Monday, January 3, 2011

Best of Backmarker: The day King Kenny shouted, “Off with his head!”

Kenny Roberts launched his own team in 1997, with a lot of vainglorious talk that by borrowing technology, staff, and management techniques from the Formula 1 car-racing world, he'd kick the Japanese OEMs' butts. That never happened. There's no dishonor in that; it turns out that building a competitive MotoGP bike is really, really hard. But what bugged me was that Roberts, who brooked no excuses from his riders, always had an excuse for his team's poor performance, and the things he complained about were things that should have been his responsibility as team principal.

This essay first appeared late in the 2005 MotoGP season. KTM (Roberts' engine sponsor/supplier) had lost confidence in Kenny's team and reneged on its contract. Roberts' team failed to make the grid for several races, and it seemed that Team Roberts had reached its nadir.

Herewith, from September, 2005...
The South Park Grand Prix

The absence of Kenny Roberts’ eponymous race team was duly noted at Motegi last weekend. Rumors swirled around a possible Honda motor deal for next year. What have they got over there, a friggin’ RC211V assembly line? While they’re at it, Big Red should supply Kawasaki’s and Suzuki’s MotoGP teams, too.

That’ll teach Pavel Blata for horning in on Soichiro Honda’s monkey-bike monopoly. But seriously—and this is conjecture based on basic human nature, not any particular insight into Roberts Sr.—I don’t see a happy Roberts-Honda marriage. They both need to wear the daddy pants, and there’s only ever one pair...

A British editor called me up the other day and in the course of our conversation wondered when the American motorcycle magazines would finally lose patience with Kenny Sr. “It’s hard to explain,” I told him, “but criticizing Kenny over here would be like an Irish journalist badmouthing Joey Dunlop, back in his TT days.” No mere scribe wants to be the guy who’s blacklisted by the King, or worse yet, find the Roberts clan waiting by his truck when he staggers out of the Final Keystroke bar at closing time.

But really, the exact wording—or existence—of the KR/KTM contract aside, can anyone blame the Austrians for wanting out?

Don’t get me wrong—Roberts is the most influential motorcycle racer of all time. He played key roles in the development of the knee-down riding style and slick tires; he was the first man to really come to grips with the 500cc two-strokes; he organized a dramatic transfer of influence (and money) from promoters to riders. He was a winner as rider and team manager.

But that wasn’t enough for him. He was determined to rebuild Grand Prix motorcycles in the image of Formula 1 cars. And at that, he has failed. The cliché is, “But Kenny has so few resources compared to Honda.” Fuggedaboudit. My friend Patrick Bodden, who edited KR’s column at Motorcyclist, spent years as an insider with Team Roberts. At least while the Proton money was free-flowing, Bodden always told me that the team assured him dough was never a problem. Yet, even before KTM abandoned KR, Team Roberts had trouble staying ahead of Blata.

No reasonable person would blame Kenny Roberts for some decisions that seem (at least in hindsight) to have been team errors. For example, it wasn’t up to Roberts to program the computer simulations that encouraged them to build a V-3 back in the two-stroke era when everyone else was using V-4s. Or build a V-5 when most of the MotoGP grid was optimized on four cylinders. So the boss can’t be blamed if they turned out to be the wrong choices.

The thing is, the excuses the team has made (“It’s taken much longer to develop our new motor, so we have to start the season with an obsolete one,” or “We’re stuck doing our development during race weekends,” or “We don’t have the right tire supplier,” or “We’ve lost our title sponsor, because it turned out there wasn’t a written contract”) reflect precisely the kind of big-picture strategic errors that are the responsibility of the team principal. No wonder KTM got frustrated. They know that Kenny Roberts—a famously uncompromising hard-ass—would long ago have fired Kenny Roberts.

I don’t want to close this off on that churlish note. Nor do I want to see the Roberts saga end in failure. But it will. It is in the nature of hyper-competitive men to keep pushing until they fail or run out of ideas. Since KR will never run out of ideas, if he succeeds in turning Team Roberts into a MotoGP winner, he’ll just shift gears and try something even harder.

So. Honda power. Bring it on. It will, if nothing else, ensure the bold Team Roberts experiment gets some closure.

MotoGP shouldn’t model itself on Formula 1, nor should AMA Superbikes aspire to NASCAR. Their huge crowds didn’t improve the actual racing—they only brought more money, power, and—inevitably—corruption. A huge crowd enforces a separation between riders and fans, replacing a small tribe of devoted insiders with a huge grandstand filled with mere fans. So if the F-1 model doesn’t work for motorcycles, I’ll be glad.

“Shades of ‘South Park’,” you’re thinking… “He killed Kenny!” Go ahead, blame Canada. But it wasn’t me. Sheer determination dooms a man if it makes it impossible for him to admit—and thus correct—his errors.

Hours after Road Racer X posted this essay, Skip Aksland sent an aggrieved email to the editor asking, “Why does Mark hate Kenny?” and warning that comments like this damaged the team's effort. He suggested I was deliberately trying to scuttle the whole team. The following March, when Roberts held a press conference at Daytona to introduce his Honda-powered MotoGP bike, he saw me walking towards the press center and growled, “You're not welcome.” I was amazed he even recognized me, since we'd only ever had one conversation, years before. I imagined my photo on some shit list in Team Roberts' Banbury HQ.

Ironically, a couple of years later still, I wrote about Roberts' famous TZ700 win at the Indy Mile for a British magazine. I had a ton of information about the development of the machine, and the editor asked me to get some comments from Kenny about it. I explained that there was no real chance he'd cooperate with me, so the editor called him up himself. When my name came up in the conversation, Roberts again spat a little venom my way. The editor was really impressed that Roberts seemed to care what I thought; his disparaging remarks actually raised my stock with the magazine.

I guess I'm lucky that 'King Kenny' is just a nickname, or I might have lost my head.


  1. Classic Gardiner! Excellent prose, my good man. This reader is glad you're back!

  2. Great story Mark. You wrote what a lot of people knew but didn't have the balls to say. Great stuff!