Roberts Chronicles: Retirement

Retirement

As I mentioned in the last Chronicle [March '06], Freddie Spencer pulled a harebrained maneuver that stunned everyone at the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp, the next-to-last race of the '83 season, me included. Just as we had the entire season, we were fighting it out for the win. But Freddie went too far and ran us both off the track. He got back on the pavement first and went on to win. All Freddie had to do at the last GP at Imola was finish second and he would win the '83 500cc GP championship. I won and Freddie came in second, winning the title by a single point. At the end of the season I retired from racing.

About taking us off the track in Sweden, Freddie said, "That's racing." To me, running people off the track isn't racing. I've made a lot of last-lap passes, but I've never just rolled the dice and pitched it in hoping for the best. And I've never taken anyone off the track while making a pass. The fact is, the corner was mine and not Freddie's, and he made a fundamentally bad decision. Lucky for me he didn't try this in the next corner or we could have both wound up dead on the Armco. In fact, today things could well have turned out differently-the maneuver would have been reviewed on camera and Freddie would most likely have been penalized and lost the championship. Riding around in the pace car afterward, I had a few words for Freddie that went something like, "I don't give a shit what you do with your own life. But I've got three kids, and I really give a shit what you do to mine."

Maybe there was some desperation in Freddie's pass in Sweden. After all, we were really in different places in our careers. Freddie was basically just starting in the GPs and I had been there for six years and had survived. At that point, I really didn't want to be a casualty of someone else's race plan. Go ahead-do whatever you have to. Win your races, win your championships, I really don't care. But don't take me out in the process.

To be honest, Freddie wasn't like the rest of us in the GPs at that time. He never really became one of the guys, in my opinion. He was different and sometimes did peculiar things as far as his program went. Not to say he wasn't serious when it came to racing. He was serious and, obviously, he was a great rider. I had raced Freddie a few times in America and didn't feel overwhelmed when he showed up. He was the new guy everyone was talking about, but I didn't see where he was bringing anything new to the scene as far as riding technique. We did have a great rivalry, which made the '83 season interesting-not just for me, but for everyone.

Freddie wanted to win, maybe even more than I did at that point. He wanted to be world champion. And he had a great bike. I've always thought that three-cylinder Honda he had in the beginning might have been a better bike than the four-cylinder Yamaha I had at the time. It sure started better. Freddie could just sit on it and paddle it to get going when the flag dropped, which almost always gave him a big lead at the start of the race, because I had to spend 5 or 10 extra seconds push-starting my bike, sometimes more.

And, of course, there was always the issue of tires-me on Dunlops and him on Michelins. All that aside, Freddie and I were pretty evenly matched. That season I posted six fast times, he posted six; I won six GPs, he won six. It wasn't quite the rivalry I had with Barry Sheene, but it was definitely intense racing. It was very close racing and, other than the incident in Sweden, I never had a problem with Freddie. He was a racer, that's for sure.

When Freddie won the championship and I retired, much was made of the maneuver in Sweden as one of the reasons. It was. But it was only one reason, and only in the sense that I felt if guys running each other off the track was now part of Grand Prix racing, I wasn't inspired to continue. The fact is, I had announced my retirement at the beginning of the '83 season, and there were a number of reasons for it. For one thing, I had accomplished what I'd set out to do, and wanted to retire while I was still at the top. I had come through all the years of racing unscathed-I was still alive and wasn't suffering from injuries. Not to say there weren't physical problems. Arm pump was a continual one for me. But I was too ignorant in those days to know what was causing the problem, or to find someone who did and have them fix it. (Several years after I retired from racing I did just that, and now the procedure is considered routine.) But otherwise I felt I was at the top of my game in terms of riding the motorcycle. I didn't have to think 24/7 about racing or lie awake in bed at night figuring out how to get through Turn 2 more quickly. I said some years ago that a top athlete has about 10 years during which he can perform at full intensity, at what's needed to win championships. By '83 it had been 10 years since my first national championship. I spent those years 110 percent focused on my racing career, and burned up a few more years trying to beat Harley on the dirt tracks.

Then there was the stress of the overall Grand Prix program with Yamaha. It had turned into kind of a monster, really. I had to do more and more, and it seemed at times like I was having to do every bloody thing. Not just racing the bike-that would have been fairly easy-but spending days and weeks testing, trying to keep the Yamaha guys focused and bike development moving forward, making more PR appearances for Yamaha and the sponsors. And, of course, this required flying all over the world, especially with the GP calendar getting bigger and bigger. As if all that wasn't enough, I had also taken it on myself to improve the whole racing scene in Europe, to fight with the FIM to make Grand Prix racing more professional and safe, and to treat the riders the way they ought to be treated. To get the FIM to take us seriously I had to create a whole new international racing series-the World Series I discussed a few episodes back. And it didn't end there. I pushed for a riders' union, which would later develop into IRTA-the International Racing Team Association. The overall program just took up all my time, so much so that I didn't have time to deal with things like arm pump.

But the biggest reason for my retirement was my three kids. As anyone who has them can tell you, kids grow up fast. By then, Kurtis was 4 years old, Krissy was 7 and Kenny Jr. was 11. I hadn't been absent from their lives, and they hadn't been absent from mine during my racing career. Even so, the GP paddock isn't the place to raise a family. The domestic scene had suffered quite a bit, and my wife Patty decided she'd had enough. I'm not sure what I could have done differently. Racing motorcycles was what I knew. It was my job. But the job had gotten out of hand and consumed my life such that I couldn't have a normal family life.

I decided it was time to take care of my kids, and that meant spending more time with them, which meant being in the States more and flying around the world less. I arranged for joint custody and developed a real routine. I bought a ranch near Hickman, California, so I could be close to where they lived with their mother. On Wednesdays I'd pick them up after school, on Thursdays and Fridays I'd shuttle them to school and back, then spend the weekend with them, and on Monday morning I'd drop them back off at school. I found I could lead a normal life after all, and I'm sure I became closer to my children, which is what parents are supposed to do. I did miss my friends from the GP circuit, but I'm back in that life these days (and have been for many years). So maybe you could say I never left it. Neither did the kids, really; Kurtis and Kenny Jr. have competed in the GPs as riders for Team KR. I'm thrilled Kenny Jr. is with me this year riding the new Honda-engined KR211V, and I think he may be thrilled, too ... which I'm afraid may not have been the case for Kurtis.

That's a father-and-son story for a future chronicle.