Esha Gupta from Bangalore explores the nation solo on a motorcycle
Esha Gupta from Bangalore explores the nation solo on a motorcycle
At 24, Shreya Sundar Iyer has already entered the Indian motorsport history books by becoming the first ever woman rider for TVS Racing. On the cusp of her first ever competitive event at the Indian National Rally Championship, asst ed Aninda Sardar caught up with the de-stressed damsel [Read more…]
No impediments when an enthusiastic motorcycle rider, who is a speech therapist by profession, takes up the pen to chronicle his long and adventurous journeys. Bike India talks to Dr Ajit Harisinghani, whose second travelogue is to be published soon.
A sense of calm and serenity overpowers you as you enter Dr Ajit Harisinghani’s speech foundation. This Pune-based doctor trains young professionals and stroke patients to recover from speech impediments. A speech therapist by profession and a grey-haired free-spirited motorcyclist at heart, Dr Ajit offers us a close-up view of his trip to Ladakh. He also tells us about his next book, which speaks about his visit to Bhutan and several other experiences.
BI: Before being a motorcyclist, you are a speech therapist. At a time when the profession was unheard of and a comfortable Central government job was the most sought-after prospect, you opted for speech therapy. Why?
AH: Back in the 1960s the only options were medicine, engineering or graduation. I missed the medical seat by 12 marks and had to settle for a degree in chemistry and zoology. Forget others, I myself didn’t know about speech therapy until I stumbled upon it. One day I had missed college to watch the newly released film, ‘Shagird’, umm, I think it had Joy Mukherjee and Saira Banu in lead roles. I had some time before the show began and so I just sauntered into the Nair Hospital next door. I read a notice that said, ‘Speech Therapy admissions closing today’. Spurred on by an urge to be in a medical setting I enrolled myself for the course and eventually developed a deep liking for it. I enjoy my job immensely now.
BI: A large number of people ride to Ladakh, a few blog about it and even fewer write books about it. So what inspired you to write a book about such a deeply personal experience?
AH: Writing a book is like painting a blank canvas. As you experience the journey you start painting the canvas with colourful brush strokes. And while doing this I have to keep the reader in mind. As you rightly said, a lot of people ride to Ladakh. Who really wants to listen to an old man riding from one place to another? Who cares about how much fuel I used and where I stopped for lunch? And that’s the reader’s perspective. To make the book enjoyable and readable I have to connect with the reader and make him/her feel the journey. So connecting with a younger audience is the challenge and that’s what got me hooked.
BI: You have been riding for over 35 years now and you must have suffered a major breakdown somewhere some time. Tell us about it.
AH: I suffered one, actually two major breakdowns. One I have mentioned in the book. It happened on the way to Leh from Manali. That one didn’t exactly leave me helpless, but it was quite bad. I realised it was only a loose contact in the ignition. I had other keys in the keyring which kept the ignition key from connecting. The other major breakdown occurred on my trip to Bhutan. I was near the Krishnanagar area in Nadia district of West Bengal. The contacts were loose, the wiring was burnt and I had no spares. And believe it or not no one rides a Bullet in West Bengal. So I had to wait for an entire day until I could get some spares and get the bike going again. Also in Bhutan there is just one Bullet service centre for the Indian Army. Apart from these two incidents the Royal Enfield has proved to be a very reliable companion.
BI: Other than the Royal Enfield which other bikes have you ridden and in which other countries?
AH: I had two Yezdis in Bombay when I was a student. That bike didn’t really suit me and I had a lot of problems with it. A little rain and it would stall, the carburettor would get flooded easily. And then in the US my room-mate had a Norton 750 Commando, which I used to ride once in a while. Finally, I chanced upon the Bullet in 1983. I bought it for Rs 17,000. Since then I have owned three Standard 350 Bullets, including the current one that I bought in 1995. And it is still in the same condition as it was when I got it from the dealer. Apart from the fabricated panniers it hasn’t undergone any modification.
BI: Your next book is about your trip to Bhutan and other adventures. Tell us about it.
AH: My second book starts with an encounter with one of my patients, the mass obsession with happiness and things like that. Then I see the King of Bhutan on the television and things generally flow in that direction. Also there are a few other incidents which now seem very hilarious. Back then, however, it was a totally different picture. Prison incidents, small deals, hitch-hiking, etc. It is all a colourful and funny picture now. After the response my first book elicited, there is a pressure to do better in the second book. I want to ward off that pressure and take things slowly. I am going to relax and let the ideas flow to me and eventually compile them.
BI: By the way, did you find out what the problem was with your bike in the chapter ‘Machinophilia’?
AH: As a matter of fact, I did. The carburettor was flooded! But that incident did serve as a literary trick for the book.
Delphi India’s Technical Centre India (TCI) was founded in Bangalore in 2000. Since then the centre has grown rapidly and has emerged as Delphi’s largest technical centre in software development outside the US. TCI complements Delphi’s strong manufacturing base in India as well as in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. TCI has been working on a few technologies for two-wheelers such as immobilisers, instrument clusters, evaporative emission technology and fuel injection technology.
BI: What are the key performance factors and differentiators for growth in an ever growing global auto industry?
NG: Innovation has to help anyone to keep themselves ahead of time. We have been working with the Nano project for the instrument clusters while Harley-Davidson have been our major motorcycle client for instrument cluster and TSSM (turn signal and security module). The key performance factors for us would be safety, driver aid features and quality with optimised price for the Indian auto industry.
BI: As the director what will you strive for in the first year?
NG: As the automobile industry grows it throws greater challenges to provide flawless solutions to the critical functions in an automobile. Thus the passion for excellence will be the mantra to begin the year.
BI: Auto suppliers have leveraged the low-cost advantage of India. With companies looking towards emerging markets and US protectionism, do you think India can be a technology hinterland or an innovation catalyst?
NG: So long as innovation is possible at a low cost, India will have the major technology developer. We are working on integrating instrument clusters with immobilisers, body control functionalities while maintaining optimal costs on microprocessors.
BI: Where do you see India in terms of providing top-class technology to western markets?
NG: Indian engineers are strong in algorithms and mathematics. This is highly advantageous while providing mathematical algorithms, modelling and simulation and electrical and mechanical analysis prior to actual design. Electronic fuel injection systems, the demand for hybrid machines coupled with stringent emission norms and emphasis on alternative energy have all thrown challenges to work towards more efficient fuel combustion and compression systems.
BI: Is Delphi likely to make TCI a base for engineering tomorrow’s products?
NG: Delphi has more than 24 technical centres. The Indian technical centre is the biggest software center and fast expanding.
BI: What is your view on the potential of the Indian market, with large players like Hero, Bajaj, TVS and Mahindra?
NG: Delphi is predominantly into high-end bikes like Harley-Davidson. The booming Indian motorcycle industry is good news to Delphi.
BI: What are the programmes you are working on?
NG: When we started working with the Nano, it called for a change in the engineering brain along with process compliance. PCBs, components, optimisation and competitive pricing were the challenges we faced. Hence for motorcycles we are working closely with the ARAI and other regulatory authorities to understand needs and requirements for EURO V. We are working on making components like evaporative canisters and other electronic controllers work independently of the current vehicle system while providing integrated systems wherever necessary. We are beginning our India manufacturing in Chennai from July 2011. We are also looking at some advanced development projects to explore using four-wheeler technologies in two-wheelers.
BI: Please tell us something about after-sales service and training centres for instrument clusters and immobilisers.
NG: We have an after-market division, called DPSS (Delphi Product Service and Support) and they will handle service. This will also include appropriate tie-ups with local service providers to cover the length and breadth of a country like India.
Nambi Ganesh has recently been appointed as director of Delphi India’s Technical Centre India (TCI). Based in Bangalore, Ganesh is responsible for leading TCI’s efforts to meet worldwide customer demand for products that will enhance the convenience and comfort of the vehicles they drive. Bike India called on the newly appointed director to get to know TCI’s plans for the future.
The show is over. The Pune air is filled with heat and humidity, and the spicy Indian food has lately taken its toll on Chris Pfeiffer. To make matters worse, the concrete at the Pancard Club open-air gymnasium, where the event was being held, was so smooth that finding traction has left the four-time world Freestyle stunt champion breathless. But ever the smiling gentleman, Pfeiffer happily posed with his ever growing legion of fans and then sat down for an informal chat with Saeed Akhtar. Some excerpts
Photography: Bhuvan Chowdhary, Red Bull, Urvashi Patole
Bike India: There’s a huge disparity in power between Indian bikes that we generally use for stunting and, say, your F800R. What are your impressions on our bikes as regards stunting?
Chris Pfeiffer: The Pulsar 200 is a pretty good bike for beginners. It’s very important to learn this sport step by step so there’s nothing better than starting on a small bike. I did the same. I was riding the small trials bike for long time. There’s no reason to ride a 600 or 800. You can also do this sport on a 125, 180, 200 or even on a scooter. I know many accomplished stunters who started out on scooters. Obviously, you can’t pull large wheelies on it but the lesser power gives you more control over the bike. The advantage of a four-cylinder bike is that you have more balance than a small single-cylinder bike.
BI: You’re travelling to more cities than the last time you were here. How do you find the scene here in India? How enthusiastic are the people here when it comes to biking and stunting?
CP: It’s even bigger than the last time I was here. Such an amazing crowd. People go really crazy and I love it so much. The experience is great. Whether it is small town or large, it doesn’t matter.
BI: What are some of the special modifications that you’ve carried out on your F800R for stunting?
CP: Well, I have a handbrake – an additional handbrake, like every freestyle rider nowadays. Also a different handlebar, different seat, some different footpegs, crash protection around the engine, and bigger sprockets to harness the power better. And that’s it. The rest is standard. Engine, frame, suspension, wheels, are stock.
BI: In the video where you invade the BMW tower in Munich, you finish it off with a somersault on the top of a 22-storey building. Don’t you have any fears?
CP: I have fears, of course (laughs). I’m scared of snakes and railways, but not scared of heights. I used to be a free-climber. I used to roam the mountains and never had a real problem with heights. So standing there, everybody was scared of me, and I was sure they would cut it out of the video clip, but they kept it!
BI: You spend a lot of time on the road with your F800R and your trials bike. Which other bikes do you own back home?
CP: I have three bikes in India at the moment, for this tour. Two are at home. I have a Husqvarna 450 enduro bike and two trials bikes. I have a BMW S1000RR, which is at the moment, the fastest production bike in the world. It is modded, with an open silencer and more than 200 horsepower. I went for a little spin on it on the autobahn recently. There, I had 299 on the speedometer, and it doesn’t go more than that – there’s a limiter. The speedometer goes only upto that, but the rev meter goes higher. So you know, its going faster than 300,yeahh! I also have several old bikes on which I have won some championships.
BI: Last time we talked, you told us that your son, Hannes, is already into stunting. Will you like him to continue in this profession?
CP: Hannes is already doing stunts on his small trials bike. I don’t push him at all, I just support him. The girls also ride bikes. They like it, and my son loves it — this is the difference. Like they love dancing, he loves riding, typical girls, typical son (laughs).
BI: What’s your favourite Indian cuisine so far?
CP: Ummm, just a second, (thinks), biryani is something that I really like, and the one with a red sauce with potato inside, very spicy, (crowd chants: aloo tikki? aloo paratha?), something with aloo. (Gives up) I like everything with aloo in it. And I am getting used to the spicy food more and more.
BI: One last question. If it were not for stunting, what would Chris Pfeiffer have been?
CP: I would have loved to be a freestyle skier or a musician. But most likely, I would have loved to be a teacher, because I love sports and biology.That’s the reality, I guess.
But they couldn’t keep riding the scooter. With economic liberalisation under Rajiv Gandhi taking the forefront and the opening up of the markets along with the growing needs of a youthful India, looking for faster and more powerful motorcycles, Bajaj Auto began production of motorcycles along with Kawasaki of Japan. Till companies like Bajaj Auto, Yamaha, Hero Honda and TVS started motorcycle production, there were just a few well known two-wheelers in the market – Yezdi, Rajdoot and Bullet.
What Bajaj did was to produce lesser cc variants but, keeping in mind the Indian youth’s thrill for speed, made them light, more fuel efficient and easier to manoeuvre in city traffic. However, the entry of the motorcycle into the Bajaj Auto fold also saw the demise of the ‘pot-bellied’ scooter of the Indian middle classes.
In 2005, after Rahul Bajaj inducted his younger son Rajiv as Managing Director Bajaj Auto, the latter brought in sweeping changes into the company and from the number of motorcycles it was producing it whittled down the different variants of just four – Pulsar, Discover, Platina and Enforcer. It also cut down on its huge number of dealers across the country. Today, apart from manufacturing motorcycles, Bajaj Auto also markets the more powerful Kawasaki two-wheelers in the Indian market.
S. Sridhar. President, Motorcycle Business, of the company, while giving a complete breakdown of the company’s motorcycle business, told Bike India that in the entry level commuter motorcycles, Bajaj sells around 40,000 units with a market share of 33-38 per cent . Then comes the deluxe segment where they sell between 1,25,000 motorcycles and lastly is the sports bike segment, where they sell around 80,000 units monthly. Within this segment is an emerging niche market comprising the 500-1000 cc bikes.
“These two categories are the ones that have a huge impact on the Bajaj Auto business and this is where we have Pulsar and Discover – the first as the sports category and the second as the commuter bike, says S. Sridhar.
Today Pulsar and Discover are Bajaj Auto’s biggest success stories in the last decade and these two motorcycles have accorded them the status of marker leaders. They began production of the Pulsar in 2001, when there was nothing called a sports bike. “It was a space shared by CBZ from Honda and Fiero from TVS and they sold just around 4,000-5,000 motorcycles between them,” says Sridhar. “When they launched Pulsar, at the end of the first year, Bajaj Auto did an average of 3000 bikes, but now they do an average of 65,000-75,000 of this brand. Today the industry share of sports bike segment bikes is 17 per cent of which Pulsar has a 50 per cent share. “
64 per cent in the commuter segment is completely dominated by Hero Honda. A couple of years ago they had complete monopoly with Splendor and Passion. But Bajaj then launched Discover. “Today we sell between 1 and 1.5 lakh Discover bikes in a month,” says Sridhar.
But it’s the development of international business in the last five to seven years, where Bajaj Auto have made waves. They have sold each one of the roughly one million motorcycles solely under the Bajaj brand. They have not manufactured motorcycles for anyone else to market under a different brand name anywhere else. Their distribution network in over 20-odd countries has slowly but steadily contributed to the growth of the Bajaj brand in the everyday use motorcycle space.
One has to keep in mind, though, that not everywhere in the world is the motorcycle used as a personal vehicle. It’s also used as a commercial carrier – a passenger taxi or a goods carrier in countries of Africa or Latin America. “At the very core customers abroad expect the same thing that customers in India expect, but in the personal segment we find there is more universality, with just a few differences at the fundamental level,” says Rakesh Sharma, President, International Business.
For example, he adds, in Latin America, buyers have more appreciation for style, as compared to India, while consumers in countries like Iraq where there is an abundance of oil, the issue of mileage is negligible. In a lot of countries fuel is 25 cents a a litre so there too mileage is not an issue. In other countries durability is preferred above all else, and where consumers have enjoyed Japanese products for a long time the expectation of the customer on quality issues is very high. They will have superior expectations on the paint job, the sound of the engine, the features etc.
But despite all these ‘expectations’ from the consumer, Bajaj have never felt the need to design a bike specifically for a country.
“Once a bike is designed in India , the homogeneity at the fundamental level ensures there is a very high probability of acceptance,” he says. But one does have to keep an eye open for the competition and that comes from two sources. The first are the Japanese comprising the big four – Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki and – the other are the Chinese, where there are probably a hundred companies with a thousand brands competing in the market in the space they are operating.
But Sharma avers that Bajaj’s focus has always been motorcycles for commuting. “These could be utility motorcycles for the daily commuter or the deluxe commuter or these could be sporty motorcycles, which follow an everyday format for the consumers,” he says, adding “We are not yet into motorcycles used for high-end sports which is where the Europeans rule the roost or at high end leisure like the Harleys.”
So in the everyday space, Bajaj face stiff competition from the Japanese and the Chinese. Region-wise, in Africa the competition is largely from the Chinese who basically operate on a price USP, while in Latin America they have to tackle both the Chinese and the Japanese. The Japanese operate on low investments, but with very solid brand names and quality products like the Indians. In south East Asia again, it is largely the Japanese. So to that extent competition is different.
Says Sharma, “We are able to prove to the consumer that he can take a handsome premium over the Chinese, and get a product that is far superior and durable and while dealing with the Japanese we tell them the product is as good on performance and superior in terms of features and styling, and still available at a slightly lower price.”
A revenue of little under one billion dollars and 1.2 million vehicles (around one million motorcycles and 200,000 three wheelers) this year, in exports, is proof enough that the strategy is succeeding. Asked how this measures up to the rest market in those countries, Sharma explains that they track the percentage of sales coming in from markets where they are either number one or two. “I would say 80 per cent of the one million bikes are coming from markets where we are No 1 or 2. So if I see our key markets, 40 per cent of our markets are in Africa, 25 per cent in Latin America and 35 per cent in South East Asia,” he explains.
Bajaj Auto are No 1 in Uganda, Kenya, Columbia, Central America, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, No 2 in The Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria and Peru and No 4 in Argentina. Not a bad start for a company that went into overdrive internationally with their motorcycles around 2004. (Bike India)
Do we still need GP racing?
The Philistines are in the building and destroying the grand old sport of Grand Prix racing. But who cares, wonders Mat Oxley, maybe we don’t need it anymore
The plan fot this month was simple: switch into curmudgeon mode and lay into the bunch of mindless vandals who are trashing GP racing.
I was going to rant and rage against their grave act of Philistinism – replacing 250 GPs with a glorified World Supersport series. The 250 world championship has been in existence since the dawn of grand prix racing. During those six decades the 250 crown has been worn by Ubbiali, Hailwood, Read, Saarinen, Lavado, Sarron, Spencer, Cadalora, Biaggi, Capirossi, Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and many more. But 250s aren’t good enough for GP racing’s meddlesome rulers who think they can do better. Mike the Bike must be spinning in his grave at a steady 19,500rpm.
I was going to wail and gnash my teeth at the politics behind the decision – the sport’s most rapier-like race bikes must die because the Japanese manufacturers don’t do two-strokes any more, nothing more than that. As one MotoGP insider told me: “this decision is commercial and political, it is not a technical discussion”.
I was going to foam at the mouth as I complained that street 600s in trick chassis doesn’t sound like real GP racing to me. And I was going to glow with incandescent rage at the contradictory regulations which make prototype 600s eligible (to appease WSB boss Flammini) but keep them out by allowing riders to claim the engine of any rival for just 20,000 euro. Thus this so-called GP class will use hopped-up CBR, GSX-R, R6 and Ninja street bike engines.
I was going to cackle dementedly at the madness of the claiming rule, which gets the following vote of no confidence from an US Superbike team manager: “We’ve used claiming rules in the USA at various times and they never work. They are the work of the devil, with help from inept tech guys who don’t want to be bothered enforcing the rules. Claiming rules don’t work and are patently unfair. Give my crew chief a stock bike and a pile of parts and give Billy Joe Bob a stock bike and the same pile of parts and my guy’s bike will be better every time, because he knows what he’s doing. So why should Billy Joe Bob be able to steal his bike?” And I was going to explain why claiming rules are good for one thing and one thing only – the salaries of lawyers – because they tend to ensure that races are not won on the racetrack but in the courtroom.
Most of all, I was going to sob bitterly at the relentless homogenisation of our sport – at this rate every racing class will look and sound the same within a few years. How daft is it that the premier categories in both MotoGP and World Superbike are for big four-strokes and street-based 600s?
Then the penny dropped. Maybe there is method in the madness of the people behind the 600s – Dorna and the MSMA (the Motorcycle Sports Manufacturers Association). Perhaps this is their secret agenda: make MotoGP and WSB pretty much identical and then take the next logical step: merge them into one. With several years of global recession and a new age of environmental consciousness looming ahead of us it makes a lot of sense, in all kinds of ways. The factories are hurting bad; Honda has already pulled out of Formula 1, how long before one or more of the manufacturers decide they can no longer afford the hideous expense of MotoGP (rated as ten times more expensive than WSB)?
So maybe it really is time to say goodbye to real GP racing. It could easily be argued that we no longer need prototype engines because there’s no need to continue increasing horsepower. And anyway, no doubt in the not-too-distant future there will be tougher legislation restricting emissions and thus performance, both in racing and on the street. High-tech development budgets could be funnelled into environmentally focused GP support classes, perfecting new low-emissions technology.
Amalgamating MotoGP and WSB regulations would create a new racing class that uses WSB-spec street engines and MotoGP-spec trick chassis, just like the old TT F1 world championship of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but this time with all the world’s greatest riders doing battle in the same race. Older readers will surely remember the TT F1 format: Hailwood on his big red Duke, Read on his 900 Honda. That way, at least Mike the Bike might be able to rest in peace.
Blurb: Honda has already pulled out of Formula 1, how long before one or more of the manufacturers decide they can no longer afford the hideous expense of MotoGP (rated as ten times more expensive than WSB)?
THE BIKE INDIA INTERVIEW
Words: Mat Oxley
Photography: Chippy Wood
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s GP racing was ruled by five riders from the same country. Time to take the ultimate American road trip and visit King Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer and Kevin Schwantz. In part I of this special series, is the man who started it all: the King.
For a motorcyclist, this is like driving through the gates of Graceland. There’s no Elvis-commissioned ironwork, but the motorcycle sculpture poised above the gates and the National Rifle Association sticker on the entrance keypad tell you all you need to know: this is the home of the King, the most important motorcycle racer in history.
At the end of the half-mile drive is the house where King Kenny Roberts has lived for the past 25 years and the mini racetrack complex where so many world champions have learned and played – from Roberts to Rainey, from Lawson to Kocinski, from Fogarty to Lorenzo.Indoors Roberts is sheltering from a winter storm and taking phone calls from people working on bringing him back to where he belongs: MotoGP. The scale of Roberts’ latest venture is mind-boggling – a long-term budget of several billion dollars (for MotoGP, NASCAR and F1), factory Ducatis and a team Boeing 707 to shuttle hardware between races and a new HQ at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where fans will be able watch the bikes being prepped. And the whole deal will be the subject of a TV reality show filmed by Brad Pitt’s production company.
‘Dude, we’ll be on the grid at Doha,’ growls Roberts, whose team last raced MotoGP in 2007. ‘Until then I’ll just play golf or mess around with my motorcycles.’Roberts, who will be 60 next year, has always thought big. It’s what’s allowed him to accomplish a unique number of achievements: twice Grand National dirt champ, knee-down pioneer, three-time 500 king, fighter for riders’ rights, championship-winning team owner and motorcycle manufacturer.
Think on this: when Roberts won the 500 crown at his first attempt in 1978 he started the season contesting the 250, 500 and F750 world championships, which would be like Ben Spies doing Moto2, MotoGP and World Superbike in his rookie international season. He won his second 500 title in 1979 after breaking his back during preseason testing. Oh, and he’s only got one testicle (the legacy of a motocross accident) and he’s got a bullet in his left leg (hunting mishap). We’re talking old school hard man.
Roberts’ success on 500s fronted a wave of American talent that ruled GP racing on and off for more than two decades: Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz, John Kocinski and Kenny Roberts Junior all followed in the King’s slipstream.
After Roberts packed up riding in 1983 he created GP racing’s first super team and guided Marlboro Team Roberts rider Rainey to three 500 world championships. And when he tired of racing factory Yamahas he built his own motorcycles from the crankshaft up. His Proton KR3 two-stroke 500 triple was good enough to beat Valentino Rossi to pole position at Phillip Island in 2002, though his Proton V5 MotoGP four-stroke wasn’t so brilliant.
There’s little evidence of Roberts’ stellar successes inside his house. There’s tarnished old racing trophies for doorstops, a V5 crankshaft for a toilet roll holder (‘About all that thing’s good for!’), a couple of guns and a hunting dog that bounds about with excited anticipation whenever Kenny handles his shotgun.
Behind the house it’s a different story. Walk past the hot tub and the wine cellar and you enter the King’s ‘man cave’ – a workshop full of every kind of motorcycle in every stage of disarray – from dirt trackers to motocrossers, from roadracers to road bikes, including an original RD350LC in Yamaha US yellow with no engine. ‘When Yamaha gave me that my manager said “Kenny, that motorcycle must never be used”, but I lent some racer the engine and it never came back.’ There’s also a lathe, a milling machine, some welding kit and faded posters of long-ago glories.
These days Kenny spends a lot of time here, fixing and spannering, welding and hammering. ‘I’m a motorcycle guy who builds motorcycles. Kids keep wrecking them and I keep building them.’
Current project is a bizarre mini-roadracer – a CR450 motocross motor in an aluminium roadrace frame (drawn on Kenny’s drafting board and welded together by the man himself) with minibike wheels. Kenny doesn’t really seem to know what he’s going to do with this one, but that’s not really the point. He’s having fun fiddling and fettling. ‘Next I want to build my own dirt track motor.’
Behind the ‘man cave’ is another building – Kenny’s museum, packed with Grand National and world title winners, at least a dozen homemade Proton and Modenas GP bikes and an Aladdin’s cave of high-end grand prix ‘auto jumble’ – factory YZR engines, racks crammed with all kinds of aluminium chassis, acres of carbon-fibre bodywork, dusty old leathers and piles of dirt trackers’ steel shoes.
Outside there’s dirt track ovals, motocross courses and a mini roadrace track around which Roberts and his disciples would ride, honing their ability to open the throttle faster than anyone in the world. ‘When Wayne was hitting it hard we would ride from sun up to sun down, every day.’ No wonder Rainey went on to emulate his mentor’s 500 title hat-trick.
Just across from the hot tub is what can only be described as a GP racers’ vegetable patch. There’s a chicken wire cage protecting half a dozen old Team Roberts flight cases, with tomatoes growing inside.
Back indoors is another ‘activities’ room. More chaos: old helmets, golf clubs (Roberts is an ace golfer, he made the cut in last year’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am), an artist’s easel, a half-finished oil painting. Who’d have thought this hard-man racer was an artist? ‘When you paint, everything else goes; it’s like taking a ride up into the mountains on your motorcycle. If you’re pent up, it makes it a different day.’
Roberts’ ranch is a two-hour ride from the fleshpots of San Francisco. This isn’t California Girls or Gangster Paradise country, it’s farming land – almond trees and cattle all the way to the Sierra mountains where Roberts buys his wine from micro-wineries. ‘Finding some American wines I like was a big relief, because I was always afraid I was going to run out of the stuff I brought back from Europe.’
The King was born just down the road in Modesto, where his parents and grandparents settled after escaping the Midwest dustbowls of the 1930s depression.
He started riding bikes by chance, aged 12. ‘I was training horses, I was going to be a cowboy. These people I worked for in Modesto bought their kids this minibike with a lawnmower engine. I go to feed the horses one day, they say “Kenny, ride the bike”, I say “no, don’t want to”. They say “you’re a baby, you’re a chicken”. ‘No, I’m not chicken, I just don’t want to ride it.” “You’re a chicken”. Okay, so I rode the minibike. Scared the shit out of me, so I had to have one.’
Doing things the hard way, taking the tough option has always appealed. ‘All through my career I’ve tended to stack more on my plate than I needed. If someone says I can’t do something, then I have to do it.’
It was the same when the rookie roadracer started hanging off, getting his knee down and rear-wheel steering in the early 1970s. His mentor Kel Carruthers told him he was insane. Within years everyone was doing it.
And it was the same when he came to Europe and started agitating for riders’ rights. ‘We were treated like monkeys. The tracks were dangerous and we got ripped off. If we complained, they told us “shut up or we’ll pull your licence and you won’t be able to race”.’ Roberts’ breakaway championship, World Series, never happened but it shocked the racing establishment into treating riders right.
Over the years he has been just as much of a technical maverick. Team Roberts was the first outfit to use carbon brakes and the first to make serious use of datalogging. When Yamaha dragged their feet on development he went and built his own GP bikes.
‘I’ve got this disease which makes me want to do everything myself. I can get stuff done right by someone else but I want to do it myself. Yamaha were giving me a hard time, so I walked.’
He thinks this attitude might have something to do with aggression – he’s always had a big fire in his belly. ‘I was pretty aggressive when I was a kid. I used to get into fights a lot, I was always in trouble.
‘I wasn’t at school much. I have dyslexia, so when I left high school I couldn’t read or write nothing. When I was 19 and Yamaha threw my first contract in front of me, I was, like, what do I do with this?’
He may not be very literate but Roberts has fierce intelligence. He brought a new level of technique and analysis to the sport. ‘If someone went through a corner faster than me I would have to analyse that: why was he faster? There has to be a reason. Putting it all together intrigues me.’
That ability to look at things and understand what needs to be done helped him become GP racing’s first big shot team boss. Back in the 1990s he was running an outfit with a budget of $18 million, not bad for a kid who could hardly read or write.
|1969||Starts dirt track aged 13|
|1970||US national novice champion|
|1971||US national junior champion|
|1972||4th US national expert championship (Yamaha)|
|1973||US Grand National champion (Yamaha)|
|1974||US Grand National champion (Yamaha)|
|1975||2nd US Grand National championship (Yamaha)|
|1976||3rd US Grand National championship (Yamaha)|
|1977||4th US Grand National championship (Yamaha)|
|1978||500 world champion (Yamaha)|
|1979||500 world champion (Yamaha)|
|1980||500 world champion (Yamaha)|
|1981||3rd 500 world championship (Yamaha)|
|1982||4th 500 world championship (Yamaha)|
|1983||2nd 500 world championship (Yamaha)|
|1990||Marlboro Team Roberts Yamaha
Wayne Rainey, 500 world champion
John Kocinski, 250 world champion
|1991||Marlboro Team Roberts Yamaha
Wayne Rainey, 500 world champion
|1992||Marlboro Team Roberts Yamaha
Wayne Rainey, 500 world champion
Roberts has never been able to back down. That’s why he accepted an invitation to ride his infamous TZ750 dirt tracker at the Indy Mile during last year’s Indianapolis MotoGP weekend. The Tee Zee Miler is the bike upon which the King won (in his opinion) his greatest victory, at Indy in 1975. It is arguably the most evil piece of over-powered machinery ever created – 120 horsepower, dirt tyres, no front brake.
‘I hadn’t ridden a bike for at least a year, so I can tell you I had some sleepless nights.’ And yet when he got to Indy he didn’t even practice, ‘because I wanted people to see it full throttle and go “wow!”. I didn’t build my career the way I did to ride around waving to the crowd.’
His WFO ride left the crowd – including Valentino Rossi – dumbfounded. ‘Once I kicked into turn one and got it sideways then I was okay. Obviously I can go sideways till I die…’
You get the feeling that’s exactly what he will do. Aged 58, Roberts is as far as he’s ever been from hanging up his steel shoe and kicking back on the porch. As we get ready to leave and hit the road to Wayne Rainey’s home in Monterey, we push him for more details about this 2010 MotoGP deal. ‘I could tell ya,’ he says, helpfully. ‘But then I’d have to kill ya.’ And judging by the way he handles that shotgun, he may not be joking.
… A DANGEROUS MAN TO KNOW
King Kenny Roberts has always liked a drink, so he can be a dangerous man to know on Sunday nights
‘I got drunk after I’d won the first 500 GP of 1980 in Italy. They were giving me champagne at the track and I rode to the hotel on the luggage rack on top of the car. The guys tried to get me off the roof but they couldn’t. I ended up eating at the hotel, with Randy [Mamola] and some other guys. There were these English journalists, eating at a corner table. They’d really pissed me off because they wrote all the wrong stuff about my World Series thing. I remember telling those guys: “if you ever do that again, I’m not going to get a lawyer, I’m not going to sue you, I’m going to kick your ass”. Boy, were they nervous, they were shitting bricks. So we’re in the hotel dining room and I shout to them: “you guys want some champagne?” “Oh yeah, thanks, Kenny!”. So I throw this bottle, it goes flying across the room and smashes against their table and the wall. All of a sudden they were eating so fast, trying to get out of there. Then I say: “you guys want some more champagne?”. “Oh no, no thanks Kenny!” I never got along with the British press, I wasn’t diplomatic back then.’