A Few Minutes with Eddie Lawson
For me, the 1980's were a time of pegged, fashionably ripped jeans, re-runs of 'Three's Company' and voluminous hair. For many of you, however, the 1980's were a golden era of motorcycle roadracing, with the Grand Prix being held in California, packed with a grid of American racers, racers as fast and victorious as the most famous of the Europeans.
Eddie Lawson was born into a family of motorcycle racers in 1958, and started racing flat track on a 90cc bike at 12 years old. By the time he was 15, he was known as a fast amateur in both flat track and road-racing.
In 1979, the 21 year-old Lawson was second-ranked nationally (to Freddie Spencer) in the AMA 250 GP class.
In 1980 Lawson was invited to try the new AMA Superbike class, where 130 hp monsters with tube-steel frames and skinny tires were wrestled around road courses flat track-style by the likes of Wes Cooley and Lawson's 250GP rival Freddie Spencer. "It was really pretty fun to ride those old 1000cc Superbikes" said Lawson in an article from the AMA website. That 'fun' resulted in him taking the 1981 and 1982 Superbike championships, despite epic, memorable battles with Freddie Spencer. His signature green-and-white KZ1000 superbike has been immortalized by the 1982-83 Eddie Lawson Replica KZ1000, and the 1999-2004 Kawasaki ZRX1100 and ZRX1200.
Having proved himself at the pinnacle of US motorcycle competition, Eddie was hired by Yamaha in 1983 to race their fearsome 500cc two-stroke Grand Prix machines. Hurtled suddenly to the most competitive, fastest racing on Earth, Lawson struggled to find his stride during the 1983 season, finishing fourth: still an impressive finish for a rookie GP rider.
The following season, Lawson got his groove on, taking the world championship with four first-place finishes and four second-places. Through the end of the 1980s, Lawson dominated the sport along with US rivals Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Freddie Spencer, and Randy Mamola. With 31 Grand Prix victories, 78 podium finishes, and four World Titles, Lawson is the winning-est GP rider in US history.
After a relatively long and successful career in GP racing, ending with a first-place finish on the still-developing 500cc Cagiva in 1992, Lawson capped his motorcycle racing career by racing the Daytona 200 in 1993 and 1994, beating Scott Russell on the last lap of the 1993 race. After a brief stint as an Indy-car driver, Lawson retired to enjoy the good life, riding motorcycles,go-karts, jet-skis and dirt bikes: 'I still like to 'jiggle my fat' (as he calls riding dirt bikes in the desert)...I just like to ride.'
At our interview, Lawson was patient, pleasant and friendly, treating me not like the unknown schmuck that I am, but rather as a motorcycle enthusiast and racing fan who deserved treatment as an equal.
He is humble and attentive, almost maddeningly so. My goal for our interview was to find out what made somebody like Lawson ' a guy who at one time was faster on a racetrack than anybody else alive ' different from somebody like me, who will never be better than an average club racer or trackday rider. According to Lawson, it's all about 'seat time'.
Gabe: What's the difference between somebody like you or Wayne Rainey and regular riders?
Lawson: It's just seat time...when Wayne gets in [a shifter kart], it seems really slow to him. When you ride a 500cc GP bike, after that, everything's slow.
Gabe: But even with the training and the 'seat time' and equipment, there's still a difference between you and everybody else. How do you explain it?
Lawson: When you're going through the different stages of competition, from novice to amateur to pro, you had to be in that upper group to move on to the next stage...you had to have something going for you to get there. Then once you make it there and you have the equipment and you have the seat time, and you're already at a top level, you just keep getting better and better, and then we did that for ten years. So when you see that, you're seeing the end result of 40 years.
Gabe: In the 80's, Americans dominated GP, but now Hayden [and the other Americans are] having a tough time.
Lawson: 'It took Nicky a little longer than I thought. Now he's going really quick and I think he's really going to be there, but it took him a long time. Wayne [Rainey] and I were thinking, 'I don't know if he's going to make it there or not'. But...the more races where he's showing up on the podium, the more confidence he's going to have, and that's what's going to put him up there on top.
Gabe: Is it harder for American GP racers now?
Lawson: 'It's much easier now to go from Superbike to GP. Everyone, even Valentino says the four-stroke is easier to ride. Three-quarters of the field, if you gave them a two-stroke , they wouldn't know what to do. They're on awesome tires, with powerbands that are extremely wide.
Gabe: So why are there fewer Americans?
Lawson: That's a good question.
Gabe: I was hoping you'd know.Lawson: No.
Gabe: How would you prepare yourself mentally? How would you get 'into the zone'?
Lawson: I never did any of that stuff. We just rode.
Gabe: Would you stretch?
Lawson: No we would just eat a regular breakfast, a big lunch (lots of pasta) and just ride. I never had to psych myself up, never.
Gabe: In my motorcycling culture, there's always someone better than you, there's always something to learn. What's it like to be the guy on the very top?
Lawson: All you can you hope for is that you can win the championship, I've never been one to say 'how would Rossi do against Kenny Roberts...all you can hope for is to be the best in your time. That's all you can hope for. Each year I had different guys to race against... The guys always changed, but you had to be the fastest guy.
Gabe: But what does it feel like to be the fastest?
Lawson: It's a great feeling. I don't know what else to tell ya. Mission accomplished.
Gabe: When I'm on a track, if I'm chasing someone who's better than me, that's how I get better. What do you do when you're the fastest guy out there?
Lawson: At that level, you're racing the clock and the time sheet and you're going, 'Wayne Rainey's two-tenths faster than me. Where am I going to find two-tenths?' and you're looking at your gearbox and you're looking at suspension and you're thinking in your head, 'well going through this corner or that corner I'm not feeling good, I'm gonna do this or I'm gonna do that to find those two-tenths' and that's what you do.
Gabe: Do you have a street bike?
Lawson: I have an R1, I call it a 'Lawson Edition'...and in April I'm getting the new FJ[R1300].
Gabe: You did well racing in the rain. Do you have any rain-riding tips?
Lawson: In the rain I was always lucky and went quick in the wet...I either won or I crashed. It's hard, you gotta be as careful as you can, the problem is, you have all these back-marker guys, the guys in the back that are now gonna go fast because it's raining.
Gabe: It's like an equalizer.
Lawson: No, not really. It's just that they can now take big chances, because they're not in the points, they don't care, they can run right up front, and now you gotta duke it out with these guys who were running in back because they're taking chances, so you gotta push it a little more and a little more, because they don't know where the braking points are either...they're just gonna run up there...they have nothing to lose. The top five guys have everything to lose.
Gabe: How about tips for safe and fun riding on the street when it's raining?
Lawson: If anybody likes to do that it's pretty strange. If you have to do it, that's one thing, but you hit painted lines and manhole covers and dirt...if you're into that, that's pretty weird. On race day, we had to do it. I'm a fair weather rider.
Autographing posters at the Yamaha booth at last year's Motorcycle show in San Jose sat one of these legends: Upland, CA native Eddie Lawson. He's known in the industry as being a genuinely nice and approachable fellow, so I asked Yamaha's publicity folks if I could spend a few minutes chatting with Eddie on behalf of our MO readership. Things fell into place, and at the designated hour we settled down in a spot away from the crowds of enthusiastic fans who still remember every lap of his last USGP appearance to ponder motorcycle racing and what it means to really be fast.