Roberts: "Sheene was precise, fluent – I was aggressive"

‘King’ Kenny Roberts features on this week’s Podcast as we hear about Sheene as a person and competitor, Silverstone ’79, Sweden ’83 & more

Episode 31 of the MotoGP™ Podcast is one you don’t want to miss. Three-time 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts is the feature this week as we get to know the American that changed Grand Prix motorcycle racing, from his first experience on a bike, coming to Europe from dirt track, Barry Sheene as a person and competitor and two famous races: Silverstone ’79 and Sweden ’83.

The MotoGP™ Podcast delves into the archives as Roberts begins by explaining his first encounter with a bike at the age of 12. “I was training horses. I was 12-years-old, and the people that trained the horses got a mini bike for Christmas,” begins the 44-time podium finisher. “One morning they said to try it. “No”, because I’m a horse guy. “You’re chicken.” I said, “No I’m not,” and I rode it, “Okay, I’ll ride it,” and it scared me to death. I almost hit a horse trailer, I didn’t know how the throttle worked, and I went, “I got to do that.”

Next, his great rival: Barry Sheene. “Barry Sheene would show up in his Rolls Royce and I would show up in a motorhome with my wife and two kids, so it was a lot different. And I was considered more a privateer than I was a works rider. And I was actually, a privateer, but racing Barry was great because it gave me the right mix of him being very clever, and witty, and very quick.

“And I was actually, a privateer, but racing Barry was great because it gave me the right mix of him being very clever, and witty, and very quick. I would never want to get into a verbal confrontation because he would kill me. I would just say, “Let’s decide on the racetrack.” That was my fall-back because I was never that quick, never that witty, and he was perfect about it. The thing that got him the most was what he thought about 500 Grand Prix racing wasn’t what I thought. I wasn’t going to look at the racetrack, I wasn’t going to start out slow. As I said, I was going to start out fast and then see where I end up.”

Roberts is, by many, known as the man who changed Grand Prix racing. How? Riding style. His dirt track experience meant he had a different approach to racing than how the European riders, and he explains how this differed in the Podcast.

“From what I saw from the 500 guys at that time is that they were very calculated, very precise. They carried a lot of corner speed, more than I did. And from my dirt track experience, I guess, I went into the corners a little slower but went out of the corners a little faster. It was a little bit more, I think, aggressive, and some ways not as aggressive. So I just brought a new type of, what do you say, approach to what already existed.

“I saw a race in America where Jarno Saarinen came over and raced. And I rode around in practice and I watched him. And I wanted to know—because he was world champion—why he was different, what separated him. And he leaned off the bike and his handlebars were tilted, where the standard Yamaha was 11 degrees. Why, why is he doing this?

“The weight thing, because at that time in America, you just sat straight up on a motorcycle and you leaned it. And I was very uncomfortable. Especially in the low gear corners, with that lean angle because it seemed to me that the front wanted to go. I didn’t have control, I didn’t have feeling that I was in control of the motorcycle. The motorcycle was on neutral and I didn’t control it. It was not a good feeling for me. It was like empty going into a dark space. So I thought about Jarno leaning.

“…And the first race where I’m back, I’m leaning off the bike, I start to hit my knee on the ground. So I came in from practice and I said, “Get me super tape,” which is the grey tape. And Kel says, “Why?” I said, “Because I’m dragging my knees.” “No you’re not.” I said, “Yeah, look, I’m dragging my knees.” “No, you’re not going to put tape on your knees. What do you think you’re doing?” My knee’s hitting the ground and it’s jerking off my foot peg. He’s going, “That’s impossible.” “Get my super tape,” and he’s yelling, “You’re going to kill yourself! Your knee’s going to hit a hay bale, your knee’s going to stay there and you’re going to be gone.” And I said, “You know what, that’s probably possible. Give me the tape.”

If that wasn’t enough to tempt you into listening, then you can hear Roberts’ take on the 1983 Swedish Grand Prix, which saw Roberts lose out to Freddie Spencer by just 0.160 – 34 seconds ahead of anyone else.

Click this link to listen to Episode 31 of the MotoGP™ Podcast!

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