Kenny Roberts F1 connection:
He revolutionised riding technique, using wheelspin to help steer the bike. Then he transformed GP racing by leading a riders’ revolt that improved safety and helped riders earn better money. Later Team Roberts was the first motorcycle outfit to use Formula 1-derived technology, like data-logging and carbon brakes. In the early 1990s Roberts helped save the premier 500cc class – then on its last legs, with just 13 bikes on some grids – by convincing Yamaha to sell engines to European chassis builders. In the late 1990s Team Roberts became MotoGP’s first F1-style constructor, engineering its own engines and chassis, employing John Barnard, Tom Walkinshaw Racing and others. The team’s KR3 motorcycle was good enough to score the last two-stroke MotoGP pole position.
All in all, not a bad life’s work for a cowboy from the farmlands of California, who’s only got one testicle (the result of a motocross accident) and a bullet lodged in his left leg (the legacy of a hunting mishap).
That obsession has brought him into contact with all kinds of people outside the motorcycle industry, especially car folk, because there’s more money in cars, which means more technology. And Roberts has always wanted more technology, first when he was racing, then when he was running teams and most of all when he was building motorcycles, first the three-cylinder 500cc KR3 two-stroke, then the five-cylinder 990cc KR5 four-stroke.
Roberts hired John Barnard in 2003. “If I’d had more money John could’ve made some real improvements to racing motorcycles. He did some good things. A lot of the things you see on the latest MotoGP bikes are because of what John did when he was with us.
Earlier Roberts got to know Mario Andretti and Paul Newman, who wanted him to race cars. “Mario always told me he was a frustrated motorcycle racer. I let him ride one of my team’s Marlboro Yamaha 500s around Laguna Seca. I told him, ‘Just don’t gas it on the side of the tyres.’ Afterwards he says, ‘Man, I owe you so much, I’ve never driven or ridden anything that wants to leap out from underneath you at a quarter throttle.’ He says, ‘How do you come out of the corner on one of these things?’ Well, it takes a lot of work.
“Newman called me when I stopped racing bikes; he wanted me to drive his Budweiser Can-Am car. A few years earlier I’d scared the --- out of him. I was testing Goodyear tyres at Riverside and we gave him permission to test some Ferrari sports car when I wasn’t on the track. I was testing a TZ750 and it was wobbling so bad. Anyway, he pulls onto the track when I’m still going around. I passed him in fourth gear, probably doing one-fifty, inches from his bumper. He said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I ever did, I could’ve killed you.’ I said, ‘Dude, I saw you coming onto the racetrack, I just wanted to scare you’.”
Roberts did race cars for a while. “Ford wanted me to race their GTP car, so I went to Mid-Ohio and tested it. But the money wasn’t anything like I’d been earning in bikes and I wanted to be home, not racing. I’m not saying cars are easy because the breakaway point in a car is quite different to a bike. It sticks and it sticks and it sticks and then it’s gone. But they never got my heart beating. When you race a motorcycle there are times you’re thinking, ‘If I don’t pull this off, I’m dead.’ And in a car I don’t know if I’d ever feel that. I always say you never have to pick a haybale out of your ass when you’re racing a car. On a bike, every crash hurts.”
Roberts won the 1973 and 1974 Grand National titles, riding Yamaha’s plodding XS650 four-stroke on the dirt and its outrageous new TZ750 two-stroke on the asphalt.
Both bikes wore Yamaha USA’s iconic yellow, black and white livery, derived from the two-stroke sound: like angry bees. It was a genius piece of visual branding. “Everything I had was yellow and black. When I was 19 or 20 I bought a Nissan 240Z and painted it yellow and black; the whole Yamaha deal.” Roberts also owned a Ferrari 308 but not for long, “because I would only have wrecked it”.
Roberts led the 1974 Daytona 200 on a TZ750 but didn’t win the race until 1978, just weeks before he commenced his first Grand Prix campaign. He won the 200 – the world’s biggest bike race at that time – on two further occasions, using an over-bored version of Yamaha’s 500 GP bike. This motorcycle was bad enough to scare Roberts.
“That bike was a brute. Coming onto the banking it would spin the tyre in the first three gears. In them days, with the little-bitty tyres and the little-bitty forks, it was an experience trying to get that thing around Daytona. I remember the first time I rode it, the thing went sideways going over the start-finish line at one-eighty and I thought, what happened? It couldn’t have done that! Next lap it went sideways again, so I came into the pits and I’m jumping up and down. I said to Kel [Carruthers, a former 250cc world champion and Roberts’s chief mechanic throughout his road racing career], ‘Hey, that thing’s going sideways over the start-finish line.’ Kel says, ‘So? What do you want us to do about it?’ ‘But I was going completely sideways!’ ‘Okay,’ says Kel, ‘just shut the throttle off.’ I was like, ‘---.’ So that’s how I rode that thing: throttle on, throttle off.”
On top of that he had to deal with some major culture shocks. “Wherever Kel went, I was in his draft, driving my motorhome with Patty, Chrissie and Kenny (his wife, daughter and eldest son). When we arrived at Hockenheim for a race it was dark and the only thing I knew about Germany was the war. At seven the next morning there was this screaming noise: ‘Achtung Fahrerlager! Achtung Fahrerlager.’ I said: ‘Oh f**k, we’re in the wrong goddam place and they’re going to shoot us.’ I ran out of the motorhome and was beating on Kel’s door and he said, ‘That means attention paddock, now go back to bed’.”
Worse was to come: the old Spa road circuit. Roberts may have been used to picking haybales out of his backside, but stonewalls were something altogether different.
“Spa scared the --- out of me. The walls and guardrails were real close, it was raining, there were puddles. On the first lap Wil [Hartog, the race winner] came past, hit a puddle, his feet flew off the footpegs and he was gone. I was like ‘Jesus, that guy’s going to kill himself!’ I was scared to death, I didn’t know where I was going, couldn’t see nothing. I was racing with Sheene, thinking ‘This is so stupid.’ The only reason I beat him was because he was more scared than I was. One time I was off the racetrack and sideways up against a wall, doing one-thirty. I got it straight, looked behind and Sheene’s eyes were that big.”
In February Roberts nearly died when he thumped into a guardrail at 90mph while testing Yamaha’s new 0W45 at the factory’s test track. He broke his back, a foot and a collarbone and ruptured his spleen.
“I remember laying there, going, ‘I’m toast, I’m toast.’ My back was numb. For three days I thought I was going to die. They wouldn’t give me pain shots because it would slow the healing. Then they said, ‘We’re going to operate.’ I said, ‘No way, I’m going back to America.’ They said, ‘You won’t make it.’ Well then, I was dead because from what I was looking at they didn’t have good medical facilities. I remember them putting the gas mask on me to put me out and thought. ‘This is it, I’m not waking up.’ I was very surprised when I did wake up.”
These experiences got Roberts thinking about track safety and other matters. He started working on World Series, a breakaway championship that would bypass the blazer-wearing fogeys at the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme. Bernie Ecclestone took a serious interest in the project.
Meanwhile he had the 1979 FIM championship to win. Roberts missed the first race, returned for round two at the Salzburgring and left everyone trailing. He retained the title with another four victories, including Jarama, where the FIM-approved promoters had reduced the already risible start money.
When a Spanish dignitary handed Roberts the winner’s trophy he refused the silverware. “No, you keep it,” he said. “Maybe you can sell it. I understand you need the money.”