The Rise of Roberts
The opening Moto2 race of the season in Qatar was an absolute barnstormer, but I don’t know how many people actually saw it.
For the numerous race watchers who only look at the screen because Valentino is racing, they would have missed the arrival of perhaps American racing’s next great hope in Joe Roberts.
In his third season as a Grand Prix rider, Roberts shut the doubters up by blasting to pole position, doing the lap on his own on a circuit with one of the longest straights on the calendar—making the slipstream a near must for a fast lap.
He then took his American Racing Kalex to a splendid fourth place, just 0.131 seconds off the podium. It was by far his best GP race result, but more than that, it signaled a maturity in his riding and approach to the race weekend that could prove rather disturbing for the rest of the Moto2 field.
I’ve known the young Californian for about five years, after we got super cozy sharing a bed together at the Colin Edwards Boot Camp in 2015 (relax, it was a bunk bed…). A strong willed but happy and very likeable guy, at the time Roberts was about 17, and in the process of laying waste to the field in the now defunct MotoAmerica Superstock 600 class. He’d done his stint in Europe, running three years in the Red Bull Rookies championship that saw him clinch a win at Brno, but like so many great riders from this side of the pond he’d not been able to grab that Moto3 ride his talent deserved. Call it wrong passport, lack of funds, whatever. It didn’t happen for him.
Back in the U.S., it was easy to see this kid was something special. When he stepped up and did a wildcard race in the MotoAmerica Supersport Championship in 2015 at New Jersey in the pissing-down rain, he crushed everyone—including JD Beach, Garrett Gerloff, and Hayden Gillim. He backed that result up the next day with a second-place finish and was rightly put into the Meen Motorsports Yamaha Supersport team for 2016.
That venture didn’t work out as planned, and a sixth-place finish in the standings at the end of the year was not what he or the team expected.
But it’s often said those with real talent back themselves, and with no real options for a Superbike ride and only two teams putting out factory Supersport rides for 2017, Roberts put his money where his mouth was and packed up for Europe Version Two, hitting the ground running in the bonkers-competitive CEV Moto2 Championship run in Spain for the AGR team.
It would prove to be the right choice. Armed with a touch more wisdom than the 12-year-old child who left Red Bull Rookies empty handed, Roberts showed enough talent in the CEV for him to be granted a wildcard ride at his happy hunting ground of Brno for the 2017 Czech Republic Moto2 race. A tenth-place finish in inclement weather, beating the likes of Brad Binder, Tetsuta Nagashima, Iker Lecuona and Fabio Quartararo, meant people now had to take this guy seriously.
The 2018 and 2019 years were tough for Joe, the former on the Japanese NTS chassis—the first year the manufacturer raced in Moto2—and the latter on the KTM, right at the time the Austrian bike forgot how to get around corners and chattered the rider’s teeth out.
Roberts held himself admirably in what must have been a seriously trying time, as slower riders on better equipment regularly finished ahead of him—and when the average guy turns on the TV with no insight into the cause of such low finishes, the only fault they could see lay at Joe’s feet.
But it’s funny how racing works. Over the winter, Roberts was, once again, confirmed at the American Racing Team, owned by entrepreneur Eitan Butbul, and a pair of 2020 Kalex chassis had his name on them. Yet more important than that was the arrival in the team as rider coach of the man, who by all rights should have been a world champion at some point alongside Nicky Hayden—John Hopkins.
The prodigiously talented Mr. Hopkins has long ago hung up his leathers, his body weary of two decades of bone-crunching accidents at the highest level of racing and a few personal struggles along the way that derailed what was a glittering career.
Hopkins is nothing if not stoic, and the perfect ying to Roberts’ yang. He can take what Joe is saying, distil it into the right advice, and hand it back to Roberts in the correct fashion for the him to actually absorb it, rather than have it go in one ear and out the other.
The combination of Hopkins, the occasional advice of Ben Spies, and a brilliant motorcycle in the 2020 Kalex means Roberts now has the best shot of his life to show what he can do on the world stage. And he knows he might not get another.
If you get into GP racing at all, you’re acutely aware there are hundreds if not thousands of riders around the world who would sell their grandmother for your seat. You must perform—or else—and Joe has raised the bar very high for himself with his Qatar exploits.
Roberts is the man American racing sorely needs. MotoAmerica needs him to show riders from their championship can cut it on the world stage (the same as Garrett Gerloff in WorldSBK). The industry needs an American star to cheer on and have a reason to tune into GP racing every second Sunday. And the United States needs another Grand Prix champion, the first since Hayden in 2006. No American has won the Moto2/250cc Grand Prix Championship since John Kocinski way back in 1990.
It’s early days but if Roberts can continue the path he blew open in Qatar, there’s every chance this 30-year drought could be over.
Everyone at here Cycle News will be cheering him on as we find out. CN