More than three decades later, Kenny Roberts' 1975 Indy Mile win is still one of the most heroic rides in motorcycle racing history. It might have been just another gladiatorial Grand National victory if not for the legendary, Kel Carruthers-built, Champion-framed Yamaha TZ750 Roberts was riding that night. Maybe the most unrideable racebike ever built, the four-cylinder two-stroke had a light-switch powerband, a 150-mph top speed and no front brake. Even with a cylinder cutout switch hidden in the left grip-"Okie traction control," Roberts says-the bike was so fast and difficult to control that the AMA banned it after three races, before someone got killed.
Roberts hadn't even seen the bike before that night, "but it was light and nimble, and it actually worked like a dirt-track motorcycle," he remembers. "Riding it in circles was easy. Riding it fast was the hard part." Savage power delivery forced him to basically build his own racetrack in just 24 laps. "I couldn't ride that little knot of a race groove down on the inside; the bike would just go sideways," he says. "I had to build a berm I could bounce the bike off of. The dirt at Indy is light, so I got up in the cushion and just kept pushing it out. As soon as I got up to the hay bales and couldn't push the dirt any farther, it built up a berm high enough to give some grip. With about five laps to go I was finally able to start moving up and chasing Jay [Springsteen] and Corky [Keener] down."
The TZ750 was 30 mph faster than the Harley-Davidson XR750s on the straights, but Roberts
Slowing down proved just as difficult. "I had at least 30 mph on the [Harley-Davidson] XR750s on the straights. The only way to slow down was to cook it in there really hot and drift up to the berm. It took everything I knew to catch them that night. If I could have won that race by half a lap, I would have. But I barely caught them, just by inches, and right at the finish line. That was the greatest ride I ever rode."
Roberts was reacquainted with the Yellow Devil during this year's Indy Mile,held the same weekend as the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix. In front of a crowd 25,000 strong-including Wayne Rainey, Valentino Rossi and probably half the MotoGP paddock-King Kenny ripped off three screaming laps, sideways on the cushion just like that night in 1975.
The uncompetitive Yamaha XS650 Roberts raced for most of the '75 season jeopardized his #1
"It was pretty much what I remembered," King Kenny says. "Of course, the tires were a lot better. When I rode it [in '75] it had about 80 percent less grip. But the bike was running well, and it all came right back to me, just like I was hoping it would."
As Roberts strafed the grandstand on the first lap, and the shriek from those four separate, roadrace-spec stinger exhausts echoed off the steel roof of the Indiana State Fairgrounds' main grandstand, the crowd erupted in cheers. "It sure seemed to make a lot of people happy," Roberts says-a rare understatement. "I couldn't walk 5 feet in the MotoGP paddock the next day without someone coming up to shake my hand. That bike is such a part of dirt-tracking history, and it was a great night for people who never got to see it run the first time around."
Valentino Rossi was scheduled to do a few exhibition laps on the TZ, but after witnessing
To read Aaron Frank's blog about his two terrifying laps on Roberts' TZ750 that same night at the Indy Mile, log onto motorcyclistonline.com and search for "Indy TZ750."