At the age of 12, Kenny Roberts was much more into horseback riding and trotting around on ponies than riding bikes. However, once a friend dared him to hop on a mountain bike and take a spin, the horses went out to pasture.
Not long after his first venture on a bike, Roberts was often caught taking apart small engines around his house and trying to customize them for the bikes he wanted to race around on. It was all uphill from there for Kenny Roberts, and his legendary racing career began.
On New Year´s Eve of 1951, Kenneth Leroy Roberts was born to ¨Buster¨ and Alice Roberts in Modesto, CA. Because of his rural upbringing, it was natural for Roberts to be drawn to horses over bikes. However, once that seed was planted, there was no stopping him.
His father, tired of Roberts tinkering with his lawnmower engines to supe up bikes, bought Roberts his first bike, but it did not take long for them both to see that the original bike would not make it as a competition motorcycle.
He soon upgraded to a Hodoka, but it was not long before Roberts caught the eye of a sponsor from Suzuki. There was so much faith placed in Roberts and his ability that he opted to forgo his final year of high school to pursue a full-time racing career, entering his first professional race the day after his 18th birthday.
Roberts finished a very respectable fourth place in that first race, and he began the process of making a reputation for himself as a dirt bike racer. And the ball (or wheels) got rolling for Roberts to become one of the most prolific motorcycle racers in the sport’s history.
Soon after the beginning of his professional career, Roberts´ Suzuki sponsor, Bud Aksland, realized that Roberts was good, but he could be significant. So Aksland decided to get Roberts in line with Jimmy Doyle, the man who would begin to coach Roberts and become his manager.
Though Roberts had the goods to deliver, it wasn't a smooth race to the finish line for him in terms of sponsorship and support. It took a couple of tries for his manager to find the right fit for Roberts and a new sponsor. That was found in the form of Yamaha, the company that took Roberts under their wing when great motorcycle Triumph rejected him.
At the time, Kel Carruthers was Yamaha´s frontman, and he was asked to mentor the young rider. Not long after taking on this responsibility, Carruthers decided to hang up his personal helmet in order to focus his time and energy on coaching and mentoring Roberts full time. This was the beginning of a long-lasting, productive relationship for the racer, and Carruthers´s influence had a tremendous impact on Roberts´s career for its entirety.
In his first year as a pro, Roberts was virtually unstoppable and showed almost as much talent as the seasoned vets, winning his second professional race. He was named AMA Rookie of the year in 1972 and placed fourth overall in the sport.
During his first year as a pro, his real claim to fame and what truly put him on the map as a racing wunderkind was his ability to take down the virtually unstoppable Harley Davidson team who packed much more power in their bikes than Roberts´s.
Roberts seemed just to be able to take down the supergroup with his sheer determination and willpower. Somehow, it was enough, and the following season was even better, as he was able to pull out all of the stops and become the AMA National Champion in just his second season.
Roberts is probably best known for a death-defying move after shifting from dirt bike to road racing, where he would take to the break early into a turn and get so close to the track that his knee would actually scrape the pavement during the turn, often ripping and burning his protective gear.
This signature move would help Roberts become the first American to win a Grand Prix World Championship just a few short years into his professional career. He also went on to win the AMA National Championship another time. He is one the only racers in history to be able to claim victory of an AMA Grand Slam, a difficult task due to having to win multiple races in order to win overall.
Other than simply being an amazing racer, Roberts took his role in bike racing very seriously and was well known for his efforts to make the sport as safe for the participants as possible.
Known by his nickname for both his riding abilities and contributions to the sport in general, ¨King Kenny" refused to hold his tongue when it came to the dangerous conditions riders were expected to race in. He found out just how dangerous things could be during the 1979 season when an accident during a race caused Roberts to come away with a ruptured spleen and severely injured back.
When Roberts entered the sport, racers were expected to ride across railroad tracks and go around poles wrapped with hay bales, and on tracks soake with diesel fuel. Roberts was so outspoken against the deplorable conditions riders expected to race. He even went so far as rally other riders to start a revolt against the powers that be and create his own racing event.
While this movement did not take off, the powers that be listened and began to make safer conditions for riders. Roberts was far from a ¨do nothing King.¨
In 1985, Kenny Roberts decided that his time as a racer was over, and it was his turn to start a team and mentor newbies like he was at one time. He even went so far as to begin his own line of bikes, though their success was less than expected.
Kenny Roberts will forever be one of the greats in the history of motorcycle racing. From coming up with new movements that would make the stiffer, more experienced competition stand up and take notice to changing the safety rules behind the sport, Roberts will be memorialized as one of the greatest contributors the riding world has ever seen.
King Kenny proved that even the underdog would have his day, or, in his case, he would have an impeccable career that few will ever see the likes of even with the best of training and equipment. This king of racing was simply born with the need for speed, and he settled for nothing less.