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.

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.’

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