Eddie Lawson

With all deliberate speed

By Dean Adams

There is an old debate in racing about whether world championship riders are born or made. Some say you really can't teach anything to future world-class riders after they hit their midteens; that the ability to get that last thousandth of a second comes from a drive to win that burns within like a great, fiery furnace. Others say that with the right tutoring, a rider on the cusp of winning can be coached to be a world-championship contender. In Eddie Lawson's case, both views are correct.

Lawson left motorcycle racing with a final turn of his back, retiring from Grand Prix (now MotoGP) after the 1992 season. He cashed in by doing just four professional motorcycle races afterward--Daytona and the Suzuka Eight Hours twice each, largely to fund his then-fledgling IndyCar effort. After the '94 Suzuka event, Eddie Lawson never raced a motorcycle again.

When he stowed his leathers into his gearbag for the final time, Lawson's palmars were vast: four 500cc world championships, including back-to-back titles in '88 and '89, first on a Yamaha and then on Honda machinery; two AMA Superbike championships in the early '80s; plus a pair of AMA 250 Grand Prix titles. His secondary accomplishments, feats mentioned in passing now, would be milestones for lesser rivals.

For example, Lawson is the only man in history to win the 500cc title on different makes of motorcycles in successive years, and he was the first to win a 500cc GP race on the then-dark horse Cagiva. Furthermore, he beat Freddie Spencer to the world championship in '84, when Spencer was regarded as an all-but-unbeatable racing god. Lawson also won the made-for-TV Superbikers event in the early '80s, which pitted riders from all disciplines of racing against one another in a Supermoto-style contest to determine the best all-around motorcycle racer. Moreover, he is one of the few riders to escape the stylish GP game of the '80s without writing a book or getting married.

A book on Lawson's illustrious career would, of course, focus on his GP years. And there are certainly a variety of interesting stories from that period, not limited solely to his leaving Yamaha at the end of the '88 season and signing with Honda. The really interesting--and mostly unknown--tales are from Lawson's teens, when he raced on American dirttracks, many times in front of fewer than 100 spectators for less than $5 in prize money. If you're looking for the answer to the born-or-built debate, it's probably found there.

Even before he rode or raced, Lawson loved motorcycles. His father and grandfather both rode. Lawson was riding at age 7 and racing by age 12. His grandfather and father would take him to the desert to go riding when, according to Lawson, his feet "just about touched the footpegs" of a 100cc beater they bought him; that's the footpegs, mind you, not the ground. And the 100 was a brittle little pile. Crashing it usually meant broken levers or bent bars--a complete ride-stoppage. The danger of the fun ending prematurely branded the "don't crash" rule into Lawson's cerebral cortex. Even at that young age he learned to calculate his risks, and the legacy of those first lessons endured.

In both AMA Superbike and Grand Prix racing, Lawson was recognized for measuring his efforts and only going as fast as the equipment would allow him, rather than taking foolish risks that might launch him and the bike into the cheap seats. When he raced GPs in the '80s and '90s, the European press criticized Lawson because of his controlled and understated (yet hugely effective) riding style; they were eager for more drama from a rider who saw boundaries and rarely went past them.

By Dean Adams
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