Joe Roberts didn’t win the Moto2 opener in Qatar on March 8, but the 22-year-old American still made quite the impression.
In qualifying, Roberts became the first American rider since 2010 to win a pole position in MotoGP’s intermediate class. He then went on to lead 15 of 20 laps on his No. 16 bike before finishing fourth in the race, his career-best finish to date.
Roberts’ weekend results represent a swift change in performance for the Malibu, California, native, who finished 28th in the Moto2 standings last year with a pair of 14th-place finishes as his best result.
It wasn’t that Roberts didn’t have talent. In fact, he has previously shown that he has plenty.
In 2014, Roberts won all five AMA Pro Supersport events he entered. The next year, he won the MotoAmerica Superstock 600 title.
When Roberts first entered Moto2 in 2017, a lot of the necessary puzzle pieces to put together a winning formula were not there yet. But now, Roberts and the American Racing team are ready to compete.
Roberts is riding this season on a Kaltex bike, which is the chassis of choice for Moto2 teams. He also has an experienced crew chief in Lucio Nicastro and a talented rider coach in John Hopkins.
“The last two seasons were really tough for me. I didn’t have anything close to what I achieved the other weekend (in Qatar),” Roberts told NBC Sports. “This year, the team really helped me out with getting some really good people behind me. They’ve believed in me from the beginning.”
Judging by their performance in Qatar, it seems things have come together for the No. 16 team.
While being up front was a new experience, Roberts said being in contention for the win felt natural.
“It’s always something I wanted to do, and it’s always something I thought I was capable of doing,” Roberts said. “I’ve always visualized myself winning pole positions and leading laps, so once it started to come to life, it started to feel normal really quickly. I think that’s a good thing for the future.”
With such a great performance in the season opener, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Roberts is eager to return to racing soon. But unfortunately, the exact date of Roberts’ next race remains up in the air because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The outbreak has postponed the rounds in Thailand and Argentina, as well as the lone American round in Austin. MotoGP’s premier division, which canceled Qatar, currently is scheduled to begin its season May 3 in Perez, Spain, but even that seems optimistic.
“Obviously I want everyone to be safe, have this thing under control and have everyone comfortable to be at the race, but I want to go back to racing,” Roberts said. “I think everyone wants things to get back to normal.”
Until then, things will have to remain on hold. But the prospect of more good runs by Roberts brings excitement to a sport that has not seen a competitive American in quite some time.
American riders previously had found plenty of success in MotoGP (watch Joe Roberts discuss the connections to his countrymen in the video above).
Kenny Roberts (no relation to Joe) became the first American to win the world championship in 1978. He then went on to win it again in the next two seasons.
The 1980s and ’90s also brought more American dominance in the sport with riders like Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, and Wayne Riley all winning multiple titles. But as the ’90s continued, and MotoGP raced into the new millennium, that dominance began to evaporate.
Kevin Schwantz was the last American rider to win a championship in the ’90s, taking the title in ’93. Kenny Roberts Jr. won the 2000 championship, and the late Nicky Hayden won it all in 2006, but no American has been able to clinch the title since.
Roberts’ team owner, Eitan Butbul, wants to change that. Butbul, who also serves as Roberts’ manager, purchased the Swiss Innovative Investors team at the end of the 2018 season and rebranded the team as American Racing.
The team’s facilities are located in Southern California. Spaniard Marcos Ramirez also races for the team.
In addition to purchasing and relocating the team, Butbul is also behind many of the personnel and equipment changes that have provided Roberts with a chance to compete for victories.
“My goal was to try to bring the U.S. back into the world championship through the team,” Butbul told NBC Sports.
For Butbul, Roberts’ finish in Qatar was a rewarding result after extensive preparations.
“For me personally, I think it was the best feeling in my last three years working with Joe and the team. Even more than the podium we got last year (with Iker Lecuona) at Thailand.” Butbul said. “I think the main reason is because I’ve worked with Joe since the first day that he came to the world championship.
“It wasn’t easy. It was a lot of hard work and believing in his talent and that he could do it.”
Should Roberts and American Racing continue to find prosperity, MotoGP may see a resurgence in interest by his fellow countrymen. Roberts said he believes American sports fans take more interest in international sports when one of their own can be competitive on a weekly basis, so he knows that a lot could possibly come from his success.
“My goal is to be the best, and whatever people take from that is what it is. But it would be great if American fans took a huge interest in it,” Roberts said. “It would be great for the sport and great for America.”