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.

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.

"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.

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."

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.

And therein might lie one of the most important factors in growing a world championship racer: finding a comfort level in the madness, finding the faith to believe that nothing bad can happen to you while sliding a motorcycle sideways at 110 mph with an Armco fence 18 inches off your back wheel. Serious racers never lose the inherent faith of a 15-year-old. In fact, that faith is nurtured and used as a building block for success.

Lawson was able--or was taught--to develop a riding style that led to victory. It relied on natural talent allied with the unflinching courage of youth, the capacity to learn the game of racing and a circumspect approach stemming from a childhood desire for the riding to never end, influenced by the knowledge that if he fell, chances were he was done for the day or the weekend.

At times, though, Lawson found his hard-learned caution completely overwhelmed by the sheer pragmatic need to win. In the mid-to-late '70s, the future world champion came frighteningly close to quitting racing because of finances--or a lack of them, to be exact. "You'd just wonder how you were going to keep going," Lawson says. "I'd go and borrow money from my grandparents for gas and an entry fee so I could race, and know that if I didn't win some money, there wasn't gas to get back."

Adventure is often discomfort remembered. Lawson shared a van with Wayne Rainey on some of those no-money trips to far-off racetracks, the pair of future world champions having the time of their lives, racing for a living until the money ran out. When one of their trips ended, the pair had only 20 cents between them and had to wire home for money so they could return. "Wayne and I paid our dues more than most people," Lawson says. "These kids today, it's just mind-boggling to me that they have transporters at 15 years old." But the costs of racing were not limited to the financial. It's startling to read grid sheets from the days when Lawson raced AMA Grand National dirttrack and realize how many of the riders are now dead, killed in racing crashes. Lawson himself suffered a ghastly crash on a 250 at Riverside that dislocated his hip and came very close to ending his career.

Still, Lawson retired without a limp and with all his fingers intact, even though he raced both domestically and internationally in what was arguably the most dangerous period in modern motorcycle racing. Rainey is in a wheelchair, five-time 500 GP world champion Mick Doohan limps like a peg-leg pirate, and one-time world-champ Kevin Schwantz's wrist X-rays ought to be on file at a medical museum of horrors. Like the Rolling Stones, who survived the drug-addled '70s largely intact even as their entourage dropped like flies, Lawson left racing on his own terms and under his own power because of what he learned when he was 12 years old: find the limit and respect it. He watches MotoGP racing on television these days and is thankful he rode GP bikes when they put out "only" 180 horsepower. "I look at those things now," he says, "and go, `Man, I'm glad I'm not doing that.' It's fun to watch, but...no thanks."

Lawson still races--he's still breathing, after all. He's a huge talent in shifter kart racing on the West Coast. But he admits the days of stuffing another competitor for a position and stepping gingerly over the edge in order to win a trophy are behind him.

"It's a blast," Lawson says of his Yamaha-powered kart. "It's fun to try and find a good setup and then go do some fast laps. It's actually pretty intense--we go as fast as a GTS car at Laguna Seca and lap as fast as the World Superbike motorcycles." But at the same time, this is racing for fun, as opposed to racing for a world championship. "I suppose you could call it racing, but it's really just a good time," Lawson says. "It's not racing as I knew it. This is a bunch of us getting together on the weekend and having some fun in our karts."

Having some fun. To mere mortals, fun means pretty much just that. But to Eddie Lawson, having some fun translates into winning races. And winning is what he's still doing, four decades later.

The great fiery furnace within Lawson still burns brightly.

Eddie Lawson on...What he does today.Lawson splits his time between homes in Southern California and Lake Havasu, Arizona. He enjoys a relaxed lifestyle where he is beholden to no one and does what he wants every single day.

No job is the best job: Lawson has a personal services contract with Yamaha. But because of smart investing while he raced, he does not need to work for income. That said, if you're expecting him to be vegged out in front of the TV every afternoon, you'd be wrong.

Does he regret retiring at only 34 (Miguel Duhamel is 37):"The day I retired, I was happy with it and had no regrets. Like Bob Hannah said, `I had won enough, lost enough and crashed enough, and it was time to stop.'"

On his brief IndyCar career:"The truth about racing cars is that if a competent driver is in a great car, he will win. Yet a great driver in a bad car has no chance. On motorcycles, maybe a good rider on a bad bike won't win, but he definitely has a chance. In cars, you have no chance without the best machinery."

On MotoGP champ Valentino Rossi trying to be the first rider since Lawson to win back-to-back world titles on two different makes of machinery:"I think it's great for Yamaha that they're back up there, and I think it's great Rossi has a shot at it. I think it just proves that, even today, the rider is still very important in motorcycle racing.

"I hope Rossi wins the title for Yamaha this year. I really do. It'd be neat for Yamaha to win it, and if they do, Honda deserves to lose it."

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By Dean Adams
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