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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Here They Go (Fast) Again: Another Roberts Is No. 1

November 24, 2000|SHAV GLICK

Kenny Roberts, winner of three world Grand Prix road racing titles and team owner of four more, was Cycle News' choice as motorcycle rider of the century.

Now another Kenny Roberts (he dropped Jr. from his name last year) is world champion, the first second-generation rider to follow in his father's championship boots.

The younger Roberts, 27, rode a Suzuki to victory in the world 500cc series two years after leaving his father's team to ride for the Japanese factory. He won four races and clinched the title in Brazil with two races remaining.

"I'm very happy for him, he got a big monkey off his back," said King Kenny, who will be 49 on Dec. 31.

"His situation was a lot different from mine. I had nothing to prove, all I wanted was to be the best motorcycle rider in the world, to beat everybody. He had something to prove. The best thing that happened to him was us letting him go to Suzuki."

From the time Kenny turned professional in 1993, until 1999, he rode for his father's team, first in the 250cc class and the last two seasons on a 500cc three-cylinder Modena that the elder Roberts was trying to develop as a competitor to Japanese makes.

However, in those two years, Roberts' best finish was sixth as the Modena suffered teething problems.

"It was a case of Kenny getting better faster than we were making the bike better," said the elder Roberts. "He always wanted to ride a four-cylinder bike, and his style of riding fit the Suzuki better than it did our bike. He was not happy because he thought we were holding him back and he was right.

"When he left, it also took a lot of pressure off me. When your own son is riding for you, it makes you twice as concerned for his welfare, his safety as well as his accomplishments. I was happy to let him handle his future with Suzuki. And obviously, it turned out very well."

Young Roberts, who took veteran tuner Warren Willing with him from Team Roberts to Team Suzuki, won four races and finished second in points to veteran Alex Criville of Spain.

The father acknowledges he was surprised how quickly his son reached the pinnacle of his sport.

"I expected him to win, eventually, but no, I didn't expect it to happen this year because winning the championship comes with age sometimes, with experience, for sure," he said.

Although Kenny Sr. had nothing to do with his son's winning team, Kenny Jr. gave full credit to his father for advancing his career.

"You hear a lot about dads getting too involved, trying to do too much, for their kids, but my dad kept a level head," Junior said. "He let me do what I wanted to do. He even tried to get me to be a golfer instead of a motorcycle guy."

Says Senior: "I never really thought that my kids should follow me and do this, because at times I was wondering why I was doing it myself."

On the other hand, when his son was starting out, Kenny the elder kept a tight rein.

"In his first race on pavement, I think he was about 16 or 17, it was at Willow Springs," recalled the father. "He made a move on a guy who had just passed him, he wanted to get him back right away so he jumped on the throttle and almost fell off. I told him, the next time I saw a move like that, to get off the track and put the bike back in the truck. I told him not to be so impatient and try to beat him right there, but to follow the guy and figure out how to pass him the right way.

"Those words were as much for his safety as they were for race strategy. Young guys tend to react like that, to try and get it all back in a hurry. It's not only dangerous, it's foolish. I suppose I was that way too, but learning little things is what makes experience."

Three years later the younger Roberts scored what he says is still his greatest thrill, winning his first Grand Prix on a Yamaha 250.

"It was the first European race of the season and I had been struggling," he said. "All wins are satisfying, but this one was special. My dad had a place in Spain, and the country is pretty much the center of Grand Prix racing. There were about 100,000 people there, and it was special that I broke out and won there."

After switching to Suzuki for the 1999 Grand Prix season, young Kenny dropped the Jr. from his name. His reason:

"It made my name look a lot more aggressive on the pit boards."

Looking back, it was rather inevitable that Kenny and younger brother Kurtis--the current AMA 600 SuperSport and Formula Xtreme champion on a Honda--would gravitate to bikes. Their father built a training facility on his ranch near Modesto that became a legend among riders. Virtually every rider of reputation has taken a turn or two on Roberts' notoriously treacherous terrain.

"When I was a teenager, I rode a lot with Grand Prix riders like [three-time world champion] Wayne Rainey and Randy Mamola, and I always thought that one day I could beat those guys," recalled young Roberts.

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