Joe Roberts tries to revive MotoGP’s U.S. legacy at American Racing

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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.

WATCH: Joe Roberts talks about legacies of American riders

Joe Roberts and the American Racing team celebrate his pole position in Qatar. (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)

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.”

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Joe Roberts rounds the bend on his No. 16 bike during Moto2 practice at the Losail International Circuit in Doha, Qatar. (Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida