“Steady Eddie” Lawson lived up to his nickname as he stalked Wayne Gardner and Niall Macke
If ever there was a day to be a proud American, this was it. The inaugural United States Grand Prix at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway on April 10th, 1988, marked the first time the stars of the FIM 500cc World Championship had competed in America since Daytona in ’65. An Englishman, the late, great Mike Hailwood, won that '65 event, as he had done in '64. Most of the competitors in the ’88 USGP were toddlers then.
Ever since “King” Kenny Roberts won the first of his three 500cc world titles in succession in ’78, American race fans longed to see a GP in person. True, the AMA had a two-stroke Formula 1 class up until ’86, but that was predominantly contested by long-in-the-tooth Yamaha TZ750s, not cutting-edge 500cc V4s. To say nothing of the caliber of riders, and there were no fewer than four Yanks competing in the 500cc World Championship full-time: Roberts, teammate Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer and Randy Mamola.
Roberts and Spencer had both retired by the time the inaugural Laguna Seca USGP was held in ’88 (the latter to attempt a comeback in the future), and Mamola sat out the race with a concussion after a spill in practice. But there was no still shortage of Americans on the grid: With then two-time world champ Lawson, polesitter Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz in their debut 500cc GP seasons, plus five-time AMA F1 champ Mike Baldwin, the odds of The Star Spangled Banner playing that afternoon were high.
It didn’t look good initially, however, as Scotsman Niall Mackenzie jumped out to an early lead on his Erv Kanemoto-tuned Honda, pursued by reigning World Champion Wayne Gardner of Australia on the factory Rothmans Honda. Rainey ran up front for a bit on his Lucky Strike Roberts Yamaha but faded to fourth, while Schwantz gave chase in fifth. Lawson, meanwhile, sat in third on his familiar Kel Carruthers-tuned Marlboro Agostini Yamaha.
These were the days before traction control—before Big Bang engine technology, even—and as the race wore on, Lawson better conserved his tires. He hunted down and passed both Honda riders inside Turn 2 on successive laps to take the lead and, eventually, the win—much to the pleasure of the very vocal 100,000-plus spectators, the biggest crowd ever at Laguna Seca prior to a visit by the Pope.
With the crowd chanting, “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie…,” Lawson sensed how special this moment was, and in atypical fashion stopped at the Corkscrew to toss his helmet and gloves to the fans. Sporting an ear-to-ear grin, he rode helmetless down through what would one day be called Rainey Corner and on to the old winner’s circle outside Turn 10. There, America’s national anthem was played for the second time that afternoon, as Jimmy Filice had won the 250cc GP earlier—but that’s a story for another day. MC