Straight out of Modesto, California, Kenny Roberts simply is the greatest motorcycle racer the nation of the United States of America has ever produced.
A two-time American Motorcyclist Association Grad National Champion, in 1978 Roberts took it upon himself to make a run at America’s first 500cc Grand Prix World Championship as a full-on rookie. And he won it. And he also won it in 1979 and 1980. Brash, confident and driven to a fault, Roberts came, saw and conquered, and in the process, positioned America as the world’s preeminent Grand Prix superpower for a decade and a half.
Q: Before you even showed up in Europe to make a full-time run at a 500cc world championship you let it be known that the grand prix riders didn’t intimidate you on any level whatsoever. Thoughts?
KENNY ROBERTS: I went to do Imola right after winning in dirt track at Ascot Park. When we landed in Milan in Italy, I told a group of reporters, “Giacomo Agostini? Why is he so great? Bull***. He never rode the 8-Mile National. I never saw him win Ascot.” I pissed everybody off. The press went crazy. Kel had to drag me away. When we hit the Imola track, I was going to kick his ass. I said, ‘Bring it on, dude!’
You had to really be on your toes at those Ascot races. Because the track was so tacky, you didn’t need a perfect bike – you didn’t need a Harley-Davidson to win the race. You could win on a Yamaha if you knew how to ride it better than anyone else. Ascot was really fierce at that time. If you had a decent bike there and you rode harder than anyone else, you could win Ascot. So when I was at Imola, everyone kept saying “Agostini! Agostini!” So I said, “Well, I’ve never seen Agostini race Ascot, so I don’t know how good he is.”
Q: 1978 would mark your first full 500cc World Championship Series season. That year you won three races, and took rival Barry Sheene down to the last race of the year to win your first title. What was that like?
KR: The problem at that time was that I only had one motorcycle. I was a support rider. I wasn’t a factory rider. The big problem I had was that Goodyear that I was using had never seen the race tracks of Europe, and so I had to test tires and learn the race tracks in that first year. It was so different then. Not only did I have the European thing to think about and worry about, as well as two kids and a wife and a motorhome… It was a hell of a year. Luckily for me, I didn’t think about any of that stuff. It wasn’t on my radar. The only thing I was really worried about was learning the race tracks and winning races.
Q: Along the way you got tapped with the nickname The Martian. What was that all about?
KR: They still call me that in Europe. I’ll check into a hotel or be at the airport and someone will say “Marciano!” That was Spanish for Martian. It stuck. Why they call me that? I think it started in Spain because I was passing people on the inside and on the outside. In grand prix racing at that time, they didn’t see that very much. They saw some of the things I was doing in passing guys on the outside and all of that and said, “This guy is not from this Earth. He must be a Martian.” That stuck.
Q: MotoGP then and MotoGP now. Radically different to you?
KR: Oh yeah. It’s professional now. It’s what I wanted it to be when I was there. I couldn’t figure out why they would get 200,000 and we were getting paid peanuts. And the race tracks were dangerous and nobody gave a s*** about that, either. I got to thinking, Why can’t this be the way it should be? Everyone would then say to me, “Well, you’re an American. You can say that.” I never figured that out until later on in my life. The problem there was that these riders from other nations, their federations would help them. Their federations had sin in the game. And the AMA, well, they hated me. Why would they help me? I think without me saying the things that I did at that time, I don’t know when motorcycle racing would have gotten professional to the point that it is now. They’ve done a great job with what they’ve had to work with. It was a pretty rocky road to begin wit with DORNA, but they pulled it out of the hat.
Q: How is it being the father of 2000 500cc world champion Kenny Roberts Jr.?
KR: That’s probably the thing I think about the most. That was all a lot tougher on him than it was on him. When we started racing, I said to him, “You’re never going to be as good as me, even if you’re better than me. People are always going, ‘Oh, he’s not as good as his dad…” Kenny got a lot of that and I told him, “If you can handle that, you can race. If that’s going to bother you, I’d just as soon you not race.” It didn’t bother him at all. I don’t know how it didn’t, but it didn’t. That’s the achievement I’m most proud of.
Q: Could a Kenny Roberts-style American run on the MotoGP world championship ever happen again?
KR: Never say never. I mean, America can produce great racers, we just lost our way. Like I said, it’s not easy here. They have so many advantages that we don’t have in the motorcycle business yet. It’s just a much, much steep uphill that our riders have. When will that be fixed? Who knows? As Americans I think we’ve lost some of the drive to go there. I think we’ve lost some of that, “Hey, I’m going to go show the world that I can beat everybody.” That’s kind of the way I looked at it when I had to go over there.
Q: What do you make of Valentino Rossi?
KR: Well, what can you say? The guy is incredible. The most incredible thing about the guy is not that he can still do this so well at his age, but how he made that change from two-stroke to four-stroke so successfully. A lot of people did not. That’s amazing to me. He could be there in a whole different era at one point, and be in the new era right now. That’s amazing to me. That’s something Rossi did a lot of people couldn’t do.