Legendary racer says the flat track event was his favorite memory of time with Yamaha.
If you're an international legend like motorcycle racer Kenny Roberts Sr., you’re going to have a lot of big wins and other thrills. Roberts had plenty of those, but his favorite memory from his years of racing Yamahas isn’t a high-profile, champagne-soaked GP podium. This video has Roberts telling the story of his epic win at the 1975 Indy Mile flat track race, far away from Europe’s glamor.
In 1975, Roberts was racing in the AMA Grand National Championship series. To win the Grand National, you had to prove yourself on mile, half-mile, and short-track flat track races, as well as TT steeplechase races and roadracing events. When Roberts broke into the scene, Yamaha raced the XS650 parallel twin in the flat track events, and the TZ750 two-stroke GP bike at roadracing tracks. The XS was a slug, but clever tuning and Roberts’ gritty riding earned him his first Grand National title in 1973. He took the championship again in 1974.
Despite Roberts’ success on the Yamaha, Harley-Davidson dominated flat track racing with its XR750. Yamaha wanted to thrash its rivals soundly with a more powerful bike. There was only so much you could do with the XS650 platform, and H-D kept improving the XR and pulling away from the competition. The answer? Yamaha stuffed the powerful engine from the TZ750 into a flat-tracker chassis, and sent Roberts and a few other riders out to challenge the Indy Mile.
It looked like a potential disaster, at first. The bike was very difficult to ride, even for an ace like Roberts. He struggled through qualifying, and started the race in last place. Then, things started to fall into place. Rider by rider, Roberts picked off the competition, and with some canny riding, grabbed first place in the last stretch of the last lap. It’s one of the most historic flat track wins of all time. It showed a stadium full of race fans that Roberts had the skill, and heart, of a champion—he couldn’t have tamed the scary-fast Yamaha otherwise.
Somewhat unfairly, flat track racing has a wee bit of a hillbilly image these days, like NASCAR but without the money. Think about it, though: Kenny Roberts Sr. was a three-time world champion in the two-stroke 500cc class, the pinnacle of late-70s motorcycle GP racing, and the first American rider to ever claim the title. If he still has that much respect for a dusty, dirty event like the Indy Mile, maybe it’s time the rest of the motorcycle world gave flat tracking a bit more credit, and attention.