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When the new world champion arrived in Europe this year, he was again greeted with skepticism, but for an entirely different reason. In February, while testing in Japan, Roberts had crashed at high speed.
"I was doing everything right, I wasn't going too fast," he says. "I leaned the motorcycle over, I leaned it over some more, and I just lost it. The front tire went and I was down. At 120 miles an hour you can't say what happened. You can say it was rider error, you can say it was a worn tire, you can say the track was slippery. All I know is I was down."
Roberts slid into a guardrail tail first and compressed two vertebrae, fractured his left ankle and ruptured his spleen. He spent three weeks in a Japanese hospital and another in an American hospital, all the time in an upper-body cast. It was the first time he had ever broken a bone in his eight-year career, a truly remarkable record and a testament to Roberts' racing judgment.
After Roberts was discharged and cut out of the cast, he hobbled around his house in Modesto, Calif. in agony, strapped in a cumbersome back brace. He was there when Sheene won the first Grand Prix of the 1979 season in Venezuela on March 18, which was every bit as painful to Roberts as his back. Roberts arranged a test session at a California track several days after his brace came off. He was apprehensive as he gingerly mounted the Yamaha, but after 17 laps he pronounced himself fit and packed his motor home for Europe.
His first race was the Austrian Grand Prix on April 29. Wearing a foam back support under his racing leathers, Roberts led from start to finish. Three more Grand Prix victories followed. In each race he wore the back support, as he would at Silverstone.
"Breaking my back was something for me to overcome, to make me go on, to make me better than I was," he says. "Before the race in Austria, they asked me if I was going to go as hard, and I said 'No, I'm going to go harder.' "
Roberts grew up in Modesto, among cowboys and farm workers. He was more or less rowdy, rowdiness being more or less a way of life among cowboys and farm workers. He is not the same man today, a world champion at 27, as he was as an American champion at 21—at the time, the youngest ever. But even then he had enough self-discipline to keep his talent intact. The early '70s were ripe years in American motorcycle racing; Roberts was only one of a handful of young riders with dazzling natural ability. But the others lacked his good sense, and the excitement of life in the fast groove led to trouble. Some took drugs, most found ways to burn themselves out. One—he had such talent—blew his brains out.
Roberts' European forays have further matured him—a great deal in the last year. The challenge has stimulated him to exercise his intelligence, which is keen. One reason he is so much better than other racers is that he thinks so much about his racing. Often he can be seen amid some mild commotion, oblivious to it, sitting as if in a trance, thinking about gear ratios or shock absorbers or tire compounds. Sometimes he retreats to his motor home and laps a circuit in his head, drawing curvy lines on his thigh with a finger, moving his lips as he memorizes his braking and shifting points like an actor going over his lines. Most of all he thinks about where the limit is—how far he can lean his Yamaha before he flops at 150 mph.
As if life on the ragged edge of tire adhesion, a damaged back and the pressures of defending a world title weren't enough, Roberts and his wife have separated, and in July he was put on probation by the sanctioning organization of Grand Prix racing for refusing to race on a track he felt was unsafe. "I don't even want to think about any of it anymore," he said one day in his sanctuary, the motor home. "Right now the probation is the farthest thing from my mind; my divorce is the farthest thing from my mind. I have to force myself to stop worrying about them. After the season I'm going to take a vacation, go to Hawaii or something, just bum around and stay in fancy motels and go out to dinner every night. I've never done anything like that in my life."
What he did Sunday, though, he has often done—thrilled a crowd. Silverstone is the kind of fast, smooth circuit on which Roberts shines. After a slow start Roberts was fifth at the end of the first lap. Then came his second scare of the day. He hit a patch of oil marking the spot where a rider had fallen earlier, and his Yamaha went into a slide. Recovering from that close call, he passed Ferrari, who was having engine problems, and moved into third, directly behind Sheene and Wil Hartog, a Dutchman Roberts calls Hotdog. Those three left Ferrari far behind.