Kenneth Leroy Roberts (born December 31, 1951 in Modesto, California) is an American former professional motorcycle racer and racing team owner. In 1978, he became the first American to win a Grand Prix motorcycle racing world championship.
He was also a two-time winner of the A.M.A. Grand National Championship. Roberts is one of only four riders in American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) racing history to win the AMA Grand Slam, representing Grand National wins at a mile, half-mile, short-track, TT Steeplechase and road race events.
Roberts left his mark on Grand Prix motorcycle racing as a world championship winning rider, an advocate for increased safety standards in racing, and as a racing team owner and a motorcycle engine and chassis constructor. His dirt track-based riding style changed the way Grand Prix motorcycles were ridden. Roberts’ proposal to create a rival motorcycle championship in 1979 broke the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) hegemony and increased the political clout of Grand Prix racers, which subsequently led to improved safety standards and a new era of professionalism in the sport. In 2000, Roberts was named a Grand Prix Legend by the FIM.
His Early life
Kenny Roberts’ parents were Alice and Melton “Buster” Roberts. As a child growing up in the rural agriculture area just off highway 132 near the West side vineyards of E & J Gallo Winery of Modesto, Roberts was originally interested in horseback riding. He rode his first motorcycle at the age of 12 when a friend dared him to ride a mini bike. Roberts accepted the challenge and the experience thrilled him. He built his own motorcycle by attaching his father’s lawn mower engine to a bicycle frame. Roberts began his career in dirt track racing after attending a local race in Modesto and deciding that he wanted to compete himself. His father purchased a Tohatsu bike for him, but once it proved itself uncompetitive as a race bike, he moved up to a more powerful Hodaka motorcycle.
Roberts showed a natural talent for dirt track racing and began winning local races. In 1968, his race results drew the attention of a local Suzuki dealer Bud Aksland, who offered to sponsor Roberts aboard a Suzuki motorcycle. He made the decision to drop out of high school before his senior year to pursue a career in motorcycle racing. Roberts was allowed to compete professionally when he turned 18, and on the day after his eighteenth birthday, he entered his first professional race at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, finishing in fourth place.
A.M.A. Grand National Championship
Realizing that Roberts needed more help if his racing career was going to progress, Aksland introduced Roberts to airline pilot and amateur motorcycle racer Jim Doyle, who would become Roberts’ personal manager. In 1971, Doyle and Roberts approached Triumph’s American distributor to ask about the possibility of a sponsored ride, but were told that Roberts was too small for one of their bikes. They then turned to the American Yamaha importer’s team, who agreed to make Roberts a factory sponsored rider at the age of 19. Yamaha asked the head of their American racing program, former 250 cc world champion Kel Carruthers to help guide Roberts’ racing career. It marked the beginning of a long and productive relationship between the two men. Carruthers ended his riding career after the 1973 season to concentrate full-time on managing Roberts’ and Yamaha’s efforts in the A.M.A. Grand National Championship, a series which encompassed events in four distinctive dirt track disciplines plus road racing.
In 1971, Roberts won the AMA Rookie of the Year Award. In his first professional race as an expert class rider in 1972, Roberts rode to victory at the Grand National short-track race in the Houston Astrodome. Roberts made a name for himself that year by battling the dominant Harley-Davidson factory dirt track team aboard an underpowered Yamaha XS 650 motorcycle, making up for his lack of horsepower with sheer determination. He finished the season ranked fourth in the country. In 1973, in just his second season as an expert, Roberts won the national championship, amassing a record 2,014 points in the 25-race series.
While Roberts had a natural talent for riding motorcycles on dirt surfaces, on paved road circuits, the motorcycle felt unsettled beneath him while negotiating a turn. After observing Finnish rider Jarno Saarinen win the 1973 Daytona 200 using a riding style where he shifted his body weight towards the inside of a turn, Roberts tried the technique and found that it helped settle the motorcycle. He adopted the cornering style and exaggerated the body shift to a greater extent than Saarinen had by extending his knee out until it skimmed the track surface. With his new riding technique, Roberts began to excel in road race events. Yamaha motorcycles performed very well in road racing, where the Yamaha TZ750 was the dominant motorcycle of the era.
In the 1974 Daytona 200, after early leader Gary Nixon retired, Roberts battled for the lead with former 500 cc world champion, Giacomo Agostini before an overheated engine forced him to settle for second place. In April 1974, Roberts ventured to Europe for the first time to compete in the prestigious Imola 200 road race for 750 cc motorcycles. He made a positive impression competing against the best road racers in the world, once again finishing second to Agostini. He then traveled to England with a team of American riders to compete against a British riding team in the 1974 Transatlantic Match races. The conventional wisdom at the time was that American riders, who competed mostly in dirt track races, could not race on asphalt at the same level as the British riders, who specialized in road racing events. Roberts dispelled any such notions by winning three of the six races and finishing second in the remaining three races. Roberts was the top individual points scorer in the event with 93 points, five more than Barry Sheene, the top British rider.
Roberts returned to compete in the 1974 Grand National championship and won his first national road race at Road Atlanta on June 2, 1974.
On August 18, Roberts won the Peoria TT race to complete a Grand Slam with victories in each of the five different events on the Grand National calendar. He claimed his second consecutive Grand National championship, winning six races and surpassing his 1973 points record by scoring 2,286 points in the 23 race series, collecting points in all 23 races. Roberts also entered his first world championship road racing event, winning the pole position before finishing third in the 1974 250 cc Dutch TT.
Roberts continued his road racing successes in 1975, winning three out of four races in the 1975 Transatlantic Match races. After having won the national championship in 1974, Roberts faced an increasingly difficult battle in dirt track races as, Harley-Davidson continued to improve their XR-750 dirt tracker while Yamaha struggled to maintain the pace. Roberts made up for his bike’s lack of power with an almost fearless, determined riding style. He battled Harley-Davidson factory rider Gary Scott throughout the 1975 season but mechanical breakdowns hampered his title defense. He had been leading the Daytona 200 when mechanical problems yielded the victory to his Yamaha teammate Gene Romero. At the Ascot TT, Roberts battled from 17th place to take the lead before a broken sprocket ended his race. Roberts’ fearless riding style was highlighted at the Indy Mile Grand National. In a desperate effort to keep Scott within reach in the points chase, Yamaha wedged a Yamaha TZ750 two-stroke road racing engine inside a dirt track frame. On a bike that was considered unrideable due to its excessive horsepower, Roberts came from behind on the two-stroke, and overtook the factory Harley-Davidson duo of Corky Keener and Jay Springsteen on the last lap for one of the most famous wins in American dirt track racing history. Afterward, Roberts was famously quoted as saying, “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing”. Despite accomplishing another Grand Slam, this time in only one season, Roberts lost his crown, finishing second to Gary Scott in the 1975 national championship.
Although Roberts won four Grand Nationals in 1976, he continued to experience mechanical misfortunes as well as a horsepower deficit to the Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the mile and half-mile dirt track events. He had been leading the Daytona 200 once again when tire troubles forced him to make a lengthy pit stop, and Johnny Cecotto went on to win the race. He dropped to third in the national championship as Jay Springsteen claimed the title for the Harley-Davidson team. He returned to England in April 1977, winning four out of six races at the 1977 Transatlantic Match races. Roberts then travelled to Italy where he raced in the Imola 200, leaving no doubt he was capable of competing at the international level by winning both legs and setting a new track record. He returned to the United States to compete in the Grand National championship where he won five of the six road races that made up the pavement portion of the series. In the road race event at Sears Point, Roberts started the race at the back of the pack and passed the entire field within four laps to win the race. Despite being in contention for much of the season, Roberts was unable to win any of the dirt track events and eventually finished the year in fourth place.
First American world champion
When it became apparent that Yamaha could not develop a dirt track motorcycle capable of competing with the dominant Harley-Davidson dirt track team, the American Yamaha importer, Yamaha USA, offered to send Roberts to Europe in 1978 to compete in the World Championship Grand Prix road racing series, along with Kel Carruthers to act as his mentor and crew chief. Roberts also secured the financial backing of the Goodyear tire company. The team planned to compete in the 250 cc world championship as well as the Formula 750 series in order to have more practice time to learn the tracks, but their main focus would be on the 500 cc class, considered the premier class at the time. His main competition in the 500 cc world championship would come from Suzuki rider Barry Sheene, winner of the two previous titles. Roberts said that he was initially indifferent about competing in Europe, but when he read that Sheene had labeled him as,”no threat”, he made up his mind to compete. Few observers gave Roberts any chance of winning the championship, citing the reasoning that it would take him at least one season to learn the European circuits.
The motorcycle technology of the late 1970s featured engines with power in excess of what the frames and tires of the day could accommodate. Roberts’ riding style, bred on the dirt tracks of America, revolutionized road racing. Prior to his arrival in Europe, riders focused on attaining high entry speeds into corners, leaving braking until the last possible moment then, carving graceful arcs through the corners with both wheels in line. Roberts did just the opposite, braking early then, quickly applying the throttle which resulted in the rear tire breaking traction and spinning. The resulting tire spin caused the motorcycle to buck and shake as it continually lost then regained traction, creating a brutal, violent riding style that no one had ever seen before on the racetracks of Europe. His riding style was reminiscent of dirt track riding, where sliding the rear tire to one side is used as a method to steer the motorcycle around a corner. Because of his early application of the throttle, he was able to attain top speed faster than his competitors.
The 1978 season started with Roberts winning the Daytona 200 in a dominating fashion. After several near misses forced him to retire while leading the event, Roberts lapped the entire field en route to his first Daytona victory. He then won a rain-shortened Imola 200 race and was the second highest individual scorer behind Pat Hennen at the 1978 Transatlantic Match races. The 1978 world championship chase did not start well for Roberts at the season-opening round in Venezuela.
Roberts (2) follows Marco Lucchinelli (11) during the 1978 Nations Grand Prix at Mugello. Roberts would eventually go on to win the race.
Although Roberts won the 250 cc Grand Prix, Sheene claimed the victory in the 500 cc Venezuelan Grand Prix while Roberts’ Yamaha suffered a mechanical failure on the starting line. In the second round at the Spanish Grand Prix, Roberts was leading the race by eight seconds when his throttle stuck, forcing him to settle for second place behind fellow American Pat Hennen. Roberts then won his first-ever 500 cc Grand Prix with a win in Austria, quickly followed by two more victories in France and Italy, along with two second place finishes in the Netherlands and Belgium. At the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix, Roberts crashed during practice for the 250 cc race, sustaining a concussion and a thumb injury. Shaken up by the accident, he could do no better than seventh place in the 500 cc race. Sheene had come down with a debilitating virus at the Venezuelan round, but a string of podium finishes and a victory at the Swedish Grand Prix combined with Roberts’ failure to score any points in the Finnish Grand Prix, allowed him to close the points gap.
The two championship contenders arrived in England for the British Grand Prix with only three points separating them. The race ended in controversy when torrential rains during the race, along with pit stops for tire changes by both Roberts and Sheene, created confusion among official scorers. Eventually, Roberts was declared the winner with Sheene being awarded third place behind privateer Steve Manship, who did not stop for a tire change. In the final race of the season at the daunting, 14.2 mile long (22.8 km) Nürburgring racetrack in Germany, Roberts finished in third place, ahead of Sheene in fourth place to claim the first world championship for an American rider in Grand Prix road racing history. He also scored four victories to finish second behind Johnny Cecotto in the Formula 750 world championship, and won two races to finish fourth in the 250 cc world championship.