Here’s a question you can use the next time you want to start an argument: Who’s the greatest motorcycle racer of all time?
A prime candidate is Kenny Roberts.
Roberts was a rough-and-tumble guy who invented new ways to do impossible things on motorcycles, winning on both AMA dirt tracks and, later, world-championship road courses.
No matter what the odds against him, from riding an under-powered Yamaha on the San Jose Mile to overcoming a broken back to win his second 500cc world championship in ’79, King Kenny won because he flat-out wanted it more than anybody else. For Roberts, it was always personal.
Another candidate is Jay Springsteen who, in his pre-illness years in the 1970s, dominate dirt-track racing the way nobody ever had.
Besides beating the best in the business, Springer had that great, down-to-earth attitude that made him a fan favorite. He was a guy who just loved to race a motorcycle.
On the motocross track in those days, Americans were still trying to prove they could challenge the European masters. Probably the best America had to offer at the time was Bob “Hurricane” Hannah.
He won on 125s, 250s and 500s. But the way Hannah did all that really made him stand out. He had a Joe Namath kind of cockiness that some liked and some hated, but nobody could ignore. Week after week, the guy kicked butt just like he said he would.
If you look at the 1980s and early 1990s, there were epic dirt-track battles between Bubba Shobert and Scott Parker, plus Ricky Graham in the years when his awesome talents overcame the inner demons.
Of them, of course, Parker went on to set all the records for races and championships won. And like Springer before him, he had an infectious enthusiasm fans couldn’t resist.
By now, America had risen to the top of the motocross world, and Supercross had opened the sport to huge numbers of new fans. The best racer had to be the King of Supercross, Jeremy McGrath.
While all that was going on, the international road-racing world was savoring the precision of Wayne Rainey and the desire of Kevin Schwantz. And in this country, an entertaining guy whose name started out being Scott Russell turned into Mr. Daytona before our eyes.
In the late 1990s, Chris Carr racked up dirt-track title after dirt-track title. Ricky Carmichael eclipsed many of those records of Mr. McGrath. Mat Mladin dominated American roadracing. Valentino Rossi made the explosive brutality and unbelievable competitive pressure of MotoGP look like, well, fun.
What about the 1960s? Dick Mann, Gary Nixon, Mert Lawwill.
Or the 1950s? Joe Leonard, Brad Andres and Carroll Resweber were another species entirely.
Over all those decades, there are other names: Bart Markel. Dick Burleson. Freddie Spencer. Eddie Lawson. Fill in your favorite here.
Ultimately, though, every time the green light goes on, the flag falls or the gate drops, a new Golden Era of motorcycle racing starts for somebody.