AMA legend, American road racer.
A Yamaha factory rider for 13 years, Kenny Roberts has spent his career defying all odds.
Decades later, he’s still leaving his mark on the race track.
Growing up in rural Modesto, California, in the early 1960s, 12-year-old Kenny Roberts took an interest in riding. After getting on a mini-bike following a friendly challenge, everything changed. Soon, the boy was taking apart his father’s lawnmower and needed its engine to build his own motorcycle. From then on, his fate was sealed.
Roberts began competing in local dirt track races as a teenager. He left a deep impression on an observant Suzuki dealer who, realizing the 17-year-old had a natural talent for racing, offered Roberts a sponsorship. The day after his eighteenth birthday, Roberts competed in his first professional dirt track race aboard a Suzuki motorcycle, finishing fourth and paving the way for one of the most successful racing careers in AMA motorcycle racing history.
In 1970, Roberts became a factory-sponsored rider for Yamaha’s American team and soon earned the AMA Rookie of the Year Award. Roberts and his Yamaha motorcycles (first the XS 650, later the TZ750) lacked horsepower, but not determination, and consistently outperformed the dominant Harley-Davidson factory dirt track team while keeping pace with legends like Giacomo Agostini in the 200-mile road races at Daytona and Imola in 1974.
From then on, “King Kenny” became a world-class road racer, often competing against (and outperforming) famous European riders like Barry Sheene, who had originally doubted Roberts’ ability to perform well on asphalt because of his pedigree; in fact, it was that very pedigree that made Roberts such a force to be reckoned with. A dirt-track racer at heart, Roberts perfected a daring racing technique that involved braking early into a turn and then leaning in so far that his knee scraped across the asphalt and burned holes in his leather. Along with his efforts to improve racing safety standards, this was one of his most notable contributions and the reason he was so revered in the racing community.
By the end of his career, Roberts had won two Grand National Championships and three 500cc World Championships, in addition to being one of only four riders in AMA racing history to achieve a Grand Slam. In 1998, he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, and two years later, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) named him a Grand Prix Legend.
After his retirement, Roberts founded his own World 500 Grand Prix team and his own machine, the Modenas KR3. In 2000, his sons Kenny Jr. and Kurtis followed in their father’s footsteps and competed in the 500 and 250 Grand Prix, respectively. Both left champions.