Kenny Roberts Junior
There are two US 500cc world champions from Northern California. Both are named Kenny Roberts. For Kenny Jr, being the continuation of the Roberts Grand Prix dynasty was not ordained from day one.
What was it really like to be named after the most famous racer on the planet and then become a racer yourself? Was it helpful or harmful? How was it when you made it to 500cc GP and had to step into your dad’s massive boots?
Kenny Roberts Jr: “My first race was at the Lodi Cycle Bowl on a motocross bike, but I wasn’t really serious about it. I did maybe 10 races. It wasn’t until I saw John Kocinski at Sears Point in 1989, the year before he went to the 250 World Championship. I knew John and rode with him, and then to see what he was able to do, I thought I would be able to do that myself. To get the experience with being around one of the quickest guys around, was intriguing. It kind of took off from there.” “I did some local stuff around Buttonwillow and Willow Springs, and from there it was on to WERA. I spent 1991 doing eight races in WERA, then in 1992 in the AMA riding for Wayne Rainey’s team. I flew to most of the races, which back then wasn’t common I guess, but I didn’t know any better. I’m sure I had advantages that most people didn’t have, but I assumed everybody did what I did and didn’t ask questions. If my dad had raced go-karts, I would have wanted to race go-karts. It was just wanting to do what your dad did.” 1992 was a banner year for the 250GP class in the AMA with Kenny running against Colin Edwards and Jimmy Felice. “I had probably 15 road races under my belt by then, so even by the time I got to Spain in 1993, I was still trying to figure it out. I was always in over my head with stuff because of my name, so I never got to stay in one category to win and dominate the category and move up. In the AMA I never won a race, but if I finished the race I was always on the podium.” Kenny Sr had crossed paths with Señor Bulto while golfing in Spain and Bulto pressed the case for giving an opportunity to his grandson,
Sete Gibernau. Kenny Jr and Sete were to become team-mates for 1993. Kenny: “I was ready to go to Europe. When I got to the Spanish Championship, I won the race at Albacete, and was leading at Jarama by three or four seconds after a couple of laps and was pulling away quite rapidly. I pushed the front out of the last corner and fell down on the second lap. I didn’t fully have the hammer down, but I should have been more cautious and that race cost me the championship. I competed for the championship all the way to the last race and ended up second.” In 1993 looking around the grid at his first 250 Grand Prix (Laguna Seca), one would think seeing Biaggi, Capirossi and Harada could be a bit intimidating. “I was never affected by that kind of mindset. I grew up riding with Wayne, Eddie, Kocinski, and all those guys, so it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as it would have been for most people. The race at Laguna was sort of uneventful and I finished 10th. I just kept doing my thing and figured that at some point I would be able to compete at their level. If it had been the 500s with Wayne, Eddie, and all those guys, it would have probably been different. I didn’t have to deal with mind games in my career that I vividly remember.” It is a very different reality for the top European riders, given the endless media circus. “As an American, we don’t have the following and media intensity that those guys have, so we get away with a lot more. When I leave and come back to the US, we don’t have any of that stuff. You fly into Europe and from the time you land, everybody knows you. The European riders are bombarded from the time they get off the plane.”
“In 1994 I was going to ride for Wayne’s team, but I ended up breaking my arm in pre-season training at my dad’s ranch. That kept me out of racing for about three-quarters of the year on the 250s. For 1995 I competed in most of the 250GP season.” Kenny was typically running between fourth and eighth, which didn’t exactly set the world on fire. “There were a lot of struggles. The corner speed and the power-weight ratio for me is not a real good mix. Something with a lot of horsepower for me is a lot easier to ride, than something without a lot of horsepower and high cornering speed. If you put me and Loris (Capirossi) on a 250, there is just no way, the corner speed is just counter-intuitive for how I went racing. But if you put us on 500s, I would be instantly competitive with him. I was just trying to get experience at the tracks for getting onto the bigger bikes.” 1996 brought Kenny onto the Roberts Yamaha 500cc Grand Prix team. Kenny: “There wasn’t a grand plan for any of that stuff. I tested in Malaysia and broke my right tib/fib so I missed the first two rounds of the season. Following my doctor’s advice, it was six to eight weeks of recovery. I don’t take pain medication, I had taken it one time in 1993 from a broken collar bone, and didn’t like the effect. I think I had morphine on a drip system when I broke my tib/fib. When they changed the drip bag, the nurse pinched the line and I wasn’t getting any medication. The pain was increasingly worse, and when they found the problem I told them that ‘if this is the worst it can be, I can handle it and just get me out of here. It is very different today, when Valentino broke it and raced 19 days later. Now you come out thinking ‘I’m fixed, let’s go.’” At the end the season there was a fourth in Brno, and fifths in Holland and Germany. For the next year it was on to the Modenas bikes, which ended up being two years in the wilderness. “It had all its teething problems, as one would think. We got through the 1997 season and for 1998, halfway through the season we were going to get a new engine. We were having that engine made by a person who used to work at Honda. We were going to get the new engine by the Czech Republic Grand Prix, it had to be a second faster right away than what we had, as we were already two seconds off the pace. Unless it was a second faster, I was not going to stay. Talking with my dad and Chuck Aksland, it turned out that the new engine wasn’t as good as the one we already had, so I went from there and signed with Suzuki.” To say that everything changed doesn’t quite convey the situation. From a top finish of fourth in 250GP and of fourth on the 500cc Roberts Yamaha in 1996, Kenny was to win the first two 500cc Grands Prix of 1999. This, was from a rider who hadn’t won a race since he was racing 250s in the Spanish National Championship. “The corner speed of the three-cylinder Modenas was quite a bit higher than the V4, so when I got on the Suzuki it fit my riding style. I was able to have a typical entrance speed for me, and a heck of a lot more exit speed without having to push it like crazy mid-corner to make the lap time. The lap times were immediately competitive. We tested different engine configurations, and we won the first two races. I got hit by my team-mate in the third one, pushed the front in France and crashed. From that point on I decided: ‘I’m not crashing anymore this season.’” There were strong finishes at almost every race throughout the season, such as a first in Germany, and seconds in Assen and Valencia. Àlex Crivillé struck back on the Honda after Kenny’s season-opening two wins with five wins out of the next six races. The Suzuki may
have been a good fit for Kenny, but in many ways the bike was lacking. “We didn’t have test riders testing stuff for the pipeline. We struggled a lot with suspension, as the Showa wasn’t as good at the Öhlins, so halfway through the season at the Czech Republic we tested the Öhlins. On my first flying lap and for the following four, I went quicker than I’d gone at the previous GP weekend. We were scheduled to test all day, and I told the Japanese engineers that there was no reason for further tests, the Öhlins was better, and that without the Öhlins suspension, don’t expect us to win another race, and I walked out of the garage. “We got the authorization to switch for the Australian Grand Prix and I was a half a second faster than anybody else on the track. We picked a softer tyre over another and it ended up de-laminating when I had a 15sec lead. The bike had Showa rear suspension and they were so irate at us for having put on the Öhlins they felt we made them look bad, and pulled the shocks from us after the race. We thought they were just going to service them and give them back, but they just said: ‘you’re on your own’. So we went to a local shop in Australia to get a Superbike rear shock over-the-counter. We had linkages made up in Australia for the next race. The shock overheated and broke during the South African Grand Prix, so I finished well down the order. Öhlins was to have a custom shock made for us at the last race in Argentina.” Power was also becoming a huge problem with the 1999 bike. “In Brazil, we ran unfiltered air boxes as the filters took away too much horsepower. So we broke a reed valve, one of the flaps on the reed, so I was down substantially in horsepower. On the last lap I passed Max and Abe in the two corners before the back straight, but then pulled out of the way as they were 30mph faster. I ended up third there, but then in Argentina we won.” At that last Grand Prix of the 1999 season in Argentina, Kenny was quickest of all, but got caught out by the wet paint on the kerbs in the rain. As it turned out, it was a crash that was to have a great effect upon Grand Prix racing safety. Kenny: “That was when we started the riders’ safety organisation. I was upset that I’d fallen down and it wasn’t my fault, and Mick had gotten hurt on the paint at Jerez earlier that year and his career was finished. I went and got Valentino and a couple of the other guys and we went to Dorna saying that we wanted a paint standard.” In the end of the season tally, Kenny had taken second in the World Championship to Crivillé. Kenny: “I was never on something that was the best bike. I was on a good bike with great engineers and we understood our potential and how there were going to be races where we weren’t competitive. We had engines breaking, a rock in the airbox in 1999 at the Czech race that damaged the spark plug… we had a problem during every race with one bike or the other. I remember when Mick was having a lot of problems when they changed internal parts of the Honda gas tank and affected the balance. That sounded like so lame of an excuse to me, as we had tanks in all different capacities, shapes and heights, we weren’t that refined. The tanks with maximum capacity we would sometimes have to use on race day because we weren’t going to make it on fuel. The Suzuki factory, for some reason, were happy with being competitive. They weren’t looking to be the best bike, or hire the best riders. Honda and Yamaha spend money to win races.” For the Malaysian GP in 2000, the bike stalled on the start. “It had never done that, EVER. I had to come through the field to win.” This was followed by a second at Japan and a win in Spain, where Kenny shared the podium with a charismatic young Italian by the name
of Valentino Rossi. The young Honda rider was to finish on the podium in nine of the next 12 races. Kenny was to win two of the subsequent races, as was Valentino, each also scoring three second place finishes. “In 2000 we had a ton of issues. Aoki had a problem with back shifting and over-revved the bike, so his bike seized in Malaysia. It turned out that there was a defect with the shape of the piston. By the time we got to Holland, I was easily faster than anybody in the wet or dry and when leading the race the bike seized. The next race they had the fix for the shape of the piston, and they had been working on it since Malaysia. If Aoki hadn’t had that issue in Malaysia, who knows where we would have been. “My dad and I talked and it was obvious this was the year we had to get it done. There was nothing in the pipeline. When we tested in 1999, at the first test in Jerez we tested 60 ˚ , 90 ˚ , and 120 ˚ cranks. We ended up with the 120 ˚ crank but they asked me if I wanted to test a 180 ˚ crank in two weeks in Malaysia. The engine guy had the crank in a clear bag of oil that he’d brought in his carry-on suitcase and I asked them how they got this done so fast? He said: ‘Oh no… this is Kevin Schwantz’s crank from 1993’ and it fit right into my engine. That’s how little the engine had changed since 1993. I went out and went fast on the 180 ˚ crank, but it had no bottom power, so that wasn’t going to work.” It wasn’t just being a decade behind on engine development. “You’d tell the Japanese that we we’re not going to be competitive and needed more horsepower, but then I’d go out and win a race or get the podium, and they’d say ‘very good rider’. Yeah, but the problem was that it was going to catch up to us.” The race that could lock the championship for Kenny was Brazil. “We knew we needed sixth place, and in the first or second practices on Friday, the engine was making crazy noises. I pulled over and looked inside the fairing and the top left cylinder was off the bike. It broke the studs that held it onto the crankcase. So that engine got changed out. We were going through reeds like crazy, plastic or carbon. Warren Willing came in and told me that the #1 bike was done and the #2 bike had a cracked chassis. “Are we going to weld it, and take a chance of screwing up the electronics… or just drill a hole in it for crack control and race?’ It was my decision to make and so we drilled a hole. I was trying as hard as I could that race. We were in damage control from the Czech Republic onwards.” The next drama would arrive courtesy of Michelin. “What killed Suzuki’s advantage was that in World Superbike, Michelin were getting better results from running a 16.5in tyre, and they kept trying to push it onto the 500s. It wasn’t just me, but most of the guys said that it just didn’t turn and it took away all the agility. They kept working on it, working on the sidewall and construction so that Garry Mccoy, who was a big fan of the tyre, won a few races with it in 2000. We switched to the 16.5in tyre three-quarters of the way through the season. It had a ton more grip because the contact patch was bigger. As soon as we made that switch, the Suzuki was basically uncompetitive. With the 17s you’d be coming out of a hairpin very delicately applying power and the Hondas would get wheelspin but we wouldn’t because we had 20-25hp less. I was on the 16.5in for a race or two, but the race at Motegi when I won, it was the last time that a 17in rear tyre ever won a Grand Prix. “It wasn’t the strongest motor, the electronics were ancient at best. We had no traction control, we had no ability to switch power curves or take power away without changing the ROM out of the ECU. On the Yamaha you’d just hook up the computer and change it, so we were quite a way behind. Not only was power lacking, but also it was lacking in torque curves, but it was still ridable and we were able to get it done in 2000. “In the last race of 2000 in Australia, Valentino was already running the 2001 bike. You could tell it was a different 500 as it sounded completely different and had this growl to it. I asked him: ‘Hey, what’s going on with your bike?’ Valentino said: ‘Oh, that’s next year’s bike, we’re just getting a head start.’ I told him: ‘Yeah, that’s awesome. We’re on next year’s bike too, and it’s 1999’s bike and it’s 1993’s bike.’ It was just a joke, we knew it was over. “We knew that we were screwed in 2000, as there was nothing in the pipeline to save us. We tested but they didn’t have the money or the capacity to make it better. At Sete’s first test of the 2001 season in Malaysia, he said: ‘This is great, it just needs more horsepower.’ I told him: ‘Good luck with that’. We cancelled the test for the last two days because there was no reason to do it, there was nothing to test. We knew we were done.” 2001 was a disaster for Kenny’s attempted title defence. The one and only podium came at Valencia, where he finished third to team-mate Sete’s first 500 class victory. “Everybody remembers that race as a great win for Sete. Nobody understands that we were racing Alex Barros (second place) with a Honda on intermediate tires, on a completely dry track. Sete and I were both on slicks, so Barros was racing with about 30% less tyre.” 2002 was the debut of Motogp, but it appeared that Suzuki would continue to run the 500s in that first year. “Suzuki had always said that if they got me a competitive bike, they knew that I would win races. We knew it would be crap in 2001, and that’s what it was. But, they always treated me extremely well, and I was already on a two-year extension. Suzuki said they were going to come in for 2003 with the Motogp bike and that there would be problems with the Motogp bikes like engine failures. That has some gravity to it, but I really didn’t just want to ride around (on a 500). “December (2001) came around, Suzuki called and said: ‘Hey, surprise, come to Japan, we decided to build a Motogp bike (990cc). Yamaha had been testing four-strokes in 2001 and we heard that they were extremely fast, so we weren’t really sure what was coming. Sete and I were already contracted, so we were going to ride whatever they provided for us. “At the time they thought that they had
‘advanced four-stroke technology’ based upon how Mat Mladin had dominated the series in the US. We thought: ‘Hell yeah, this is awesome’, and when we rode the bikes in Japan for testing, they seemed great. They jumped tyre manufacturers to Dunlop, and said that it would help us, as they had a great relationship with them, they were a Japanese company, and we were going to be their only team. They sold the idea to management who had no idea about racing. When we got on the track with the competition, we weren’t even on the same level. By mid-season we were back on Michelins.” Kenny managed a third in Brazil. In the end Roberts rode for Suzuki for seven seasons, the last three with but a single podium (second), in his final year, achieved at Donington. “In 2004, I struggled with arm pump. We didn’t have auto-blip and on the four-stroke the gearboxes were under a lot of torque. You’d have to blip the throttle to get it out of gear. In England I talked to the top bosses there and told them they were going to fix this gearbox and get auto-blip, or I was going to have to get arm pump surgery. They said: ‘Ah, can you please get surgery’, so I left and took a six-week vacation to get surgery. After three weeks they offered me a contract for 2005. I came back, but in Japan John Hopkins crashed into everybody and I dislocated my elbow on Biaggi’s back tyre. I came back for Valencia and was fastest in first practice, but I wasn’t strong enough to race. “We didn’t have traction control, or speed limiters. Hopkins and I were told by Suzuki to disrespect the pit speed limits as we didn’t have speed sensors. So, every single time in and out of the pits, we would get speeding tickets and those would get passed on to Japan. It was the team’s way of putting pressure on Suzuki to get us speed limiters.” There was one podium in 2005 and again it was in the wet. In 2006 Kenny was competitive again on his dad’s Kr-honda. Kenny: “From the beginning, there were things on the chassis
...WE KNEW IT WOULD BE CRAP IN 2001, AND THAT’S WHAT IT WAS...
that were wrong. It had a lot of problems we didn’t know about, we had slop in the steering head and had to reinforce it. Where the rear suspension linkage was connected to the chassis wasn’t correct, and it threw all the linkages off, but the Honda engine was like a sewing machine and made up for the problems the bike had. The numbers weren’t making sense to Warren and he found out that we were an inch off with the back tyre versus where it should have been because of the linkage problem. When you get an engine, you have to figure out where the centre of gravity is and where you want that. “In 2006, Honda and Michelin were using our bike as a test bed. Honda approached us and said: ‘Kenny Jr is using far more fuel, he’s got far more spin from the rear tyre, so he’s having to be smoother on throttle application than any other riders. Something is not right.’ HRC recommended changing the steering head to 20mm further down in China and that seemed to make a difference, but we still didn’t know about the linkage problem then.” Once the linkage was fixed, the KR was a factor at every race, taking third in Catalunya, followed by a pair of fifths. When the team figured out the magic set-up, they were fighting for wins during the last half of the season. “We would use the strongest traction control they had, and the strongest wheelie power reduction they had at tracks like Laguna. Honda didn’t like the way I did that, as it was violent the way it would cut the spark and backfire. “In Laguna on the Friday time sheets, I was a second quicker than anybody else on every lap, and I was thinking that I’d got this thing in the bag. On the Saturday morning I got to the track and Honda told me that I couldn’t use the engine setting for traction control, as I was using too much fuel. I told them: ‘Don’t worry about that, because after 10 laps when I’m leading by 10 seconds I’ll slow down, not a big problem.’ They said: ‘No no no… so sorry.’ The engine management had a grid that was like playing Battleship and ‘G20’ was now gone, and everything around ‘G20’ was gone too. I was using four gears, now I was having to use five, and I had no traction because they took away that aggressive cut. I was getting wheelspin and I was going the same speed as everybody else. “On the Saturday morning, coming out of turn three, I moved over for Nicky to get out of his racing line, and when he picked it up and accelerated out, it was popping and backfiring. I was thinking: ‘Son-of-a-bitch, they gave that setting to Nicky. “It wasn’t good when we beat Honda, the HRC team wasn’t supposed to be beaten by a satellite team. In qualifying I got on the front row and I saw Nicky and asked him: ‘What’s going on with your bike popping and backfiring?’ Nicky said: ‘Yeah, I don’t know, they put this setting in it and I don’t like it or
THE ENGINE MANAGEMENT HAD A GRID THAT WAS LIKE PLAYING BATTLESHIP...
know what it is, but the lap time is better.’ Well, I knew what it was….” In the end, Kenny led the US GP for most of the first lap, but then faded back to an eventual fourth place finish behind the winner, Nicky Hayden. There was another fourth at Brno and a near win in Portugal, finishing third. Sixth place in the championship was the final result, but it could have been so much more. The 2008 Honda 800 was underpowered and using that engine in the KR chassis was a disaster. After seven disappointing races, Kenny walked away from the effort, and away from the sport. Kenny’s kids were born in 2008 and 2009 and they became his new focus, and the family started travelling around the US. “We are just doing what comes easy to us now, home-schooling the kids. We ski from January through April. We want to take the kids to Europe. In 2016 we did 41 states and in 2017 we spent a couple hundred days travelling in the motorhome. Once we get done with this, we will move on to Europe and go to see old friends and mechanics… in theory.” How does he see his era in comparison to today’s Moto GP? Kenny: “The sport is so difficult to get into if you aren’t Spanish or Italian. The bikes are a lot different, the 500s were violent. The better rider you were, the easier it was to get a ride. Now they are easier to ride, the four-stroke is a lot less violent. I’m a huge fan of Marquez and the only guy I can compare him to is my dad. He has ability that cannot be taught.” Is there a next generation of Roberts waiting in the wings? Kenny: “I’d rather have them playing golf and doing something less dangerous, where the worst thing I’d have to worry about is somebody yelling ‘fore’.”
On the podium in Italy the day dad won the title. Kenny Roberts Jr feels the power of success from a lofty position early on.
Left: More hair and another trophy to add to the collection. The natural home of the Roberts in Grand Prix.
Suzuki’s development was heading towards suiting Sete on track.
Gibernau wins, Barros smiles and Junior finds the camera, nearly 19 years ago in Valencia.
Arch-rival Sete Gibernau was a stylish winner.
Moments in time under glass at the Roberts’ ranch.
Four GP titles between them. Kenny (the original) and Kenny (the remix).
A watching brief. Kenny was always involved, even from a distance, knowing everything that was going on with the bike and the team.
Left & above: He hasn’t changed a bit! Sweet-as-you-like baby junior looks very similar as a pup to how he does now (right) next to his good mate Kevin Schwantz (on the 34 bike).
KR Jr. Officially a legend of Motogp.