Legends: King Kenny Roberts
It’s 32 years since Kenny Leroy Roberts hit the world 500 championship, shaking it from its previous Euro-centric axis.
Roberts was 26 — a cocky, race-savvy, mentally tough twice AMA national champion from a dusty part of California. Against most predictions, he won the 500 crown at his first attempt in 1978.
Kenny returned in 1979, after a crash on Yamaha’s test track nearly killed him, and did it again. He made it three in a row in 1980 and went within two points of a fourth crown in 1983 – when he and Honda’s Freddie Spencer won six races each.
The more deeply you examine the 1978 season, the more impressive Roberts’ first title win over Suzuki’s Barry Sheene becomes. The calendar included two public-road circuits and the old Nurburgring. But he made himself finish in the top three at Spa-Francorchamps and the Ring.
Moreover Roberts in ’78 came with just one Yamaha 500. Factory number one Johnny Ceccotto had two better bikes. What Kenny did have was a team manager in Australian Kel Carruthers who knew European racing and could organise master strokes like mid-race wheel change in the 1978 British GP that was three times faster than rival Sheene’s stop.
However, Roberts’ lasting impact exceeded his record of 22 victories in 500 GP, two in 250 GP and seven Formula 750.
Kenny in blunt dirt-track bred style challenged the blue-blazer FIM hierarchy on safety and overall professionalism. He led the 1979 World Series breakaway movement that while stillborn doubled prizemoney for 1980.
Roberts went on to run a highly innovative and successful race team, winning three championships with Wayne Rainey. Many pundits would group King Kenny with Mike Hailwood and Valentino Rossi in the all-time top three of road racers.