Kenny Roberts American Heroes Benefit Dinner - Video

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

Fans of grand prix motorcycle competition had the unbelievable opportunity to hang around with some of the greatest legends of American racing as part of two terrific charity events.

First was a dinner at the storied Kenny Roberts Ranch, open to the public for the first time, followed the next day by a ride around the Modesto area of Central California. Lending a hand with supporting King Kenny’s cause were Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kenny Roberts Jr., whose accomplishments add up to an amazing 11 500cc World Championships from 1978 through 2000.

But the big names don’t stop there. Also showing up to lend his support was Mert Lawwill, 1969 AMA Grand National Champion and star of the iconic film "On Any Sunday.” The director of that film, Bruce Brown, also attended and had a screening of his landmark movie at a local hotel. Three-time AMA champion roadracer and King Kenny’s youngest son, Kurtis Roberts, also added his support to the cause.

If you’re reading this, you probably wish this is one charity event you didn’t miss! (Photo by Terrence van Doorn)

So, what events could draw such group of luminaries? The idea for Kenny’s American Heroes Benefit Dinner gathered momentum when he joined in on the Cpl. Michael D. Anderson Jr. Memorial Ride last year. This charity ride was formed by Michael Anderson Sr. whose son was killed in action while leading his USMC squad on a house-to-house clearing and search operation in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.

To honor Michael Jr.’s sacrifice and the continuing heroism of his fellow marines, Michael Sr. put together a memorial ride in 2005 based on their mutual love of motorcycling. The non-profit’s foundation was established to benefit active members and veterans of the United States Armed Forces.

Michael D. Anderson Sr.

After taking part in last year’s ride, Kenny Sr. began to wonder what else he could do to benefit our troops, and he came up with the idea to host a dinner at his famous ranch that includes a museum and the TT-style dirt track on which numerous Grand Prix riders have trained.

“Some people look up to me,” Roberts told us about his involvement. “Or, rather, look down on me,” he joked about his short stature.

King Kenny’s event benefits a local non-profit charity, Welcome Home Heroes, organized to provide assistance to Central California veterans of the U.S. military as they transition from active duty to private life.

For a $350 admission, regular folks could reserve a spot at a table set inside Kenny’s private museum at his famous ranch. And heading each table was a true motorsports hero, including Rainey, Lawson, Lawwill and both Kenny Roberts Sr. and Jr.

Motorcycle Neverland

Stepping on board the bus that would take ticket holders to the storied Roberts ranch, each face was flush with exuberance and an enthusiasm appropriate for a kid in a candy store rather than the 40 to 60 years of age of most of them. The ones I spoke to were referring to the trip with deep reverence for what laid ahead.

When the bus began its slow turn into the ranch’s gate, the din inside dramatically softened as everyone craned their necks to see this sacred site set among rolling hills and almond farms. A half mile or so into the front gate, we get a glimpse of the ranch house and the dirt-track TT course on which many champions have been schooled.

Lawson and Rainey have been trained here, as well as John Kocinski, Scott Russell, Bubba Shobert and Randy Mamola. Most recently, 2010 MotoGP champ Jorge Lorenzo spent hours here refining his abilities riding in loose environments and, in the process, became a much better rider in wet conditions.

A pair of oddball-engined bikes. In the foreground the inline-Four two-stroke TZ750 dirtracker that Roberts once famously remarked, “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing.” Behind is the V-3 500cc two-stroke grand prix bike developed by Team Roberts that had a career highlight in 2002 of setting pole position in Australia against 990cc four-strokes.

Lined up in front of the house was a set of motorcycle pornucopia, including a legendary TZ750 flat-tracker, a V-5 Proton MotoGP racer, a three-cylinder Modenas 500cc GP machine and a couple of dirt-trackers, including a rare Honda RS750. But this was just the aperitif to a grand feast.

Around the perimeter of a large room upstairs was a veritable museum of motorcycle racing, including several other examples of the Modenas and Proton machines Roberts created for his Grand Prix teams, plus the Honda CBR900RR that Kurtis piloted to the 1999 AMA Formula Xtreme championship. (Side note: Kurtis, who hasn’t raced in a couple of years, is trying to put together a deal to ride the Daytona SportBike class at Mid-Ohio next month.)

A phalanx of Proton-sponsored Team Roberts MotoGP machines that campaigned with no less than four different engines. The 990cc mills consisted of Team KR V-5s, a KTM V-4 and a Honda V-5 on which KRJR rode to sixth place in the 2006 championship. It was followed by an 800cc Honda V-4 in 2007 – the end of the line for Team KR in MotoGP. So far. Kenny hasn’t stopped trying to put together big deals.

But three bikes in particular stood out, each worthy of featured status in any motorcycle museum.

Most fascinating is a Yamaha YZR500 that Kenny Sr. rode to one of his three consecutive 500cc grand prix world championships (1978-80). Resplendent in its iconic yellow with black bumblebee strobe stripes, the YZR exemplifies the pinnacle of motorcycle engineering at the dawn of the 1980s.

Kenny’s GP career included 24 victories, 22 poles, 27 fastest laps and 44 podium positions. And let’s not forget the three Daytona 200 wins and two AMA Grand National titles.

Compared to later GP bikes, Roberts’ YZR500 is notably short and squat. Note the Goodyear tire sponsorship.

Another Yamaha YZR500 worthy of reverence is one of Wayne Rainey’s championship-winning bikes. In a team managed by Kenny Roberts, Rainey duplicated Roberts’ feat of three consecutive 500cc world titles (1990-92) on factory Yamaha machines. Rainey was leading the ’93 championship until suffering a career-ending injury at Misano, allowing intense rival Kevin Schwantz to take his only GP title.

Kenny Senior played a pivotal role in Rainey’s career. After winning the AMA Superbike title for Kawasaki in 1983, Rainey was left stranded without a ride when Team Green abruptly withdrew from the series. Roberts recognized Rainey’s keen talent and signed him up to ride for his new 250cc GP team, which eventually brought both Rainey and Roberts top-of-the-heap status.

One of the Yamaha YZR500s Wayne Rainey rode to three consecutive world titles.

Aside from the Team Roberts Modenas and Proton machines, the rest of the collection is mostly Yamahas. However, a Suzuki earns a featured spot in a glass case, the RGV500 that took KRJR to the 500cc title in 2000. Kenny Jr. is one of only a few people who can say they out-raced both Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi in 500cc GP competition. Suzuki has had just two GP victories since that glorious season, by Sete Gibernau in the rain-interrupted 2001 Spanish Grand Prix and Chris Vermeulen in the 2007 French Grand Prix, also run in soaking wet conditions.

After being awestruck by the bikes, we were star-struck by the racing legends. Kenny Sr. was the most gregarious of the racers, showing flashes of his notorious bluntness and his fun-loving nature. KRJR is more reserved, and he’s now in full daddy mode with two young kids he’s helping raise. Rainey is another fairly quiet one, not the wild child Kenny Senior was and likely still is. But quietest of them all is “Steady” Eddie Lawson. He’s always been an introspective kind of guy, so our dinner conversation was pretty tame.

Kenny Roberts is an icon among motorcycle racing legends. After dominating on American dirt tracks in the early 1970s, Roberts took his formidable sliding skills to grand prix roadracing and revolutionized the sport, winning three consecutive 500cc GP titles (1978-80) and very nearly a fourth in 1983.

To be able to share a few words with all these legends at Kenny’s ranch was an unforgettable experience, and even more so for those who haven’t had the luxury of attending races with a media badge.

One table was helmed by a different kind of American hero, retired Master Sergeant Jon Cavaiani, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Cavaiani was given the nation’s highest award for valor based on his heroic service in Vietnam where his actions in 1971 were like something from a movie. While providing security for an isolated radio relay site located within enemy territory, the platoon leader repeatedly exposed himself to advancing enemy fire to save his troops and evacuate them while he stayed to fight. He was wounded several times but evaded the enemy for 11 days before he was captured and spent nearly two years as a prisoner of war. Hearing his gallant story really put the “heroic” efforts of motorcycle racers in perspective!

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Jon Cavaiani touched the hearts of everyone in attendance with his war stories and reminders about those who serve the country in the military. He also provided commemorative Medal of Honor coins and books that were auctioned off for charity.

After a barbecue buffet dinner, Roberts made a speech to thank all who attended in his loveable and offbeat manner. “Thanks for Bruce Brown, who’s still alive,” he joked to an amused crowd. “And he brought someone who’s older, Mert Lawwill,” the joke continued. Lawwill, at a still-robust 71, is actually three years younger than Brown the movie director, who brought a few helmets with “On Any Sunday” graphics for auction.

Eddie Lawson, Mert Lawwill, Wayne Rainey, Kenny Roberts Senior and Junior are presented with commemorative military knives by Mic Meeks (third from left), a financial founder of the charity. (Photo by Terrence van Doorn)

It really was a very special event. Each attendee I spoke to gushed about the experience, with several describing it as something out of a dream. The great thing is that it was called the First Annual American Heroes Benefit Dinner, implying that you’ll get a shot at attending it next year! Several attendees asked for first dibs on next year’s event.

Riding With The King

Registration for the eighth-annual Cpl. Michael D. Anderson Jr. Memorial Ride took place the next day at Mitchell’s Modesto Harley-Davidson.

There were a few orders of business to attend to prior to departing. First was a stunt show performed by Jason Pullen, the trickster who famously performs his spectacle on H-D equipment. Next up were a few more auction items from Brown and Cavaian, followed by a flag-folding ceremony conducted by local military troops.

Michael Anderson Sr. addresses riders who showed up to support the memorial ride to honor the service of his fallen son.

Although most riders in attendance were riding H-D products, Mike Anderson Sr. has insisted the ride in his son’s memory be open to all participants.

“I don’t care if you’ve got a skateboard, a dual-sport, bagger, bobber or a camel,” he’s been quoted as saying. “If you’ve got it you can ride it.”

Busting up the Bar-and-Shield clan was a group of Star motorcycles at the front of the line provided for the celebrity racers by Yamaha, a title sponsor of the event.

Four-time world champion Eddie Lawson gets geared up to join the ride.
Nearly 300 riders showed up to support the Cpl. Michael D. Anderson Jr. Memorial Ride.

King Kenny led the group away, with his sons trailing behind along with Lawson and Lawwill. Motor officers from local police detachments escorted the ride, blocking intersections to let us ride smoothly onward out of Modesto and toward central California’s Mother Lode foothills.

Despite the speed potential of being on the road with eight GP world titles, the pace was quite sedate and respectful. Lawwill looked fantastic riding in an open-face helmet on one of his Street Tracker machines, certainly the coolest bike in the group.

At one point Mert’s bike started sputtering and caused him to pull over. Turned out it was a loose carburetor on his tweaked Harley motor. Such a mishap might mean the end of the ride for many, but the resourceful Lawwill simply pulled out his tools and had the bike running again in minutes!

Kenny Senior rode a Star Raider SCL during the charity ride. Not quite the TZ750 or YZR500 on which he helped build the Yamaha brand!

Further into the ride was a surreal moment when I was trying to shoot some video of KRJR riding next to me at 45 mph or so. He motioned with his hand for my camera as if he wanted me to pass it to him. My first instinct was to decline the offer, not wanting to risk dropping the camera during a delicate maneuver. That feeling subsided in about the same amount of time it takes a MotoGP bike to upshift after realizing that I was riding with one of the most talented motorcycle racers in the world! I was thrilled to watch Junior ride up next to Lawson and Lawwill and get some footage with my camera.

The ride reached its destination in Jamestown, a small mining community nestled just to the west of the Sierra Mountains.

Once we pulled in, I moseyed over to ask Kenny if he was more comfy on the stretched out Star Raider he was riding than the crunch of a GP bike. “Maybe for someone 6-foot-2,” said the diminutive 60-year-old. “But for me, I’d feel more comfortable on a GP bike.” We shouldn’t be surprised.

Jamestown Harley-Davidson hosted the post-ride celebrations.

A live band was playing classic rock behind the Harley dealership as riders filtered in while lunch was being served. It was cool to see Rainey – disastrously paralyzed in a crash while leading the 1993 championship – make the trip out to Jamestown for the culmination of the ride.

Kurt Vander Weide, executive director of the Anderson Memorial Foundation, says about 300 riders took part in this year’s ride, slightly less than last year because of recent troop deployment. Our military relentlessly continues to serve…

Visit for more information about these wonderful charities. You don’t want to miss out next year!

Thanks for your time, Kenny!
Kevin Duke
Kevin Duke

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