Two minutes before the start of motor-cycling's British Grand Prix on Sunday at venerable Silverstone raceway, world champion Kenny Roberts' heart was in his throat. His 500-cc. Yamaha was at the back of the starting grid, at the edge of the track, its left side covered with oil. Roberts was on his knees beside it, desperately wiping oil off his rear tire that had sprayed there when a clutch seal popped on a warmup lap.
With only one other race remaining in the world-championship series, Roberts had but a seven-point lead over Suzuki rider Virginio Ferrari of Italy, his sole remaining challenger for the '79 title. When he won last year Roberts was the first American and first rookie ever to do so. Now he saw a second championship slipping away.
"Where's the clip?" Roberts shouted frantically to his mechanics. "Where's the clip?!"
His voice was easily heard because the crowd was silent, its hush serving to heighten the tension. The start of a European road race is eerie anyway. The riders stand poised next to their bikes, their engines dead. The starter drops the flag, and that swish is the first sound of the race. The riders' footfalls are heard next as they push their bikes to get them fired up in what is known as a run-and-bump start.
August 19, 1979
Still on his hands and knees as the other 41 riders tensed, Roberts thought, "They're going to start without me!"
"O.K.! Enough!" he shouted to his crew as they finished replacing the seal. He pushed his bike to the front of the field—he had set a qualifying record—and once in position he barely had time to exhale in relief before the flag dropped.
Twenty-eight laps later, after the most exciting Grand Prix of the season, Roberts was the winner by the margin of a wheel over Englishman Barry Sheene. With only the French GP at LeMans on Sept. 2 remaining, Roberts had all but clinched the championship; he needed only a single point in France.
Kenny Roberts, 5'6" and 133 pounds, handsome and square-jawed, has nerve beyond comprehension to most men. He also has a sense of balance so precise as to be phenomenal and an instinct for high-speed cornering uncommon even among motorcycle road racers. To many observers he is the greatest motorcycle racer ever.
Roberts went to Europe to race because there were no more challenges for him in the U.S., where he was in a class by himself. He arrived at the first European Grand Prix last season in a motor home, its cupboards stocked with peanut butter and jelly from home, its closet crammed with blue jeans and cowboy boots. With him were his pregnant wife, a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Continental riders were disdainful. To be sure, this was not the mile oval at the San Jose Fairgrounds. This was road racing on circuits that take years to learn, circuits Roberts had never even seen before. Why, the American didn't even have a full factory contract. (He had approached Yamaha for one and had been rejected.) Dreamer, the Europeans said knowingly.
Inexperienced though he was in the ways of road racing, Roberts won three of the first five Grand Prix events. And with help from his mentor/mechanic, Kel Carruthers of Australia, a former 250-cc. champion, he went on to win the world championship in the final race of the season, on Germany's infamous Nürburgring circuit, the most difficult in the world. Roberts even made believers of the Japanese; Yamaha signed him to a fat contract for the 1979 season.
When the new world champion arrived in Europe this year, he was again greeted with skepticism, but for an entirely different reason. In February, while testing in Japan, Roberts had crashed at high speed.
"I was doing everything right, I wasn't going too fast," he says. "I leaned the motorcycle over, I leaned it over some more, and I just lost it. The front tire went and I was down. At 120 miles an hour you can't say what happened. You can say it was rider error, you can say it was a worn tire, you can say the track was slippery. All I know is I was down."
Roberts slid into a guardrail tail first and compressed two vertebrae, fractured his left ankle and ruptured his spleen. He spent three weeks in a Japanese hospital and another in an American hospital, all the time in an upper-body cast. It was the first time he had ever broken a bone in his eight-year career, a truly remarkable record and a testament to Roberts' racing judgment.
After Roberts was discharged and cut out of the cast, he hobbled around his house in Modesto, Calif. in agony, strapped in a cumbersome back brace. He was there when Sheene won the first Grand Prix of the 1979 season in Venezuela on March 18, which was every bit as painful to Roberts as his back. Roberts arranged a test session at a California track several days after his brace came off. He was apprehensive as he gingerly mounted the Yamaha, but after 17 laps he pronounced himself fit and packed his motor home for Europe.
His first race was the Austrian Grand Prix on April 29. Wearing a foam back support under his racing leathers, Roberts led from start to finish. Three more Grand Prix victories followed. In each race he wore the back support, as he would at Silverstone.
"Breaking my back was something for me to overcome, to make me go on, to make me better than I was," he says. "Before the race in Austria, they asked me if I was going to go as hard, and I said 'No, I'm going to go harder.' "
Roberts grew up in Modesto, among cowboys and farm workers. He was more or less rowdy, rowdiness being more or less a way of life among cowboys and farm workers. He is not the same man today, a world champion at 27, as he was as an American champion at 21—at the time, the youngest ever. But even then he had enough self-discipline to keep his talent intact. The early '70s were ripe years in American motorcycle racing; Roberts was only one of a handful of young riders with dazzling natural ability. But the others lacked his good sense, and the excitement of life in the fast groove led to trouble. Some took drugs, most found ways to burn themselves out. One—he had such talent—blew his brains out.
Roberts' European forays have further matured him—a great deal in the last year. The challenge has stimulated him to exercise his intelligence, which is keen. One reason he is so much better than other racers is that he thinks so much about his racing. Often he can be seen amid some mild commotion, oblivious to it, sitting as if in a trance, thinking about gear ratios or shock absorbers or tire compounds. Sometimes he retreats to his motor home and laps a circuit in his head, drawing curvy lines on his thigh with a finger, moving his lips as he memorizes his braking and shifting points like an actor going over his lines. Most of all he thinks about where the limit is—how far he can lean his Yamaha before he flops at 150 mph.
As if life on the ragged edge of tire adhesion, a damaged back and the pressures of defending a world title weren't enough, Roberts and his wife have separated, and in July he was put on probation by the sanctioning organization of Grand Prix racing for refusing to race on a track he felt was unsafe. "I don't even want to think about any of it anymore," he said one day in his sanctuary, the motor home. "Right now the probation is the farthest thing from my mind; my divorce is the farthest thing from my mind. I have to force myself to stop worrying about them. After the season I'm going to take a vacation, go to Hawaii or something, just bum around and stay in fancy motels and go out to dinner every night. I've never done anything like that in my life."
What he did Sunday, though, he has often done—thrilled a crowd. Silverstone is the kind of fast, smooth circuit on which Roberts shines. After a slow start Roberts was fifth at the end of the first lap. Then came his second scare of the day. He hit a patch of oil marking the spot where a rider had fallen earlier, and his Yamaha went into a slide. Recovering from that close call, he passed Ferrari, who was having engine problems, and moved into third, directly behind Sheene and Wil Hartog, a Dutchman Roberts calls Hotdog. Those three left Ferrari far behind.
Roberts briefly took the lead on the fourth lap, passing both Sheene and Hartog. Satisfied that he could get by them, he backed off and stayed close. "I wanted at least one of them to go by," said Roberts later. "You wear your mind out leading in a close race." His only problem was the oil left on his gloves from the pre-race trouble. It caused the throttle to slip in his hand.
As Roberts and Sheene pulled away from Hartog, it became a two-man race. On the back straight at 150 mph they could be seen motioning at each other with their free hands. Once they brushed fairings in a turn.
Roberts led at the start of the last lap and glanced over his shoulder at Sheene, who was ready to strike. The Briton wanted desperately to win before his home fans, who just as desperately wanted him to win. On the final turn, a 130-mph bend that sweeps toward the grandstand on the front straight, Sheene made a valiant move on the outside, coming within an inch of the edge of the track and also within a wheel—.03 seconds—of catching Roberts. "It might as well have been three laps," said Sheene, who has twice held the world championship.
"Last year I just wanted to show them all in Europe, make them say, 'Hey, these Americans are just as good as anybody else,' " Roberts has said. "I knew I could beat them"—Roberts held his hand over his heart—"but if I was the only one I had to prove it to, I could have just said I'm the best and stayed home. That's not my style. My style is to try as hard as I can, just to hear them say I did it.
"Well, I did that, but then I had the crash and they were saying, 'He'll never come back this year.' " Now he is just one point away from making them believers for the second year in a row.