Of Horses, Motorcycles and the Lives of the Two Roberts
If Kenny Roberts, Sr. would have been a couple of inches shorter and a few pounds lighter, the motorcycle racing world may have had to wait awhile before someone came along and lit up the tracks the way he did. It seems young Kenny was partial to horses, and growing up near a guy who boarded Tennessee Walkers didn’t help. Kenny rode that guy's horses and the sight of the slightly built kid on the top of them brought to mind a potential future as a jockey.
But thank the motorcycle racing gods a friend of Kenny’s owned a mini-bike and egged the horse rider into giving two wheels a try.
“I got on it and thought pulling back on the throttle was how you stopped it. Scared the shit out of me and I bounced it off a trailer. But the more I thought about it later, the more I thought ‘I gotta do this. I gotta ride.’”
Kenny’s dad had ridden Harleys and Indians before he got married and started raising a family. The bikes went away, but evidently not the influence.
Kenny’s brother got a Honda 50 to ride back and forth to school. His parents decided young Kenny could do with the same bike, and found one that had somehow ended up in the nearby canal before Kenny took ownership. Kenny rode the hell out of it for a couple of years. But not before also taking a crack at building his own bike from an old bicycle frame and a lawnmower engine.
Clearly, Kenny wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He went on to a career that proved he wasn’t afraid of much of anything else for that matter. But the Honda 50 was a start, albeit one that was lacking.
“I found this guy who had a Tohatsu 50 and asked if he’d trade that for my Honda. Someone had won a world championship on a Tohatsu 125, so I decided I wanted that bike.”
This was probably something like Kenny's Tohatsu.
The trade went through, but the bike eventually broke down. Depending on how you look at it, this could have been seen as either a sign to move on to something else… or an opening to a future career. The latter prevailed.
Kenny’s dad knew a local racer named Merle Mills, and his kid kept Kenny’s little Tohatsu running. Merle had seen Kenny ride and thought he should start racing. But Kenny wasn’t easily convinced.
“If I don’t know something about something, I’m more likely to say I don’t want to do it. So before I agreed to start racing, I went to a couple of races, saw I could beat the guys out there, and decided to give it a try.”
The Tohatsu blew up after a couple of tries, but it showed Kenny, and anyone else with any knowledge of the sport, that he could compete when he had a bike that worked.
A more powerful Hodaka 90 came up for sale for about $200, so Kenny’s dad bought it, and after reaching the podium on his first real race, Kenny's career took off.
He became a factory sponsored rider at the age of 19 and would go on to become known as one of the greatest motorcycle racers of the time. With a career that started in dirt track racing, Roberts was a two-time winner of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Grand National Championship. He’s one of only four riders in 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. After being lured over to Europe, he took his winning ways with him and became the first American to win a Grand Prix world championship.
It’s no wonder he was often referred to as 'the natural' and later as 'The King.'
Kenny Roberts, Sr. taking his characteristic slide during a flat track race.
Kenny Roberts, Sr. waiting for the start of a flat track race.
“When I was young, I would ride all day long. The neighbors would complain about the noise, so one time I hooked a hose into the exhaust. I don’t know why I’m not dead. Everything just kind of fell into place for me to race motorcycles. I could ride anything, any time. I spent the rest of my life trying to master a technique that would make me go faster. I had to push it to the limits or I wasn’t interested in riding it.”
After years of success riding dirt track, Kenny was offered $100,000 to go to Europe and race in the 500 cc class of the Grand Prix, but he needed more than one bike to race and he needed to raise more money to make that happen. So he went to Goodyear for help.
“I talked to Leo Mel there and told him I needed $50k. He asked me ‘what are you doing tomorrow?’ I said, ‘trying to find $50k!’ So Leo got me in front of their board and they gave me the money.”
And that’s how Kenny Roberts brought his aggressive dirt track riding style to Grand Prix racing, …and changed up the sport as a result. Rather than go into corners as fast as possible and braking late, Roberts would brake early then hit the throttle causing the rear tire to spin and slide. It allowed him to come out of the corners faster than the rest of the competition, and he did that for years.
Kenny Roberts, Sr. showing them how its done while racing for Yamaha in MotoGP.
He also started dragging a knee. Hanging out further and further on the inside corner; something others weren’t yet doing. Consequently, he would have to duct tape his leathers at the knees since no one had yet developed knee pucks.
While Kenny was achieving success racing in Europe, dirt track in the US began a slow and steady decline. Roberts is quick to attribute that to Yamaha dropping out and the AMA “screwing everything up more than a few times.”
Meanwhile, Grand Prix racing was taking off in Europe, Americans were showing the Brits and the Europeans that they could compete with the best of them, and American fans followed.
Barry Sheene, Freddie Spencer, and Marco Lucchinelli are just a few of the British and European racers, Kenny would face in his Grand Prix career. When hung up his leathers and retired from racing, he became a World Championship-winning team owner with Wayne Rainey as his featured rider.
Kenny Roberts, Sr. (#4) and Freddie Spencer (#3).
By the late 90s and early 2000s, his two sons, Kurtis and Kenny Roberts, Jr., started making their own marks on the track. In 2000 he won the 500 cc World Championship racing against a young Valentino Rossi. That win meant that he and his dad were the first father and son duo to have won the same title.
Despite his success in Europe, Kenny, Sr. admitted he considered himself a dirt tracker at heart. But he likes where dirt track is headed today.
“I went to the Sacramento Mile and was so happy that Indian blew everyone apart. Indian coming back is huge. If they (American Flat Track) don’t screw things up and waste money and don’t put restrictions on individual manufacturers, dirt track could make a come back.”
Today, Kenny splits his time between an almond growing business called Kenny’s Nuts and training up and coming racers on a track he built on his farm. His son, Kenny Roberts, Jr. lives nearby.
Kenny Roberts, Jr.
The offspring of famous people have it rough. They’re constantly compared with the successful parent and measured against their accomplishments. But when it comes to his dad, Kenny Roberts, Jr. doesn’t seem to mind.
“I’m completely opposite my dad. My brother was more like my dad with regard to racing motorcycles. I was fast, but probably more reserved. I was probably faster on four wheels.”
But speed is what got Kenny, Jr. into MotoGP racing and earned him the championship in the 500 cc class in 2000 having racked up a total of 258 points. He retired from racing in 2007 and now works with his dad on the family almond farm.
Kenny Roberts, Jr. racing in Japan in 2003.
He’s quick to point out that while he grew up with a lot athletic ability, without his dad’s help and influence, he and some other famous racers might not have even gotten the opportunity to race in Europe.
“I tried dirt track racing and liked it, but I was on a fast track to get to Europe. Guys like Wayne Rainey, the Haydens, Kevin Schwantz…all of us got a chance to race over there because of my dad.”
Kenny, Jr. pointed out that there wasn’t any one thing his dad taught him about racing other than you have to do it the right way. No shortcuts.
Kenny Roberts, Jr. shares a victory with his dad.
“I was like a computer and did what I was supposed to do.”
Today , Kenny, Jr. helps his dad with the almond farm. He’s also a licensed pilot, he skis, and he and his family of four (wife and two kids) completed a 48 state tour of the United States in a Class A mobile home.
While life has been good to Kenny, Jr., he does have a couple of regrets.
“I would have gotten on a Honda after I left the Suzuki team. When I got on my dad’s Honda, I reached the podium. But what I regret the most was that when my dad had a base in Europe, I didn’t just backpack and pick up and go see more. Just explore without a plan.”
One can’t help but wonder how different life for the Roberts family would have been had horses rather than motorcycles been the mode with which Kenny, Sr. expressed his desire to go as fast as he could…and how that would have worked into some sort of plan for him and his sons. An extra inch or two and a few extra pounds means we, they, and the rest of the racing world will never know.