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You can always spot a motorcycle racer in a restaurant. He's the one gripping his fork with the first two fingers of his left hand
Last year about this time a pioneer gang of six American motorcycle racers invaded Italy to run in the Imola, Europe's richest road race. They were all extremely tough gentlemen: one finished fifth, one 12th and four either crashed or blew their engines. The Europeans, who invented the sport, found this particularly touching. One Italian expert put it this way. "Most European racers ride as if they want to live. Italian racers ride as if they don't care whether they live or die. But the American racers—ah. They ride as if maybe they insist on dying."
England's Phil Read, the current world champion in the 500-cc class, sums up U.S. motorcycle racers another way: "In Europe we ride about eight-tenths. If we really have to, we might ride nine-tenths. The crazy ones ride ten-tenths—but not for very long. In America, they seem to ride eleven-tenths all the time."
So much for overseas appraisals of the meanest, most daring group of sporting figures this country has produced so far. Ask a U.S. motorcycle racer if he is hanging in there at eleven-tenths of his potential effort and he'll spit in your eye. This country's present Mr. All-Out is even tougher than that: often at the end of a race he pulls into the pits with muscles so tight that he is almost frozen into his crouched racing stance over the handlebars. He holds the pose until two strong crewmen come along, pry him loose and lift him off his machine.
Kenny Roberts is 22 years old, weighs 135 pounds and is a gristly 5'6". He is the American Motorcycle Association Grand National Champion. Last season, in racing so competitive that the first 10 events were won by 10 different riders, Roberts placed in the top three in more than half the races, scored almost twice as many points as the second-best rider, won on three of the five different types of tracks, led his Yamaha factory team to the manufacturers' championship and became the youngest rider ever to win the national title. Along the way he earned about $150,000. It was the most successful season in AMA history. And this year he has jumped off into the point lead again.
Unlike a specialized European racer, a U.S. competitor must be able to ride everywhere, from the twisty pavement of a Pocono to the dusty clay outback of Peoria. He must be a sort of Jackie Stewart one week and maybe a bit of Richard Petty the next. He must be able to race on everything from a 60-mph short-tracker (a hot-rod trail bike) to a 120-mph dirt-track bike (an engine wrapped in a bare frame) to a 180-mph road racer (a guided missile that is a lot more missile than it is guided).
Most folks expect that anyone who races these things for a living ought to look more like the horse than the jockey. Nobody seems quite prepared for Roberts, whose appearance falls somewhere between a supermarket bag boy and a high school halfback. Roberts comes on with disheveled red hair flopping as if it were at the bottom of his priorities list, which it is; an impish grin that separates a small but bony nose from a square chin; and wrinkled ears. The rest of him is pure muscle, bottomed off with bowed legs, the better to grab a cycle frame with. Only on the starting line of a race does the bag-boy look finally disappear. Then, through the window of his full-coverage helmet, one can only see the eyes. They are intense and steel-gray, and that tells it all.
Roberts in full cry goes faster than anybody, whether it is sliding a short-tracker so hard that it almost backs into the turn, or tossing a dirt bike so far on its side that sparks fly up from the dragging engine cases, or leaning a road racer so low in a corner that his knee nips at the pavement. And he started this year just about like he finished the last.
The AMA season opened in the Houston Astrodome in February with a Tourist Trophy event, backed up by mayhem on the short track. A TT track consists of half a dirt oval leading into three twists and a jump that sends a rider into the air like Evel Knievel without his landing ramp. A short track is simply a quarter-mile dirt oval—a brave man's way around the 440-yard dash.
Roberts qualified third fastest and won his heat race looking over his shoulder at all the guys chasing him. But in the TT main event, he needed the entire race to move up after a spinning start—passing riders on the inside of turns, outside, even in midair over the jump. After 11 miles, with one lap to go, he was in second place, 20 yards behind the leader. His last-lap charge fell one bike length—five feet—short, possibly because he doesn't weigh enough for his tires to get sufficient bite at the dirt. "I needed about 50 more pounds," he growled after the race. "I should have eaten more dinner."