Kenny Roberts Jr. At The 2006 USGP - Fly On The Wall - Inside Team Roberts

The TV monitors in the Team Roberts pit count down the time remaining in final qualifying...4:00, 3:59, 3:58...and all eyes are on them as the crew waits for Kenny Roberts Jr. to say the word.

Jr.'s KR211V stands at the ready, a Michelin qualifying slick hugging its magnesium rear wheel and tire warmers keeping both skins pliable. Nearby, Roberts' father-three-time 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts Sr.-waits calmly for the drama to unfold.

I catch myself thinking, "I can't believe I'm here" as I stand alongside Roberts Sr. in the maw of the team's Laguna Seca garage. Wearing Team Roberts duds and sporting a headset connecting me with the crew, I realize this is a Very Special Moment. A year ago, this Born-in-the-USA team-with an Austrian KTM engine and Brit Shakey Byrne in the saddle-scored just a single point all season. Yet here they were, resurgent with Honda power and 2001 World Champion Roberts Jr. at the controls, fighting for pole position and podium finishes with the Haydens and Rossis of the world. Talk about a turnaround.

Suddenly, with just three minutes left in the session, Jr.'s voice crackles in my headset: "OK, let's go!" Team technicians spring into action, peeling off the warmers as Roberts walks purposely to the bike from his air-conditioned Alpinestars chair, his stars-and-stripes Arai helmet hiding the most intense racer's eyes I've ever seen. He jumps aboard, the V-five is ignited, and he's away, his grid position for the 2006 USGP hanging in the balance.

The team is upbeat, Jr. having posted fast time Friday on the recently resurfaced-albeit very bumpy-circuit. After the opening session, his first words were, "That's the bumpiest track I've ever ridden. It's bad!" And the bumps aren't the worst of it. By Sunday the asphalt literally began to crumble in places.

These final three minutes are tense. MotoGP veteran Warren Willing-who worked with Jr. during his championship year at Suzuki-had the techs bump rear spring preload slightly to compensate for the Michelin qualifier, a common strategy given the added chassis forces the extra-sticky tire generates. But when Jr. comes in after two hard-as-he-can laps (qualifiers only last a couple of laps), his times aren't quite what everyone expected. Still, qualifying third-on the outside of the front row-is a minor victory, and the look in the team members' eyes says they're jazzed. Later, Willing tells me the firmer preload made the rear end a touch harsh, which compromised grip. "We'd have been better leaving it alone," he admits.

On pole is Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen, with Yamaha's Colin Edwards alongside. Championship leader Nicky Hayden is sixth on the second row, with his Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa and Suzuki's John Hopkins alongside. Valentino Rossi-the most dangerous rider on two wheels-lies 10th.

"Well done, guys!" Race Engineer Tom Jojic tells the team as Jr. is congratulated by friends and family. The crew knows they're close, right on pace. As they get back to work, it's obvious these guys are hungry. They've been down and out for the past few years, and the smell of a podium finish-and of respect within the MotoGP community-is fresh in the air.

Calm Before The Storm
It's Friday morning on Laguna's pit apron, and things are quiet. I've just joined the team for the weekend, Roberts Sr. and Team Manager Chuck Aksland having granted my request, and I'm straining to find something to do. Operations Manager Charlie Moody, a veteran of several Formula One teams, introduces me to Stuart McNally, an F1 colleague who's found a temporary home with Team Roberts. McNally promptly introduces me to the tire-warmer rack, capable of keeping 12 wheels wrapped, warm and ready to go.

By 9:30 a.m. the silence is broken by the shriek of unmuffled MotoGP engines being warmed for the first practice session of the weekend. Roberts Sr. arrives at the team's pit from his motor home and is immediately swarmed by fans. Questions fly between autographs. Someone asks about the Honda engine versus last year's KTM V-four-and the team's own V-five. "The big difference this year is the HRC engine," Sr. says. "It runs, perfectly, every time." Another asks how often they're rebuilt. "It takes a week to assemble one," Roberts offers. "Everything is measured, even the transmission gear teeth. That's one reason they're so dependable."

Typically, the team arrives at the racetrack on Thursday and spends the day working on the bikes. At the USGP, which followed the German round in which Roberts Jr. crashed heavily, the crew was extra-busy building a second machine from scratch. Considering the pit constitutes significant physical structures in addition to the air, power, Internet, telephone, water, closed-circuit TV and other necessary accoutrements, the fact that the team gets its work space up and running in just a half-day is amazing.

I watch the technicians go through their routines, checking, draining, filling, cleaning, adjusting. "We're trying some new stuff this week," Moody tells me. "A shorter fuel tank, to get Jr. more forward on the bike, and some other bits. There's not much time for proper testing; we end up doing a lot of it at the races."

I see what he means when the first one-hour practice session rolls around. It's race-day serious, with everyone-me included-wearing headsets so everyone's on the same page. Roberts Jr. is in and out several times, swapping bikes each time, before the team-and Jr.-gradually begins to concentrate on one machine. The team's movements are perfectly synchronized as they remove and reinstall wheels, body panels and fuel tanks, adjust suspension components, download engine and chassis data, etc. It's obvious they've done these tasks hundreds of times together. Radio chatter during the session is sparse; it's mostly Jojic relaying lap times to Moody so he can put them on Jr.'s pit board.

In the garage watching a monitor, I see Jr. nearly lose the front end entering the Corkscrew; the track looks bumpy even on TV. Jr.'s times are good. Hayden, pitted next to us, records a 1:26.3. Thirty seconds later I hear Jojic say, "Twenty-six zero, Charlie. That's P1," meaning Jr. is now fastest. I can almost see a ripple of energy run through the team.

Later, there's discussion about what tire to put on the back-up bike. The Michelin tech confers with Jojic. "Stu," Jojic says, "let's get the such-and-such rear, OK?" McNally heads for the tire rack in the back of the garage and gestures for me to follow. He grabs the wrapped tire, shows me how to replace the cables and we head back to the bikes. A minute later Roberts Jr. pitches the number-two bike into Turn Two, the tire and wheel we'd just grabbed providing traction.

At session's end I hear this: "Twenty-four flat, Charlie. That's P1." There's cheering from the crowd that's gathered in the garage, and when Jr. gets off the bike at the end of the session he's nearly mobbed.

Between sessions there's talk of gearing, tires and the shorter tank, which seems to help with front-end feel according to the data-acquisition system's cornering-speed traces.

The second practice session is equally tense. The pit is crowded, friends and family filling the guest area as Jr. pulls in and out of the garage. His times continue to come down, and he finishes with the day's quickest time, which has Team Roberts feeling good. Still, they know there are a lot of laps left, and anything can happen.

Work continues into the late afternoon. There are adjustments to make, data to analyze, parts to clean. "Michelin won't work on dirty wheels," McNally tells me with a smirk, so I'm tasked with cleaning a load of the day's used fronts and rears with soap and water before pushing them to the Michelin compound 100 yards away so new slicks can be mounted. It's 95 degrees outside, so an hour later I'm as soaked as the wheels I've just cleaned. But it's rewarding to be helping out, even if it's just little things.

Time To Go
Saturday dawns clear and hot, which means our garage will once again impersonate a sauna. While the crew readies the bikes for today's formal qualifying session at 1 p.m., I head to the Michelin tent to collect our freshly shod wheels. I bump into Willing in the team's trailer/office when I get back and ask him about the setup for Laguna. He tells me that once their bikes get to a certain optimum point, they generally need only minor spring and damping tweaks for the various circuits. It's obviously not a universal condition; Hayden will tell me Sunday evening that he and his team chased the right settings all weekend.

A few minutes later McNally hands me a headset. I turn it on and am plunged back into the eerily quiet yet deadly serious environment. Saturday's sessions are even more intense than Friday's, with the ultimate one-hour qualifying session culminating in the wild, final-three-minute thrash in which Jr. grabbed the outside spot on row number one for the race. Afterward, he gets a well-deserved hug from his dad, along with high fives and handshakes galore from friends and family.

It's terribly hot again on Sunday morning, and not much is happening. Most of the tweaking on the bike has been done. There's a 20-minute warm-up, which ends up being just as serious as qualifying the previous day. McNally records what tires Michelin has delivered for the race and labels everything before wrapping them and plugging in the warmers. Jojic walks by and points out the tire to be used that day; McNally tags it with white tape and writes "KR Race!" on it in big letters. There's no room for error now; we're just hours from the USGP.

After the warm-up the techs go over both bikes, cleaning and checking everything. You can feel the pressure building. It's very hot, and everyone is sweating. More and more people are filtering into the pit. You'd think the crowd would be a distraction, but Jr. and Sr. seem to welcome it. They've got a slot in motorcycle racing's Big Show, and it's almost as if they're not gonna deny the experience to the family and friends who have supported them for the last three decades.

By race time the scene is surreal. Our pit is jammed, and the pressure's peaking. The number-two bike, set up exactly like number one, is plugged in and ready to go in case anything untoward should happen to the primary bike. McNally, Jojic, Moody and Roberts Sr. are on the grid with Jr. From my vantage point at the garage, the view of the grid and grandstands is unreal-all bright colors, shimmering heat waves and movement. The national anthem is played, and at the end a quartet of Air Force fighters fly overhead with a roar so loud and sudden it scares the breath out of everyone.

I don my headset, and it's quiet again. We're once again in our own peaceful world, despite the crush of humanity surround- ing us.

The noise at the start is loud even through the headset. Jr. grabs the holeshot and leads briefly, then drops back to second, third, fourth and eventually fifth as Vermeulen, Hayden, Casey Stoner and Pedrosa up the pace. All the crew can do now is watch. Their job is done. Rossi and Edwards begin to march toward the front, and just after Rossi passes Jr. his Yamaha's engine goes south, putting the reigning world champ out of the race.

In the end, Jr. finishes a credible fourth, and the scene in the Roberts garage is crazed, with 60 to 80 people cheering and clapping.

Afterward, Roberts Sr. invites me to his motor home for a glass or three of wine, but I decline and head back to the pit to help break things down and pack up. Any goodwill I'd generated with the crew would vanish if I didn't help out. The breakdown takes two solid hours, and it's hard work. One bike is stripped to pieces in 20 minutes, with everything packed away in bags and specific boxes for the trip to the team's Banbury, U.K. shop. The other bike goes into a crate so as to be ready for a test the following weekend.

Suddenly it's 6 p.m., the garage is empty, the sun's going down, and the team's dozen or so crates are already being moved via forklift toward trucks that will deposit them at the airport-and into the belly of a 747-later that evening. I say my goodbyes, thank the crew for putting up with me and then head to Sr.'s motor home, where the party is in full swing. I stop by race-winner Hayden's on the way and offer congratulations. The kid's about as amped as I've ever seen him, and it's good to see.

And Kenny Jr.? As this issue went to press, just after the Japanese GP in September, Jr. had scored 103 points and was ranked seventh in the MotoGP standings-ahead of guys with names like Edwards, Hopkins and Vermuelen. Relative to last year and the troublesome two seasons before that, 2006 has to be considered a victory for America's MotoGP team. And with Honda power promised again for '07, Team Roberts' prospects are looking plenty bright going forward. You can see it in their eyes.

Team Roberts Boardtracker Lives!
Here's what happens when King Kenny Roberts pushes one of his team's former V-five MotoGP engines across the table to custom-bike builder-and ex-AMA 250cc Grand Prix Champion-Roland Sands. The pair debuted the bike at Laguna Seca in front of the Team Roberts garage and caused some serious crowd-control issues, especially when the bike was fired up. No word on whether Roberts Sr. plans to actually ride the thing...