It seems only a few years ago that you could just click your fingers and they would arrive from across the Atlantic to win Grands Prix and in many cases, World Championships. It was like the Pilgrim Fathers in reverse as Kenny Roberts led the charge from America closely followed by Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Rainey, John Kocinski and Kevin Schwantz. Even in the 21st century the likes of Kenny Roberts Junior and Nicky Hayden kept the Stars and Stripes flying high on foreign soil.
It was only when Joe Roberts took that magnificent Moto2™ pole in Qatar last week I realised just how the exploits of those American heroes were confined firmly to the history books. American success in the all three classes in the MotoGP™ World Championship was long overdue. Incredibly, a decade overdue.
Fittingly it was at an iconic legendary American venue that Ben Spies grabbed the very last American pole position. It was in the 2010 MotoGP™ race at the Indianapolis Speedway that the Yamaha rider started the 28-lap race from pole position after leading qualifying. Spies finished second in the race behind the Honda of Dani Pedrosa. I’m sure there would have been many more poles and race wins for Spies if his career had not been cruelly cut short by injury.
That same year an American rider grabbed his country’s only ever pole position in the Moto2™ class. Never has the media centre celebrated a pole position with such noise when Kenny Noyes crossed the line at Le Mans. His father Dennis was a doyen of the Grand Prix press core for many a decade and I think we all felt part of his pride.
That was that. Ten barren years and to be honest not much sign that times were about to change until that memorable Saturday night in Qatar.
It was back in 1978 a dirt tracker who was never afraid to express his opinions arrived in Europe to compete in the 500cc World Championship. Kenny Roberts is the biggest single influence in the 71-year history of the sport. The Californian simply turned the Grand Prix racing on its head both on and off the track. He dominated the 500cc World Championship for the next three years with a sliding style that had been honed on the mile-long dirt tracks under the floodlights back home. The European riders led by double World Champion Barry Sheene had never seen anything like it and had no answer. Off the track Kenny led the riders in their fight to improve appalling lack of safety and financial rewards. He was successful on both counts.
If that was not enough, he then brought the likes of Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson from the States to join the likes of Spencer and Schwantz to carry on the American domination of the 500cc World Championship. He set up his own British-based Grand Prix team and produced a son who carried on the family and American tradition by winning the 2000 500cc World title. The only father and son to win a World title.
Pat Hennen was the first American Grand Prix winner when he won the 1976 Finnish Grand Prix at Imatra. Two years earlier Kenny Roberts had popped over the Atlantic to test the water with a 250cc ride in Assen. He started his Grand Prix debut on pole. We should have realised then just what an impact he was going to make.
When you have the same surname as a true legend you have so much lot to live up to. Joe made a start in Qatar.