Once a hero to legions of motorcycle racing fans, Eddie Lawson is preparing for his first full season in major league car racing
It’s understandable if Rick Galles is nervous: he just hired a 37-year-old with perhaps two dozen auto races to his name to drive his Indycar. But it’s also understandable if Galles looks like the cat that swallowed the canary: his new driver is Eddie Lawson. And whatever Lawson lacks in time behind the wheel of an Indycar he makes up for in the will and the know-how to win after two decades as one of motorcycle racing’s demigods.
Thus it’s no surprise that Galles was positively beaming after Lawson’s initial test.
“I thought going with (Eddie) this year was going to be a bit of a gamble, but I don’t think so any more,” he said. “He reminds me a lot of Little Al (Unser) in that he’s very methodical. He doesn’t just go out and thrash the car around every time. He doesn’t look like he’s going hard, but he went as fast as we went all last year.”
After winning 31 Grands Prix and four 500cc World Championships, Lawson began running out of mountains to climb on two wheels. Then in 1992, as he was bowing out of the ‘biking equivalent of Formula One, he accepted an offer to drive in two Porsche Cup races and discovered a veritable four-wheeled Himalaya.
“I drove karts as a kid and loved it, maybe more than racing ‘bikes,” he said. “But my grandfather raced motorcycles and my dad raced ‘bikes in the desert, so that kind of led me to ‘bikes. But as my career wound down I did a couple of Porsche Cup races and thought, ‘Boy, this is really neat. I’d love to race cars.’ So it wasn’t a conscious plan to go from ‘bikes to cars, just a case of getting the chance to race cars and loving it.”
Back in the United States, Lawson called his friend Mark Weida, owner of the oldest and most successful team in the Indy Lights series, to see about a test. Weida invited him to a sponsor day at Willow Springs Raceway and, after a few laps in the team’s March-Buick, Lawson was hooked.
Eddie drove in the final race of 1992 with Weida’s Leading Edge team, then cobbled together the budget for half a dozen races in 1993, scoring a second and a third. The following season he struck up a deal with Steve Home’s all-powerful Tasman Motorsports Group as part of a three-car team with Steve Robertson and Andre Ribeiro.
Tasman had crushed all-comers in 1993 with Bryan Herta and Robertson, and was about to stage an encore performance in 1994 with Robertson taking the title and Ribeiro winning three races and rookie of the year.
Lawson started carefully, if not exactly slowly, dialling himself into the team, getting used to racing in an environment where all the body English in the world won’t carry the machine.
“On the one hand, all I’ve ever done is race,” says Lawson. “On the other, they d strap me in the car and I’d think, ‘I don t have a clue.’ But I picked things up. Steve (Horne) said I was like a sponge the way absorbed information. And the team was just awesome, so I did a lot more listening than talking.”
You might say Lawson let his performances do the talking. He qualified on the pole at Long Beach, won at Cleveland and finished in the top three at Phoenix. Milwaukee, Detroit, Portland, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca to claim fourth in the championship.
A second season with Tasman might have seen Lawson follow in the footsteps of Herta and Robertson. But Home, Ribeiro and Tasman moved on to IndyCars in 1995 and there was neither the time nor the budget for an Indy Lights programme. So Lawson sat out the season at his Arizona home on Lake Havasu in the company of television star Crystal Bernard.
But Lawson wasn’t ready for a rocking chair just yet He spent the season searching for the budget for an Indy programme in 1996 and, though he didn’t find it, he did find a message on his answering machine from Galles one day in August.
“Rick said, ‘I want a racer,” recounts Lawson.
Galles owned one of IndyCar’s leading teams in the early ’90s, winning the 1990 PPG title with Al Unser Jnr, and finishing second with Bobby Rahal in 1991. But Rahal left as Galles embarked on a quixotic quest to build his own chassis – the Galmer. Though Unser won the Indy 500, the team lacked the resources to develop the Galmer and, at the end of 1992, Galles and co-owner Maury Kraines parted company. Though Unser and Danny Sullivan each won a race with Galles in 1993, Unser subsequently headed for Penske and Galles sacked Sullivan.
“I’m looking for drivers who are more interested in testing than what their tee-time is on the golf course,” Galles said after losing his two marque drivers.
Though many of the team’s key members jumped ship, chief mechanic Owen Snyder stayed put while engineer Ed Nathman returned after a stint with Newman/Haas. Still a team that had challenged Penske and Newman/Haas for IndyCar supremacy was reduced to a one-car effort for the inexperienced, promising and well-funded Adrian Fernandez. After an up and down 1994, Galles and Fernandez had a solid if unspectacular 1995 campaign, earning seven top 10 finishes in eight races at mid-season, including a third place at Michigan, and 12th in the PPG Championship.
Fernandez, however, set his sights elsewhere apparently Team Green and bought his way out of the final year of his contract with Galles, leaving Rick with some positive cashflow and sponsorship but no driver to fill the vacancy.
Enter Lawson, on Home’s recommendation.
He tested with Galles for three days at Big Springs Raceway in early October, ultimately getting to within a second and a half of the track record in 90-degree heat.
“He surprised us all,” said Snyder, now Galles’ team manager. “He’s so smart, so experienced, it’s unbelievable. You tell him something once and he takes it on board.”
Lawson was encouraged, if not satisfied.
“You never know what to expect,” he says. “I went in thinking, hope this isn’t a big handful; that the learning curve isn’t so steep I can’t handle it.’
“After the first day I was comfortable. Maybe not blisteringly fast, but I was being careful not to do anything stupid. The car was definitely a handful and I respect it, but it wasn’t so far out there that I don’t think can get a handle on it once I get a few miles under my belt.
“Bikes and cars are the same: you’ve got to stay ahead of a car just like a ‘bike. The best Indy drivers, guys like Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jnr, they’re ahead of their cars; they’re telling the cars what to do and when (the car) gets there it’s where they want it to be. It’s the same with ‘bikes.”
Still, an encouraging test is one thing; racing and beating the likes of Andretti and Unser is another. After all, they’ve been racing lndycars longer than Lawson raced 500cc bikes. Lawson is realistic about the coming season, but by no means selling himself short.
“My expectations are very high,” he says, “but I have a tendency to do that. I know I’m not gonna go out and kick people’s butts, but I want to do well. I want to keep the fast guys in sight and not get lapped. I mean if you’re a tailender, you’re just wasting everybody’s time.
“You have to be true to yourself. I know this will be a tough season, but I want it more than anybody, more even than the guys on the team I think.”
Rest assured, Lawson doesn’t need the money; he doesn’t need the acclaim. He just needs to race.
“He’s so focused.” said Snyder. “The thing is, he’s doing this because he wants to do it.”
“You have to really love what you’re doing,” says Lawson. “The top guys may not show it all the time, but they love what they’re doing. There’s no place they’d rather be than racing, and that’s the same, whether it’s bikes or cars.”
It’s a long way until IndyCar’s 1996 season opener, but it looks like Galles got exactly what it wanted: a racer.