We did not know anything about the dirt road or where it came from, we just saw this black and yellow love at first sight beat the best Brits in the Transatlantic Trophy and give Ago a hard time at Imola. OK, we thought we knew something because we had seen Any Sunday and what we knew was the Americans were track runners, they weren’t fast on the tarmac. So Roberts went to Assen for a single GP 250 and qualified on pole, broke Hailwood’s longtime lap record and finished third after a crash and comeback. So that’s five points more than Barry Sheene on a 500 in his first series of races in Europe, just behind Ago on a 750 and a GP podium on a 250. Obviously we didn’t know anything.
Then came the full-time Grand Prix rides. A podium in his second race, a victory in his third. a world rookie title and two more to back it up. `We Europeans thought he had a very special factory bike and magic Goodyear tires (he didn’t). Again, we didn’t know anything. We saw a brash, arrogant little hard case who didn’t care who he upset. It took us a while to admire this side of him. We admired his ride, he wasn’t the first rider to drop his knee, steer with the rear, or hang onto a bike, but he analyzed and perfected what he saw Saarinen do in Ontario in 1973. He had been A Goodyear engineer related that Cal Rayborn had configured his bikes to push forward in slow turns and slide back in fast turns. That’s what Kenny brought to Europe. That, and of course, a brutal will to win. We were beginning to understand.
Among the people Kenny Roberts liked to disturb, the FIM and the race organizers were in the foreground. He was a central figure in the World Series plan to break away from the FIM, it never materialized but he revolutionized the way racing cyclists were treated. Roberts clearly understood the Catch 22 of every rider wanting to be a world champion, but that meant submitting to humiliation from avid organizers on tracks where the penalty for a motorcycle mistake was capital punishment. Kenny didn’t like it so he did something about it. All of it, notice, when he was still a rider.
Three titles and 24 race victories later, he moved on to team management, first with Wayne Rainey and Briton Alan Carter on 250 Yamaha. Taking full advantage of the huge budget offered 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 to the VR-46 Academy (though nowhere near as formalized), he guided Rainey and Eddie Lawson to 500 titles and John Kocinski to 250 crowns.
As if being champion as a driver and team manager was not enough, he then became a constructor. First withdraw the tobacco money from Yamaha and build a two-stroke triple with Malaysian manufacturer Modenas. It was a curious choice. Typically, Kenny went with the lightweight, low-power design that was fine as long as he couldn’t find a V4 around the corners. I always suspected that this decision was motivated by his loss to Freddie Spencer and the lightweight treble Honda NS in 1983. It was the year the treble won the title. Further down in history, Geoff Duke was 500 champion on a Norton single cylinder in 1951. It was also the only year the lightweight, corner-friendly single beat the Italian ovens, taking advantage of the small window available as the The opposition was learning how to get their full power on the pitch (in fact, it was the only 500 title won by one).
Kenny pushed the triple 500 through several name changes, achieving the final two-stroke pole position along the way. It was also Bridgestone’s first. It was Phillip Island in 2003, MotoGP’s second year. Such is the nature of the world’s best racetrack that it was a fully two-stroke front row. They were trampled to death by the four strokes while running to the first corner. So in 2006 Kenny hired Honda V5 four-stroke engines to build his own bike. This was one of his most amazing accomplishments, Honda just doesn’t do things like that. They did it for Kenny, and that was the only time as a builder that he really had a competition bike. Attempts to build its own V5 engine by throwing money at various F1 luminaries have not worked. It was a sad ending. I suspect he doesn’t care.
I wish King Kenny a very happy birthday.
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