Monday, April 13, 2009

Kenny Roberts, the first winner

Kenneth Leroy Roberts born December 31, 1951 in Modesto, California is a former motorcycle racer and the first American to win the 500cc Road Racing World Championship.
Roberts won two AMA Grand National Championships in 1973 and 1974, three consecutive 500 cc World Championships in 1978, 1979 and 1980 along with three victories at the Daytona 200. He is the father of the 2000 500cc World Champion, Kenny Roberts, Jr., the only father and son duo to have won the title.

Roberts is regarded as being one of the first riders to use his knee to balance the bike on the track in corners, and the first to use engine power to spin the rear tire exiting bends to help steer the bike (a technique known as "throttle steering", common among U.S. flat track racers). These techniques are used everywhere in the top levels of motorcycle road racing, though they are much less exaggerated with today's improvements in tire technology.

Roberts made a name for himself by battling the dominant Harley-Davidson factory dirt track team aboard an underpowered Yamaha XS650 model twin cylinder street motorcycle (overbored to 750CC with a special frame) in the U.S. Grand National Championship, a series which encompassed events in four distinctive dirt track disciplines plus road racing. Roberts is one of only four riders in AMA racing history to win the AMA Grand Slam, representing national wins at a mile, half-mile, short track, TT and road race. He made up for his bike's lack of power with an almost fearless, determined riding style.

This fearless style was highlighted in 1975 when Roberts competed at the Indy Mile National aboard a dirt track motorcycle with a Yamaha TZ 750 two-stroke road racing engine wedged inside its frame. On a bike that was considered unrideable due to its excessive horsepower, Roberts came from behind on the two-stroke, and overtook the factory Harley-Davidson duo of Korky Keener and Jay Springsteen on the last lap for one of the most famous wins in American dirt track racing history. Afterwards, Roberts was famously quoted as saying, "They don't pay me enough to ride that thing."

Roberts ventured to Europe in 1978 to compete in the World Championship Grand Prix series. He surprised many observers by winning the 500 cc crown in his first attempt, despite having no prior knowledge of the European circuits. Roberts was also known for his epic battles with British racing legend Barry Sheene, and the subsequent Grand Prix World Champion, American Freddie Spencer.

His season long battle with Spencer for the 1983 500cc World Championship, in which they each won 6 races, and culminated in a last lap collision at the penultimate round in Sweden, is considered one of the greatest seasons in motorcycle Grand Prix history, along with the 1967 500cc duel between Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini. In a fitting end to a great career, Roberts won his last race in the final meeting of the 1983 season, the Italian Grand Prix. Ironically, Roberts would have never competed in the world championships if Yamaha had had a bike able to compete against the Harley Davidson dirt track team.

* Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990
* Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992
* Inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
* The FIM named him a Grand Prix "Legend" in 2000.

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