"I've never seen anyone pick up road racing as fast as Kenny has," adds Carruthers. "Last year I followed him more than he followed me."
"You can only learn so much in two years," says Roberts candidly. "Kel has taught me a lot about both riding and tuning, and I've learned quicker than I thought I could, but to say I'm the best road racer in the world would be shining everyone. I've done my share of winning, but I lack so much experience compared to some of those guys that it dazzles me. Daytona was my 28th road race; some of those guys have been racing almost that many years."
Roberts is the same low key in his personal life. Last year he was voted the most popular rider by his fellow racers, a recognition that is rarely earned by the top dog in any sport. The recognition didn't come from drinking beer with the boys; at the races Roberts spends his spare time with his 17-year-old wife Pat and their nine-month-old son Kenneth Lee. When the rest of the racers are up to their high-life shenanigans, Roberts is back at his motel room, a hotbed of Pampers and Gerber's. Or he is pushing little Kenny Lee around the pits in his stroller, which is a sight: a little pink chubby baby dressed in tiny racing leathers that match his father's, down to the initials on the front and big No. 1 on the back.
"Kenny is a homebody," says his mother, Alice Roberts, a strong-willed, earthy woman with closely cut gray hair, a woman who liberated herself years before it became fashionable. " General Motors is giving him a fancy motor home to drive around this year, so he can take Pat and Kenny Lee and won't have to be away from them so much. He's excited about that." ("There won't be no phone in it," says Roberts. "If anybody wants me, they'll have to set up a roadblock.")
Alice Roberts likes to tell people that her boy races motorcycles, and she tells a lot of people at the races, where she sells Kenny Roberts T shirts, pictures, posters and jigsaw puzzles.
"We're not doing it so much for the money," she says. "But it's time motorcycle racers were accepted the same way baseball and football players are, and this is one way of doing it."
Yamaha has its own way of doing it. When Agostini signed his contract this year, the company flew him to the U.S. from Italy for a press conference. Roberts also was there: the American National Champion, weaned on dirt tracks like Sacramento and Sedalia but matured on road courses like Daytona and Talladega, right up there with the perennial World Champion, whose victories had come on famous circuits from Monza to N�rburgring. The next time they were together for the press was in Victory Circle at Daytona.
Well, there was one thing. Agostini was late for that meeting. After the race he was so exhausted that his army had to lift him off his motorcycle. It was 20 minutes before he had the energy to make it to Victory Circle. By then most of the press had given up.
But no matter. Roberts was there to answer questions. Yes, he felt he could have beaten Agostini if his exhaust pipes hadn't cracked. No, he wasn't tired—the only problem was he couldn't hear too well because his ears were still ringing. Yes, he was heading off to race in Europe and would be back when the AMA Grand National Championship circuit resumed its weekly events May 19. No, he had never seen a foreign track, but he reckoned he could handle them, all right.
He could, indeed. In the weeks since, Roberts has come along to rival Agostini as the darling of the continent, placing second at Imola and wheeling his 750-cc Yamaha to the individual championship in England's Trans-Atlantic Trophy meet—best mark ever scored by an American. No matter what the country, like the man said, Roberts rides eleven-tenths all the time.