“King Kenny” Roberts turns 70: “Wanted to be the best”

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Kenny Roberts Sr. turns 70 today. The three-time 500 cc world champion was also successful as a team owner and motorcycle manufacturer – with Modenas and Proton. «It was a different era. I regret nothing.”

The Californian “King Kenny” Roberts won the half-liter world championship in 1978, 1979 and 1980 and initiated the triumph of the Americans in the premier class. Kenny never shrank from new challenges. For 20 years, the exceptional talent was considered a Yamaha icon. Before the first World Cup season in 1978 in the USA, he won the “Number One Plate” as a figurehead for Yamaha. He won this US championship three times – it consisted of five disciplines (Road Racing, Short Track, Mile, Half Mile and TT Steeple Chase) and 27 competitions a year.

The two-time Daytona 200 winner Steve McLaughlin (73) therefore attests: “Kenny was certainly the most talented ‘all-round rider’ I have ever seen in my life. He also had a special driving style and extraordinary talent on the dirt track. ”

Because if you wanted to win the number one plate in the USA at the time, you had to be able to saddle as a road racer, as a cross rider (TT steeple chase with jumps), dirt track drifters (mile races with 750 cc bikes with more than 160 km / h cut and half mile) as well as a speedway expert on the short track.

Roberts won 22 half-liter GPs and, after finishing his active GP career, still led Yamaha World Championship teams in the 250 and 500 cc classes with stars such as Lawson, Kocinski, Rainey, Mamola, Baldwin, Bayle and Abe.

But after the 1996 season, he parted ways with Yamaha – not exactly on the best of terms.

Roberts then had his own GP machines built in his company in England. For 1997 he brought out the 500cc three-cylinder Modenas. The inspiration for the V3 concept came from Honda after losing the World Championship by 2 points against Freddie Spencer’s 500cc triple in 1982.

The Malaysian two-wheeler manufacturer Modenas contributed the money for the construction. “King Kenny” met the head of marketing in charge while playing golf in Kuala Lumpur.

Ralf Waldmann landed seventh with the Modenas V3 at the 1998 German GP at the Sachsenring. His teammate was Kenny Roberts junior, who won the 500cc World Cup in 2000 on the factory Suzuki. “Little Kenny” came in sixth in Saxony.

Kenny 1997 in Shah Alam: Disappointed with Yamaha

When I asked team owner Kenny Roberts senior at the season opener in Shah Alam / Malaysia in 1997 how his relationship with Yamaha was going after the breakup, Roberts answered in his open-hearted manner: “At Yamaha there are some people I wouldn’t even go to pee when they are blazing. “

Modenas competed in the 500 World Cup in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. In the brand world championship the ranks 5, 4, 7 and 6 were achieved.

Then the 500 cc racing motorcycle was renamed Proton-KR because the Malaysian automobile manufacturer Proton (at that time 65 percent market share in Malaysia) was named after.

The last highlight: In the 2002 season, when the 990 cc MotoGP four-stroke engines competed against the last 500 cc two-stroke Mohicans, Jeremy McWilliams performed magic at the Australian GP on Phillip Island with the Proton KR three-cylinder machine a pole position.

It was supposed to be the last 500 cc training record for a two-stroke engine in the “premier class”.

For the four-stroke era (in 2002 the 500-2T still drove against the 990-4T) Roberts had a V5 engine built by his KR Engineering Company in Banbury / GB. He wanted to avoid that his concept suffered from a lack of horsepower again – like the 500 cc three-cylinder Modenas against all the four-cylinder from Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki.

Honda had triumphed in the new MotoGP four-stroke class in 2002 with the five-cylinder RC211V bike. Roberts tried to copy this concept – and failed as a craft company due to budget and manpower shortages against the Japanese giants and Ducati.

But between 2002 and 2005 Proton made it to the 4th, 4th, 6th, 7th and 7th place in the constructors’ championship.

Then Roberts ended the V5 project – and first got V4 KTM and then Honda engines for his racing team.

Despite the difficult times, King Kenny never lost his sense of humor. “Our V5 engines are perfectly usable,” he grinned. “At least as an anchor for my motorboat …”

Kenny Roberts: “I was always ahead of my time”

But Kenny Roberts Sr. does not regret his experiments and going it alone, even if they have cost him a lot of money and a large part of his savings.

“As a racing driver, I’ve always tried to get even better in my job as a racer,” emphasized Roberts. «As a team owner, my ambition has not changed. I really wanted to be the best and most successful team owner. When I slipped into the role of a motorcycle manufacturer, I wanted to be the best manufacturer in the premier class. With these tasks I went through a learning curve that I enjoyed. I always wanted to get better and better. That was what drove me. “

Apparently Roberts missed this ambition and determination at Yamaha after 20 years.

“I was fed up with beating the same drum over and over,” says King Kenny. “That’s why I said to myself, ‘Stop that. Enough is enough. I can’t sleep anymore so I’m going to change that. ‘ That’s why I decided to build my own racing bikes. Two or three people really helped me with this project, they supported me. It was a pleasure.”

Today it would be a long time since you could win a flower pot in the MotoGP World Championship with these modest means. Roberts knows that. Today the so-called backyard hobbyists have disappeared from the “premier class”, including chassis manufacturers such as ROC, Harris, FTR, Moriwaki, Suter and many others.

«It was a different time and a different era. I was aware of what I wanted to do and implemented this plan. The rest didn’t matter. After all, we were the last two-stroke manufacturer to take pole position in Australia in 2002 – with 500 cc against all 990 cc four-strokes! So our 500cc triple wasn’t a bad bike. But the development and construction took longer than I expected. Back then, GP racing wasn’t at the level it is today. Maybe I wanted to change some things in my life too soon. I’ve always done that … I was always ahead of my time. “

By the way: The waves between Kenny (he ended his GP career at the age of 32) and Yamaha have long since smoothed out again. At the Texas GP in Austin 2019, the reconciliation was palpable: Kenny marched around in the pits of Rossi and Viñales in Yamaha team clothing.

Roberts: “Maybe I closed the do-it-yourself project a little too early. There were a couple of unfortunate circumstances with this Modenas concept. I have faced a couple of matters that were beyond my control and that hampered the project. If you ask me in retrospect whether I would take it on again, I will give a clear answer – yes. Yes, I would do it all over again. “

Kenny Roberts’ 500cc balance sheet

1978: 1st place with 110 points, 4 GP victories (Yamaha)
1979: 1st place with 113 points, 5 GP victories (Yamaha)
1980: 1st place with 87 points, 3 GP victories (Yamaha)
1981: 3rd place with 74 points, 2 GP victories (Yamaha)
1982: 4th place with 68 points, 2 GP victories (Yamaha)
1983: 2nd place with 142 points, 6 GP victories (Yamaha)

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