Roberts Remembers Sparky

Henny Ray Abrams | December 26, 2008
BROOKLYN, NY, DEC 26: When Sparky Edmonston lost his battle with a particularly aggressive form of melanoma earlier this week, the racing world lost one of its great characters and Kenny Roberts lost one of his best friends.

“We were together from the first day we met,” Roberts said by phone from his ranch in Hickman, California the day after Christmas. “Just one of them rare individuals. Just one of them rare individuals that just fit. You just fit.”

From their first encounter, at a northern California motorcycle shop where Edmonston was working, the two California racers “just gelled. We could’ve been brothers,” Robert said before adding, “We were probably a lot better than brothers. We just enjoyed each other’s company.” When Roberts broke his back, during winter testing between his 1978 and ’79 500cc World Championships, and needed someone to help get him to and from the races, he called Sparky. Sparky worked for Lectron carburetors at the time, which allowed him to come and go at will. “I think I ran them once in one practice,” Roberts remembers. “He went for a month or two whatever he could get away with. It was like that the whole time.”

When Roberts needed a friend, he knew to call Sparky. And that could be anything, from where to buy a Harley to taking care of Roberts’ three children while he was off racing to running Kurtis Roberts’ teams as he moved up the ranks and into MotoGP.

“I needed someone like Sparky to do that, because I couldn’t always be there and I didn’t want my kids racing around with someone I didn’t know,” Roberts said.

“He did exactly what he wanted to do. He went to the movie business when it was prosperous. (He worked as a stuntman in a number of movies and at one point was involved in a movie about board track racing with “Titanic” director James Cameron.) And he worked on my motorcycle. Anything I needed on my motorcycle, I called Sparky. When I needed a Harley, I called Sparky. He said to me, ‘OK, I found a Heritage and this guy’s in the movie business,’ and he’d buy it and he’d bring it to my house. When I needed somebody to build the dirt trackers we used in Spain for Marlboro, I called Sparky. Off he went and he built the bikes and they all ran, except for mine, which broke a cam belt.

“He didn’t do it for the money for sure. He could have made far more money in the movie business. He basically lived what he loved to do. He played golf and had a giant slice; that was his whole golf game. And he had cataracts the last seven, eight years. And he’d hit his tee shot and he’d look at me and ask, ‘Where’d it go?’ And I’d go, ‘To the right.’”

It was Edmonston who was partially responsible for the most successful phase of Roberts’ career as a team owner. Edmonston was working for Rob Muzzy at Kawasaki when he phoned Roberts about his new rider, a young former dirt tracker named Wayne Rainey.

“He said ‘My rider is apparently doing this and doing that and doing this,’ and I didn’t know Wayne. Would you talk to him?” Edmonston asked. It was clear to Roberts that Rainey was rushing the corners, which killed his exit drive. Roberts predicted he would win Loudon, later in the season, “but when you win Loudon, don’t think you know anything about road racing.” As predicted Rainey won Loudon, his only Superbike win of the year. The following year he won the Superbike title. “That’s a funny deal. Because of Sparky, that’s how I got to know Wayne.”

Roberts remembers Rainey being put off by Edmonston the first time they played golf. Edmonston played with a beater golf bag that he attributed to “rats and mice.” But the truth was revealed when he missed a shot on the fourth hole and started “beating the s–t out of bag. And he scared Wayne,” Roberts said. “Wayne called me and said, ‘That guy scares me.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, he’s not going to hit you with it. You just got him to admit that he beat the s–t out of his bag.”

When Rob Muzzy moved to Honda, Rainey went along, as did Sparky. They collaborated on Rainey’s 1987 AMA Superbike title. “Muzzy’s one of the rare individuals that could get along with Sparky. You either loved Sparky or you didn’t love him at all. And Sparky didn’t care either way. And that’s probably why me and Muzzy and Sparky gelled together a little bit. And off and on he’d bounce around with me and Muzzy or wherever somebody needed something. He spent three or four years in Spain; like a racer you never know where you’re going to go. And that was sort of Sparky’s life.”

If he had a fault, it was that he wasn’t “particularly good at human relations,” Roberts said. “If he saw something that wasn’t right, that’s it, it wasn’t right. He had a hard time with people around him who he didn’t think were doing things right.” When Edmonston showed up at the GP’s in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Roberts remembers seeing crew chief Kel Carruthers and the whole racing team looking at each other and thinking, ‘S–t, Sparky’s with him.’ It was just that kind of relationship.”

Over the years they got into enough trouble that Roberts said he “had enough on him to kill him and he had enough on me to kill me and we were very good friends. One of my closest friends from when we first met, like some people do. He was my friend, my buddy.

“There’s so many things that he did and enjoyed and then it got to where he had to work to be able to enjoy the things that he did. He sort of raised my kids when I wasn’t there.” If he wasn’t at the races, Sparky would watch them on television.

He was unique, Roberts said, “and left us too early. We were supposed to retire and play golf together. It didn’t work out.”

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.