Kenny Roberts is one of the most influential and prominent figures in Grand Prix motorcycle racing history. America’s first world champion, ‘King Kenny’ would win three 500cc titles, spent 13 years with Yamaha and is considered an AMA racing legend with numerous memorable performances, including at the 1975 Indy Mile.
Like many great Grand Prix motorcycle racers of that era, Roberts’ career began as a teenager on local dirt tracks in California. On New Year’s Day in 1970, the 18-year-old made his professional AMA racing debut and finished an impressive fourth, and his performances soon landed him a ride with the factory-backed Yamaha America team.
Winning AMA Rookie of the Year in 1971, Roberts became an Expert class rider for the following season and won his first race in the category. In 1973 it all came together as he claimed the AMA Grand National Championship, featuring both off-road and on-track races.
Another title followed in 1974, where he also battled with multiple Grand Prix champion Giacomo Agostini for the lead at the Daytona 200. He entered his first GP on a Yamaha TZ250 at the Dutch TT, putting it on pole position and taking home a debut podium.
He continued to enjoy success in various American motorcycle racing series, before returning to Europe to contest the 250cc and 500cc Grand Prix road racing championships.
After winning the opening 250cc race in Venezuela, Roberts made his 500cc debut in the second round at Jarama in Spain. He would finish second but followed that up with three consecutive victories in Austria, France and the Nations event at Mugello. A fourth win came in the British GP and at the season finale in Germany he was crowned America’s first world champion.
Ahead of the 1979 season, Roberts was injured in a testing crash, forcing him to miss the opening race in Venezuela. He returned for round two in Austria and stormed to victory, winning four of his first five races that year. He came out on top after an epic battle with Barry Sheen at Silverstone and won his second title.
Roberts was unstoppable during the opening rounds of 1980, taking three consecutive victories on his way to a third world title. He came close to a fourth championship in 1983 with six wins, missing out by just two points to fellow American Freddie Spencer before retiring from Grand Prix racing.
He continued as a team owner, running Yamahas for the likes of Wayne Rainey and John Kocinski, before building his own bikes to contest MotoGP in the early 2000s.
Roberts defies all odds to win the Indy Mile
One of Roberts’ finest rides came before his Grand Prix success, during the famous 1975 Indy Mile Grand National. Ahead of the American Flat Track event, Yamaha developed a TZ750 two-stroke road racing engine mated to a dirt track frame in an attempt to beat the dominant Harley-Davidsons.
Roberts qualified on the back of the grid, but produced an awe-inspiring performance, as he mastered the 125-bhp machine, capable of going over 150 mph, much quicker than Yamaha’s rivals.
Making up ground, Roberts was soon in fourth and around 20 metres off the lead battle, regularly clipping the outer haybales as pushed hard in search of victory. By the last lap, the American had closed the gap and was now running third with the Harley duo ahead. He powered out of the final corner, passing both Corky Keener and Jay Springsteen on the run to the line to win by half-a-bike’s length.
To this day, it is hailed as the greatest ever performance at the Indy Mile and, amongst all of his countless accomplishments, cemented Kenny Roberts’ place in American Flat Track history.
Check out this video from 2009, when Kenny Roberts returned to the Indy Mile with the iconic TZ750 dirt tracker and entertained the crowd with a few fast laps.