Ahead of this weekend's Grand Prix of the Americas, Crash.net spoke with triple 500cc world champion and official MotoGP Legend Kenny Roberts.

Part one of the interview focusses on his grand prix career as a rider from 1978-1983, which saw Roberts shock the racing world by beating Barry Sheene to win the 500cc title at his very first attempt - becoming America's first ever champion.

Roberts defended the crown for the next two years before some tougher seasons developing a new Yamaha but came within a few points of beating Freddie Spencer in his final 1983 season.

Part two of the interview moves on to King Kenny's title-winning racing team and thoughts on the current MotoGP World Championship…

Crash.net:

You had a great amount of success in the US before you came to race in Europe full-time. Was it always your intention to race in the 500cc championship?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

No. Never! Never! In America at that time it was just about being the Grand National Champion. That was the biggest form of racing at that time. And that was what every kid wanted to do; they wanted to be the best. I wanted to be the best, and to do that you had to win the Grand National Championship.

So that was my goal and it was my goal when Yamaha announced they were going to quit dirt track racing, which blew me away. I thought that was what everyone wanted to do.

They gave me two options: you could stay in America and go road racing with Yamaha and you can ride a Harley Davidson on the dirt - that would have given me a path to winning the championship again.

But for some reason I just wanted to stay with Yamaha. I wanted to be Yamaha. The other option was they would support me in a satellite project from America to go to Europe and race.

Crash.net:

You had some experience of racing in Europe before 1978 - you did the Imola 200 and the Trans-Atlantic series in ’74. Did you expect to be so competitive, so soon on the 500?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

For some reason I felt I could win it. I didn’t have any experience with it obviously but not winning it was not something that I thought about. I felt that I could ride a motorcycle as good as anybody so the chances of winning were as good as anybody.

Now obviously there was a lot of uncertainty on race tracks and how grand prix ran because of people telling you, ‘You’re going to get into problems with language and you’re going to get into problems with different money all the time, and travelling and the race tracks aren’t the same, and it’s not like Formula 750…’ And so there was some uncertainty but to me a racetrack was a racetrack.

Travelling in Europe is easy compared to travelling in America because of the distances that we travel in America. So the things that should have bothered me [didn’t]. My motorhome was ten metres behind Kel Carruthers’ motorhome everyday. Travelling wasn’t a problem and the racetracks obviously weren’t a problem.

We had some speculation of course because Goodyear had never raced in Europe. Some of the bigger issues for me was because the tyre had never ridden in the racetracks in Europe and there was only one guy using them, and that was me. So there were those kinds of variables.

But putting road race leathers every weekend was very different than putting on short-track leathers, TT, dirt-track and then road-race leathers five times a year. There were a lot of things that were easier, but then there were a lot that were uncertain and difficult.

Kenny Roberts, 1978 (pic: Gold&Goose).

Crash.net:

Such as only having one 500 for most of the year?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

Yeah, I didn’t get a second bike until the British Grand Prix. I literally had to say I was going to quit Yamaha unless they gave me one. There is a lot of politics in grand prix racing in the world that I didn’t understand.

That was one thing; I thought I was a factory rider until I got to Europe and then I found out I wasn’t the factory rider!

Crash.net:

Was that the biggest challenge you had to overcome on your way to the title in 1978?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

The problem that I had was I had to test tyres. In practice you only get 30 minutes. I would do three or four laps, trying to learn a racetrack, and test tyres at the same time. Then I would pull in and lose six or seven minutes changing tyres to go out again.

At most of the grand prix the guy I had to beat – Barry Sheene – was getting twice as much track time as I was. He would ride his bike in, stop, get on the other one and go. I was standing in the pits and waiting for my bike to get done.

That was one of the reasons for needing another bike. I got it two races to the end so it wasn’t much of a relief but at least I had another bike!

Crash.net:

You also competed in the first four 250 races that year (and won two of them). Was that solely to learn the tracks?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

I ran 250s until midseason and the Kawasakis were just too good for us to continue. The bike kept breaking. In the first part of the season my bike was OK. Then we kind of lost a cylinder that made it OK and we could never get it back. It was a very strange motorcycle. The Kawasakis were very good and what made it worse was it was a really private 250 Yamaha. There was nothing 'works' about it.

Crash.net:

Would you say 1978 remains your greatest achievement in your career?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

Oh yeah, certainly. Certainly. I knew I could ride a motorcycle and I knew how a motorcycle worked because of all the dirt stuff I went through. We were able to put the bike on the racetrack to be able to win fairly quick.

With all the uncertainties and I didn’t realise the amount of press you had to go through in Europe. In America we didn’t have that; we had one or two motorcycle newspapers a week. That was it. In Europe you’re surrounded by TV cameras. For me it was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole lot different to what I’m used to.’

So there were a lot of things in ’78 that changed my thinking and changed me a lot. In America it was a very small arena but I was a big fish. In Europe it was a huge arena and I was a little, bitty guy trying to win the world championship. It was quite a bit different to what I was used to.

Kenny Roberts, 1979 (Pic: Gold&Goose)

Crash.net:

You then faced quite a different challenge in 1979 when you had to return from a broken back. Was that challenge on a similar level to what you had experienced the year before?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

Yeah, it was but in a very different way. I have to say the crash was all my fault. All winter there was nothing to do. Sure there was training on a motocross bike and a minibike but, man, I just wanted to get back on that roadracer again.

I told everybody that I was going to be even better than the year before. Then on the second lap of the first test I just went into the corner way too hot, way too low and ended up losing the front and hitting the guardrail. That was just dumb. In my opinion it was just stupid to do that. But that’s a part of learning about grand prix racing.

That aside, my goal was to just to ride comfortably and at 90 percent and wait until I was stronger. I missed the first one [in ‘79] in the hospital. The second one was in Austria. I wanted to be somewhere near the front but I wasn’t there to win the race. Luckily the Yamaha was very good that year in top speed and that was one of the top speed tracks. I ended up winning.

It kind of added to the Martian aspect of my career. At that point I won Spain also and three in a row. Everyone went, ‘They guy’s a Martian. He’s come from a broken back and can barely walk, to winning his first grand prix back after a winter in Japan and the US.’

It’s just funny how them things add on to your resume.

Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene, 1981 (Pic: Gold&Goose).

Crash.net:

Was it difficult to accept 1981 and ’82, which were barren years by your high standards, after the success you had experienced before then?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

Well, I look at it differently than other people. For me it was working with Yamaha with the goal of making a better motorcycle to win on. We were going through that together.

I never stood there and said, ‘Yamaha’s stupid and I don’t want to race for them anymore,’ which is what you get nowadays. [You hear riders say,] ‘This bike is crap and I can’t ride it.’ For me the bike was crap but I was sitting on it and I had to get it better, you know?

Hey, I could have gone and ridden for Honda. I could have ridden for Suzuki I guess. That wasn’t me. I was Yamaha. And we had to fix this thing and we had to make it make it better. I had some people at Yamaha that said, ‘Let’s go with last year’s bike, the OW.’

I said, ‘No, no. We’re going to fix this bike and make this bike good.’ We already had one test rider killed on it who I knew very well and I said, ‘No, we’re going to do this.’ It took a whole year and a half obviously to make a better motorcycle but we did make one. That was the most successful MotoGP bike Yamaha ever made. It was the first ‘V’.

In some ways, yeah, I could have won more championships with a better motorcycle but to me three times, four times, five times, I don’t care. I care about my life and my relationships in it and my experiences in it.

To walk into a place now and say, ‘I’m a six-time world champion’ is no different than walking in and saying, ‘Here’s Kenny Roberts, a world champion’ or whatever. It doesn’t matter. I got out of grand prix racing exactly what I wanted to do in the end. It’s not my mindset.

Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, 1983 (Pic: Gold&Goose).

Crash.net:

Which leads us to 1983 - a season still widely considered to be the greatest championship fight of all time. Did you start that year thinking it would be a straight-up duel between you and Freddie Spencer?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

No. I did not know who the main competition was going to be. I didn’t know how our bike was going to compare. I know Honda is a very big company and when they want to go do something normally they do it right. I had no idea how ’83 was going to go. All I know is that when I checked the bike, I got what I wanted.

I’ll tell you it took a lot of meetings and good deal of pressure from me. If I didn’t get the engine that I wanted, I didn’t sign the contract after the test. I said, ‘If the engine is not what I want, I’m not riding.’ It was at that point when they had to do something.

They had one engine that I wanted made. It had something to do with the crankshafts. And they only had one. I put that in my bike and they didn’t like it. They said, ‘No, our bike is good now.’

I said, ‘I want to test what I asked to test.’ I did. And that was the engine that me and Eddie used all season. They had to re-machine all the engines to fit that crankshaft. So that was the engine that we used in ’83. And in ’84, ’85 and ’86.

Crash.net:

So you were right in the end…

Kenny Roberts Senior:

Well, yeah. I wasn’t right all the time. I actually went across the table after the dyno guy. I was going to kill him! And I had two Japanese holding my legs, another holding my other arm. I was actually reaching for his throat. That’s how intense things were!

At the end of ’82. Imagine me flying across the table, because the guy laughed when I said what I wanted. And I just flew across the table. I was going to kill him! But yeah, I got what I wanted.

Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts, 1983 (pic: Gold&Goose).

Crash.net:

You obviously enjoyed a famous rivalry with Barry Sheene, but was Freddie the toughest competitor you came up against?

Kenny Roberts Senior:

I think the whole combination of him, the bike and the tyres were formidable. The tyre that we were using at that time from Dunlop wasn’t the best that they could come up with. It was a tyre from Japan that was four years old when we got it. But it worked.

Unfortunately we had to run every grand prix with that tyre. So some grands prix it wasn’t going to last and at others it was really bitchin’. 

Freddie on the other hand had the three-cylinder which was almost as quick as mine in top speed but it accelerated good and had tyres. It was just a fight every week. Sometimes it was whether the tyre would last, or I’d have to slow Freddie down half the race so the tyre would last. It was one of them years when every week was a dogfight.

With Sheene it was more in the press. It was more psychological than with Freddie. Freddie and me just raced it out. Either he won or I won. It wasn’t much of a mind game with Freddie. Sheene was the biggest star in motorcycle racing at that time, especially in England.

Of course I read English. The press just hammered him or me, depending on what the situation was. But me and Freddie we didn’t care about the press. We didn’t care if I said, ‘He’s a bad rider’ or ‘He can’t test for shit’. Whatever. Sheene was quite the opposite. It was more what was in the press every week than what it was on the racetrack.

Me and Sheene didn’t have as many battles as what me and Freddie had on the racetrack. Put me and Freddie on the racetrack that year and we just battled it out. Some races every other lap was changing position. That was unique on the racetrack that year with me and Freddie.

It went by really quick because every other week we were in the shit again racing. To add pressure to it, I announced that it was my last year in grand prix racing. Of course, I had a good motorcycle and I wanted to win the championship. And I should have. Had it fallen differently we would have and there are no regrets. I rode every race as hard as I could ride and Freddie did the same.

So we walked away going, ‘OK, one point.’ I retired and I could live with that. I think I could have done three or four more years if I wanted to, but it was not in my mindset. I did everything in motorcycle racing that I wanted.

Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer 1983 (pic: Gold&Goose).

Crash.net:

I read Freddie’s autobiography recently and was struck by a section where he details that year’s Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez. He pipped you to the win after an epic fight. Soon after you were both in his motorhome, talking about life in general. He says he is sure you were trying to work him out, but it’s difficult to imagine the top racers today doing the same…

Kenny Roberts Senior:

You know, early on as many young Americans before and after, they kind of looked at me as the reference I guess. They grew up watching me as Marquez grew up watching Valentino. They looked at me as the patriot of all that.

I don’t have any grudges and I don’t hate people, especially that can ride a motorcycle as good as Freddie could ride one. We would go out and have a beer after the race, or champagne or whatever it was and talk about that event. I didn’t have to have an enemy to beat, as some of them do.

I just wanted to ride my motorcycle. I wanted people to come away from the race saying, ‘His bike wasn’t as good but that guy rode his ass off.’ I wanted all the riders that I raced against to say, ‘I could not have done that.’ That’s what satisfied me; not that I won every time I sat on the bike, which was certainly not the case.

 

 

 

 

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