It’s All Kenny Roberts’ Fault

For a quarter-century, dirt track was training ground for top-level Grand Prix racing.

Kenny Roberts Harley-Davidson XR750 race action shot

Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman? Little kids ask questions like that. And race fans do, too, but with restrictive contracts that have virtually eliminated most inter-championship battles of modern motor-racing superheroes, it is all just theoretical.

But on Saturday, January 11, at the Palau Sant Jordi Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Spain, the ultimate fantasy matchup will take place when a couple of 20 year olds, each the best in his game, will meet up in a short-track extravaganza on the 220-yard indoor oval. Marc Márquez, winner in his rookie season of the MotoGP World Championship and AMA Grand National Champion Brad "the Bullet" Baker will face each other on 450s, Márquez on a Honda and Baker on a KTM.

Like a lot of things in Spanish racing, this is ultimately all Kenny Roberts’ doing, even though he has nothing to do with this event.

Rewind to 1978 when Roberts first came to Europe, the year he won the first of his three consecutive 500cc world titles. Spanish fans, after a decade of success in 50 and 125cc, largely by Ángel Nieto, were yearning to see one of their own winning in the big class. Spain and the United States had one thing in common at the start of the ’78 season: Neither country had ever won a 500cc GP title. The US now has 15 premier-class crowns, but only two in the last 10 years, while Spain has four and Spanish riders have won in MotoGP in three of the last four years.

Right now, Spain is the world’s only roadracing “Superpower.” It doesn´t matter who is second, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, or the US, because Spain has reached a level of dominance over all three classes that no nation has ever achieved. In 2013, there were 52 individual Grand Prix races held over three classes and Spanish riders won 47 of them—more than 90 percent. In MotoGP, the Spaniards won 17 of 18 races (Jorge Lorenzo, runner-up to Márquez, won eight times to lead all winners in all classes). In Moto2, Pol Espargaró won the title and Spanish riders took 13 of 17, while in Moto3, the class where future talent emerges, Maverick Viñales (his dad named him after the Tom Cruise character in “Top Gun”) took the title, and the top four riders in points, all Spanish, won 17 of 17.

My colleagues in the Spanish press speak of the beginning of “the 1000-year dynasty.” Dorna’s CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, both praised and blamed for this outburst of talent, is well aware of the Spanish phrase “morir de éxito” (to die of success). Ezpeleta has worked more than anyone anywhere to discover non-Spanish talent. Two-time MotoGP World Champion Casey Stoner is a prime example. While Dorna and Ezpeleta continue to help develop European riders via the Spanish Roadracing Championship, the CEV (something like 80 percent of current Grand Prix riders spent at least one season in the CEV), Dorna has now launched an extensive search for Asian GP riders, dispatching Alberto Puig, the 500cc GP winner who has worked closely with Dani Pedrosa for the last decade, to oversee the Asia Talent Cup Moto3 promotional series.

Márquez, Pol and Aleix Espargaró, Viñales, Tito Rabat, plus foreign riders like Stefan Bradl and Scott Redding (first and second in the 125cc class of the CEV in 2007), and many others developed their talent in Spain with Spanish sponsors and on demanding and very safe Spanish tracks.

Yet Márquez, certainly a product of “the Spanish system,” grew up riding dirt bikes whenever he could. Like most Spanish racers, he started in motocross, but what he preferred was dirt track, a discipline that was introduced in Spain by Roberts who, for several years, until he had a falling out with the land owners, ran the Kenny Roberts Training Ranch just outside the high walls of the Circuit of Catalunya, near Barcelona.

Kenny Roberts dirt tracking action shot

The impact of Roberts’ training methods on Spanish roadracing was almost immediate. Sete Gibernau, grandson of the legendary Francisco Bultó, founder of the now-defunct Bultaco, attributes much of his success to throttle control skills acquired at “The Ranch.” Gibernau won nine premier-class GP races, finishing twice as runner-up to Valentino Rossi.

Spain’s first 500cc race winner and first (and only) 500cc world champion, Alex Crivillé, turned to Roberts to improve his riding by riding at “The Ranch.”

"Riding the Rotax singles at the Roberts school helped me stay calm and comfortable when the bike was sliding and helped me get the Honda NSR500 turned earlier and the power down earlier," Crivillé said in a 1999 interview. "I was racing Mick Doohan on the same bikes, and riding dirt track helped me get on his level in spite of coming from a 125cc and 250 background." He won the title that year, his eighth season in the 500cc class, 11 years after winning the 125cc world title.

Slowly, however, as traction control became more intrusive, dirt-track training fell into disfavor. The “American dynasty,” from 1978 until the end of the century, was explained as a consequence of the explosive power the two-stroke 500s. Ex-dirt trackers, both American and Australian, had a skill advantage. With big-bore four-strokes and electronic aids, the style for riding a MotoGP changed and became more like a classic 250cc style with wheels in line on corner exit.

Nicky Hayden, America's last MotoGP Champion and now riding a Honda "production racer" for the Aspar MotoGP team, like his former Ducati team mate Casey Stoner, missed out on the opportunity of riding 500s, bikes that were better suited to riders with dirt-track backgrounds. Stoner says he was "born too late" and that one of the reasons he retired early was the unchecked advance of electronic aids.

Ezpeleta intends in 2017 to limit all MotoGP machines not just to a generic ECU but also to standard and very limited software to reduce costs and neutralize electronics. Honda's race boss, Shuhei Nakamoto, with apparent support from Yamaha, says that such a move would remove the principal motivation that makes Grand Prix racing relevant for factories.

While 2017 is a long time from now and there will be many meetings and compromises along the way, if Ezpeleta does manage to impose in MotoGP the kind of electronic limits that were, after one false start and strong opposition from teams, eventually established in Formula 1, the classic dirt-track skills will regain relevance. This could benefit those American riders who still come from dirt-track backgrounds, like former MotoGP Red Bull Rookies Champion JD Beach, a prime example of a “throwback” roadracer who is a top-level AMA dirt tracker.

Pat Hennen was the first American to win a Grand Prix and Steve Baker the first to win an FIM roadracing title (1977 Formula 750), although that honor could have gone to Gary Nixon in 1976 if timing and scoring at the Venezuelan F-750 round in San Carlos had been accurate. But Roberts was the rider who opened the door to a couple of generations of dirt-tracking roadracers.

Before Roberts, GP riders generally moved up through the classes, and 250s were the best preparation for the move to 500s. But after Roberts, classic 250cc style, based on corner speed and smoothness, was no longer the way to ride. Japanese team bosses no longer looked for future 500cc riders in the 250cc class. Winning at Springfield or DuQuoin on a four stroke 750cc twin became a better indication of potential success on a 500 than a 250cc title.

Brilliant 250cc riders like Carlos Lavado, Anton Mang, Christian Sarron, Sito Pons, and others were unable to adapt to 500s. Sarron, who had a single 500cc win, was brilliant as long as his tires were fresh. In 1988, he ran up a string of five-consecutive pole positions on a Yamaha 500 and finished fourth overall behind Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner, and Wayne Rainey. But Roberts, then in his first year as team owner of the Lucky Strike Yamaha team of Rainey and Kevin Magee, said in an interview that year, “That 250 style can get you on the pole, but when the tires are worn, you are f____d.”

Kenny Roberts Grand Prix team owner headshot

The proper 500cc style as practiced and later preached by Roberts, based on rear-wheel steering and sacrificing entry speed to fire the bike out of corners, crossed-up and spinning, was described by the brilliant Spanish engineer, the late Antonio Cobas (designer of the now-ubiquitous twin-spar frame), as “aberrant.”

“The 500cc is, in itself, an aberration of motorcycle design…far too much power for the traction available, and so the rider must be constantly on the verge of crashing on corner exit,” Cobas told me in an interview about Roberts’ style after he has spent a session observing Roberts at the Bugatti left-hander at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama in the late ’70s.

It became a given during the last 23 years of the 500cc class, from 1978 until Valentino Rossi’s first premier-class title in 2001, coinciding with the last year of 500s before the introduction of big-bore MotoGP four-strokes, that the best way to learn to ride a 500 was to race dirt track.

We will never see that again. Traction control is never really going away and, even if it were banned, as in Formula 1, mapping options soften and spread and civilize four-stroke power. When a rider trusts traction control to save him and it, for one reason or another, isn’t there, he will, to use the colorful Spanish description of a high-side crash “fly over the ears like a rag doll.” We saw that in 2011 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca when Jorge Lorenzo forgot, after performing a start following second practice, he had to downshift to activate TC on the Yamaha. We also saw it at Indianapolis last year when Ben Spies forgot that the Ducati must be shifted into second to activate TC, and we saw it most dramatically at Aragon when light contact between Marquez and Pedrosa cut the rear-wheel speed-sensor cable, leaving Pedrosa with 260 unfettered, unfiltered horsepower in his throttle hand. Over the ears like a rag doll.

No amount of dirt-track training would have saved any of those high-siders, but Roberts must feel somewhat vindicated by the enthusiasm for the old-time religion by “born-again” dirt trackers like Rossi and Márquez.

It will be interesting to see how the current generation of Spanish roadracers, who now practice—some with more dedication that others—the “old religion” of King Kenny, match up against “The Bullet.”

Kenny Roberts raced a Harley-Davidson XR750 at the 1985 Springfield Mile.

Tom Riles

Kenny Roberts dirt-tracking at the Spanish school that carried his name.

Gold & Goose

Kenny Roberts, Grand Prix team owner.

Gold & Goose