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)

Colton Herta, Bobby Rahal team up with BMW in pursuit of Rolex 24 at Daytona overall win

Herta Rahal Rolex 24
IMSA, BMW Motorsport
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though they have opposed each other in the NTT IndyCar Series the past four seasons, the Rolex 24 at Daytona union of Bobby Rahal and Colton Herta seems natural.

Bryan Herta scored his first CART victory with Team Rahal during a 1996-99 run before Colton was even born, and the ties built then

“It’s very cool,” Colton Herta, 22, told NBC Sports. “Obviously Bobby is a legend in the sport that I normally compete in in IndyCar, a three-time champion and won the Indianapolis 500 (in 1986). It’s really cool, and I’ve known Bobby forever. My dad drove for him in the ‘90s in CART and so that transpired into me getting to know him growing up, so it’s really cool and an honor to say you drive for Team RLL.

“We’re not talking about our Indy cars and setups and stuff. We’re talking about how we can make our sports cars faster that we’re driving that weekend. So it’s a completely separate thing, and honestly, I see it as a completely different sport in that aspect. There is no hard feelings over anything in IndyCar and we can just go racing.”

Rahal’s team is known as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, but it’s branded as BMW M Team RLL for its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship entries – signifying its status as the operating arm for BMW, which essentially foots the bill and calls the shots on car development and driver selection.

But Rahal, whose Hall of Fame career was launched by his sports car successes, plays a vital role as team principal. So it’s a special throwback to have having Herta in both of the team’s new BMW M Hybrid V8 prototypes.

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“We, of course, compete against Colton almost every weekend in IndyCar racing, and I really wish he was with us in that series,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “But he’s certainly proved himself to be one of the fastest guys out there and of course, his father was my teammate for several years. We go back a long way. So it’s really fun for me to have Colton with us. For both personal and professional reasons.”

This won’t be the first time Herta has driven a sports car for BMW Team RLL. He made six starts in the BMW M8 GTE from 2019-20 and was part of the winning GTLM team at the 2019 Rolex 24 in his debut.

With seven victories and nine pole positions through four IndyCar seasons, the California native has proven adept at getting up to speed quickly in whatever he is driving. Last year, a Formula One test for McLaren Racing nearly led to an F1 ride in 2023.

“And it’s not just speed,” Rahal said of Herta. “I think he brings a lot of good judgment. When he won the 24 Hours (in 2019), it was a horrible rain, and as an 18-year-old, he didn’t put a foot wrong. And really helped put us in a position to win that race. So he’s smart. He’s obviously very capable. And so he’s a plus for us to have.

“Having said that I would say all our drivers bring attributes that are unique. I won’t say our drivers are better than anybody else’s. Only the race will tell that, but I feel very confident the drivers we do have are equal to anything that’s out there.”


Herta will be teamed with Philip Eng, Augusto Farfus, Marco Wittmann, Connor De Phillippi, Nick Yelloly and Sheldon van der Linde in this year’s Rolex 24.

It’s an unusually long list of co-drivers because Herta is in a unique situation – listed as the fourth driver for both BMW’s No. 24 and No. 25 in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category.

The step up from GT racing to the new premier hybrid class will be major for BMW, which will race a prototype for the first time in two decades.

But there also is special meaning for Rahal, who put himself on the map with an overall victory in the 1981 Rolex 24 at Daytona (co-driving with Bob Garretson and Brian Redman).

“This was the biggest race I won at that point, and at a time in my career when it probably could have gone away more easily than continued,” said Rahal, who recently turned 70. “It was a nexus point at my career. We had a very trouble-free race. Great strategy. As a 28-year-old whose career was kind of iffy, winning this race was a huge turning point for me (and) very, very special and meaningful.

“I can’t think of anything better than if we start our GTP relationship with BMW on a winning note. For me, (GTP) is where we’ve wanted to be. We’ve always been a company that has raced for overall victories, particularly in IndyCar. We’ve had a long relationship with BMW mainly in the GT category, which has been a tremendous honor for us. We won a lot of races (in GT). Won Daytona a couple of times. Won Sebring a couple of times. So those are great victories and things we’re proud of, but for us now, we’re running for overall victories. We worked hard to get to this point and are thrilled to be partnering with BMW to be able to do that.”

Though the GT success provides a great foundation, the leap to prototype is a massive undertaking. BMW also was the last of the four manufacturers to commit to GTP, getting the green light in June 2021, five months after Porsche Penske Motorsport had been announced (Cadillac and Acura are holdovers from DPi, the previous premier prototype division).

Maurizio Leschiutta, the LMDh project leader for BMW M, has described the transition as “a GT is more of a bulldog, the LMDh car is a ballerina. So they require different approaches.”

Though it had the latest start among the four automakers, BMW has tested with furious intensity over the last several months, recently hitting Sebring and Circuit of the Americas.

Before getting 25 laps across both cars on the Daytona International Speedway road course in last week’s Roar before the Rolex 24 practice sessions, Herta had a handful of days testing at Daytona and Bowling Green, Ohio.

The new hybrid system will put a complicated menu of buttons and options on the steering wheel that Herta still was digesting. The car is a high-downforce, high-speed car that bears some similarities to an Indy Car, and Herta does have prototype experience as the LMP2 winner at last year’s Rolex 24 (on a team with Pato O’Ward).

“I’d say the deceleration feels a little different,” Herta said. “The way the brakes changes throughout the brake zone is different. And that’s all done because of the regeneration, and it might regen more at the beginning or more at the later end of the braking zone. But it changes the balance and the way the brake bias is set. There is a little bit of an adjustment period, and you do need to be on your toes with making adjustments inside the car as you drive it. So it’s a little bit more of a handful initially when you get in, but once you get a few laps under your belt and understand how all the systems work, it is a friendly car to drive.

“It’s close to being representative with IndyCar lap times. I don’t think it’s quite as fast, but definitely a huge chunk faster than the GT cars. And a little bit more of a different driving style with obviously a lot more downforce and power.”


Known for being smooth, Herta and the rest of the GTP field will be extra careful about being gentler on the equipment while managing a track clogged by 61 cars with reliability at a premium. Parts supplies are scarce for the GTP cars, and there also are major concerns about the durability of the hybrid engines in their 24-hour debut.

“It seems like it’s going to be a really big endurance race and not a sprint race how this race usually is,” Herta said. “Even the DPis were so reliable, and you could smash the curbs for 24 hours and hammer the throttle, and you wouldn’t have that much of a worry of breaking or blowing an engine or a gearbox.

“It seems with this new formula, everyone is still getting to grips, so maybe reliability will be more of a key and a little more of what we’d see in the ‘80s and early ‘90s of it being more of an endurance race. But it’s still too hard to say. For sure BMW has had great success not only in IMSA but all around in sports car racing as a whole. It shows they have a program that’s capable of winning endurance races and at a very high level.”

Though Herta is uncertain how much time he will have in each car, BMW M Team RLL already has settled his biggest concern of ensuring his seat insert fits well in each car. The main challenge then becomes adapting with each car featuring distinct seat positioning and setups based on the other three drivers.

It also will be a shot at history. Herta is trying to become the third driver to win the overall and score multiple podium finishes with the same team in the top category (a feat also accomplished in the 1968 and ’70 races).

“It’ll be a good opportunity for me to have two chances at winning,” Herta said. “Not a lot of people get that. It’s going to be a really cool dynamic of being able to drive both cars. For sure, it’s a little different, but it’s part of the job. You need to be able to adapt very quickly. I really feel like that’s something that can be taught. You hop around in all these different cars long enough, you learn some tricks to get up to speed a little bit quicker. Hopefully that plays into my advantage, but it is a very exciting opportunity that I think will be very interesting to see how it goes.

To be used in each car, Herta will need to make a minimum drive time of two hours. Rahal views Herta as “an insurance policy to a large degree” if a driver falls ill or gets injured.

“There’s no question he’s up to the challenge,” Rahal said. “Colton’s a race car driver, and race car drivers want to be in the car. So I’m sure naturally a guy like Colton or any other would want to be in a regular basis on the starting rotation, but the way this race is and the difficulty, and of course these cars are going to exact more energy from the drivers than the cars in the past, I think he’s going to get more than his share.”

He also will be running wheel to wheel against familiar teams – Indy 500 winners Team Penske (Porsche), Chip Ganassi Racing (Cadillac) and Meyer Shank Racing (Acura) all have GTP entries.

Herta laughs about even competing against his IndyCar car owner, Michael Andretti, who just became a partner in Wayne Taylor Racing’s championship-contending GTP team.

“It’s very cool,” he said. “Not only do you have these great manufacturers but these amazing IndyCar teams. So it’s pretty cool to see the crossover. I know these teams are very well respected in North America and the manufacturers they bring are respected all across the world. It’s a really cool championship and really cool era of sports car racing that’s dawned here.”