On that hot August night, 1975, I wouldn’t have given much of a chance that Kenny Roberts would live to celebrate his 70th birthday. At the legendary Indy Mile, the reigning Grand National Champion of the United States installed a TZ750-powered dirt tracker, Yamaha’s answer to Harley-Davidson’s superior horsepower on mile tracks. In a straight line, it was a hell of a motorcycle. When the time came to turn, it was the Devil’s own disaster!
Always laser-focused on the problem at hand, KR learned through methodical experimentation that he could force the beast to turn over by bouncing it off the hay bales! This solution – albeit putting his life in danger – allowed him to pass the entire peloton, overtake the hated Factory Harleys in the final round to the checker and score perhaps the most memorable victory of his time. career.
The winner’s interview was among the most cited of all time. “They don’t pay me enough to drive this thing” has become a staple in the track racing lexicon.
Eventually, Roberts and Yamaha conceded the American hegemony of dirt tracks to HD and took on a new challenge, Grand Prix road racing. In cowboy boots and a straw hat, armed with the long gun that would have brought down the inflatable Michelin man, Roberts arrived in the GP paddock like something from another world. “El Martiano”, the fans called him – “The Martian”.
Kneeling, spinning the rear tire and slipping through corners and dirt, Roberts rewrote the Grand Prix style book. He won three consecutive championships, swapped his helmet for the Yamaha Team Manager jacket and dominated the world with rider Wayne Rainey. Then, still against the grain, he left Yamaha to form his own team – and to build his own bike!
But among a multitude of choices, Roberts’ signing achievement was to revolutionize the hierarchy of Grand Prix racing. When the “King Kenny” arrived in Europe, the paddock was a slum and the riders were treated like personal property, their safety not being an issue. He changed all that, demanding that the competitors be heard. When the old FIM bureaucrats turned a deaf ear, he rallied the riders behind the threat of a rival series. It did the trick. The narrow-minded elders recognized an existential threat to their power and gave in. The resulting changes laid the foundation for the modern success story of MotoGP.
Now in safe retirement, Roberts arrived at his 70th birthday amid congratulations from around the world. And so we say Happy Birthday to “King Kenny”. “El Martiano”. The foreigner of origin.
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