Kenny Roberts

Moto Cross star David E. Langford continues his tribute to local heroes in motorsport

Kenny Roberts

In 1978, Kenny Roberts became the first American to take the 500cc motorcycle GP World Championship, earning him the media title 'King Kenny', a nickname that endured throughout his illustrious career – and endorsed by two further world championships in 1979 and 1980.

After retiring in 1983 he moved his own grand prix racing team to a new home in Banbury. His son, Kenny junior, contests the world championship in what is now dubiously entitled 'Moto GP', and in 2000 became (probably) the only son of a former world champion to win the 500 title.

Kenny Roberts, senior, was born on December 31, 1951, in Modesta, California. He grew up to be a star of the US dirt track ovals before turning to road racing. After winning the American Motorcycle Association road race title, he came to England in 1978 to compete in the FIM (Federation Internationale Motocycliste) Grand Prix World Championships.

This had traditionally been the domain of the finest British and European riders, and to have an American rider muscle in on the act really upset the status quo. Kenny had previously won the Daytona 200 (the Florida classic) on three separate occasions, so he was no stranger to the Tarmac circuits.

This experience and competitive persistence was a complete shock to the European etiquette that prevailed prior to Roberts, thus he provided the main opposition to Britain's new 'playboy', Barry Sheene.

I count myself privileged to have seen the two of them racing each other at Silverstone. It was always close, but Kenny had the edge, to Sheene's cost. Roberts was, to my mind, more in the realm of the old school – he was the neater and more polished perfectionist in his riding style, whereas Sheene always looked slightly detached from the motorcycle.

My only criticism of Roberts was that he never raced on the Isle of Man, but that was his personal choice to be respected and at least he did not complain about the TT or the people who took part.

After the death of Finland's superstar Jarno Saarinen, Roberts provided a breath of fresh air for road race fans across Europe. His riding style was clearly inspired by the Finnish rider, and both had developed their roadracing technique through dirt track and ice racing experience.

Saarinen had taken America by storm in winning the Daytona 200 on a 350 Yamaha twin, while all the opposition were on potentially faster 750s. Jarno had achieved the impossible with an unconventional riding style never seen before.

His handlebars were dropped almost vertically, allowing him to be flat on the tank for the whole race – which looked uncomfortable but provided superbly effective aerodynamics. It certainly worked and, thereafter, many riders adopted the same manner of riding, including King Kenny.

It was simply awesome to watch and set the standard for the kneepad-scraping Tarmac technique which is common today.

In 1990, Roberts continued to manage his own race team from its base in Banbury. Team riders Wayne Rainey won the 500 and John Kocinski the 250 world championships between them, a fabulous result.

By 1993 Wayne had won a total of three world championships for the team, matching his own team manager's previous record.

Back in the halcyon days when Kenny Roberts first conquered Europe, 1979 turned out to be a critical year after his 1978 world championship.

As Chris Carter, of Motor Cycle Weekly put it: "There is never a good time to have a crash, but for reigning 500cc world champion Kenny Roberts, the accident, while testing the new 500cc four-cylinder Yamaha at the factory's test circuit at Hammamatsu in Japan, could hardly have come at a worse time."

This crash forced Roberts to miss the first grand prix race of the season in Venezuala, and Sheene made the most of Roberts' misfortune with an emphatic victory. This was short-lived however. Roberts was soon back on the grid with a vengeance.

In the Austrian Grand Prix at the Salzburgring, Sheene was out of the running with brake problems. Roberts, on the other hand, was way out in front with the only opposition coming from a young Italian called Virginio Ferrari, who took second place as he had when Sheene won the Venezuelan round.

Following Roberts' second world title at the end of the 1979 season, 1980 found both him and Sheene riding Yamahas. Up until this year, Barry had been a Suzuki works rider, but now the two men appeared to be on equal terms, However, Sheene's bike was a private entry which, in theory, gave Roberts the edge.

The reliability problems he would suffer tipped the balance, yet, even with this negative angle, Roberts again managed to win a third world championship.

Roberts continues with his GP team to this day. There remains, quite simply, no-one else like him – in Banbury, or the rest of the world.


• If you have any experiences in motorsport you would like to share, please contact me via the website: www.Britishartists.co.uk or call 01865 434359. Commissions welcome, any subject considered.
August 2007 Oxfordshire Limited Edition