Kenny Roberts is certainly one of the all-time racing greats in motorcycling. When I heard that he was visiting Mallory Park for the 2011 Festival of 1000 Bikes, I just had to take the opportunity of meeting him and finding out a little more about him. Along with Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts was the biggest name in the sport in my younger years, so I was thrilled at this chance.
Kenny was born in 1951 and started his hugely successful career on the dirt oval tracks of the States. In 1978 he became the first American to win a Grand Prix World Championship and in the following years he totally dominated the World Grand Prix circuit, and by 1980, had won three consecutive 500cc Championship titles. After retiring in 1983, Kenny formed his own Yamaha team and by the end of the 1993 season, Rainey had equalled Kenny’s feat, securing three successive World 500 titles for the Roberts team. In 1996, Kenny decided to develop and build his own Grand Prix machine. Due to a number of factors the project had limited success, but it proved the potential for manufacturers outside of the big four Japanese companies to make competitive machinery.
During the late 1970’s, Kenny’s confrontation with the FIM ultimately led to the adoption of stricter safety standards and made significant improvements in the way riders were treated by the race organisers. But Kenny will always be remembered for his fantastic riding style, hanging from the side of the bike with his knee close to the ground. This style has now been adopted by all riders and it’s hard to imagine racing without it.
So it was certainly a great pleasure to meet someone who has had such a massive influence on racing – and is also a real gentleman too.
Hello Kenny, welcome back to England! This year’s festival is a superb event – do you attend many events like this?
Absolutely not! I spend my time playing golf, and building the occasional bike. I’ve just finished a Yamaha YSR50 that I’ve fitted with a 450cc motor and a TT500. So I’m definitely a man of leisure. A lot of us Americans really don’t do travel due to the distances involved, so I guess I agreed to come in a moment of weakness..! But it’s certainly a great event and I’m glad I’m here.
For us Brits, one of the races that will always stick in our mind, is against Barry Sheene in the 1979 GP at Silverstone. Was that one of your best races?
It was a great race! Barry and I both knew that we weren’t going to leave it to the last lap, so we were both really going for it. But it wasn’t my best race though. My best race was the Spanish GP at Jarama in 1982. Barry was chasing me and I was leading, riding the first V twin Yamaha. But my tyres had gone and I was riding a real animal of a bike. I was determined not to let him beat me and I pushed it right to the limit on every single lap. It was by far my best physical and mental performance.
You have raced pretty much everywhere. What were your favourite circuits?
Well, Jarama is a great track. You just point it and pull the trigger – that kinda suits my style! And I love Silverstone. Mallory Park is great too – mainly because it only has 4 corners, and being a bit stupid, I find the circuit a lot easier to memorise!
And how about circuits that you didn’t get on with?
I just hate Donnington Park. The corners are all off-camber and it has a really weird surface that didn’t suit bikes. And I found that the harder I tried, the slower I went. I like circuits where the opposite is true!
Your first trip to Europe was to Assen in 1974, but then went straight back to the US. Why was that?
I was over for the 1974 250cc GP. I finished third. But I felt that the GP was run so badly, I thought, why would I want to race here? So I decided to go back home to make a living. And then when I couldn’t, I decided to come back to Europe!
And of course, you then came back over here in 1978 for the Transatlantic Trophy. Barry Sheene famously said that he didn’t think you were going to be very good anyway. Did that spur you on?
I don’t think he actually said that. He said that I was good rider but probably wasn’t going to win the world championship. At the time I’d never really raced in Europe and didn’t know the tracks. So to be honest, I think it was a fair statement. I didn’t like it, but was true!
The Transatlantic Trophy was very well attended. How was your first experience of European spectators?
It was my first experience of a whole lot of things. I just wasn’t used to short races and short tracks. In the States, they were all hour long races – a very different arena. I guess I just tried to survive. There was so much more to be aware of on the track. I was for ever being told, “You can’t ride on that part of the track because of leaves; you can’t ride there because of gravel…” There was a lot to take in. I remember I used to fall off a lot at Oulton Park, but if you were going to fall off anywhere, then that was the circuit to do it. They had the prettiest nurses in the hospital there – I got to know them very well!
Of course you were not only a fantastically successful rider, but you also ran a hugely successful Yamaha team. Would you ever consider running another team in MotoGP or MotoGP2?
Yes! But only if it was funded properly!
In 1997, you surprised everyone by moving into motorcycle manufacturing with Tom Walkinshaw racing here in the UK. What happened there?
It was really a project that wasn’t feasible in the timescales we were working to – with the level of engineering and budget that we had. With hindsight I would have made a 4 cylinder bike. The gas and tyre rule changes that came into effect really made it hard for us and prevented our three cylinder machine from being competitive. We signed a major funding deal with a Malaysian business man, the man behind Modenas Motorcycles and Proton cars, for a much needed injection of cash. But five days after the deal was signed, he was tragically killed in a helicopter crash and the funding disappeared. But I really enjoyed the experience – I still have all the bikes. They’re lovely little machines.
You were famously the first American to win the World Championship in 1978. Since then, a lot of American riders have followed in your footsteps. Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden have both been around for a long time now. Who do you see coming on the scene next?
Really good riders don’t come around every year. Someone who sets themselves apart from the others comes only every ten to fifteen years. At the moment it’s the Spanish riders who are running the show. I’ve heard that the Spanish have more sex and that makes them ride faster!
You did a lot in the 1970s in improving conditions and safety for racers. You must also be very proud of this?
Yes, people now don’t realise just how much we did in such a short period of time. There were too many people dying and a lot of people were getting hurt. Not only that, but the wrong people were making money – it wasn’t the riders or the teams. But it all changed in 1980 and has continued to improve since then. The circuits are much safer now, and the sport is much better all round.