Even though he had all the next day to eat, Roberts didn't find those 50 pounds for the short track; in fact, he lost 100, since short-trackers are much smaller than TT bikes. He qualified 33rd fastest in a 48-man field; one-tenth of a second slower and he would have missed the cut. He was, as they say, perturbed. He started razor-cutting his tires for traction, a motorcycle racing ritual. Every razor slice has a purpose, every groove a meaning, some of them secret. Roberts sliced and grooved all evening. And he made one other key change: he removed the rear brake, the only brake on a short-tracker. "I don't use it anyhow," he said.
When the race started, another slippery start put Roberts dead last into the first turn; by the end of the race he had spun his way to fifth place. But it was the first time in four years that he had lost a short track race in the Astrodome.
A month later Roberts slipped into his Jackie Stewart stance for the Daytona 200-mile road race, which may be the most important motorcycle race in the world. This year 57,000 people came: college students on spring vacation up from Miami and down from Duke; March-skinned Midwesterners towing their motorcycles to Florida to play with them; Northeasterners riding their cycles through the slush and into the sunshine; broad-hipped and thin-lipped Dixie ladies in black stretch slacks and white vinyl boots and sequined shirts, with matching husbands leading the way on their "hawgs"—heavy police-type Harley-Davidsons, with Rebel flags streaming from the saddlebags.
Motorcyclists have been migrating to Daytona every March for 33 years, since the days when hard men in baggy leather pants and knee-high boots first raced their ratty single-cylinder "thumpers" on the beach. Now the racers wear custom-made colored leather suits and ride sleek multicylinder machines at 180 mph around the banking. They grip droopy stubby handlebars and hide from the wind under fiber-glass fairings, their chests and chins pressed against the gas tanks. They keep the first two fingers of their left hand poised over the clutch lever, ready to spring it closed in case the rear wheel locks from a piston seizure. These are the strongest fingers in all sport. Squeezing the clutch lever frees the wheel, but at 180 mph the wheel doesn't have to stop for very long to flip the motorcycle on its side as if it had just run head on into a wall. Motorcycle racers have fingers as nimble as a concert pianist's and tougher than a cliff climber's, and they like to keep them exercised. Which accounts for Roberts being able to spot racers in restaurants.
The malady called piston seizure is the most common form of blown engine in racing motorcycles. This is always dangerous, especially on the high bank at Daytona, and more so with the four-cylinder, fire-breathing, chain-snapping, 750-cc factory Yamaha that Roberts rides.
"At 180, when your front wheel wants to play pogo stick, you don't do nothing," Roberts says. "You don't sneeze, you don't hiccup, you don't even breathe. All you do is point it and hang on."
Hanging on with Roberts at Daytona was dashing Giacomo Agostini, that dimpled darling of the motorbike jet set in Europe, courted and chased by everyone from Federico Fellini (to be a movie star) to Enzo Ferrari (to be a Formula I driver). He brought along Italy's answer to the Arnold Palmer fan club, "Ago's Army," a charter-plane touring troupe of idolizing Italians, including dancing ladies, movie folk, race fans and his personal translator, a leather-beanied bodyguard named Luigi who spoke no more English than Agostini. Agostini (SI, June 19, 1972) has won the world road-racing championship, in one engine class or another, 13 times.
But Agostini had never before raced in the U.S., a situation that invited argument that a world championship—even 13 of them—was really only a European championship. Agostini racing against Roberts at Daytona was supposed to settle that argument, especially since they were official factory teammates riding identical Yamahas. So Agostini was being closely watched all right, but still not as closely as he was accustomed to being watched in Europe. Florida is not exactly Torino; folks there don't know a whole lot about "Yurpeens." If a guy can't stick it sideways around the Atlanta Mile, then he just ain't a real 'sickle racer. Roberts can stick it sideways any day of the week, so the spotlight was on him; between interviews and P.R. appearances he was kept running as fast off the track as on.
"I haven't eaten in two days," he grumbled as he got on his big Yamaha for practice.
"I haven't slept in eight days," he grumbled as he got off his big Yamaha and onto his little 250-cc Yamaha to practice for the lightweight race.