KING KENNY THE FIRST : Roberts’ Knee-Scraping Style Forever Changed the Face of Grand Prix Racing

Times Staff Writer

In 1978, it was a revolutionary idea, an America racing motorcycles in Europe, but for Kenny Roberts it seemed the only avenue left for him.

“I’d beat everybody over here, but there weren’t many races in America for Grand Prix bikes and Yamaha didn’t have a competitive dirt bike so there I was sitting home in Modesto with nothing to do.

“I had a contract with Yamaha USA so they decided I ought to try riding on the world championship circuit. So I did.”


The first time the Europeans got a look at the two-time American champion they thought he was crazy. The freckle-faced daredevil from California was leaning his bike over so far in the corners that his knee was scraping the pavement and burning a hole in his leathers.

“Nobody over there had seen anything like that,” Roberts recalled while watching practice Friday at Laguna Seca Raceway for Sunday’s Dunlop United States International Grand Prix. “The crowds used to go wild when I’d lay it down.”

And he was sliding the rear end of his bike in the corners like he was on dirt, setting himself up to accelerate hard toward the next corner while the Europeans were carefully steering around the turns.

They all thought he was crazy except Barry Sheene, the reigning world champion and No. 1 sports hero in Britain.

When motorcycle writers asked Sheene what he thought of the crazy newcomer, expecting him to ridicule Roberts, Sheene replied, “He’s better than (Giacomo) Agostini. Faster, and better.”

A heretical statement, indeed. Agostini had won eight world championships and the Italian was considered the greatest ever. Roberts was in his first Grand Prix season.

Sheene was proven correct.

Roberts won the first world Grand Prix he ever rode, the Venezuelan 250cc. He won the 500cc championship--the premier trophy in cycling--in his first try, the only rookie rider to accomplish such a feat, and he was the first American to win the coveted crown.

He also changed the face of motorcycle racing.

He opened the floodgates for American riders, he forced foreign riders to adapt to his knee-on-the-pavement style and his dirt track tactics caused foreign riders to come to the United States to ride on the dirt.

“The knee thing got me a lot of publicity but all I did was carry it one step farther,” Roberts explained. “I’d seen guys like Yvon Duhamel and Gary Nixon lean pretty far over. I just went a little farther. It was something that was bound to happen. I was just the first to come up with it.

“I think the dirt track tactics were more significant. That was something the Europeans were slow in catching up with. Now they’re sending guys over here to ride on the dirt as part of their training for the road.

“It’s easy to see in the standings. The Americans and the Australians grow up riding on dirt and they’ve taken over.”

The only non-American champion since 1983 was Australia’s Wayne Gardner, the 1988 winner and also the winner last Sunday of the inaugural Australian Grand Prix.

“The success I had that first year showed the young riders back home what they could accomplish and it wasn’t long before I had some company,” Roberts said. “Randy Mamola came the next year and then Freddie Spencer and Eddie Lawson.”

Lawson, the Upland rider who won his third world championship last year, credits Roberts for his motivation.

“Kenny was a big factor in my deciding to go to Europe,” Lawson said. “In fact, if it wasn’t for him I would never have gone. When I was racing for Kawasaki I went to Europe once with a 250cc bike and Kenny found me a helmet sponsor and helped me pay my way.

“In my first year (1983) we were teammates and he was the one who helped me get a good contract with Yamaha and Marlboro. I have a lot of respect for him. He had done more for motorcycle racing that anyone I know.”

Roberts retired from Grand Prix competition after the 1983 season after losing the championship by two points to Spencer in one of motorcycling’s most memorable competitions.

Spencer, on a Honda, and Roberts, always a Yamaha rider, each won six of the 12 races and they finished one-two six times. The difference came down to Spencer having one third and one fourth while Roberts had two fourth place finishes.

“It seemed like every year there were more responsibilities piled on me and after the ’83 season I’d just had enough. There was more traveling, more developmental work on the bike, more politics and by then I had three kids and I wasn’t seeing enough of them.

“One year I boycotted the FIM (motorcycling’s international federation) and tried to organize the riders. That took a lot of time and energy and caused a lot of sleepless nights.

“I didn’t fully succeed but what I did brought about some good changes. We raised the prize money 300%, cut out some dangerous circuits, brought new safety measures and finally got the FIM to listen to the riders.”

The benchmark of Roberts’ influence, however, is the strength of the American riding contingent.

In the 11 years since Roberts joined the tour, U.S. riders have won eight championships, Roberts in 1978-79-80, Spencer in 1983 and 1985 and Lawson in the alternate years of 1984, 1986 and 1988. In addition, Mamola finished second four times.

Wayne Rainey, a former dirt track rider from Downey, and Kevin Schwantz, a Suzuki rider from Houston, were each winners in their first season last year and Schwantz won this year’s opening race three weeks ago in Japan. Bubba Shobert, a transplanted Texan who lives in nearby Carmel Valley, joined the tour this year after winning four American dirt track and the 1988 Superbike championships.

After retiring, Roberts couldn’t stand being away from the excitement so he formed his own team.

“We started with a small team, riding 250cc bikes with an idea to give younger riders a chance to develop. Rainey was one of them. We have a young man now, John Kocinski, that I think is capable of winning the world championship one day.”

Kocinski, 20, who lives with Roberts on his 160-acre racing ranch in Hickman, Calif., will ride in the 250cc race Sunday.

“John will get his chance in some 500s later in the year but there’s no sense in rushing him too fast. He’s still young.”

What Roberts wants now, however, is to see one of his own Team Lucky Strike 500cc riders, Rainey or Australia’s Kevin Magee, win the world championship.

“We’re getting closer. Every year I learn more about running a team and how to make it more competitive. We came second with Randy (Mamola) two years ago. When he left for a new team last season, we decided to take a chance and go with two rookies and it paid off.”

It won’t be for lack of effort.

Roberts had his team ride the equivalent of 13 full races during the off-season, mostly while tire testing for Dunlop in Brazil.

“That gives you an idea of how tough it is in Grand Prix racing. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones working like that. I remember when I’d do one test before the first race of the season. That was it.”

Roberts, now 38, is almost as proud of how he rode himself in Brazil as he is of Rainey.

“I took the bike out and did a couple of complete races and was only a second or so slower than Rainey,” he said. “I had to take it a little easy because I knew if I fell off, I’d look like a nerd falling off his own bike, but I rode hard enough that I couldn’t sit down I was so sore.”

Today’s riders had better beware, however.

Kenny Roberts Jr., 15, won his first dirt scrambles recently at Lodi Cycle Bowl. That’s where King Kenny won his first race 24 years ago.