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GP Week : Issue 206
“I had been to some of the dirt races to see what they did and I always went to Daytona for the motorcycle race [Ed: The Daytona 200]. There was a bunch of tyre dealers; Roger Penske, Carroll Shelby and so on. We would go together. It was an acquired expertise that someone coming in an out of the sport from Goodyear headquarters could never pick up, so we relied on our dealers. “One of them came to me and said, ‘There is a kid down here called Kenny Roberts. You have got to come see him; you will not believe it, he is so good’. So we started working with him here [in the USA]. “There was a guy who worked in Goodyear’s advertising program named Gary Howard. He left Goodyear to go work with Kenny.” Howard became something of a business manager to Roberts and when it came time to take on Europe, both wanted to take Goodyear with them. “Kenny came to Akron and told me the story about the British-American racing series held every year – the Trans-Atlantic Series,” Mehl remembers. “We were in the board room, with the board and everyone, and Kenny told the story. Of course, in America, motorcycles don’t run in the rain. Kenny, of course, had raced a lot on the dirt, but we had never actually ever made a motorcycle rain tyre. Daytona, if it rains, it just shuts down! “So Kenny is in England. On raceday it is raining like crazy. Kenny is walking the track, in the rain, and the Brits are all pointing up and going, ‘Hey, Yank! What are you gonna do today?’ They were sticking it to him. “There was an engineer called Ken Miller. He was doing all the work with the motorcycle deal. They took a dirt tyre, cut some grooves in it and put a real nice compound in it, and it made a real good rain tyre. “They drop the green flag. Kenny takes off like a scalded dog and runs away from them. Soon, he is lapping them one at a time. It is raining heavier and heavier and he is determined to lap the entire field. He caught up with everybody and he had one guy left to lap. He comes up to a corner and he sees that the puddle there is a LOT bigger than it was a lap before. The bike just laid down; he kicked it away on the grass, and he kept sliding and sliding, yards and yards and he hit the hay bales and bounced up into the air. “So he stands up, takes off his helmet and starts laughing, it was just so stupid. He looked up in the grandstand, and everyone is just staring at him, like he is crazy. “We gave him a contract for three years, for $100,000. That was a lot of money, but it wasn’t a lot of money, if you know what I mean.” So that was the deal; $100,000 and tyres. And that was, just about, it; there was very little support but, it soon transpired, very little was about all Roberts needed. “He put an extra trailer on the back of his van,” says Mehl. “We airmailed him the tyres, for each race. He mounted them and balanced them. We sent an engineer, Tim Miller, to every race. Dunlop had their big fancy service trucks and all their people, doing a good job. “Kenny wins the championship for three straight years. I was embarrassed that we didn’t have anyone else over there, but why should we? He had his own balancing machine, and his mechanics mounted, spun up and balanced the tyres. And he never complained, never said anything. He did the tyre testing. He did it all there. He just got on with it. “We had a lot of technology. We had the compounds and the designs and we could do just as good a job sitting back in America as the engineers could [at the track. Roberts hit the track like a cyclone. In his first GP of ’78, the 250cc race in Venezeula, he won. It took him until his third GP to win on the 500, and it was soon clear that it would be a huge battle to unseat two-time Champion Barry Sheene and his Michelin-shod Suzuki. After another win and two seconds, the 250 was parked to that Roberts could concentrate on the 500. It worked. Four more wins, including a nail-biting win over Sheene at Silverstone, gave him the lead in the Championship. Third at the Nurburgring made King Kenny the World Champion. Five wins in 1979 saw him defend the title. Three more in 1980 saw him do it again. But there was a problem. By that point, Goodyear had stopped making motorcycle tyres for the road. New management did not see the point in spending money to promote something they were not going to offer to the marketplace. By mutual consent, American hero and American tyre maker parted ways. In 1981, Roberts defended his titles on Dunlop tyres. He won twice, and finished third behind Marco Lucchinelli and Randy Mamola. A small, one-rider team. One tyre engineer working with tyres made thousands of kilometres away, and sent to the tracks by airmail. More than four decades on Mehl who, as Goodyear's International Motorsports Manager, worked with some of the greatest names in the history of motor racing, at Le Mans, in NASCAR and in Formula 1, smiles at the memory. “Kenny was special,” he says. “Nobody could really understand what a special talent he was.” MOTOGP >>> FEATUrE leFT It was a Good Year: Roberts readies for battle with Johnny Cecotto, #4, in 1979. RIGHT Leo Mehl. 27 GPWEEK.com // 27 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: