In 1972, Kenny Roberts was a youthful 21 years old AMA Rookie of the Year. An immensely talented and thoroughly analytical rider, Roberts was already three years into his professional racing career, and two years into a factory Yamaha contract. However, he was still not much known outside of the USA. Roberts went on to finish 2nd in the AMA Grand National Championship that year, his first season as an expert class rider.
In 1973, he won the AMA Grand National Championship and again in 1974. That year also saw Roberts winning his first road race (Road Atlanta), presaging his worldwide success in later years.
In those years, the AMA Grand National Championship consisted of 5 different racing disciplines: mile ovals, half miles, short tracks, TTs and road races. The first four were on dirt tracks, while the last was on pavement.
Dirt trackers can top 100 mph on oval tracks. They have no front brake, relying instead on engine braking, a rear brake and sliding sideways to scrub off speed. Indeed, sliding the rear tire is key to steering around corners. Riders battle handlebar to handlebar while sideways at high speed. The drafting battles are epic. Races are won or lost by fractions of a second.
But in order to win the Grand National Championship, a rider must also be well rounded and competitive on pavement as well. Road racers don’t just turn left. They must do everything well: go, stop and turn right as well as turn left. At big road courses like Daytona, the top speeds are much higher than dirt tracks.
Riders who have wins in all five Grand National disciplines achieve the AMA Grand Slam. There have been only four in AMA history. Roberts is one of them, the second one to do so when he achieved the mark in 1974. The other Grand Slam winners are Dick Mann (1972), Bubba Shobert (1986), and Doug Chandler (1989). In fact, Roberts is still the only rider who has won a Grand Slam twice, and the only rider who won all 5 types of races in a single season, in 1975!
Thus, from this crucible of American racing, the riders who are fast and versatile enough to succeed are well prepared to dominate the world stage. Roberts was about to do just that.
World championship motorcycle road racing in the 1970s was dominated by European riders. MV Agusta of Italy was the dominant constructor, with Yamaha and Suzuki just coming on the scene. Motorcycles had more motor than tires, brakes or handling. European style road racing consisted of super late braking, and smooth arcs around the turns in order to avoid upsetting the slippery tires and flexible chassis.
Roberts brought a completely different riding style, one that evolved from his years in American dirt tracking. His technique of early braking, and hard on the gas to break rear tire traction and help steer the motorcycle, was a revelation to Europeans. He also developed a knee-dragging style at maximum lean that is reminiscent of dirt trackers dragging their left boot through the turns.
In 1978, his first year racing full time in Europe, on racetracks that he mostly had never seen before, Roberts won the World Championship for Yamaha in the premier 500 cc class. He won 3 championships in a row, against increasingly fierce competition. His technique of steering the motorcycle with the rear wheel would define the pinnacle of GP racing through the two-stroke era, all the way through to the advent of four-stroke engines and sophisticated engine management electronics.
Roberts blazed the trail for many more future American World Champions: Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey, all former dirt trackers. Even now, with MotoGP motorcycles utilizing computerized traction control, many top riders such as Valentino Rossi of Italy and Marc Marquez of Spain recognize the benefits of training on dirt tracks with their right wrists as the only traction control.
In 1972, at Salem, OR, how many racing fans looked at the diminutive rider in the yellow and black leathers on a factory Yamaha bike and wondered whether they were looking at a future giant of the sport?
CAL RAYBORN II
Even though he started his racing career on the dirt tracks of Southern California, by 1972 Cal Rayborn II had become the road racing specialist of the AMA Grand National Championship series. His success on road courses landed him a ride on the Harley-Davidson (H-D) factory team. He won the Daytona 200 for H-D back-to-back in 1968 and 1969. In 1972, Rayborn won 3 of the 6 Trans-Atlantic Match Races, riding an outclassed push-rod Harley on British race tracks he had never seen before, against opponents riding nimble British motorcycles on their home turf.
One of the most versatile American racers ever, Dick Mann was the first rider to score a Grand Slam, winning all five Grand National disciplines in 1971. He also competed at a national level in motocross dirt track, and road races. Just a couple of years before these photos, in 1970, Mann won the Daytona 200 for the first time, after 15 tries, riding a Honda CB750. That was the beginning of the total domination of the 200 by Japanese manufacturers.
Mark Brelsford was one of the four Harley-Davidson factory team riders at the 1972 race along with Cal Rayborn II, Mert Lawwill, and Dave Sehl. Brelsford won 3 races, scored 8 podiums and won the Grand National Championship in 1972. After two major accidents in 1973 and 1974, both times breaking both his legs, and numerous hand surgeries, the future AMA Hall of Fame inductee decided to leave it all behind and moved to Alaska.
Mert Lawwill was a well-established star in the year of these pictures, having won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1969, as well as voted AMA’s Most Popular Rider of the Year. After his retirement from racing five years later, Lawwill made a name for himself as a pioneering mountain bike designer and a builder of prosthetic limbs for amputees.