MotoGP Racing Royalty: Kenny Roberts Sr./Jr. Reflect On Junior’s Crowning Achievement

Kenny Roberts, Jr. and Kenny Roberts, Sr. talk MotoGP Legends Status and 2000 World Championship

Kenny Roberts Jr MotoGP legends wall
Kenny Roberts, Jr. adds his photo to the MotoGP Legends mix.Photo: Andrea Wilson

If there were such a thing as American road racing royalty, it'd have to be the Roberts clan. After all, Kenny Roberts, Sr. is dubbed "King" Kenny. But today at the Grand Prix of Americas in Austin, Texas, it wasn't about Senior, it was about Junior.

Kenny Roberts, Jr. was inducted into the MotoGP World Championship Hall of Fame, making them the only father-son duo to win a 500cc World Championship and also to be named MotoGP Legends. So it was a special day for the Roberts family, and awhile since Junior had taken the stage.

Suzuki MotoGP in 2000
Roberts, Jr. made the most out of the opportunity to take the title in 2000 with Suzuki.Photo: MotoGP

“Yeah. I haven’t been up here for a long time, but it’s extremely special,” Roberts, Jr. said. “I didn’t practice anything. I didn’t think about a speech. I just wanted the raw emotions of the day and Carmelo (Ezpeleta) up here and my dad up here… Words don’t help because you can’t describe it.”

As usual when talking about the proud moment, Roberts, Sr. had a way with words. And as usual, it was entertaining.

“I think one of the nice things that Dorna has done is the Legends. Can you imagine me in 1980 doing something for the FIM? Other than going to jail,” Roberts, Sr. said. “I have such a large family here (in MotoGP), and you don’t notice it until you come to a race like this. As far as Kenny (Jr.) winning the championship, a lot like Wayne (Rainey), it’s a tremendous amount of work. Whether you’re cleaning helmets or whatever you’re doing, there’s a lot of work in this paddock to get that done. It seems kind of shallow to say, ‘Oh, you’re a legend,’ because the amount of work, sacrifice and pain; because you don’t always win.”

Carmelo Ezpeleta inducts Kenny Roberts, Jr.
A legend is born… Carmelo Ezpeleta (left) inducts Roberts, Jr. (right) into the MotoGP World Championship Hall of Fame.Photo: MotoGP

It was a day of celebration, but it was also a day of reflection. A time to look back on Roberts Jr.’s 2000 World Championship; the beginning of the end of an era for 500cc two strokes and the arrival of Valentino Rossi.

“My dad and I talked and it was like, ‘Hey, this may be the only shot, because Valentino (Rossi) is going to start running the table with this bike and this team,’” Roberts, Jr. said. “We knew. And even the competition I was with, we knew it was going to be tough. I felt that I had the most consistent package with Suzuki and we were the closest to winning in ’99 – close as in, being second – and felt like this was our year (2000). Valentino was coming up and Honda, that was going to be the number-one guy. So we had a great opportunity and we took full advantage of it.”

Every racer dreams of a World Championship, but it was Junior’s focus in life.

Two-stroke Suzuki RGV500
The end of the two-stroke era... Roberts, Jr.'s 2000 World Championship on the Suzuki RGV500 was one of the last two-stroke machines before four strokes took over in 2002.Photo: Andrea Wilson

“I had dropped out of school and I would go to the ranch and ride,” Roberts, Jr. said. “It’s the only thing I did. And then it was just to be World Champion. At the time Wayne (Rainey) was World Champion, Eddie Lawson who I knew (was a multi-time World Champion), and John Kocinski was coming up. So my approach to life was that – it was just World Champion. I didn’t know anything about Superbike. I didn’t know Motocross. It was only 500cc World Champion. So the failure was very high on each side.”

Those are some tough role models to live up to - Rainey, Lawson, a young Kocinski… and especially the old man. It’s also something that Roberts, Sr. understood at the get go. And Kenny Roberts, Sr. being Kenny Roberts, Sr., there were no words minced about it.

Carmelo Ezpeleta, Kenny Roberts, Sr. and Kenny Roberts, Jr.
(Left to right) Ezpeleta, Kenny Roberts, Sr. and Kenny Roberts, Jr. celebrate a new MotoGP legend — Roberts, Jr. — at the Grand Prix of the Americas in Austin, Texas.Photo: Andrea Wilson

“The first day he (Roberts, Jr.) wanted to race I said, ‘Look, I’m going to tell you something right now. You’ll never be as good as me. So if you can accept that you’ll never be as good as me, I’ll let you go racing,’” Roberts, Sr. said. “I had to remind him of that all the time. I said, it doesn’t matter. All these old people remember me and they don’t understand you. So it’s going to be, ‘He’s not as good as his dad.’ So the amount of pressure that he was under to win the championship, I saw that in Brazil when he just rode around and got enough points to win the championship. That’s a lot of pressure. He could have won that race. The pressure of being a World Champion, like the guys that we made World Champion… so the amount of pressure on him was much more than it was on me.”

It’s easy to understand that it was a burden to bear with all those expectations that would come with a name that was considered road racing royalty, as well as growing up around some of the sport’s greats. But while there was a burden to bear, there wasn’t an over bearing father.

“Dorna put out a small video maybe a day or two ago (about the 2000 Championship), and I watched it,” Roberts, Jr. said. “I was celebrating and I was hugging everybody and then it’s like, ‘where’s my dad?’ I saw my voice and then he was there. I didn’t really realize it until I started to look back and you see the videos and the pictures of how much he was around, but not that I really knew it. He was there to apply the right, not direction and maybe not even pressure… just the right like, ‘pay attention to this.’ It was subtle things that got you thinking in a direction of clarity that you look back now.

“So it’s more meaningful now. Back then I was looking for that, but you don’t know how much until it’s all said and done. I couldn’t have done it without him from the start. I wouldn’t be here today for sure without his help and guys like Wayne Rainey and the people that helped me in the U.S. and Europe and through my career and stuff like that. It wouldn’t have happened.”

As for Roberts, Sr., he had his usual spin on things to bring some laughs: “Hard to stand in the pits and drink beer, so I had to stay in the background.”