If you’re a MotoGP fan, you probably weren’t able to escape the fact that Joe Roberts became the first American to win a pole position in ten years at this year’s season opener in Qatar (after he’d set a new lap record in practice). Okay, well, it was Moto2, granted, but that’s still a big deal, given that today’s Moto2 champs are tomorrow’s MotoGP ones – and also given that Joe’s the only American riding in any MotoGP class. Roberts went on to a fourth-place finish at Qatar, which is another big deal, given that there are 30 riders ding-dong battling it out in Moto2, and he even led for a lap or two. And suddenly the season was halted. What fresh hell is this?
Born in Malibu 23 years ago, Joe’s Moto2 bio reads: Roberts began riding at the age of three before beginning racing in flat track and then switching over to road racing, competing in the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup for three seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2014, Roberts moved back to his homeland and one year later wrapped up the MotoAmerica Superstock 600 title with two rounds to spare. After continuing to compete in the US the following season, 2017 saw Roberts move back to Europe and take on a new challenge: the Moto2 European Championship. Instantly Roberts was quick, taking three podiums in his debut year as well as several Top 5 finishes. The Californian’s consistency was rewarded with a replacement ride in the Moto2 World Championship for the AGR Team, claiming a best result of 10th on his debut in Brno. Roberts’ superb season saw him sign with RW Racing GP on-board the new NTS chassis for 2018, where he claimed a best finish of P13. A move to the American Team on board an underperforming KTM chassis didn’t go to plan for Roberts, who will stay with the team in 2020 on board a Kalex.
But it’s not all about Joe: When this pic popped up on my Facebook feed as a Suggested Friend, what choice was there but to interview Joe’s dad, Matthew. If the kid is living the dream, the proud papa can’t be far behind.
MO: Matt, is the FB photo of you with the bike before or after the deed?
Matt Roberts: The photo is after the session, after the parc ferme interviews when Joe and everyone had left for the press room.
MO: Can you describe your state when Joe won the pole at Qatar?
MR: I actually felt more emotional the night before in Qualifying 2, when I was standing in front of the turn 1 Jumbotron and Joe went P1 with a new circuit record. The pole position didn’t really hit me until I woke the next morning and realized what a huge turnaround this was from last year.
MO: Did you think he was going to win the race when he got out front? I thought he was going to win the race…
MR: Before the start of the race I was just hoping he wouldn’t get taken out by another rider or make a bad mistake early on. After a few laps I could see he looked quite comfortable with the front group and I really thought he had a good chance to win. However, when he led across the line, it was a case of [Luca] Marini having come back to him, while at the same time the riders behind had caught up to him – so I knew the rest of the race was going to be a battle and anything could happen.
MO: Was there ever an “aha” moment when you looked at Joe and said, dang, this kid is a really good motorcycle rider, I wonder if he has a future in racing? Did he just emerge from the womb riding the wheels off tricycles and things, or was it a gradual evolution?
MR: He was always good on two wheels; he learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels at age two and he was always fast in whatever class we were in. But until he got accepted to the Red Bull Rookies, I wasn’t thinking too deeply about a future career too much, just always looking to the next step and getting excited about that. For example, when we were on a 50cc or 65cc mini road racer, looking at the 85cc with a larger chassis, thinking it would be really fun to see what Joe could do on that. Once you arrive in the Red Bull Rookies, you know that if it goes well, there’s a chance to have a career.
MO: How much of it would you say is athletic ability, and how much is between the ears? Were you a competitive person yourself? It looks like from your FB you’re a really successful distance runner. Did you race motorcycles competitively also? Did you learn things from those activities you passed down to Joe?
MR: I club raced here in Southern California at places like Willow Springs and Buttonwillow for two or three years, but I never tried to teach him much about riding motorcycles. I pretty much turned him over to Keith Code and the California Superbike School at around age 9 or 10, and they worked with him for a number of years. Many elements of his current riding style come from that period. I may have passed along some of my knowledge on physical training.
MO: Oh, I stereotyped you as one of those hard-pushing helicopter race dads who got in fights with the other ones. Did you have to try to not be that way, or what? When Joe was off doing the Red Bull, was he mostly on his own in Europe, or flying back and forth?
MR: The trouble with applying pressure to a young rider who really wants to succeed like Joe, is that particularly if things aren’t going well, they already are applying so much pressure to themselves that if you add your own pressure, you can just overwhelm them. So you always just try to be supportive.
Joe was 13 when he first went over to Europe, so definitely too young to travel on his own. In the Red Bull Rookies Cup there was one mechanic per four bikes, so they require each rider to bring a “mechanic helper” to assist the mechanic fueling the bikes, changing tires etc. – and in the main that person is that father. So I went to all the races for three years except three or four. We would stay in Europe if the races were close together, but otherwise fly home to the US.
MO: How was being in Europe all the time? Did you two get on each others’ nerves, or it was all happiness doing the Grand Tour and having fun the whole time going to museums? Or strictly at the track every day and/or training and eyes on the prize? My kid never really did go through the rebellious phase, I think it was the bikes.
MR: Actually we got on pretty well. I tried to make something more of it than just showing up to the track for the race weekends. We’d base ourselves in the UK between races when we weren’t flying back to the US, as I’m English and have family there. Then I’d arrange to fly in a day or two early to whatever European city we were racing at and do the museums, like the Rembrant and Van Gogh in Amsterdam, the Stasi secret police museum in Berlin, plus other historic sites, Roman ruins in southern Spain. We were visiting quite a few places that I’d also personally never been to before, it seemed a waste to pass up the opportunity to see them.
MO: Does Joe live with you now in LA? What’s he doing to keep from going crazy? Or is he going crazy? Has to be so frustrating to have a big breakthrough only to be stymied by such a black swan event.
MR: Joe shares a place with one of his brothers about 15 minutes away from us. At the beginning of the crisis, when there was talk that the whole championship was going to be cancelled, he got quite down. But since he learned we will have some races, his mood has been quite good. He is doing cycling, running and gym work, plus supermoto, flat track, motocross – the same stuff all riders do nowadays to keep fit. But as fun as those things can be, they pale in comparison to riding a Moto2 bike at a GP, so I know he’s really missing that.
MO: So, during the dark years when good rides were hard to find and the chances looked bleak, did you have the talk with Joe about Plan B? Did you try to get him to apply to dental college or anything?
MR: We never spoke about a plan B. I have told him that if for some reason he stopped racing he could have a great life, and also that he didn’t owe me in any way to keep going. I never wanted him to be in a situation where he felt he had no option but to keep racing when his heart wasn’t in it. But actually even during the worst times he never thought about quitting, because he knew the feeling he was missing on the bike and that if he could get that feeling back he could be there at the front.
MO: So, what do you think Joe would do if he wasn’t racing motorcycles? You’re big into videography it looks like. What led you to that? Is he interested in what you do, or couldn’t care less what the old man does?
MR: I don’t think my business would suit him. My company, Camera Control, does visual effects work with robotic cameras, so the guys that work in the company are all techie types, which isn’t Joe. His next-oldest brother Finn is an actor who has had some success in that field, and his manager was very keen to also sign Joe. He once said, “after he gets into acting he’ll realize that it’s a lot more fun than racing motorcycles.” We all had a good laugh over that one. We’ve been in this world of bikes for so long now, I find it impossible to imagine what else he’d be doing.
MO: I hate to ask about money, but did you have to sacrifice a lot going back and forth to Europe and all the rest of it, taking time off from work, or was it not a big stretch financially? Did Joe go out and find sponsors, or how did that work?
MR: I’ve definitely spent a fair amount of money on flights, hotels and rental cars over the years, including when Joe was racing in the US. We did quite well for sponsorship when Joe was racing here in MotoAmerica, you could even say it was profitable. But when you go to Europe, it’s more difficult. Sponsors want to see you running at the front, which is a problem, as these days no one is jumping from national championships to the world level and running at the front in their first season or two. You need time and I hope more sponsors here in America come to realize that. Eitan Butbul, who we met back in 2017 and is now Joe’s manager and team owner, is one of the few people that understands the investment it takes to get a rider to the world level and have them be competitive.
MO: Is there a role left for you on the team now that you’ve hit the big time? Do you have any assigned duties?
MR: No, none. The last time I had duties was Red Bull Rookies Cup.
MO: What do you do with all the downtime on a GP weekend? How do you keep from going crazy? Do you get nervous or is it by now just another race weekend for you? Is there anything to do in Qatar?
MR: Every GP race weekend is still a big deal, especially when you arrive in the morning and see the thousands of fans. I watch all of Joe’s sessions and some of the MotoGP sessions out on track, from the access road rather than in the box or on a screen in the hospitality unit. I try to spend as little time in the box as possible. It’s a crowded space and you can easily find yourself getting in the way of mechanics and other workers, and I just want to leave Joe alone to focus on his job. I also feel calmer out in the open air and I still love watching Joe and the MotoGP riders come through some turn or another.
MO: Can you discern any change in Joe’s mentality since Qatar? Or his attitude or anything? Is there any blossoming Napoleon Complex yet? Has anything changed now that the eyes of not the world, but America, are upon him?
MR: Joe is 5’11” so I don’t think Napoleon Complex could apply to him. (“Napoleon Complex” is a theorized inferiority complex normally attributed to people of short stature.”) I think he’s been through a range of emotions since Qatar, firstly joy and relief that he proved to himself and everyone else that with the right package he can be fast. Then intense disappointment that the championship was put on hold – even the possibility that it might be cancelled altogether. Going into the next rounds, he obviously has his sights set quite high because he knows where he can be.
MO: Where did I get Napoleon complex from anyway? I meant to ask if he’s ready to conquer the world now. What is it now, three weeks away? [Actually, it’s right now – Ed.!] Have we got our tickets and all set and excited? Actually a good time to be leaving America for a while, I think the covid is on the decline in Spain isn’t it? Do you have to go 14 days early and be quarantined?
MR: Spain have things under control right now. But let’s see how they react to any spikes. Although I could probably make my way to Spain right now, I wouldn’t be able to enter the paddock due to the limitations on the amount of persons allowed inside. And no public are allowed for at least the first two races in Jerez.
MO: Oh, you’ll be on the couch with the rest of us watching on the bigscreen?
MO: OK, I won’t bug you anymore, let’s wrap it up. What’s your prediction for Jerez 1? What’s Joe’s?
MR: That’s a loaded question! The problem with making a prediction for Jerez is that it is a track that the European riders have a lot of laps on; everyone tests there, so it’s hard to find an advantage, but hopefully he can come away with strong results at both rounds. Brno and LeMans are tracks that Joe really likes, and I know he is targeting wins at those. Then there are other tracks that I believe will suit Joe’s style and the Kalex such as Aragon and Barcelona. However we have to realize that Qatar was a track we struggled at until this year, so it’s possible that even with some of the less favorite tracks there could be some surprises.
The Kalex is a bike that suits a wide range of styles, and so Joe has been able to adapt to it better. But his change of fortunes has also been down to new crew around him, and having John Hopkins there has also been a big help.
MO: Thanks for playing, Matt, and very best of luck to you and Joe.
This just in: We’re 0.47 seconds down in Friday practice, in 9th place. Keep calm, and mind the gap.
THE END, and hopefully also, THE BEGINNING!