Kenny Roberts will always be known for becoming the first American to win the 500cc Grand Prix Championship. The three-time premier class titleholder also has two A.M.A. Grand National Championships to his name. However, legacy isn’t solely determined by accomplishments, it's also shaped by the opponents one faces along the way.
King Kenny dominated the American Flat Track series in the mid-’70s, capturing back-to-back titles in 1973 and 1974. Along with his dirt oval supremacy, Roberts translated his unique style to the road racing circuit, but his foray into international racing was anything but smooth.
In 1974, the then-23-year-old rider competed in the renowned Imola 200. Roberts ultimately finished the race as runner-up to Grand Prix great Giacomo Agostini. However, his first performance endeared him to the European crowds immediately.
The King then took his talents to the 1974 Transatlantic Trophy, a series that pitted the best U.K. riders against the top American racers of the day. The event famously featured the first showdown between Kenny Roberts and Britain’s Barry Sheene. Roberts claimed victory in four of the six races, but the Brits won the war, taking the Transatlantic Trophy with a 416-401 overall score.
Roberts and Sheene didn’t face off again until the American joined the Grand Prix ranks in 1978. Sheene jumped out to an early lead in the championship chase before Roberts strung together three consecutive victories in Austria, France, and Italy. By the tenth round, only three points separated the two championship contenders.
At Sheene’s home race, the British Grand Prix, the two engaged in one of their most contentious battles, with Roberts emerging victorious after a controversial call by race direction. The Yamaha man eventually secured his first Grand Prix title in the season finale at the German Grand Prix, squeaking by the Suzuki rider by just 10 points.
Roberts and Sheene revived their rivalry in 1979. The two battled yet again at Britain’s Silverstone Circuit, but the King seized his second championship by a comfortable margin by season’s end. Of course, Roberts three-peated in 1980, but Sheene couldn’t challenge King Kenny after team woes derailed his season.
Despite the hard racing on-track and the smack talk in the press, Roberts and Sheene enjoyed a personal relationship off the track. It’s good to see King Kenny reminiscing about the good old days, and recognizing the contribution Sheene made to his prestigious legacy.