A dirt-track star who learned to excel on asphalt, Kenny Roberts and his Yamaha YZR500 beamed down in Europe in 1978 and changed the face of grand prix racing.
At the 2009 MotoGP finale in Valencia, Spain, Texan Tech 3 Yamaha rider Colin Edwards coined an enduring epithet when he called Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa “aliens.”
Never at a loss for words, Edwards, AKA “The Texas Tornado,” caused a storm when he said, “I seem to be pretty much stuck with fifth place when I race. But as I’ve said before, I’ve got to be pleased to be finishing next best behind those four guys, or should I say aliens…”
Edwards had it about right with his backhanded compliment about the fearsome foursome. The Italian, Aussie and two Spaniards were otherworldly talents when it came to racing their then-800cc MotoGP rocketships. But whether he knew it or not (he likely didn’t), Edwards couldn’t lay claim to inventing the “alien” tag when applied to grand prix motorcycle racers.
In fact, the extraterrestrial analogies came into play way back in 1978, when Spanish motorcycle racing fans first witnessed a wild-eyed, supremely-talented American rider named Kenny Roberts bending the laws of two-wheeled physics.
With his extraordinary skill and style – “I was riding the bike dirt-track style, sliding the rear end, ‘stop, point and shoot’ style,” says Roberts – he had to be from another planet. Having never seen such an extraordinary talent on Europe’s race tracks, the fans took to calling the Californian Marciano, Spanish for Martian.
“Soon after I arrived in Europe for my first World Championship season in 1978, I was Marciano,” says Roberts, reminiscing at his Lake Havasu City, Ariz., home. “They saw me ride and thought, ‘This guy has to be from Mars.’ They’d never really seen someone ride a 500cc grand prix bike like that before. It freaked them out.”
How Roberts ended up overseas and competing in the 1978 500cc Grand Prix Road Racing World Championship is a story in and of itself. Raised on the outskirts of Modesto, Calif., he first started riding the canal banks around the Central Valley on a Honda 50. By the late 1960s, he was a standout at the fabled Lodi Cycle Bowl, mastering how to “back ’er in” on air-cooled Suzukis. On New Year’s Day 1970, a day after his 18th birthday, he made his pro debut inside San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
In 1971, Roberts was teamed with Kel Carruthers at Yamaha, the Aussie former 250cc World Champion going on to be his mentor and tuner. That season, Roberts won AMA Rookie of the Year honors. From there, it was an all-out attack on the AMA Grand National Championship, with its unique mix of dirt (mile, half-mile, short-track and TT) and road racing.
Fourth in 1972 on an underpowered Yamaha against the mighty Harley-Davidson fleet, he went on to win the ’73 and ’74 GNC titles – the first for a Japanese factory – as his growing confidence for road racing added to his arsenal. Learning to shift his body weight through the turns, Roberts took it a stage further, getting so far off the bike that he’d skim his knee on the asphalt. Add in Yamaha’s nimble TZ750 and suddenly the dirt-track specialist was a road-racing ace.
Get the full version of this story in the 2018 Heroes Issue of RACER magazine, on sale now.
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