Steady Eddie | ICON

The Big-Bore Beginning of Eddie Lawson’s Racing Career

Eddie Lawson leads a long line of superbikes—including Freddie Spencer (8), Steve McLaughlin (97), and David Aldana (109)—through Road Atlanta's famous esses during his debut 1980 superbike season.

Like so many great American motorcycle racers, Eddie Lawson got his start as a Southern California dirt-track rat, learning to slide under the watchful eyes of his father, Ray, and his grandfather, Chuck Long, both ex-racers. A regular at Corona and Ascot by age 12, when Lawson earned his AMA Expert license in 1978 at age 19 (riding for famed Yamaha tuner Shell Thuet) he was one of the fastest racers on the SoCal circuit.

This flat-track experience proved invaluable the next year when, after his impressive debut at the inaugural ABC Wide World of Sports “Superbikers” proto-supermoto event, Lawson was invited to try out for Kawasaki’s superbike team. Lawson was immediately at home on the fire-breathing, KZ1000-based superbike, easily turning the fastest laps around Willow Springs. The upright riding position and high, wide handlebar felt familiar, and nearly 140 hp channeled through a skinny rear tire effectively mimicked the tenuous traction conditions of dirt—complete with sideways, powersliding corner exits.

Lawson also won the AMA 250GP championship for Kawasaki in 1980 and ’81. Here he shares a laugh with Jimmy Felice at Daytona in 1981.

Kawasaki signed Lawson to ride the #21 superbike for the 1980 season. He won his second race, at Talladega, ahead of seasoned superbike veterans like David Aldana, Wes Cooley, and Steve McLaughlin, as well as a young, Honda-mounted Freddie Spencer. Lawson won three times that year to finish the series in second place—behind Cooley but ahead of Spencer—setting the stage for the epic Spencer/Lawson rivalry that defined the next season.

“Fast Freddie” won races, it was said; “Steady Eddie” (nicknamed for his cool, calculated racecraft) won championships. True to form, Lawson won the 1981 AMA Superbike championship with unfailing consistency, winning four rounds and finishing on the podium seven times. Lawson repeated that feat in 1982, winning more poles (four), more races (five), and more podiums (seven) than anyone else in the class. (Spencer had departed for GP racing in Europe that year.)

Lawson signed with Yamaha for the 1983 Grand Prix season, and raced this OW69 “Daytona Special” in the 200 before heading overseas.

Lawson followed Spencer overseas the next year, teaming with Kenny Roberts on the premier Marlboro Yamaha effort. Two-strokes weren’t unknown to Lawson—he also won the AMA 250GP championship in 1980 and 1981—but learning unfamiliar international circuits on a ferociously fast 500 wasn’t easy. Steady Eddie adapted quickly, however, winning his first 500GP World Championship in 1984 despite heavy pressure from Spencer who, perhaps predictably, won more races but also crashed more often. Lawson won the world championship again in 1986, fighting off rival Wayne Gardner, then for a third time in 1988, outcompeting Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey. Lawson switched from factory Yamaha to the privateer Rothmans Honda effort to win his fourth and final world championship in 1989, becoming the first rider ever to win back-to-back championships on different manufacturers’ machines. It wasn’t just the bike.

Lawson’s 1990 season was cut short by a horrific, 160-mph crash when his brakes failed in Laguna Seca’s Turn Two. When he retired from GP racing after the 1992 season, Lawson was ranked the third winningest rider ever, with 31 individual 500GP race wins. Still, it was his early years on the iconic #21 Kawasaki superbikes, where Lawson first forged his meticulous, methodical, always cool-headed racing character, which made the deepest mark on most of us.