King Kenny Roberts: World Champion Motorcycle Racer Tells About his First Roadrace and the Yamaha Connection

In the third of his regular series in Motorcyclist magazine, "King" Kenny Roberts tells about his first roadrace, the Yamaha factory ride, and kissing the trophy girl.

Last month I wrote about my first Daytona, but I didn't tell you about my first roadrace. That was maybe even crazier and funnier than that first Daytona! You may have noticed last month's photo of me kneeling next to a Kawasaki H1R. There's a photo of me riding it this time around, and let me tell you—that bike was a handful! The H1R is a 500cc two-stroke triple, and it was fast. Toward the end of that first race I was battling some guy on a big streetbike. I'd come out of the corners on the gas and that Kawasaki was just all over the place. To be honest, I don't even know where I finished—it was all I could do to try to stay on top of the bike to beat this guy. But as I said, it was kind of funny...crazy, really.

See, the other guy and I never saw the checkered flag, so we kept racing for three more laps. I saw my mechanic, Jim Doyle, out on the track waving his arms, trying to get us to slow down. I didn't know what he was trying to do. Then we hit the back straight and a big Cadillac had pulled onto the track to try to stop us. That's when we realized something wasn't right. So we made our way back to the pits. The track official with the checkered flag came over and got right up in my face, yelling at me. My dad, Buster, told him to shut up and shoved him. At that point everyone had to get involved to keep a full-blown fistfight from breaking out.Thinking about it still makes me laugh. Who says the race is over when the checkers come out? If it hadn't been for all the commotion, I guess that guy and I would have just kept on racing till one of us crashed or ran out of gas.

The truth is, regardless of how a motorcycle handled, I was more at ease on a dirttrack racer. I wasn't that interested in roadracing.

But I was interested in winning the AMA championship, and that meant doing it all in those days—TTs, miles, half-miles, shorttracks and roadracing. And not because of AMA rules, it was the math. Otherwise, no rider stood a chance of accumulating enough points to take the championship. So I learned to roadrace.

Still, my heart was really in dirttrack. And I needed a big dirttrack bike to win the AMA national championship. Doyle and I went around to the factories. Triumph thought I was too small to ride one of its big bikes. Harley-Davidson would have been a choice, actually—maybe even my first choice. But Harley racing manager Dick O'Brien must have had a crystal ball. Or at least he knew how to look at the big picture and knew what kind of program would fit me best. In other words, he understood I would have a future in roadracing and suggested that Yamaha was the company I ought to talk to, since Harley didn't have competitive roadracers at that time.

So in 1971, Doyle and I went to Terry Tiernan at U.S. Yamaha and he made us a deal, which meant I signed a contract and became a factory rider with a couple of bikes and enough money for myself and a mechanic. At 19, I was one of the youngest riders Yamaha had hired. They also hired Kel Carruthers to run the U.S. Yamaha racing operation...which he did out of the back of his house in San Diego! Things were different in those days. I hired Bud Aksland as my mechanic, and Bud sold his shop in Manteca so we could take our show on the road.

Yamaha told Kel to watch after me, which he did, especially when it came to roadracing. Bud and I were pretty much left to deal with the dirttrack stuff on our own. Accepting the deal from Yamaha meant we had good roadracing bikes —real roadracers built by Yamaha.

But the dirttrack bikes weren't so good. We had to make do with Yamaha's XS650 twin, a steetbike, as the basis for a dirttrack racer. In some ways it was better than the Triumphs, BSAs and Harleys. It was more modern and had an overhead-cam engine. But it wasn't a racing engine, and since it was relatively new we didn't have the years of development that had gone into those other bikes. I was about the only one racing the Yamaha. Come to think of it, it's a bad habit I've managed to maintain over the years! So we struggled with the XS650 that first year. Still, I earned enough points that year to move from junior to expert.

In our struggles with the XS650, we too often resorted to using pistons from here and a cam from there and these valves trying to make the bike fast. We also managed to blow it up a lot! I won my first race on it as an expert at the Houston Astrodome that year, and we lead the championship halfway through the season. But hard as it is to believe, we just didn't have enough support from Yamaha, at least not for the dirttrack program, and I wasn't able to win the championship. Japanese companies, for whatever reason, even when they're committed to a racing program, will only commit to certain parts of it. It's frustrating, and something I had to deal with throughout my entire racing career.

But in '72 Yamaha decided to get serious and added Shell Thuet to the team. Shell was an established motorcycle dealer in Los Angeles; he was very experienced, and he knew how to build a racebike. Like all good tuners, Shell knew how to make all the parts work together. He made sure to build reliability in before trying to build horsepower. Some things never change. This is still the best approach to building a competitive racebike. Once it was reliable, Shell managed to make the Yamaha 650 into one of the best dirttrack racers I've ever ridden. Good enough that, in '73, I earned enough total points, dirttrack and roadrace, to become the AMA's Grand National Champion. Shell was named Tuner of the Year by the AMA, which he certainly deserved. In '74, we did the whole program again, and I won the championship a second time...even if that was a really tough year.

I'll tell you about it next month. In the meantime, visit us at

Kenny Roberts on Sportster
Of this prescient photo, Roberts says: "After Mert Lawwill's chain broke at that same Ascot race in '70 [see below], I jumped on the number-one-plated Sportster and said to photographer Dan Mahony, 'Take my picture...I'll be number one some day.'"Dan Mahony
Kenny Roberts first race
Roberts' first roadrace.Motorcyclist
Kenny Roberts in San Jose
Were tires ever that narrow? Roberts works it at San Jose.Motorcyclist
Kenny Roberts among racers
"Sitting on the line as a first-year novice at Ascot, circa 1970. To my immediate right is Junior-classer John Hately, riding a Triumph twin, while to my far right is Harley-mounted—and future number-one plate-holder Mark Brelsford, one of the great dirttrackers of all time. Jim Doyle, my sponsor, is to my left."Motorcyclist
Kenny Roberts and Jim Doyle
With Jim Doyle and the Yamaha 650 in '71Motorcyclist
Kenny Roberts and Gary Scott
Running with Gary Scott at Ascot in '71 on the Yamaha twin. "I won the national that night as a Junior, which was a big deal."Motorcyclist
Kenny Roberts racing
"I guess I had the 'big picture' in mind, even in the beginning."Motorcyclist
Kenny Roberts winning kiss
"After my initial trophy-girl experiences, I found out that it wasn't all that bad!"Motorcyclist