Kenny Roberts will certainly go down in history as one of the all-time racing greats in motorcycling -- not just in America, but the world over.
Roberts was born in Modesto, Calif., on December 31, 1951, and made his name racing on the dirt ovals and road racing circuits of the United States during the 1970s. He won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1973 and 1974 riding for Yamaha. He accomplished that feat despite the fact that his Yamaha was down on power on the half mile and mile dirt tracks to the mighty Harley-Davidsons. Roberts made up for the power difference with some of the most spectacular riding ever seen on the dirt ovals of America.
As an AMA expert rookie in 1972, Roberts became one of the select few riders to win their first pro race by riding to victory at the AMA Grand National short-track race in the Houston Astrodome on January 29. Roberts went on to win 47 AMA Nationals in all of the major disciplines of the time -- tourist trophy, short track, half mile, mile and road race. His most notable wins in this country came at the Daytona 200, which he won three times.
One ride that has become part of AMA Grand National lore happened in August 1975 at the Indy Mile when Yamaha, in a desperate attempt to find a faster dirt track bike, stuffed a TZ750 four-cylinder two-stroke road racing engine into a dirt track frame and asked Roberts to race it. The awesome, but peaky power of the big two-stroke engine was nearly impossible to control on a dirt track, but somehow Roberts managed to wrangle the beast and broadslide wildly out of the final turn to pass an amazed Jay Springsteen and Corky Kenner to win the race. Roberts admitted that the TZ750 dirt-tracker was intimidating even for him, calling it the wildest ride in his career, and the AMA promptly banned the road racing motor from dirt track competition.
In addition, Roberts became the top road racer in the country. In 1977 he won six of the seven AMA Formula One races, which at the time were also part of the Grand National Series. Roberts won the 1977 AMA Formula One road racing championship before storming into the Federation Internationale Motocycliste (FIM) World 500cc Grand Prix Championship Series. In 1978 he garnered world-wide respect -- and stirred the pride of U.S. riders and fans -- by becoming the first American to win a World 500 Grand Prix title. In the following years Roberts dominated the World Grand Prix circuit, and by 1980, he had captured three consecutive World 500 Grand Prix titles. In 1979, Roberts was named AMA Pro Athlete of the Year for the third time in his career. He previously won the award in 1973 and 1974.
Retiring from full-time racing at the end of the 1983 season, he formed his own World 500 Grand Prix team. In 1990, Team Roberts' rider Wayne Rainey won the World 500 Grand Prix title, and teammate John Kocinski took the World 250 Championship -- bringing the team a rare 500 and 250 championship season. By the end of the 1993 season, Rainey had matched Roberts' earlier accomplishment, securing three successive World 500 crowns for Marlboro Team Roberts.
In 1996 Roberts embarked on a different challenge. Believing that motorcycle racing needed its own engineering infrastructure, he took it upon himself to build and develop a model engine program for use by World 500 Grand Prix teams. In 1997, Roberts partnered with Malaysian motorcycle manufacturer Modenas, and created his own Grand Prix machine -- the Modenas KR3. The arrival of the Modenas was significant not only because the bike is one of the few to challenge the traditional equipment sources for Grand Prix racing, but also because it signaled a new potential for the sport.
Roberts' sons, Kenny Jr. and Kurtis, continued in their father's footsteps. Kenny Jr. competed in World 500cc Grand Prix, and Kurtis contested the 250cc Grand Prix and 600cc SuperSport series of the AMA Superbike Tour in the late 1990s, both winning their respective championships in 2000.
A man of talent, courage and vision, Kenny Roberts has had great influence on the shape of motorcycle racing, both at home and around the globe. As a rider and then as a team owner, the American legend has always had the ability to see to the next level. In recognition of his contributions to the sport, Roberts was presented with a special lifetime achievement award from the AMA at the awards banquet in Las Vegas in 1998.