Lawson started a three-year stint with Kawasaki in 1980. Here he's on a 1980 MkII KZ1000,
In the beginning, Lawson rode because it was the most fun he'd ever had, and in some ways it's still just as fun for him. "When I first rode a motorcycle, I was just out of my mind," Lawson remembers. "That's all I could think about, all I wanted to do from that point forward. I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever done. I played some ball sports in school, but I just never understood it. I still don't today. I remember being there, playing some game and thinking, `This is the dumbest thing I've ever done. I could be riding right now.'" There is an oft-repeated story of Lawson joining some pals for a game of golf in the '80s. Disgusted, he power-launched the borrowed clubs and bag before they even reached the third hole.
Lawson after winning the 250 class at Daytona in '80. Although contracted to Kawasaki, the
"After the first ride," Lawson says, "I just drove my parents nuts by constantly asking them to take me riding. It really got to the point where I thought they were going to beat me if I asked them to take me riding one more time, because every conversation turned into `...then we can go riding, right?' If they said no, I'd ask my grandparents." Whereas some of his racing contemporaries seem to have stepped away from motorcycling, Lawson exudes the same enthusiasm he did some 40 years ago. He still rides, though most of his weekly two-wheel activities are limited to the desert near his house in Southern California.
Once Lawson became competent on the beater bikes his parents and grandparents acquired for him, the natural evolution--since his grandfather was an ex-boardtrack racer and his father was an ex-dirttracker--was for him to start racing, too. So he did, but how he did is what's important. Lawson raced as a very focused student of the sport, at first on Southern California's dirttracks, then later all over the U.S., and subsequently on roadrace courses.
Lawson and arch-rival Freddie Spencer (No. 8, above) had many duels during their early-'80
From the beginning, Lawson was taught to control the bike; that riding over his head might impress some people, but it was really poor form. It's not an overdramatization to say the idea was burned into his skull. "I just really wanted to understand racing," Lawson says, "and know how to do it before I'd just go banzai. I guess I'm still that way. I like to get a good feel for it before I push hard."
Lawson's father, Ray, taught him how to race competently. When the pair drove off in an old van, it wasn't just to log some decent father/son time. No, if young Lawson was going to race, he was going to do it right. The lessons Ray taught him formed a riding style that later brought both world acclaim and world championships. However, Lawson was not simply a block of clay Ray could form as he desired. After several years, the stress of tutoring and racing created friction between the two, and the younger Lawson began asking his dad to stay home on race weekends. "He'd get all upset," Lawson says, "if I slid off the groove and got passed. He was pretty tough back then. But, you know, I was a teenager and I knew everything and didn't want to be told.
"It wasn't all bad. We had a lot of good times. We went to Daytona in 1977, slept in the van on top of tires and loved it. We just laid there and thought it was bitchin' that we were there racing and didn't know any different. It was a great road trip. We won the Novice race and made enough money to get back home."
Road Atlanta, 1980. Lawson takes another victory on the frisky Black Beauty. He also conti
Beyond natural talent and the ability to learn, the single biggest factor in the development of a successful motorcycle roadracer is experience, which can't be faked or crammed in later, though many journeyman racers have tried. If you examine the careers of today's successful racers, from Nicky Hayden to Mat Mladin to Ricky Carmichael to Chris Carr, the common denominator is that they started riding and racing very early in their lives. It's really no different from a violin prodigy starting to play at 3, giving concerts at 9, then matriculating to Juilliard at 11. While many racers who start competing at a semi-pro level at 21 are quickly crushed by the pressures and dangers, riders who reach that level at 12 aren't distracted by a career or a family, and the intrinsic danger is hardly a factor. Ask any 15-year-old male: they're indestructible.
Serious racers never lose the inherent faith of a 15-year-old. In fact, that faith is nurt
Belgium, 1983: Roberts (left, holding helmet to his chest), Freddie Spencer (Honda leather
Thrown in at the deep end: Lawson teamed with three-time world champ Kenny Roberts startin