Here I am at Ascot Park in July of 1971. I was an AMA Junior at the time, riding a Yamaha
Bud Aksland, as I mentioned in the April 2004 "Roberts Chronicles", has been trying to keep me out of trouble for over 30 years. Sometimes he's able to and sometimes not, but he has always offered tremendous support and does so to this day.
Bud was my first sponsor, beginning with that Suzuki 90 in '68, when I really started to win races. In fact, I won so many that other riders complained. Race organizers decided to "fix" things by having me start a quarter-mile backor turned around backward. I didn't much care for that. But I won enough races on that little Suzuki that I moved from amateur to expert and graduated to a 250cc Suzuki Savage. Then things got serious.
My first race for money was when I'd turned 18. It was an indoor shorttrack race at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. I got fourth. And I got $175, which was the most money I'd ever had! Amazingly, my mother let me keep it...but I didn't keep it long, spending it on a Honda motorcycle. I just lived on that bike, rode it all day long. At night I'd ride it into my room, wake up the next morning and start all over.
After the Hodaka and Suzuki 90s I'd begun my racing career on came this Suzuki 250 Savage,
I was winning races, too. Bud realized I was going to need more help, and that I needed to do more than just dirttrack in California. So he introduced me to Pan Am pilot Jim Doyle, who was headed for Daytona with two Ron Grant- built Suzuki 250 roadracers. The deal was, if I would share the driving to Daytona, I could race his spare bike. Part of the deal was to drive through a whole gas tank's worth of fuel before handing off to the other guy. Ten years later, Doyle confessed he'd been pulling the choke out to worsen the mileage and shorten his stint. I confessed I'd done the same. Whatever, we got to Daytona.
And it was a typical first Daytona, which meant it was frightening and pretty much a disaster.
It was all kind of funny, really. As guys lined up for the first heat, I pushed my bike to what I thought was the back, since the grid sheet had shown my number 80 all the way at the back. As it turned out, everyone push-started and then turned around, which meant I found myself starting from the front row. Nobody said anything, so I thought, "What the hell?" I got a good start and was actually leading as we approached Turn One. Then I slowed down and it seemed like everyone went by me. I thought, "There's no way these crazy bastards are going to make that first turn!"
Then things weren't so funny. Everyone went straight onto the banking just like they were supposed to on the opening lap (which I didn't know). So I headed out onto the banking and guys were going by me 50 mph faster because I fried the clutch with my excellent start. I was now going so slow that the right exhaust was dragging on the banking, and I slowly motored around to the back straight. Naturally, some expertwho hadn't made an expert start like I had&151came by at about 130 mph, three inches from me, and scared the sh** out of me. I came straight into the pits and announced, "I never want to ride a roadracer again. I'm never, ever roadracing again; just dirttrack!" There was that same old feeling again&151of being scared by a motorcycle. Only this time I didn't feel all that excited about it. And that Suzuki was behaving too much like my Tohatsu had years earlier; I didn't make the main event with it.
The whole roadracing thing started for me in 1971, though the transition from dirt to asph
I did win the novice number-one plate on the Suzuki dirttracker that year. But if I was going to win a national championship, I was going to have to learn how to roadrace. And I was going to need a bigger and better dirttrack bikewhich Suzuki didn't have. You had to do it all in those days.
So Doyle and I went to Triumphwearing silly neckties, even&151only for them to tell us I was too small to ride their big bikes...but they'd give us a good deal on one if we wanted. We went to Yamaha and got a better deal; Yamaha President Terry Tierman offered me Yamaha racebikes and enough money for myself and a mechanic. Of course I hired Bud. At 19, I was a Yamaha factory rider!
To be honest, Bud and I didn't know nothin'! But we got to work on turning me into a roadracer. In our first race at Loudon, New Hampshire, we were off to a good start; I came in from the first practice session and pulled up to Bud in the pits.
"Man. You're...you're...fast!" he said.
"I think we're supposed to check something on the bike!"
"I don't know...maybe we should check the plugs."
Doing some of this high-tech maintenance myself, I managed to pinch an ignition wire so that the bike quit halfway through the 350 race while I was leading. But I managed a fifth in the 250 class. I was beginning to feel like I was getting the hang of this roadracing business.
Here I am leading Kel Carruthers (73), Cal Rayborn (14) and Jody Nicholas (58) on a Yamaha
In fact, I was getting the hang of it so much that at Loudon I didn't know any better and led a world champion for nearly an entire race. This guyKel Carruthersfinally got by me, and though I couldn't quite get back around him for the win, at least I got noticed.
Carruthers noticed me again at the next race in Kent, Washington, only this time he wasn't impressed. There's a blind rise in the track before Turn Four. So I came over the rise flat-out and went straight, completely missing the turn. I did the exact same thing on the next lap. At the time, Carruthers was in charge of Yamaha's roadracing program in the States and had been instructed to help me out. At that point, he could see I needed it. Kel came over and said I absolutely had to make that turn the next time I went over the rise. So I did...and fell off in the next corner! Still, Kel was impressed when I ran fifth racing in the rain before crashing to avoid a fallen rider.
Like others had before, Carruthers saw what I didn't always see in myself. And the guy had a lot of help to offerhe was a 250 Grand Prix world champion, after all, an Australian with tremendous experience who would become more than someone to help out at the races. He would become my race manager and improve my machines and my riding, all right, but he'd also become my mentor and guide to the GP scene when I went off to race in Europe.
Carruthers basically ran Yamaha's roadracing operation out of his garage, and I spent a lot of time learning there. Then Aksland and I would drive to the races, where Kel would meet us and we'd all keep learning. Times were different then. I'll tell you more about it next month.
Keep up with Kenny and the entire Roberts team at www.teamkr.com.
For the latest installment of this series, see The Roberts Chronicles in the current issue of Motorcyclist magazine.