Kenny Roberts

King Kenny Roberts in his own words. During a flying visit to his race factory in Banbury, TWO caught up with Kenny Roberts Snr to find out how he has remained one of the most famous and respected personalities in GP racing.

If there is another person in the world with a wider-reaching influence on motorcycle racing, with greater durability, or more immaculate racing credentials that Kenny Roberts, I'd like to meet him.

I met King Kenny for this interview and only then did I really remember, with increasing clarity, why the man is a legend, and very much a living one at that. He's won the top honours that AMA dirt track riding and GP racing can convey - on multiple occasions.

He managed the most visible, dominant and newsworthy team in the paddock (Marlboro Yamaha) through four World Championships. He has fathered another World Champion, his son Kenny Junior. He is currently taking on the established GP world, by manufacturing his own 500c triple. He is still absolutely unique, and is more qualified to talk about racing in its every form than any human in the world. Which is why, as a taster to his new regular column in TWO magazine starting next month, we profile the man they still call, 'The King'.

Your on-track exploits brought you to the attention of the world, but in Britain it was all about the rivalry between you and Barry Sheene. Was it real or just media hype?
I don't think it would have been half as much fun for us if we didn't have it. If we were kissing each other after races it certainly wouldn't have been as good for me. Often I've said since that modern riders are too nice - they've got a case of the sugarmouths.

Do you think Being Nice is a disease in racing now, especially in GPs, because of sponsor pressure?
I don't think it's so much the sponsors, but obviously it's somebody. I'd prefer to see the riders - whoever the are, Biaggi or Valentino or whoever - be themselves. Not to be a mould that we want to put everybody in. Tiger Woods is a great golfer, no doubt, but I wouldn't want to see everybody like Tiger Woods. The same with Valentino.

Do you think part of the reason you and Sheene didn't get on was because you were both so determined to win? Was that why you rubbed each other up the wrong way?
I think it was mostly personalities. We never really carried it on afterwards. I mean we don't love each other but we never really carried it on beyond the racetrack. My personality is fairly strong and his was also. He was the loser in the whole thing in my opinion because he was World Champion before I came, and after I came he wasn't World Champion, so he had a little bit more of a grudge on me I think then I had against him. We were actually friends before I came on the scene, because he did a lot of Suzuki races in the states.

Who was the best rider you ever rode against?
I would say the guy who pushed the hardest, or I had to be up to beat the most, was Freddie Spencer. A couple years there Freddie was the guy who had the best chance of out-riding me.

Did he move the game forward, much as you did when you got to Europe?
I don't think he did. He had a little bit more of the combination of knowing what makes the motorcycle work, and being able to have some advantages that I didn't have and I also had some advantages that he didn't have. He had a three-cylinder and I had a four-cylinder. I was at the height of my ability and experience at that point, and he was the guy who came along to threaten that. He didn't actually do it because he fell apart after that, but he was the guy at that particular time that knew a lot more about the motorcycle than most of the guys that I had to compete against. He had a dirt background and he understood more about what made the whole thing work than Barry did. Barry didn't really understand what made the motorcycle work; he just had an extreme amount of talent to ride it.

When Sheene was on he was on, but when he was off he was off. And probably one of the strongest points I had was that when I was off I was okay, and when I was on I was really on. And that was all the way through my career, through dirt track racing as well. It's probably not something I developed, it's probably just something that's naturally inside, but that's what won me World Championships more than anything else.

Who is the person you most respect in the racing world?
Bernie Ecclestone.

Because of what he's done for Formula 1?
Well partly, but just from knowing him a little bit and how his brain works.

Can you expand on that, because it's maybe not the name myself, or others, would immediately think of?
Because he understands what his particular sport, Formula 1, needs. From start to finish. I've been trying to do the same thing, or see the same things in motorcycle racing, and have just been unable to do it all. Of course I don't have the bankroll, but probably neither did he initially. I was a racer first and that's how I made my living. But the guy's been here for the 30 years that I've been here, and doesn't do much wrong. He just keeps getting better. You have to respect someone who can operate like that.

Do you think we need a Bernie in motorcycling, or even him to do the same job for bike racing?
Well people have tried to do that. Various people have tried to do the same thing with bike racing, but it's a gradual process. Maybe it's something that can't be hurried. We're making some headway. I don't think even in Bernie's case it's finished yet.

Do you see World Superbike as divisive, in terms of drawing attention away from GPs?
I wouldn't say so much now that it's a problem. You have different formula championships in cars, I don't see that being the problem if GP racing is the leader then everyone else has to catch up. As long as GP racing keeps going I don't really see Superbikes being a problem.

What's the biggest change you've noticed in the 30 years you've been involved in GP racing?
Equipment obviously. I wouldn't say that any one single thing has got the right to be called the biggest, but safety has certainly come a long way. I would say that it's probably being able to talk one-on-one with the organisation. When I came here at first as a racer I was told frankly just to go back to the States if I didn't like it here by the FIM. Now you can sit down at a meeting, away from the racetrack, and have a proper meeting with Dorna or IRTA.

Why did you elect to stay in racing after your riding career was over?
I don't really know. I don't think motorcycles will ever be out of my life, since I started riding them. I was a horse person before I rode a mini bike. I rode a mini-bike on a dare. I was scared to ride it, obviously. I really was. I rode it and it scared me to death, and from that point on I've just been a motorcycle person. Away from the racetrack, motorcycles have always been at the ranch, on the street. And I don't think that at any stage of my life anything else would have taken that away.

John Kocinski gave your team a 250 title, moved into 500s and didn't have quite the same success. We hear all these stories about him, but is he really as weird as people say he is?
I don't know that he's weird. He's got some habits that a lot of people don't have, but John's a little bit different in a lot of ways. I never really had a problem with John. He is not exactly 'not normal', It's just some things he does seem a bit strange, a lot of the things that he does. Like he has a bit of a cleaning fetish: everything has got to be spotless.

Your other main protege, Wayne Rainey put it all together more than most though?
Wayne Rainey was a very talented rider, but more than anybody he had a burning desire to do it more than anyone else.

And was he really your protege, almost as much as Kenny Junior?
Our personalities were very close. We understood each other very well. We were almost like brothers  off the track and on the track. Sometimes when we were riding on the dirt we would just have to stop - because he would move me over a bit and then I would move him over, and pretty soon we were moving each other over a lot, and pretty soon we were running into each other. That really was the way Wayne was, until he wasn't riding.

How far advanced are your plans for the four-stroke GP machine?
Other than having the concept for a bike and some drawings, we don't have anything more. We don't have a single engine running, but I don't think it's a problem with the technology we've got so I don't think that's going to be a issue. It's finding the company that wants to do it, that can give you the five-year commitment to build it properly. Right now I would build a triple.

Because of the weight advantage?
The weight advantage in my opinion is not a big deal. I think that everybody is going to have enough horsepower, so why build a five cylinder when you can do it with a three? For the first few years I'd say it was the right thing to build. And then it may become a five.

How much does making your own GP bikes actually cost?
It's not as costly as you would think, the way we've gone about it. We certainly didn't keep the investment we had the first year going. We're a lot leaner and meaner now than we were then. We had a totally different job then. We had to get on the racetrack with four bikes. That was a miracle in itself. I hear about some of the other motorcycles that are being built now (GR: he's referring to Carl Fogarty's team and the Petronas road bike) and this is going to be a Superbike and I start laughing, because we only had to build four GP bikes, they didn't have to be homologated or nothing. So it's kind of interesting after doing this to see how difficult it is. I dunno, it's a very aggressive program. The dates that I hear it's gonna happen ain't gonna happen. So I don't know about the rest of it.

No way Foggy's going to make July then with 75 bikes for the road?

Maybe for the beginning of 2003?
I dunno. I hope that he does it but if he can do it I'll take my hat off to him. So it's gonna be interesting, I'm going to find it all very interesting. I think it's very ambitious.

But if Fogarty had all the money, and can hand pick whomever he likes, can he do it then?
The first year on this project I spent 17 million dollars. If he has more than that - then he's done
a good job.

Kenny Roberts Quickfire Questions

Two-stroke or four-stroke?
I always road-raced two strokes but I liked two-strokes personally, the dirt trackers were four strokes. I prefer the power of the four-stroke in a lot of ways. As long as it's a race bike it doesn't really matter to me.

Willie Nelson or the Eagles?
Willie Nelson. I met Willie Nelson. Got to sit on his bus. He knew who I was. I used to listen to Willie every night before the damn Grands Prix. He's still alive the old coot. He's my all time favourite. It's always been country music for me.

Christmas or New Year? (Kenny's birthday is on December 31)
I really don't like my birthday. I have a big party for my birthday, but it's actually a New Year's party, and people bring me gifts. I still have gifts sitting at my house that I haven't even opened. I just don't like that whole thing. I always say don't bring me gifts. Bring me a bottle of alcohol, no problem, but I don't want gifts.

Kenny Junior or Kurtis?
That's tough. Me and Kenny are probably a little more matched in our demeanours. Kurtis is a little off the mould. Kurtis is a lot like me in - what people would say - what is the bad part about me. Kenny is more the good part. They are both individual kids obviously, but Kenny is more mild, more-soft spoken. Kurtis is more 'fuck you'. He's over on the other side.

Laguna Seca or Daytona?
That's hard, that's really hard. For me? Laguna.

Bostrom Or Edwards
I like 'em both. I think... well who knows, I think it's going to be hard to beat the Honda. (Big pause). I probably would tend to go more towards Bostrom than Edwards who has already won the Championship. So, I'd like to see Bostrom win it.

Who would make the better Moto GP rider out of those?
Well Bostrom's younger, and Colin has been at the Superbike thing for a long time. We don't have to really worry any more about whether they can ride a 500 GP. The four-strokes are much, much easier to ride. Even the GP ones.

McWilliams or Aoki
That's going to be very difficult. I think McWilliams has got a bit more gravel in him. He's not going to give up easily. And I think that Aoki may have a little bit more technique but not quite the grit that McWilliams has. I'm very impressed with both of 'em after this first test. They're both different, obviously, but it's kinda uplifting for everybody (in the team) watching two riders trying, scraping around and going.

Whitham or Bayle?
Jean-Michel I have so much respect for, for what he has done in the motorcycle business. And could have transferred to being a road racer - a good one. It would have taken a little better motorcycle than we had for him. Whitham was just a nice guy to work with. Just a great guy, and no-one is going to ride it harder than he's gonna ride it. He was just a great kid.