, once or twice a year: the phone will ring at Kenny Roberts’ house in Modesto and on the other end of the line will be a determined individual who through perseverance, good intentions or connections has obtained the King’s private number.
“They’ll say, ‘Yeah, I have your old race bike.’ Roberts explains, “It’ll be an old dirt tracker or one of the many Yamaha roadracers. I’ll ask them some specific questions, was the frame broken and re-welded many times by the swing arm pivot? Inevitably, after a few questions it becomes apparent that they don’t have the bike I raced.” Roberts and friends own most of the significant bikes he piloted. Save one.
So, it was with a callused cynicism that Roberts heard through the grapevine that someone out there had one of his old bikes. But not just any old bike. He claimed to have in his possession Kenny’s famed Yamaha TZ750 dirt track machine, the bike that he won the Indy mile with in 1975, a bike that tried very hard to maim Roberts on several occasions. Ahhh, that bike.
For those readers without a degree in motorcycle racing history—or simply weren’t born in ’75—this is the encapsulated story: In 1975 Kenny Roberts was having a bear of a time trying to retain his number one plate because of a charge by a likable man by the name of Gary Scott and his potent factory Harley Davidson. In previous attempts at the championship, Roberts utilized the standard Yamaha four-stroke twin to run down the booming XR Harley. Run them down he did, winning multiple Grand National championships when the series contained both roadrace and dirt track events. However, that success was not carrying on into 1975, the tired design of the Yamaha (helped along by flowbench masters Jerry Branch and Tim Witham) began to show cords, and even The King in his early prime could not stop the advances of Scott and Harley. Bad luck followed Roberts as well that season, clutches that were once infallible roasted, chains snapped, wires loosened and fell off. It was obvious to all at Yamaha that it was time for a new machine.
Roberts, his personal craftsman Kel Carruthers and key personnel at Yamaha scoured the corners of their imagination to find something that would give them an edge. What they needed was horsepower, big power. Hence, a scheme was hatched: Roberts wanted horsepower let’s give it to em’. Although none of them realized it at the time they would prepare a machine that would put the fear of God into the King and add an illustrious chapter to racing history.
Although there were grave reservations on many fronts when the details of the Kel Carruthers-built Yamaha became known, hesitance did not stop the principles from assembling one Doug Schwerma designed Champion dirt track frame, a leaned on Yamaha TZ700/750 engine (the very same one Roberts had won Laguna with previously that year) billowing one hundred plus horsepower on the dyno and one set of Goodyear dirt track tires. With these menacing ingredients they threw in the best fabrication skills of Kel Carruthers and flipped the puree switch on the blender. Interestingly, with the aforementioned parts in front of him, Carruthers assembled the machine in just five days.
Carruthers and company were not the first to see the potential of a Japanese multi-cylinder cradled in a dirt track frame.
(Although it is not generally known in present day, other riders had Yamaha TZ trackers before The King, including Rick Hocking, Steve Baker, the late Randy Cleek and the elder Skip Aksland, but these men were not Roberts neither were they assisted by Kel Carruthers so the results were marginal. Moreover, Erv Kanemoto built Kawasaki triple-powered machines for his riders: Gary Nixon, Don Castro and Scott Brelsford; Kanemoto Kawasakis were fairly successful, although not at the National level. The wound-tight Kawasaki, at least when compared with the brute force Yamaha, had a touch softer power curve and less horsepower. Too, it was time-consuming, Kanemoto recalls; the Kanemoto Racing triple shook so badly that Kanemoto made plenty of foot-trips to the track to find parts that had shaken off. He’d retrieve air filters and anything else not nailed on.)
The assumptions of this being a monster unleashed were confirmed once Carruthers stepped back from it in his shop. They realized that the Champion Yamaha was, in essence, over-kill, so much so that in the final races of the ’75 season Carruthers affixed a kill-switch to the number three cylinder on the Yamaha. Roberts would push the switch on the entrance to corners, killing the spark to that cylinder in order to tame the wickedness of the machine.
In a late-night, pre-Indy phone call Carruthers asked Roberts how fast he wanted to go at Indy. “About one thirty should be enough,” he estimated. Carruthers geared appropriately.
Roberts went to Indy without ever seeing the completed bike. Once he arrived the crew sat him on the seat and adjusted levers and the handlebars.
Before the bike took to the track many thought it too powerful and would not be able to obtain any traction. Roberts might have been one of these persons, but he won the first semi-final, putting his name on the grid sheet for the National and from there, the rest is history.
Harley teammates Jay Springsteen (then a just rookie) and Korky Keener initially led the twenty-five mile main event quite easily, playing grab-ass and spraying each other with dirt as the laps ran down to the black and white.
Oh, la-de-dah, isn’t life grand at the front of the pack Jay? Yes, dear Corky, dreadful about our chum Roberts having such a bear of a time on that contraption … say, what’s that frightful noise?
Sensing a threat, Keener looked back—very late in the race—and saw Roberts doing his patented water through a screendoor drive through the pack. The shriek of the Roberts TZ750 struck a chord deep within Keener, he signaled Springsteen with a single index finger that Kenny, like death with a black robe and scythe, was coming for them.
Grab-ass time was officially over.
Current Team Roberts manager Chuck Aksland, then a lad of eleven, had begged his grandfather to bring him back east for this event as he knew it would be a scorcher. He was not disappointed, “I still remember seeing hay scattering in the air as Kenny came out of turn four. I still think it was among the best races I have ever seen, top three easy,” he says today (1993)
Roberts used the high line to make his charge, essentially bouncing off the bales in making the corner transitions, shaping a crude rectangle out of the oval. With all that Carruthers horsepower he came for Springer and Keener; and on the last lap all three held throttles WFO down the straight, in a flash Roberts clawed by the Harley boys and onto the podium, his margin of victory about two feet at the line.
There are those that say this is the bike and the race that made Kenny Roberts an icon. From nearly a dead last start, Kenny had spun and slid his way to the win. On a bike some thought unridable.
To put this machine’s horsepower into perspective for a younger enthusiast, piloting this it would not be unlike racing a modern big bore Suzuki fitted with nitrous-oxide injection—in six inches of water.
The Champion Yamaha 750 is and was considered the definitive unbridled motorcycle, so much so that Roberts, when he got off the bike after narrowly winning at Indy, spewed the immortal Roberts quote: “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing,” he said.
Win yes, but live with it? For a season? No thanks. With the King in its saddle the Champion Yamaha never really tracked straight, spinning and hopping on the straights. It tried very hard to toss Roberts over the top and Roberts, truth be known, he hated the bike with a passion he would only again have for Freddie Spencer. He raced it twice more after winning Indy, with less than spectacular results,
The AMA, with the help of level-headed Kel Carruthers, quickly moved to ban the bike and the formula that brought it into existence. The argument that if the machine was allowed to breed it would eventually kill someone won the sanctioning body over.
Back to Roberts, modern day, phone in hand. All obvious signs of suspicion on his part disappeared upon learning that the person who claimed to have his bike was none other than Stephen Wright.
In the realm of motorcycle restoration experts there are only a few true craftsmen, among them, Mike Pariti and Wright are the considered among the best, Wright’s expertise in the area of board track racers from the early 1900s is unequaled. He is a celebrated author as well, writing both of the American Racer books, volumes that are considered the pinnacle historical record of motorcycle racing from its infancy. If that pedigree wasn’t enough, Wright worked as the late racer and part-time actor Steve McQueen’s personal motorcycle restorer for six years, assembling McQueen’s vast collection of motorcycles to show quality. Therefore, when Wright says he’s got a bike you used to race, you don’t doubt him.
Even if the bike was put into the crusher. Yes, the crusher.
Once the AMA banned the bike from competition several persons wanted to get their hands on it for historical purposes, (including Carruthers whom as builder probably had more claim to ownership than anyone save Roberts).
From there the engine was removed from the chassis, the wheels sent back to the roadracing shop and the bike compressed to a neat little cube where it couldn’t hurt anyone.
Or, so the story goes.
But Yamaha America would have nothing to do with it. They sent the bike to Europe for a promotional campaign. It was seen in late 1976 at a dealer show and one brave soul actually rode it at an English Speedway event, but the machine failed to bite that man, former world champion Peter Collins, as he was not able to shift beyond second on a very slick track.
From there the engine was removed from the chassis, the wheels sent back to the roadracing shop and the bike compressed to a neat little cube where it couldn’t hurt anyone. Or so the story goes. A little chicanery occurred in this period as the bike never really went to its intended execution. Perhaps another bike tagged as this one went in its place or someone mistakenly checked the bike off the roster, but the machine never went to its demise. For a long while it sat in the back of the Amsterdam race shop with other racebikes put out to pasture. With most of its cosmetics removed save the tank, it looked like just another R&D exercise gone horribly wrong. Which really it was. It sat in that condition for a number of years until former Yamaha manager Kenny Clark, looking through the cadavers of this graveyard, began to study this particular machine. Although it was faded by constant exposure to the elements and sun, the phrase, Prepared by Kel Carruthers, El Cajon in Seventies hippie script on the fuel tank, raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to determine this was not a machine that belonged in a graveyard but in a museum. He packed the bike up and sent it back to the States where he intended to restore it himself. Upon leaving Yamaha, Clark sold the machine in its dilapidated condition to Wright.
Determined, he set out to make the machine right again. Much damage had been done though. The ground up restoration would be the relatively easy part of the process. The difficulties lay in finding the correct parts, considering Champion only made five kits before the AMA banned the machine and this machine, being a factory built and developed racer, was in some ways very different from the kitted bikes.
Wright spent a good deal of time searching through the attics and garages of racers of the era, trying to find correct decals and other bits. With time and the help of many individuals —such as former Roberts mechanic, Merrill Vanderslice—Wright collected the correct pieces and finished the machine just prior to 1994 and started work.
Flash to the 1994 USGP, behind the Marlboro Roberts garage. Wright brought the bike to Laguna Seca and showed it to Roberts. Roberts was obviously surprised and somewhat shaken by seeing this old steed in the flesh. He kept repeating, “I can’t believe it, just can’t believe it.” For Roberts, a man who has done and seen plenty, the sight of this old machine unnerved him. He laughed nervously and spoke in broken sentences as the memories, both good and bad, rushed back.
Roberts wanted to own the machine. Wright wasn’t ready to part with the noble racing steed just yet, but when that day came, said he would sell it.
The man most responsible for the machine’s existence, Kel Carruthers, wearing a blood red Cagiva uniform, walked over and took a long lookat the bike. He examined many of the pieces individually: the foot peg and brake arm where Roberts hadn’t been able to pull the machine back from the edge and it smashed into a wall at San Jose, along with the resulting welds where Ken Maley put the pieces back together again. He looked at the TZ700/750 pipes and the unique mounting system he had built to enable the exhaust to tuck in tighter than the kit allowed; the places he relocated the engine later that season. He said to no-one and everyone, “It’s the bike,” and walked back to Doug Chandler’s V585, yet another in a line of machines he would help create but would never own.
There was talk of Roberts doing a lap of honor on the machine at Laguna, someone mentioned that they thought Roberts might fit into Luca Cadalora’s or Beattie’s leathers.
However, after a few moments’ consideration, most thought it a bad idea.
He escaped with his wits intact twenty years ago, let’s not push the issue.