Let’s get this straight, I’m a Barry Sheene boy through and through for the same reasons I’m a James Hunt fan – they were very similar characters after all. But the sight of Kenny Roberts, Sheene’s biggest rival, ascending Goodwood’s famous hill had me instantly enthralled. And the sight of him striding through the crowd with more confidence than any contemporary star in attendance had me intrigued by the man they call ‘King Kenny’.
It was while ‘King’ Kenny made his way up Goodwood’s hill that a father explained to his son who the yellow flash that had flown by on the back wheel of his ‘bike was; “You know how you like Marc Marquez because he’s young and he’s just turned up and surprised everyone, shaken things up a bit? Well Kenny Roberts did just that when I was young”.
He did indeed shake things up on his arrival in Europe in 1978 and the wheelies up the hill showed that the now 61 year-old has lost none of his ability to thrash a motorbike.
The 1970s were halcyon days for Grand Prix motorcycle racing and ‘King’ Kenny played his part in making them so. But Barry Sheene described Roberts as ‘no threat’ following the American’s announcement that he would compete in the 1978 500cc world championship, the premier class in which Sheene had taken the previous two titles.
But like Marc Marquez today, Roberts arrived with fearless determination and an alien riding style that would see him transcend the sport much sooner than Sheene had anticipated.
In his first season against the likes of Sheene, Pat Hennen and Will Hartog, Kenny Roberts claimed the 500cc title and became the first American World Champion. Roberts holds himself confidently – some say arrogantly – courtesy of two more titles in ’79 and ’80 and he struck an impressive and commanding figure on both stage and hill climb at Goodwood.
Kenny attracted quite a crowd wherever he went at the Festival of Speed and it’s a testament to just how impressive he was, after all, this is Barry Sheene country and the die-hard fans still haven’t forgotten the now legendary 1979 British Grand Prix.
The race itself is often claimed to be one of the very best in Grand Prix motorcycle racing’s history and would see ‘King Kenny’ beat home-town hero Sheene by just three-hundredths of a second after a thrilling, race long battle.
The start saw Dutchman Will Hartog fly into the lead with Sheene hurtling towards turn one on the rear wheel of his Suzuki. Roberts, on the distinctive yellow Yamaha, started with a mind full of worry following a last minute oil leak – his gloves were covered in oil and would slip from the throttle several times throughout the race.
Hartog would drop back steadily before making a late race charge while Sheene and Roberts stuck to eachother like glue, so much so that the duel prompted a certain communication from Sheene, a two-finger salute in the direction of Roberts. ‘King Kenny’s response was to up the pace, win the race by the narrowest of margins and deny Sheene his first British GP win.
Despite breaking the hearts of thousands of British fans that day at Silverstone, ‘King’ Kenny remains an intriguing figure and an important character from motorcycle racing’s history. It was a pleasure to see him and his famous ‘bikes at Goodwood.