"You never know what the future’s gonna hold. But that’s the point of it all."

Joe Roberts is more than a motorcycle racer. Everyone on the grid is, but if you need a refuel… let our long read about life, pressure, and living in the moment do the trick

Who is Joe Roberts? As for his more than 330 million compatriots, there are a lot of answers to that question. One-time STK600 national US champion, Eddie Lawson’s fresh-faced training partner, Moto2™ rider. Sometime curator of the kind of Instagram content that people born outside Malibu never quite pull off. Grand Prix winner. He’s also an open, honest conversation about what it means to commit yourself to what is both the world’s most exciting sport and one of its toughest.

We caught up with him between Jerez and the next date on the calendar, Le Mans, where he’ll arrive for the first time in his career as a World Championship leader. America hasn’t had one of those in motorcycle Grand Prix racing since November 2006 when the late, great Nicky Hayden took the premier class crown in that firework-fuelled Valencia finale. That makes for a great infographic as Roberts also has 69 points – Hayden’s number – but it’s also the front cover of a story that gets even better the more you read. Much is made of learning to live in the moment but Roberts is a man making it pay.

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The conversation starts at his first Grand Prix podium, taken at Brno in 2020, looking back from the three second places on the bounce that have put him top of the pile in 2024. Knowing it was far from the last, but likewise that the path has also had its fair share of tougher inclines since.

“It was a funny thing, the year started off with so much promise,” he begins. “I don’t need to say it, but 2020 was such a weird year. I had that start, kind of like we’ve been doing this year with the team, building all this momentum and confidence from the test to the first race. Ready to hit the next round and continue that strong form.”

Joe Roberts, American Racing
Joe Roberts, American Racing

The date says it all: that next round then went onto the backburner as the world went into lockdown. MotoGP™ returned at Jerez for two rounds in the blistering heat of Andalucia, putting on the greatest show on Earth with no one allowed in to see it up close, but Roberts has a different memory of it. “I came to those two Jerez rounds so amped and wanting to prove myself, and it totally flopped in my face.” He laughs. “I felt like I’d transported back to the years of not performing. I was like, ‘Ah shit, was Qatar a fluke?’”

Being able to laugh at that now proves the answer to that question: no. His own internal conversation with himself also overrode that doubt. “My mental strength at the time was so strong. I remember in between those races I kept saying to everyone around me, ‘I’m gonna kill it in Brno, I’m gonna fight to win the race.’ Brno for me had always had something special happen. It’s weird, my first year in the Rookies I won from last place in the rain. It was a shortened five-lap rain race and I came through the pack and won, which was insane. I remember in the celebrations I was just doing a million fist pumps round the track, this 13-year-old kid who couldn’t believe himself.”

Joe Roberts, RookiesCup
Joe Roberts, RookiesCup

It was also where he made his first Grand Prix appearance, mid-season, as he was drafted in from the European Championship in 2017. He qualified 29th, it rained, and he came home tenth on his debut.

“So it was a track I went into in 2020 thinking, ‘Ok, I love this place, and I know the bike is gonna go well. I feel something great going here.’ That weekend too – though honestly that race was probably a super boring race to watch – everyone kind of formed into the positions they were gonna finish in because of how the track was. So it was kind of a lonely third, but it was still such a memorable one. My first ever podium in the class. I’d been chasing it for so many years and I think I’ve come from an untraditional route into this Championship. A lot of these kids, the European riders, they’ll do what I did in the Rookies but then they’ll also do the Junior World Championship on the Moto3 machines, then Moto3, and have those years to build up the confidence and momentum. Maybe get a couple of wins in Moto3, know what it’s like to win or get on the podium. I kind of got thrown in the deep end right away.”

A top ten on his debut teases that Roberts might have learned to swim in that deep end pretty quick, but the fairytale didn’t continue on a perfect trajectory. 2018 was a tougher season, his first full year and racing an NTS chassis with RW Racing GP. He scored points twice and ended the year with less to his name than he took in that one wet race at Brno the year prior. 2019 was another fresh start and his first with the American Racing team he’s with now, but it was another year striving for points and only bringing them home at Le Mans and Assen.

However. “If you’ve done something in the past – won a race or had a podium – it’s so much easier to keep doing it. But it’s a weird mental thing, if you have continuous results fighting for just points, it’s like your brain, your mental side, is conditioned to think you can only do that. Once you’ve broken through that, it’s so freeing.”

Joe Roberts, American Racing
Joe Roberts, American Racing

That podium at Brno in 2020, then, was a first barrier broken. From the outside, the same thing seems to also explain what’s different about him in 2024, so we interrupt the chronology to ask. Back with the OnlyFans American Racing Team, returning to their ranks as a Grand Prix winner… after a solid start in Qatar in P7, it’s been three second places in a row now. So is that the secret? Feeling free?

Before the answer, there’s a correction: “Qatar was shit. Don’t sugar coat it.” He laughs before a pause to gather the right context for the self-roast. “It was a weird weekend; an information gathering weekend. The first weekend back with the team, there are so many things that need to be worked out. The fact we’ve been so competitive right away, and where all the guys are all brand new to the team, it’s honestly incredible it’s going as well as it is. Obviously, it’s because everyone’s so good. But the fact we’re working together and it’s working, that’s insane.

“It’s funny,” he leans into the tangent. “There are so many thoughts that go through your head when you’re trying to do this sport, all the time. I think the last few years I’ve been very alone in these thoughts. I haven’t had someone as a guy that – not just John (Hopkins), even my assistant – I mean… the direct year after I left American Racing I literally travelled completely alone the whole year. I got on well with the new team and they’re nice people, but I somehow didn’t feel like part of it. I felt like a rider hired to be on the team, you know? Which is so different to now. And going to John-”

We’d mentioned John Hopkins earlier as something we wanted to talk about, but Roberts is keen to do it now. What he says explains why. Hopkins has his own CV of motorcycle racing success and life experience, and is likewise an open conversation. But the wild child of the then is now a frontman for the now in American Racing and the mission to – pardon the phrase – make America great at racing again. His value to Roberts shines through, immediately and infectiously, and makes us want to call him up right now for our own shot of sunshine.

Joe Roberts, American Racing
Joe Roberts, American Racing

“When I first started working with John in 2020, I came from a year where I didn’t know if I was going to continue racing,” Roberts continues. “I got lucky with the people that were placed with me in 2020, and a great crew chief and great bike. Having John there… I remember first talking to him. When you talk to him, there are no doubts at all. It’s complete positivity. Like even last weekend, I qualified 11th and I was like, ‘Ah shit. What the hell? What was that? 11th? That’s not where we should be.’ And John’s literally just like, ‘Nah that’s alright, you’ll just make up those positions in the race.’”

He did, nine of them.

“I can never sense any bad emotion from him. It’s always positivity and it just eliminates so much doubt within yourself if you have that stable person in your life who believes in you. And he has all the credentials of the past to validate these thoughts too. It’s not just some random guy telling you, ‘You can do it, man’. Everyone can tell you that, but you’re like, ‘Well, what the hell do you know?’ But when John tells you you can do it, you believe him and trust him.

“He was like a hero of mine growing up, and he’s been here and done it. Combined with the similarities as far as riding styles and all these things, it’s just a nice thing. And my older brother travels with me, and lives with me, and it’s always nice to have your older brother there. He knows what you’re thinking before you’re thinking it.”

Racing Director at OnlyFans American Racing, Hopkins and his premier class podium pedigree come included with the team in the best way. But does Roberts’ brother come on invitation, as an intervention, or thanks to a conscious reshuffle?

“He kind of volunteered. I think he saw me struggling, mentally, and volunteered. He’s kind of sacrificing his life to be here with me which is pretty amazing. So there are a lot of conscious things. Also as you get older, you start to mature out on these things, you’re able to let go of past mistakes. My ideal thought of where I thought my career would go? That already went out the window. I’m in uncharted waters.”

Just like that, we’re back onto feeling free, whether from the rut that keeps you toiling for points or the pressure that comes from every kid racer growing up expecting to become Valentino Rossi and discovering they’re not. So is being in uncharted waters as freeing as it sounds?

“Completely freeing. The whole idea of this path that I wrote out for myself comes with so much pressure. I think I’m my own worst enemy in a lot of ways, I put all the pressure on myself. Especially after 2020, making the decision to stay in Moto2 to try and win the Championship.” Roberts is more than rumoured to have turned down a MotoGP™ seat, one that at the time presented more of a conundrum as a career move than the same would now: Aprilia. But he stayed in Moto2™. “You’re making a statement to yourself more than anything, you know? So if it’s not going to plan, it comes with so many hurdles, mentally, and even just in life in general. Everyday life.”

For many it seems a fine line between pressure and belief, and one that more than just motorcycle racers or athletes can struggle with. So, what exactly is the difference between pressure – self-imposed or not – and the belief shining through in 2024?

“The biggest thing is I don’t think about things as results-based,” says Roberts. “I don’t think I need to finish in this position, or I need to win this race. Obviously you say these things like… it would be great, and that’s the goal, but I follow a feeling. It sounds really woo woo but I follow an energy within myself, combined with how I feel in the team, with the people around me, I just find this positivity and great energy within myself and just follow that. Just interact with the bike. Flow with the bike and don’t overthink things. And enjoy it, too. Everyone always says, ‘Have fun!’ but it’s not an easy thing to do sometimes in sports, because it’s so much about results and expectation. The fun can easily be disturbed.”

The mention of gut feeling immediately takes us back to the recent podcast with MotoGP™ Legend Dani Pedrosa, who had a singular and quick response when asked about his biggest regret: not listening to that gut feeling more.

“Yeah. I always had a strong gut feeling my whole life,” continues Roberts, “but I lost it for a few years and I stopped trusting myself. And I think that’s where I lost my way. I had a lot of inconsistency. With a lot of that stuff, you almost stop trusting yourself when things don’t how you thought they’d go. I think the biggest thing now is just not thinking so much about these things all the time. Just really think almost like, how am I gonna be at 40 – it sounds like I’m thinking forward – but if I’m 40 years old looking back when I was 26, racing the World Championship, having the best season of my life, I’m going to be sad that year’s over. So just enjoy every single moment of this year. Each and every day.

Joe Roberts, American Racing
Joe Roberts, American Racing

“I haven’t been able to be in this present moment in my entire life, I don’t think. This is the most I’ve ever been in the present moment. And I think that’s one thing that’s been helping me a lot. You never know what the future’s gonna hold but that’s the point of it all. You have to enjoy these moments. I’m almost sad every time a weekend finishes because I know it’s gone, but I’m excited for the next one.”

That next one is Le Mans, a track he says he likes or even loves, and there’s something obvious missing from his season so far: a Grand Prix win. But he has taken one, in 2022, although it was on the strangest of stages as multiple fellow frontrunners crashed out at once. It was restarted, with some not able to make the grid, but Roberts took off and didn’t look back, pulling nearly three seconds on the rest over the shortened seven-lap distance.  

“The stat is I’m a Grand Prix winner. I don’t need to say it, it was a strange race not having all the guys running up front in the race, but it is what it is. It’s nice to have won it. It kind of restarted my season. I was stringing together a pretty good season, and in Barcelona I was running up front by like four seconds before I crashed out. I was fourth in the Championship at one point. It wasn’t a bad season for me, but I don’t really dwell on those things. I don’t like looking at the past. It’s a nice memory to hear the national anthem and run up front, it’s experience being at the front – a bunch of riders taking off, and then crossing the finish line first. That’s an experience, even if not everyone was in the race.

“It’s something I know will be valuable for me, this year hopefully, running up front and trying to win. It’s all about those things I said before – winning a race, getting on the podium. Once you’ve unlocked that… it was nice to get that off my back. Unlocking the win.”

We said we wouldn’t ask him about expectations for the rest of the season. We wanted to get to know Joe, not create a clickbait headline outdated by one tough Sunday. But he adds it without much prompting and without strutting about it. Much like a nice insight he offers into some American heroes who need no introduction, and their impact on his career.

“I’m family friends with Wayne Rainey and spent a lot of time with his dad when he was still around, he’d take me to flat track races,” Roberts starts. “Eddie Lawson too, and because of Wayne. He set it up. I’d go every Thursday to this track called Milestone, when it was still around, and ride with Eddie Lawson. It’s kind of a funny story, cause Wayne called him and said, ‘Hey, I have this kid I think is talented, he’s really good on a road race bike but he needs help developing it. And he needs to ride more dirt. Can he come out and ride with you?’ And Eddie, he keeps to himself. He’s not really, as you can see, in the limelight and doesn’t come to GP races.

“I think he was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t wanna hang out with some kid. What are you doing, Wayne?’ I think there was maybe some favour or something put in place, but I ended up becoming good friends with Eddie. He’s a nice guy and we used to rip up the motocross track every Thursday for a couple of years. And I went to Kenny Roberts’ ranch when he used to have it. And he taught me how to ride flat track… which was a pretty interesting experience.”

Even solely from listening, it’s clear the smile of introspection has been replaced by a slightly more wicked one.

“Kenny is one of a kind. There’s nobody like him, and his teaching skills are the same way,” prefaces Roberts with a laugh. “I remember him trying to teach me – shit, he did teach me how to do it, in his own way – but I was trying to learn this technique called scrubbing the front. As a road racer you rely a lot on your brakes but in flat track, the originality of it, they didn’t have any brakes. The only way you could slow down was called scrubbing the front. You get the thing pitched in on the rear, push the front in to where it gets the thing to stop – with both wheels sliding at the same time, creating that friction. And it turns the bike. It’s a way to teach point and shoot which is extremely helpful in road racing. But the way Kenny taught me, he just says to me, ‘Hey Joe, at the end of that hairpin, I don’t want you to use the brakes and I want you just to turn into the corner. Just don’t use any brakes.’ And he’s just standing at the side of the track.

“I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ It’s a tight hairpin. How am I gonna stop, coming on this little dirt bike, all these people on the outside? I thought I was literally gonna run them over. And the first time I tried to do it… front went in, went straight back, and I went straight and almost plowed into them. And Kenny’s just like, ‘No. That’s not how you do it, that’s not what I said.’ So I was like, ‘Ok shit, well how do I do it?!’ ‘Just get in there, throw it down and close the front!’

“Finally, I did it a couple more times, landed on my ass, and then made it happen. But it made me a decent flat tracker, those times with Kenny. But sorry, what were you saying about being American?”

The original question, indeed, was something about how it feels to be an American rider on the world stage, alone in the present moment but backed by a legacy. Yet what feels to Roberts like a flat track tangent possibly proves the point more than anything else could have – the legacy is something that’s very much still relevant to the #16 and his career. The idea of adding to it, equally so.

Nicky Hayden, Valencia, 2006
Nicky Hayden, Valencia, 2006

“I’ve been taking inspiration from Nicky this year, from that 2006 season. That year, as far as the whole American thing, it’s awesome. It’s pretty amazing to be the one at the front for America, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing. There are a lot of patriotic people, they really rally behind someone. I remember in the Nicky days, he was such a hero, and we’ve lost that in the last few years since there haven’t been any Americans. The fact America is still as big a fan as they are of the sport is testament to the potential of what it could be. I said it in an interview recently, but America is a sleeping giant that needs to be woken up. The enthusiasm from these fans, the people who show up, the potential is so high.”

If it sounds more like it’s morphing into a script supplied by the Championship than ringing true as Roberts’ own experience, he brings it back quick with a memory that will resonate for more than simply those who were there on any given Sunday.

“If I think about what Nicky did for me, a kid standing at the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, watching him come round the final lap, win the race and come round with the American flag… my whole life just lit up in front of me. What I wanted to do and where I wanted to be, because of that moment. If I can continue this form, and it can inspire a whole lot of young riders coming up, I hope we can have more riders in the future and make this a sport that’s even bigger in the US than it already is. I think it’s important.”

We agree. So here’s to Nicky, 69 points, and living in the moment – something the next generation of racers watching our sport already do before the world seems to unteach it. In the words of America’s newest World Championship leader, “You never know what the future’s gonna hold.” But that’s the point of it all.

Moto2™, and Joe Roberts, return to the track at the Michelin® Grand Prix de France from the 10th to the 12th of May. Max’s B/R Sports Add-On streams every session for every class across all three days of track activity, including the Moto2™ Grand Prix race, in addition to coverage of the premier class on truTV on cable.