Show of hands: Who among our readers has participated in a track day? Taking it one step further, who among you are actual road racers, participating in sanctioned events? Chances are that all of you with your hands up — and probably more than a few hooligan road riders to boot — have knee pucks on your leathers, and if you’re wondering who invented those now-sacred items that allow racers to take a knee at every turn, you can thank a young man named Kenny Roberts.
Okay, KR didn’t actually sit down at a drafting table to sketch out what he needed for protecting his knees when attacking some of the toughest road race courses on the planet. But according to what Roberts told Peter Starr in one American Legends Series podcast, America’s first 500cc world champion road racer concocted his early knee puck designs at the race track.
To fully appreciate the evolution of road racing knee pucks, we must go to the Cow Palace in San Francisco where, years ago, promoters held short track races on the indoor facility’s cement floor. Racers, among them an aspiring racer named Kenny Roberts, would wrap duct tape around their left boots so when they planted their feet onto the cement through the corners, the slick gray tape would conveniently slide in sync with their bikes over the polished cement. As Roberts pointed out, his leather-sole boots wouldn’t slide on the cement, but the slick-surface duct tape offered little resistance to the hard pavement, allowing the racers to slide their left feet as if they were wearing steel shoes typically worn on the softer open-air dirt tracks that dotted America.
Resetting our time machine now for 1972, a slightly older Kenny Roberts is teamed with former 250cc World Champion Ken Carruthers. Both men race Yamaha’s pesky — and lightweight and notoriously fast — TR3 road racers in the AMA National circuit. At one race outing Roberts could be found in the pits scrounging through the mechanics’ tool box for a roll of duct tape. Turns out that the future champion was skimming his knees on the pavement while cornering. With a roll of duct tape in hand, he reeled off a portion, tacked it to his leathers at the knee, and then furiously wound it around his leg.
Carruthers noticed, inquired, and after KR told him his plan, the seasoned veteran road racer stoically said, in so many words, “You can’t do that.” To which the somewhat confident and cocky KR replied: “Watch me.”
And, of course, Carruthers and the rest of the road racing community did exactly that as Roberts, with duct tape wrapped around each knee, notched his two AMA Grand National Championships, countless road race wins and his hat-trick of 500cc world titles in the coming years. Somewhere along the line, too, the folks who crafted leather road race suits developed ways to incorporate knee pucks (or sliders, if you will) to road racers’ leathers.
In the Legends interview, Roberts also made one of the most profound statements he ever made (and he’s made many!): “That changed my whole road racing career. I was not comfortable on a road racer until that point. If my knee’s not on the ground (while cornering), I’m not comfortable.”
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