MOTOGP » Eddie Lawson
Eddie Lawson was undoubtedly one of the greatest motorcycle racers of modern times, claiming four 500cc world titles and 31 Grand Prix victories while racing for three different manufacturers.
Lawson bridged the gap: At the start of his 500cc career he lined up as Kenny Roberts’ team-mate and in his final season was racing with Alex Barros and future world champion Alex Criville.
In the nine years between, he beat the likes of Spencer, Sheene, Gardner, Rainey, Schwantz, Doohan, Mamola, Sarron, Roche, Magee and Haslam, showing the cool head and consistent speed that would earn him his ‘Steady Eddie’ nickname.
Having won four world titles, Lawson – ever the rebel – turned his back on the mighty Japanese manufacturers to join Italian underdog’s Cagiva, giving them their first GP victory in his very final year of Grand Prix competition.
After retiring from the Grand Prix circuit, Lawson came out of retirement to win the Daytona 200 for a second time, before turning his attention to four wheels culminating in an entry in the 1996 IndyCar championship.
The Early Years.
Eddie was born into a motorcycle-orientated family on March 11, 1958, in the appropriately named Upland hills on the outskirts of Los Angeles, California.
Lawson was just 7 years old when he first threw his leg over a 80cc minibike and soon after joined many of the young 'throttle junkies' growing up in the area, whose natural outlet was through frantic ultra-competitive racing on the hastily made local dirt tracks.
Crucially for Eddie, he didn’t just ride dirt bikes and benefited from early road racing experience – something that fellow LA rider Wayne Rainey didn’t sample until much later in his career – and by combining the two disciplines the full-time transition to tarmac would prove much easier.
Despite dabbling in road racing, as for nearly all LA racers, it was dirt tracks that were Eddie’s priority and he rose 'steadily' through the club racing ranks reaching the heady heights of AMA Expert status, at the age of 19, in early 1978.
However, as Rainey – two year’s his younger - would later find, the Grand National scene was a tough place for guys in their late teens – no matter how talented.
After two years and after 'only' reasonable results to show for his efforts, a pivotal moment in Eddies career was reached: He was conscious that road racing success [albeit in club racing] was coming much more naturally to him, should he take it more seriously…?
Spurred on by his success, Lawson finally made the full-time switch to Road Racing in 1980, having clinched a deal to ride a Kawasaki in both the AMA Superbike and AMA 250cc GP championships.
Any fears Eddie might have had about making the move soon evaporated when his diverse two-wheeled talent saw him win on both the 1000cc four-stroke and 250cc two-stroke – even taking the championship first time out in the latter, and narrowly missing out on SBK honours.
1980 also saw Lawson introduced to a rival he would race not only for the domestic championships but later the World 500cc Crown – 'Fast' Freddie Spencer.
Spencer was already a factory Honda star by 1980 and the 'face off' between Honda and Kawasaki / Spencer and Lawson was the story of the ‘81 season, and crucially it was Lawson who triumphed – both in the 250s and SBK series.
Eddie successfully defended his Superbike crown in 1982, again with Kawasaki, this time teamed with a young Wayne Rainey, brought on board on Eddie’s instruction. Although he didn’t win a race, Rainey spent an eye-opening year studying his friend Lawson’s already meticulous approach to racing – something both would keep for the rest of their careers.
Meanwhile, Spencer had moved to the 500cc World Championship with Honda – achieving instant success - he finished third overall, won the Belgian GP and was top Honda.
Spencer’s success highlighted the AMA series as a proving ground for future GP stars and paved the way for Lawson’s - and later Rainey’s – move to the premier class.
Difficult Grand Prix debut:
As a reward for his performances in the American championships, Lawson made his 250cc GP debut as a wild card in three rounds of the 1981 championship, again riding a Kawasaki.
However, any thoughts of instant stardom were soon dismissed by three DNF’s on the uncompetitive machine, but for the ever observing Eddie the experience was all useful – not least coming to terms with racing outside America for the first time.
By 1983, and now with two AMA SBK’s championships to his credit, Lawson followed Spencer into 500cc GP’s. This time the world took notice.
1983 – Team-mate to the King.
For ’83 Eddie had reluctantly broken his Kawasaki links to accept a once-in-a-lifetime offer to partner ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, on a factory Marlboro Yamaha, in was the triple world champions last season of racing.
Roberts was clearly the team leader, and it was Lawson’s old rival ‘Fast’ Freddie who looked like being his main rival on the Erv Kanemoto tuned factory NS500 triple. That prediction soon became a reality when Spencer won the first three races in a row, while the home-sick Eddie was finding life as Roberts’ team-mate a tough undertaking: He well and truly in the shadow of a legend – and an American one at that.
Nevertheless, Lawson emerged from his debut season amongst the world’s best a credible fourth - behind Spencer, Roberts and Mamola – with his best result a second behind his team-mate at the Salzburgring in Austria.
Although the year hadn’t lived up to his own high expectations, he’d scored points in all but one race – showing the speed and consistency that would later earn him the 'Steady' Eddie nickname he would keep throughout his career.
1984 – On top of the World.
For his second season in 500 GP’s, and with Roberts now retired, Eddie found himself inheriting the top Yamaha mantel and was the Japanese marques only real hope of taking on Honda’s new NSR500 – a machine that took motorcycle technology to a new level, but would suffer early teething problems.
Favourite for the ’84 crown was undoubtedly reigning champ Spencer, having beaten Roberts at the age of just 21 on the old NS, he now looked even stronger on HRC’s new V4 – a suspicion confirmed when he shot to an early pole in the season opening South African Grand Prix.
However, disaster struck soon after when his rear wheel broke, injuring Spencer and forcing him to watch from the pits as Lawson took his first ever Grand Prix victory.
Despite Eddie’s landmark win, the Status Quo looked to be restored next time out at Misano when Spencer took the NSR’s first victory, ahead of Eddie, in what was then called the Nation’s GP.
After this high, Spencer’s season hit another low when he broke his foot at Donington Park’s Transatlantic Trophy – crucially ruling him out of the following Spanish Grand Prix. Lawson again typically capitalised on his opponent’s mistake to not only claim victory in Jerez, but follow that up by beating the returned Freddie in Austria.
But Spencer was made of strong stuff and bounced back from this blow to take three in a row at Germany, France and Yugoslavia. Regardless of his rivals success, Steady Eddie was doing just that and clocking good points at every outing, so that when Assen arrived [round 8 of 12] the points standings were 89 – 72 in Lawson’s favour.
A third for Lawson behind the Hondas of Mamola and Roche at the legendary Dutch TT – combined with a mechanical DNF for Spencer – meant that a first world title was now firmly within his grasp.
In desperation, and triggered by the Mamola / Roche’s success on the old NS, Spencer returned to the much better understood machine for the Belgian Grand Prix at the daunting Spa circuit. The move proved inspired and a victory for Freddie together with a fourth for Lawson set up a potentially thrilling three-race battle for the world crown.
But it would all come to nothing when Spencer eliminated himself by crashing badly in front of his home fans at a non-championship Laguna Seca race, which forced him to sit out the rest of the season.
Despite the persistent efforts of Mamola and Roche to retain Honda’s crown, Lawson ensured his first title with a 2nd, 1st and 4th, respectively, in the final three GP’s to take him a massive 31 points clear of new nearest rival Mamola, whose title charge was blunted by his late signing.
Although undoubtedly a deserving Champion, some felt Lawson’s crown had come partly through the self destruction of his competition, indeed Spencer had won more races [5 to 4] – but Lawson was only in his second year of GP racing, and had showed incredibly maturity, at the age of 24, to keep his head.
Typically, Lawson proved solid in the face of such pressure.
1985 – Fast Freddie’s home run.
As defending World Champion, Eddie now had a target on his back and was the man to beat. Again riding for Marlboro Yamaha, Lawson had been hoping to benefit from off season developments on his V4, which he needed to match Spencer’s revamped NSR, a machine redesigned and even more fearsome than it had been in it’s debut season.
The only potential weakness in the HRC camp was Spencer’s shock decision to ride ‘double duty’ in ’85 – taking on the epic task of campaigning both the 250 and 500cc classes, and with it the doubled risk of injury.
Despite winning the season opener, Eddie looked to be up against it when Freddie’s NSR took three wins and three seconds from the first six races to hold a 81-74 advantage heading in to Assen, but again the Dutch track proved unlucky for Spencer when he DNF’d.
Unfortunately for Lawson he did likewise and in the process lost his last real chance of catching his countryman who won four of the next five rounds to take the title by 8 points from the ever-determined Eddie.
In what would go down as a record-breaking season, Spencer also guided his NSR250 to title glory.
1986 – Freddie slips, Eddie soars.
In an incredibly tragic twist, Spencer’s victory at the penultimate round of the ’85 season, the Swedish Grand Prix, would be his last ever. In what was then a mystery the 24 year old who had seemed almost unmatchable the year before, returned a shadow of his former self in 1986.
Only later would it be disclosed that Freddie was suffering from Carpel Tunnel syndrome – a condition that caused him to lose feeling in his right arm and so render him helpless on the NSR.
With Spencer effectively sidelined, the ’86 battle became a straight fight between Honda NSR mounted Wayne Gardner – now HRC’s #1 rider following Spencer’s sudden decline – and Lawson’s Agostini run Marlboro Yamaha.
Gardner rewarded Honda’s faith in him by winning the season opener in Jarama, ahead of Lawson, but then four wins in row by the American put him firmly in charge of the title chase.
Lawson’s only hiccup in an otherwise dominating season was a DNF at Assen, which Gardner capitalised on by taking victory, but Eddie’s end of season run included three wins from five races to give him a total of seven victories, and a 22 point title winning margin over the Rothman’s rider for his second world crown.
1987 – Aussie attack.
Having taken his first 500cc GP victories – and been Lawson’s nearest rival in ’86 – Gardner approached the 1987 season with renewed confidence and determination to become Australia’s first premier class champion, and had the might of HRC fully behind him to do just that.
Double world champ Eddie was still Yamaha’s #1 star and was joined on the 'tuning fork' machines by Mamola and Mike Baldwin.
Although the year began with three different winners; Mamola, Gardner and Lawson [from Japan, Spain and Germany respectively], the year would be a major disappointment for Eddie and Yamaha who just couldn’t live with the pace of the Gardner/NSR combination, who went on to win another six rounds on their way to the ’87 crown.
While it was painful enough to lose to a Honda, Lawson wasn’t even top Yamaha with Mamola piping him by just 1 point at the end of the 15 round series, despite Lawson winning five races to Mamola’s three.
1988 - Enter the challengers.
Lawson kept faith with Yamaha for 1988, while new boy’s Rainey and Kevin Magee joined Yamaha Team Roberts in Lucky Strike Colours, with fellow Rookie Kevin Schwantz campaigning a Pepsi liveried Suzuki.
In the Honda camp, Gardner was joined by Niall MacKenzie and Pier-Francesco Chili to set up what looked like being another Yamaha vs. Honda / Lawson vs. Gardner battle, with the unpredictable newcomers thrown in spice up the action.
That was the theory anyway, but then Schwantz shocked by winning on his GP debut at Suzuka, before the old order was re-established with Lawson winning his home round at Laguna Seca. Then Magee won in Jarama to open his GP account, before Eddie notched up two in a row at Portugal and Italy, before Schwantz won round six in German – almost three-quarters through a headline grabbing season and reigning champ Gardner was yet to win a race, although he was still in overall title contention.
Gardner’s slim hopes wouldn’t last much longer though, and looked to have evaporated entirely when he crashed out of the Austrian GP – scene of Lawson’s fourth victory of the year – but the tough Aussie came back with a vengeance at Assen, finally breaking his ’88 duck and starting a three race win streak.
So, with five rounds to go, it was 165 – 145 in Lawson’s favour and, despite injuring himself in a Yugoslavia practice crash, Eddie extended his points lead by seven with a fortunate victory in France when Gardner’s NSR suffered late race mechanical failure.
A recovered Lawson then proved his class by claiming a further two victories [to Gardner’s one] to end the year 30 points clear and a triple world champion. Now Eddie had really joined the GP greats.
Of note was that Lawson’s long time friend Rainey had joined Schwantz and Magee by also taking his first 500cc GP victory in ’88, at round 12 [Donington Park]. After an impressive debut year, in which he had shown signs of Eddie’s own trademark speed and style, that boy would be trouble...
1989 – Lawson vs. Rainey: Part I.
It came as something of a surprise when Eddie announced that after five years – and three world titles – with Yamaha, he would be leaving to join arch-rivals Honda for the 1989 season.
Perhaps Lawson had been convinced by the NSR’s ever increasing performance, or maybe he simply wanted a change of scenery. Whatever the reason, and regardless of HRC’s pedigree, the move to a semi-works team looked risky – but legendary Honda tuner Erv Kanemoto would join him.
1989 would be the year that Rainey, who’d always been a step behind Lawson, finally caught up with his hometown friend and emerged to lead the assault against Lawson and his world championship, as Yamaha’s top rider.
In contrast to Eddie’s previous rivals, Rainey rode with a similar philosophy; he was frighteningly fast - but not reckless, outwardly calm – but fiercely determined, eager to win – but aware of the wider picture.
As such, Lawson found himself facing an adversary who would race him at his own game and while others would shine occasionally throughout the year, the title was only ever between the two LA boys.
But at the season opener in Suzuka, it was neither of the former dirt track stars who triumphed, with Schwantz defeating Rainey after a bitter race-long battle, while Eddie completed the podium on his Honda debut.
Rainey would take the points lead next time out at the new Phillip Island event - but he didn’t win the race. Instead home hero Gardner rose to the occasion and became an instant Aussie legend by clawing victory from the American after a fantastic fight.
Lawson managed just fifth in Australia and when Rainey won the following US GP, from Schwantz, Eddie must have been beginning to question his Honda move. Fellow HRC riders Chili, Doohan and Gardner [who broke his leg at Laguna] were also struggling with the NSR’s aggressive handling.
But all the time Kanemoto was working tirelessly to tame the beast and slowly but surely the pair shaped the NSR into a more rider friendly machine – while maintaining the machine’s horsepower advantage – turning it into a genuine title contender once again.
The breakthrough for 'Eddie and Erv' finally came next time out at Jerez [pictured], when Lawson claimed his first Honda victory and in the process shaped the championship firmly into the much-anticipated Lawson vs. Rainey showdown.
Italy, round 5 of 15, was won by Chili – but only after all other riders refused to race – while Rainey and Schwantz shared honours with two wins each at the following four rounds, so that by the ninth GP of the year – at Assen – Rainey led Lawson by 143 points to 127. Rainey would win the Dutch event, but it would be his last victory of the season.
Although Rainey held a 15-point lead with six rounds to go, that didn’t tell the true story as Eddie and his NSR were now working in harmony and having been true to his name and 'steady' in the face of Rainey’s early season run, he was now in a position to take the fight to the Yamaha star at every remaining round.
Rainey, in only his second year of GP competition, lacked Lawson’s experience and was clearly frustrated as he watched Eddie win two out the next three rounds [and finish second in the other] to head to round 12, Sweden, just 6.5 points [only half points had been awarded at Spa] behind, for what would be the pivotal race of the year.
Eddie was now firmly in his stride, riding faultlessly and with a potential 60 points available from the final three rounds it didn’t take a Math’s genius to work out that all he had to do was continue his post-Assen form and a fourth title would comfortably be his.
Realising this, Rainey made what would be one of his few major mistakes in GP racing. With the pair well clear of the rest of the field and dicing for victory, Rainey overstretched himself in the closing stages and fell – handing Lawson a crucial 13.5 points lead and a massive psychological advantage.
Eddie wasn’t about to lose the point’s lead now and two seconds behind Schwantz in the final two rounds assured him of World Championship number four and a place alongside Mike Hailwood and John Surtee’s in the record books.
As a reflection of Lawson/Kanemoto’s supreme efforts in their one and only year together, the next highest finishing Honda was that of Chili – just sixth in the standings at the end of the season behind three Yamahas and Schwantz’s Suzuki.
Few rider’s in the modern era have won World Championship’s in their first year with a new team and manufacturer, let alone a semi-works outfit, and the triumph – on a machine that factory riders Gardner and Doohan struggled to control – was arguably Eddie’s finest hour.
1990 – Lawson vs. Rainey: Part II.
For the 1990 season, Lawson made another unpredicted move, this time back to Yamaha – more specifically to Team Roberts to be non-other than Rainey’s team-mate.
Such a switch speaks volumes about Lawson’s personality; to join a team built around his main rival could be described as brave, foolish or both. Perhaps if Honda had been keener to keep him, or if his title rival had been anyone other than Rainey he wouldn’t have joined, but the respect between the two was such that Rainey never attempted to block the move and so Kenny Roberts found himself with a true motorcycle ‘dream team’.
But having been on top of the world in 1989, the records show that Lawson would win just one more Grand Prix before his retirement from GP racing at the end of 1992 – and it wouldn’t be with Team Roberts.
Returning mentally stronger and more determined than ever to land his first world crown, Rainey fired a warning shot by winning the season opening Japanese Grand Prix. Then at Laguna Seca Lawson experienced something he’d manage to avoid for so many years – a big crash and injury.
It will come as no surprise to hear that the accident wasn’t Eddie’s fault – instead his brakes failed at high speed and he was forced to bail of his Marlboro coloured YZR V4, breaking his foot against the barriers.
Although genuinely sad at the incident, Rainey wasn’t going to let such an opportunity slip – Lawson was ruled out of the next five rounds, having lost out on a potential 100 points by the time he made his comeback at Assen.
By the time Lawson returned, Rainey had an incredible four victories and three seconds to his credit from the first seven races as he took 500cc racing to a new level – just as Eddie had before him.
Sitting 131 points behind his team-mate before the start of the Dutch TT, Lawson must have known his cause was lost. His only chance was if he could dominate the remaining seven rounds, combined with DNF’s for Rainey – and that just wasn’t going to happen.
Instead Rainey took another three victories to claim the first of three world titles, beating Schwantz by a massive 67 points. By the time the season ended in Australia, Lawson had nevertheless notched up six podium finishes in the final eight races after his comeback – indeed out of those eight rounds Rainey scored just 6 points more than Lawson, but with half the year effectively written off, Eddie was left just seventh in the season end standings.
While he’d been winless in GP’s, 1990 wasn’t a completely fruitless season as Lawson still managed to claim his one and only Suzuka Eight Hours victory, with Yamaha favourite Tadahiko Taira.
1991 – New challenge at Cagiva.
1990 would mark the end of Lawson’s career as a World Championship contender although that seemed to be more down to another of Eddie’s team changes than a reflection of the now 33 year olds potential.
In yet another shock decision he again switched both team and manufacturer by signing for Cagiva - a team who had yet to take a 500cc Grand Prix victory despite over a decade of trying.
Surely someone as level headed as Lawson must have known that he wouldn’t be able to beat Rainey, Schwantz and the fast emerging Doohan - not to mention the mighty Japanese manufacturers – but then maybe that was the point; Eddie had been World Champion four times and after being Rainey’s team-mate the previous year could well have decided that he didn’t need to prove himself any more.
By 1991 he’d beaten the likes of Spencer, Sheene, Gardner, Rainey, Schwantz, Doohan, Mamola, Sarron, Roche, Magee and Haslam on the way to his four world titles – did he really need to do it all again.
Instead, by moving to Cagiva he was also moving the goal posts - the challenge was now to make the Italian team a front running outfit - they’d never even had a rider finish in the championship top-ten before, despite employing the likes of Randy Mamola - and just maybe Lawson could give them a long overdue victory.
For this new challenge, Lawson was teamed with young Brazilian Alex Barros and the pair were soon working admirably as they steadily made the stylish Cagiva into something approaching competitive – to the shock of most of the GP paddock.
The elusive first race victory never came, but by the end of the year he’d dragged the team that had contemplated GP retirement the year before up to an incredible sixth in the World Championship – behind Rainey, Doohan, Schwantz, Kocinski and Gardner – achieving two podium finishes [at Italy and France] and regularly mixing it with the might of the Japanese teams along the way.
By the end of the year Eddie had proved he’d lost none of his determination and earned the respect of riders and fans alike for his gutsy rides as an ‘underdog’.
1992 – One last win.
1992 would be Lawson’s last season of World Championship racing, but Eddie certainly wasn’t going to fade away and while he would stand on the podium just once in the reduced 13 round series, it would be from the top step as he took Cagiva’s first GP victory, at the Hungarian GP.
The win was Lawson’s 31st in Grand Prix racing, an amazing tally that at the time put him third in the all time 500cc win list.
Hungary aside, the season ended with Lawson just ninth in the points in a year dominated by the revolutionary ‘Big Bang' Honda NSR, although it was Rainey who finally took the title after staging a remarkable comeback and taking full advantage of Doohan’s horrendous Assen injuries.
Aside from his Hungary triumph, one of the most enduring images of Lawson in ‘92 was of the single minded Eddie riding along during practice for the Brazilian Grand Prix at Sau Paulo, having decided to venture out despite every other rider claiming the circuit was too dangerous.
1993 to 1996 - Daytona 200 then IndyCar.
After leaving the GP scene, Lawson made two 'one-off' motorcycle returns, both at the AMA SBK season opening Daytona 200 - claiming his second Daytona victory in 1993 [he also won in 1986] and a took a third place on his final appearance in ’94.
Eddie then moved on to yet another challenge, this time outside motorcycle racing, by pursuing a career in American single-seater racing, rising swiftly through the ranks to reach the pinnacle of the IndyCar series, in 1996, with the underfunded Mercedes powered Galles Racing team.
Lawson scored points in 4 of the 11 rounds, with a best finish of sixth – a feat he achieved twice, at locations as diverse as the US 500 [held on the daunting 2.5mile Michigan Super Speedway] and then again on the Detroit road circuit, racing against the likes of Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Gil de Ferran, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Emerson Fittipaldi.
However, when funding for the Galles team dried up at the end of the year, Eddie decided to retire from motorsport completely, at the age of 40.
Lawson life has now gone full circle and he can often be found racing his old friend Rainey once again, but now it’s purely for fun and instead of the merciless 500cc two-strokes, it’s high performance Kart’s that are under Steady Eddie’s command.
Eddie Lawson – Main MotoGP achievements:
- 500cc Grand Prix starts: 134
- 500cc Grand Prix victories: 31 [23% win rate]
- 500cc Grand Prix podiums: 76
- 500cc World Championships: 4 [84, 86, 88 and 89]