Kenny Roberts, King of the World

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Group photo! Roberts with (left to right), crew chief Kel Carruthers, mechanics Trevor Tilbury and Nobby Clark, and racing manager Ken Clark.
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Original press release photo showing Kenny Roberts testing the Yamaha OW35 inline-four at Riverside Raceway prior to the 1978 GP season.

The world of Grand Prix motorcycle road racing gently shifted on its axis in March 1978. That’s when Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A., publicly announced the formation of a one-rider team that would challenge three world championships in the coming months. The press release’s second sentence said it all:

“Riding after the world crown will be 26-year-old Kenny Roberts. The U.S. road racing champ will contest the 250 and 500 Gran (sic) Prix World Championship Series and the Formula 750 races. His schedule will include a 26-race tour of the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe.”

The rest, as they say, is history. We all know that KR failed in his bid to become 250 and F750 world champ that year, but he succeeded beyond everybody’s wildest dreams to win the 500cc class (now MotoGP) in 1978. Moreover, his riding style and competitive spirit earned him the respect of the European moto-press corps, fans and racers alike. Roberts’ reign lasted two more years before Italian rider Marco Lucchinelli dethroned him in 1981. Lucchinelli led a small squadron of Suzuki-mounted riders, all on RG500, to relegate Roberts to third in points. The Suzukis were powered by square-four engines wedged into compact and tidy twin-loop frames, making them appreciatively faster and better handling than Roberts’ dated inline-four Yamaha. The following year Roberts finished fourth in the championship aboard his own square-four Yamaha, and in 1983 he and fellow American, Freddie Spencer, shared six wins apiece in their tussle for the crown; Spencer and his Honda NS500 won by the narrow margin of two points, while Roberts retired from GP racing for good at season’s end.

During his three-year reign as 500cc world champion, Roberts earned the moniker King Kenny. It was for a good reason, as not only was he unquestionably the most dominant rider in the premier 500cc field, he also commanded clout over the FIM (Federation Internationale Motocycliste, sanctioning body for Grand Prix racing) when he, along with fellow rider Virginio Ferrari, led a rider boycott in support of racers’ rights at GP venues around the world. Roberts and Ferrari formulated a potential Grand Prix rider’s strike, and by early 1980 voiced notions of forming a new race-sanctioning body entirely, to be called the World Series. In all, 36 notable riders supported the insurrection, prompting FIM officials to consider that perhaps King Kenny’s empire did, indeed, stretch beyond the borders of his assigned pit area in the paddock. Soon enough the FIM guaranteed larger race purses, and instituted improved safety regulations that were imposed on race organizers.

Roberts’ six-year foray into Europe also placed him at the vanguard of lucrative sponsorship deals for other racers and race teams. Within a couple of years his bikes sported huge PJ1 logos, and soon enough Marlboro (a Phillips Morris tobacco brand) signed on with Yamaha. Other tobacco companies and major sponsors followed, and Grand Prix road racing has never been the same since.

And it all started one quiet afternoon at a hotel conference room in Anaheim, California, where a farm boy from Modesto, California, began his quest to be king of the world championship. Long live the King!

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