Who is Kenny Roberts?
Kenny Roberts was born on the 31st of December 1951 as Kenneth Leroy Roberts in California. He is best known for his profession as a motorcycle racer, being the first American to win at the famous Grand Prix championship. Kenny also won the American Motorcyclist Association Grand National Championship two times.
Aside from his achievements on the racing track, Kenny became known for his advocacy regarding safety in racing. He is also the owner of a racing team. The style he used to ride his bike on the dirt track has led to a change in the way motorcycles in Grand Prix races would start being ridden.
In 1979 Kenny proposed to create a rival championship for motorcycles, a suggestion which led to conflict within the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme and gave more power to the Grand Prix racers. As a result, the safety standards for future races were radically increased, leading to a new dawn of excellence in this sport.
The Dare That Paid Off
Kenny grew up in a rural area of California, where agriculture was the main occupation of most of its inhabitants. Because of his surroundings, he became drawn to riding horses initially, but soon everything would change when, aged 12, a friend dared Kenny to ride a minibike. Not only did he accept the challenge, but he discovered he liked the experience.
As a result, Kenny started building his first motorcycle soon by using the engine of his dad’s lawnmower which he attached to the frame of a bicycle. After he took part in attendance in a local race near Modesto, his birthplace, he decided to start competing himself in such races.
Kenny’s father purchased him a Tohatsu bike, but he soon started using a Hodaka motorcycle, which had greater power, after his Tohatsu bike proved to not be enough for racing. Shortly, Kenny started winning various local races and in 1968 his results received attention from a man who was a local Suzuki dealer.
The man, named Bud Aksland, who saw the potential in Kenny, offered him a sponsorship on a Suzuki motorcycle. Before finishing his senior year in high school, Kenny dropped out and focused on building a career in racing. After he turned 18 he started competing in professional races.
He would actually enter his very first pro race exactly on the day he turned 18 and he ended up finishing fourth.
Building His Career in America
Bud Aksland facilitated a meeting between Kenny and Jim Doyle who worked as an airline pilot and was an amateur motorcycle racer. The two got along and Jim would start working as a personal manager for Kenny. They approached the American import division of Yamaha who turned Kenny into their factory-sponsored rider when he was only 19 of age.
Yamaha put Kenny in contact with Kel Carruthers who was a former world champion for 250 cc to guide the newcomer. In 1973 Kel decided to focus completely on managing Kenny and quit his career as a rider.
By 1971 Kenny had already won the Rookie of the Year Award from the American Motorcyclist Association and in 1972 he won his first race as an expert class rider.
He gained attention for beating the favorite Harley-Davidson with his skills, despite his motorcycle lacking in horsepower. By the end of the season he was ranked as number 4 in the country and in 1973 he became the winner of the national championship with 2,014 points.
Change of Style
Kenny was praised for having what could only be described as a natural talent for riding a motorcycle on dirt, but he faced challenges when he had to do it on a paved road circuit, especially when he had to make a turn.
This would change after he noticed that when the Finnish rider Jarno Saarinen had to take a turn, he would shift his body weight toward the inside. Kenny took the idea and adapted the style of cornering while also exaggerating the body shift more. With his new technique, Kenny would start to be a serious competitor for road races as well.
In the spring of 1974, Kenny went to Europe for the first time in order to take part in the famed Imola 200 race which was created for 750 cc motorcycles. He would place second. His next stop was England, where, alongside a team of other Americans, he would go head to head with the British team which was seen as having the advantage.
Despite having the Brits known as specialists of road racing while the Americans were considered better at dirt track races, Kenny won three out of the six races; in the other three races, he placed second. Overall, Kenny received the most individual points out of everybody in the competition.
Keeping Up with Harley-Davidson
Kenny took part in the Road Atlanta race in June of 1974 and won, becoming the first time he won a national road race. He also broke his own previous record at the Grand National championship with 2,286 points.
Despite his wins, the racer found it became harder and harder to compete with Harley-Davidson in dirt track races, as Harley made many improvements and Yamaha couldn’t keep up with them, which means Kenny had to rely more and more on skill and less on technology.
A prime example of this was the Indy Mile Grand National where he rode with an engine that was too powerful for the way the motorcycle was built – most, if not all, considered it was impossible for him to win. Still, in the last lap, he overtook the Harley-Davidsons that were leading the race which is considered to be one of the most memorable wins in history.
The First American
In 1978 Kenny won the Daytona 200, Imola 200, the Venezuelan Grand Prix (for 250 cc) and he scored his first 500 cc Grand Prix win with the race in Austria – wins at the Grand Prix in France and Italy followed soon. He also placed second at the Transatlantic Match races and the Spanish Grand Prix.
While taking part in the Swedish Grand Prix he crashed during a 250 cc practice which only landed him in the seventh place for the 500 cc race because of his injuries. He scored no points at the Finnish Grand Prix.
Kenny managed to recover and won the British Grand Prix, but only finished in third place in the last race of the 1978 season in Germany. When all the final points from all races were accumulated, Kenny Roberts was declared the world champion, making him the first American to hold this title in history.
He would go on to be crowned the champion of the Grand Prix for 1979 and 1980 as well, opening the door for American racers in the 500 cc competitions. The United States would go on to dominate this race in the 1980s and early 1990s with two wins in the 2000s as well. The last American to win the Grand Prix to date was Nicky Hayden in 2006.
Rebel With a Cause
While running a test on a motorcycle in Japan in 1979, Kenny suffered serious back injuries and had his spleen ruptured. Although he missed the opening of the season in Venezuela he took part in the race in Austria, where we won. He also won in Italy and placed second in Germany. He also won in Spain but a controversy overshadowed the moment.
The race organizers had to pay starting money to Kenny, but they refused. When Kenny won, he refused the trophy and the FIM put him on probation. He also considered the Belgian Grand Prix conditions to be too dangerous and convinced other racers to join him in protest, which led to FMI to put him on probation again.
Because of all the controversy when Kenny spoke with the media and announced his intention to start a separate race series, the FMI relented and offered safer conditions and bigger financial rewards for racers from then on. Kenny finished the 1983 season in second place and retired soon in full glory.