The great champion and maker of champions, as captured by Geoff Nickless

Kenny Roberts is a legend in American motorcycle racing. Born in Modesto, California in 1951, Kenny took to racing at a young age, quitting high school to compete in dirt track and going pro by the time he was 18. In 1978 Roberts became the first American to win a Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing world championship, now known as MotoGP. A two-time winner of the AMA Grand National Championship here stateside, Roberts is only one of four motorcycle racers in AMA history to take the coveted AMA Grand Slam, with wins in the mile, half-mile, short-track, TT Steeplechase and road racing.

Combining dirt track sliding style with aggressive track riding, Roberts forever changed the way GP motorcycles were ridden. “King Kenny” would move on to a successful career owning and managing race teams after stepping away from competition himself, coaching such greats as Randy Mamola, MotoAmerica’s Wayne Rainey, and even his own son Kenny Jr. Motorcycle racing is what it is today, due in no small part to the life and work of Kenny Roberts.

Geoff Nickless was there for most of Kenny’s years in competition, capturing the legend as he raced into the history books. In light of Kenny’s recent 70th birthday (December 31) we asked Geoff to search through his archives and find us his faves of Kenny both on track and in the paddock, and we’re quite pleased with what Geoff has shared with us. From the never-before-seen shot he snapped of Kenny in our first feature of his photos, to these gems from Geoff’s vast library, we are given a glimpse into Roberts’ racing years between 1975 and 1984.

So here is Kenny Leroy Roberts, through the lens of and as described by Geoff Nickless.

May 18, 1975, San Jose Mile. 2x Grand National Champion, Kenny Roberts in Turn 2. Kenny was so smooth and stylish on the dirt tracks. A young lady watches Kenny as he power slides his bored-out (750cc) Yamaha SX650 dirt tracker through the turn. I climbed a tree to get over the fence, to photograph from a better angle and a clearer view. At the San Jose Mile, you could watch from the grandstands or from the outside of the turns.

August 3, 1975, Laguna Seca. 23 year old 2x AMA Grand National Champion (1973 & 1974) Kenny is resting between race classes in the Yamaha Factory pits with his #1 and teammate Don Castro’s #11 Yamaha TZ 250’s behind him. In the ‘70’s, riders rode numerous classes. The Factory 250’s still had twin rear shocks, a single disc front brake and a drum rear brake.

July 17, 1977, Sears Point. #2 Kenny Roberts is exiting Turn 4 on his way to victory, after starting from the outside of the last row. Kenny broke his chain adjuster on the start of his heat race. Kenny caught and passed the leader Skip Aksland on the 4th lap of the 2.523-mile course. At the end of the 30 lap, 75 mile race, Kenny had lapped the field up to 7th place.

September 23, 1977, San Jose Mile. #1 Jay Springsteen (HD) rides the high line while #2 Kenny Roberts (YAM) runs the middle line. Kenny was on his own designed OW72 Monoshock chassis with a Shell Thuet built Yamaha XS-650 engine (bored to 750) dirt tracker. Kenny was running in 2nd place when his rear shock started to overheat and fade, affecting the handling and he slipped to 11th place at the finish.

September 10, 1978, Laguna Seca. After riding his YZR500 (OW35K) all season in the GPs, Kenny, Kel Carruthers, Nobby Clark (R.I.P. December 17, 2017) and Kenny Clarke have a meeting to sort out some handling issues with Kenny’s YZR750 (OW31). This was a Formula 750 World Championship race. Bud Aksland (Skip’s older brother) works on Skip Aksland’s bike in the background. Steve Baker is talking to Kenny’s father, Buster Roberts.

July 15, 1979, Sears Point. Gene Romero (R.I.P. 5-12-2019) leads Kenny Roberts and Skip Aksland through Turn 3A, at the Third Annual Sonoma Motorcycle Classic. Sears Point Raceway hosted the AMA National Road Race that Kenny and his tuner Kel Carruthers participated in during the GP summer break. Gene and Skip are riding their Yamaha YZR750s (OW31), while Kenny is on his Yamaha factory YZR500 (OW45).

August 5, 1979, Laguna Seca. Current 500cc World Champion “KING” Kenny Roberts chases former teammate and good friend Gene “Burrito” Romero (AMA H.o.F. 1998) down Laguna Seca’s “Corkscrew” Turn 6A, in 1979. Gene is riding his Don Vesco tuned Yamaha YZR750 (OW31) while Kenny is riding his Kel Carruthers tuned Yamaha Factory YZR750 (OW31) in Round 7 of the Formula 750 World Championship race series.

August 3, 1980, Laguna Seca. Kenny is all smiles when he returns to his pit after qualifying on pole and is greeted by team manger Kenny Clarke. Kel Carruthers is checking his data on his clipboard and appears to feel there is more to be had from Kenny and his YZR500 (OW48).

March 13, 1983, Daytona 200. “King” Kenny Roberts (3x 500cc World Champion 1978, 1979 & 1980) (2x AMA Grand National Champion 1973 & 1974) (AMA H.o.F. 1998) exiting Turn 3 during the 1983 Daytona 200. I shot this photo of Kenny with a relatively slow 1/125 second shutter speed with Ilford FP-4 ASA 125 film, while he was on the 1600′ straight after Turn 3, the “International Horseshoe.” Kenny won the race over his Yamaha Teammate Eddie Lawson (4x 500cc World Champion) as they rode their Yamaha YZR680’s (OW69) to a 1-2 finish. Kenny had to pit early in the race, thinking that he had blistered his rear tire. It was later determined that he must have hit some oil in the high banked turns, making his rear tire lose traction. I flew from California to Florida in hopes of seeing Kenny win the 1983 Daytona 200. It was such a sinking feeling when he didn’t come around in those early laps. Then he was back on track, but at the back of the pack. It was so exciting to see him come through the field for the win. Yamaha created the 305 lb, 175 HP, Square Four YZR680 specifically for the Daytona 200 that proved to be very successful, as Kenny won again 1984.

March 13, 1983, Daytona 200. Kenny, Eddie Lawson and the Yamaha Team celebrate in the winners circle at the 1983 Daytona 200. The Yamaha YZR680 (OW69) ran away and outlived the other anticipated contenders. Steve Wise finished 3rd on his Honda FWS1000 V-4 4 stroke. Of those that I can identify, from left to right, Bud Aksland (behind Kel’s hat), Kel Carruthers, Giacomo Agostini, Kenny Clarke, Eddie Lawson (2nd place), Nobby Clark and Kenny’s father, Buster Roberts.

July 22, 1984, Laguna Seca. “One more win for Kel and the King.” I took this photo of “King” Kenny Roberts on his Kel Carruthers tuned Yamaha YZR500 (OW76) exiting Turn 9 at Laguna Seca in 1984. This was Kenny’s last major win of his career. Kenny retired from Grand Prix competition in 1983 but competed in the AMA Champion Spark Plug 200 National Road Race for his fans.

Thank you Geoff and Barb Nickless for sharing these fantastic snapshots of an American racing icon, during an amazing period in American motorcycle racing. Kenny will always be “King”.

For more of Geoff’s photos across the decades, find them here:

Instagram: @nicklessphotos

Website: www.nicklessphotos.com

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