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Two minutes before the start of motor-cycling's British Grand Prix on Sunday at venerable Silverstone raceway, world champion Kenny Roberts' heart was in his throat. His 500-cc. Yamaha was at the back of the starting grid, at the edge of the track, its left side covered with oil. Roberts was on his knees beside it, desperately wiping oil off his rear tire that had sprayed there when a clutch seal popped on a warmup lap.
With only one other race remaining in the world-championship series, Roberts had but a seven-point lead over Suzuki rider Virginio Ferrari of Italy, his sole remaining challenger for the '79 title. When he won last year Roberts was the first American and first rookie ever to do so. Now he saw a second championship slipping away.
"Where's the clip?" Roberts shouted frantically to his mechanics. "Where's the clip?!"
His voice was easily heard because the crowd was silent, its hush serving to heighten the tension. The start of a European road race is eerie anyway. The riders stand poised next to their bikes, their engines dead. The starter drops the flag, and that swish is the first sound of the race. The riders' footfalls are heard next as they push their bikes to get them fired up in what is known as a run-and-bump start.
Still on his hands and knees as the other 41 riders tensed, Roberts thought, "They're going to start without me!"
"O.K.! Enough!" he shouted to his crew as they finished replacing the seal. He pushed his bike to the front of the field—he had set a qualifying record—and once in position he barely had time to exhale in relief before the flag dropped.
Twenty-eight laps later, after the most exciting Grand Prix of the season, Roberts was the winner by the margin of a wheel over Englishman Barry Sheene. With only the French GP at LeMans on Sept. 2 remaining, Roberts had all but clinched the championship; he needed only a single point in France.
Kenny Roberts, 5'6" and 133 pounds, handsome and square-jawed, has nerve beyond comprehension to most men. He also has a sense of balance so precise as to be phenomenal and an instinct for high-speed cornering uncommon even among motorcycle road racers. To many observers he is the greatest motorcycle racer ever.
Roberts went to Europe to race because there were no more challenges for him in the U.S., where he was in a class by himself. He arrived at the first European Grand Prix last season in a motor home, its cupboards stocked with peanut butter and jelly from home, its closet crammed with blue jeans and cowboy boots. With him were his pregnant wife, a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Continental riders were disdainful. To be sure, this was not the mile oval at the San Jose Fairgrounds. This was road racing on circuits that take years to learn, circuits Roberts had never even seen before. Why, the American didn't even have a full factory contract. (He had approached Yamaha for one and had been rejected.) Dreamer, the Europeans said knowingly.
Inexperienced though he was in the ways of road racing, Roberts won three of the first five Grand Prix events. And with help from his mentor/mechanic, Kel Carruthers of Australia, a former 250-cc. champion, he went on to win the world championship in the final race of the season, on Germany's infamous N�rburgring circuit, the most difficult in the world. Roberts even made believers of the Japanese; Yamaha signed him to a fat contract for the 1979 season.