Roberts, America’s lone ranger in MotoGP, rides into town for COTA race


Highlights

Californian Roberts, who’s 20, will represent U.S. while competing in Moto2 at Red Bull Grand Prix.

After starting out on a 50cc bike at age 3, Roberts moved to Europe at 13 to rise in the racing ranks.

‘He’s got a pretty heavy weight on his shoulders,’ says former MotoGP world champ Kevin Schwantz.

When Formula One pulls into Circuit of the Americas every fall, Haas Hill springs up between turns 18 and 19, filled with fans cheering on the only U.S.-owned team in the sport.

When MotoGP, COTA’s second-biggest annual event, cruises into Texas this week, perhaps Roberts Ranch, or Roberts Rowdies, will sprout somewhere along the course to get behind Joe Roberts, the young California-born rider.

“I’m the only American, so I’d like to have the support,” said the 20-year-old Los Angeles native who rides the No. 16 NTS RW Racing GP in Moto2. “I want to see as many Joe Roberts banners and flags in corners as possible. I’ll make the fans who come out to see me feel appreciated.”

World championship motorcycle racing is dominated by Spaniards and Italians. Most of the races are in Europe, with the Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas being the only U.S. stop.

The late Nicky Hayden was the last American to win a world title in MotoGP, and that came in 2006. Before Hayden, Kenny Roberts (no relation to Joe) was the 2000 world champion, and Austin’s Kevin Schwantz was the 1993 champ. In recent years, there hasn’t even been a U.S. rider on the grid.

“He’s the only American we have, so he’s got a pretty heavy weight on his shoulders,” Schwantz said. “Joe has his hands full trying to survive against these guys and scratch and claw his way up the ladder.

“Now, if he succeeds, it would be huge. I think it would really help the motorcycle economy in America. It’s taken a beating in recent years. But if an American did well, I see it motivating buyers and drumming up sponsor support. Again, you hate to throw that on the kid’s shoulders.”

Katja Heim, COTA’s chief operating officer, said: “MotoGP, like F1, has a larger presence around the world than in the States. But we get really big crowds for it, so there is a curiosity and attraction here. I can only imagine how much better it would be with an American contender.”

The first two races in 2018 have been a struggle for Roberts, who finished 25th of 32 riders in both Qatar and Argentina.

Roberts said it’s difficult for Americans to break into the sport unless they move to Europe, find financial backing and prove themselves on feeder circuits. He moved to Barcelona, the hub of MotoGP, with his family’s support.

“It’s a gamble. A lot of riders wash out,” he said. “You’ve got to prove yourself pretty quickly, or the team will move on. You’re racing against the best in the world, where a couple seconds are an eternity.

“There are some other young Americans coming through the ranks. I’d love to be an inspiration, but I’ve got to have total focus on my own situation. It’s definitely a sink-or-swim deal.”

Roberts climbed aboard a 50cc bike at age 3 and was hooked.

“My dad would take me and my brothers into the desert to ride,” he said. “Then when I got a little older, I’d ride through Hollywood Hills, trying to ditch the park rangers.”

Roberts competed successfully in several U.S. series and got his big break in 2011, when he was selected for the Red Bull Rookies Cup, which pairs with MotoGP at European events. In his first year, he won at Brno in the Czech Republic, setting a track record, before posting several other podium finishes in 2012 and ’13.

“I moved to Europe when I was 13. You grow up fast,” Roberts said. “I’m lucky my dad was able to go with me. At first, the races were a bit of a shock to the system, but I acclimated well, won a race, got on the podium and set a lot of poles.”

He came back to the States in 2013 and, barely 16, set a record as the youngest to win an AMA Pro Road racing event. In 2015, he dominated MotoAmerica Superstock 600, winning nine of 13 races. He returned to Europe last year and was elevated from the Moto2 European series to the major leagues midway through the season.

“When I first got on that Moto2 bike, I was quite a ways off from what the world guys were doing, and I thought, ‘Man, that gap looks so big,’ ” he said. “Now I’m here, and you start to realize it’s not impossible to get there. It takes total dedication. You can’t let anything get in your way.”

Schwantz has spoken to Roberts about what it takes to compete.

“Make notes after each practice session. Find your spots on the track. Be aware of the wind,” he said. “The team collects data, and Joe needs to soak it all in. Exposure and experience.

“You don’t want to go too fast too quick and tear something up and have to watch the rest of practice or the race. For Joe right now, getting laps is crucial.”

This week, Roberts, a former bass guitarist in an L.A. band, figures he’s in his happy place.

“I love music, so Austin is really appealing to me,” he said. “I’ve been here four or five times. Racing and music, that’s pretty much a perfect scenario for me.”



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