Kenny Roberts was the first American to win the 500cc Road Racing World Championship. Roberts also won two AMA Grand National Championships in 1973-1974 along with his three 500cc World Championships between 1978-1980. He is the father of Kenny Roberts Jr, and Kurtis Roberts.
Kenny Leroy Roberts was born in Modesto, California was a motorcycle dirt track racer and the first American to win the 500cc Road Racing World Championship. Roberts won two AMA Grand National Championships in 1973-1974, three 500cc World Championships in 1978-1980 and three victories at the Daytona 200. He is the father of Kenny Roberts Jr, and Kurtis Roberts, both are also champion motorcycle racers.
Roberts is regarded as being one of the first riders to use his knee to balance the bike on the track in corners, and the first to use engine power to spin the rear tyre exiting bends to help steer the bike (a technique known as "throttle steering", common among U.S. flat track racers). These techniques are used everywhere in the top levels of motorcycle road racing, though they are much less exaggerated with today's improvements in tire technology.
Roberts made a name for himself by battling the dominant Harley-Davidson factory dirt track team aboard an underpowered Yamaha in the U.S. Grand National Championship, a series which encompassed events in four distinctive dirt track disciplines plus road racing. He made up for his bike's lack of horsepower with an almost fearless, determined riding style. This fearless style was highlighted in 1975 when Roberts competed at the Indy Mile National aboard a dirt track motorcycle with a Yamaha TZ 750 two-stroke road racing engine wedged inside its frame. On a bike that was considered unrideable due to it's excessive horsepower, Roberts came from behind on the two-stroke, and overtook the factory Harley-Davidson duo of Korky Keener and Jay Springsteen on the last lap for one of the most famous wins in American dirt track racing history. Afterwards, Roberts was famously quoted as saying, "They don't pay me enough to ride that thing."
Roberts ventured to Europe in 1978 to compete in the World Championship Grand Prix series. He surprised many observers by winning the 500cc crown in his first attempt, despite having no prior knowledge of the European circuits. Roberts was also known for his epic battles with British racing legend, Barry Sheene, and subsequent Grand Prix World Champion, American Freddie Spencer. His season long battle with Spencer for the 1983 500cc World Championship, in which they each won 6 races, and that culminated in a last lap collision at the penultimate round in Sweden, is considered one of the greatest seasons in motorcycle Grand Prix history, along with the 1967 500cc duel between Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini. In a fitting end to a great career, Roberts won his last race in the final meeting of the 1983 season, the Italian Grand Prix.
Roberts is also remembered for being one of the first riders to take up the cause of rider safety. When Roberts arrived on the Grand Prix scene, motorcycle racers were competing at venues like Imatra in Finland that featured railroad crossings and hay bales wrapped around telephone poles. Roberts adopted a confrontational, sometimes beligerent stance with race promoters, challenging the previously accepted poor treatment that motorcycle racers of the day were accustomed to receiving. He organized a rider's revolt and threatened to start a competing race series called the World Series to challenge the FIM's monopoly on championship caliber motorcycle races. Though the competing series failed to take off, it forced the FIM to take the riders seriously and make changes regarding their safety.
After his racing career ended in 1983, Roberts turned to team management, guiding such riders as Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Luca Cadalora and others to race wins. As Team Yamaha's manager, Roberts won three 500cc World Championships with Rainey and one 250cc World Championship with John Kocinski. During the mid 1990s, Roberts became disillusioned with being the "in-between" man on the team, frustrated at the Japanese way of running race teams . The race bikes were leased to him and was often not allowed to make changes necessary to win. As a result, Roberts made the decision to build his own bikes. The venture was not as successful as his Yamaha years but proved he could do it. The team was backed by Proton of Malaysia and well funded, but the results were not as hoped and the backing faded. A hight point came with the introduction of four-strokes in MotoGP; the Roberts bike was beating the old two-stroke lap times at some circuits and earning front row qualifying spots against the other factory four-strokes.
The team is still running in 2006 and, ironically, is going back to a Japanese supplier. Honda will provide the RC211V V5 engine with the frame being designed by Team Roberts. It will be ridden by 2000 World Champion Kenny Roberts Jr, the first son of a World Champion to win the World Championship.