Riders from the United States of America won all but three of the 16 500cc world championships between 1978 and 1993. The best known of those champions are Kenny Roberts, who blazed the American trail in Europe during the 1970s, the otherworldly talented Freddie Spencer, who succeeded King Kenny in the 1980s, and Kevin Schwantz, the wild-riding, crowd-pleasing Texan winner of the 1993 title.
But none of these three is the USA’s most successful Grand Prix rider. That accolade goes to ‘Steady’ Eddie Lawson, who won four 500 world titles, the first 30 years ago this August.
Lawson was formed in the same crucible as the generation of Americans who crossed the Atlantic and changed motorcycle racing forever. Like Roberts, he grew up on the dirt-track ovals of California and was chosen by Roberts to succeed him as number one at Yamaha.
The ‘Steady’ nickname was a rhyming attempt at describing his beautifully unruffled progress around racetracks, which marked him out from many of his compatriots who looked scarily fast. Lawson always looked slow but never was.
His primary rival following his 1983 Grand Prix apprenticeship season was ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer. Unsurprisingly, Lawson didn’t appreciate the contrast in nicknames.
“There was Fast Freddie and I kicked his ass, so I didn’t care,” he says. “Everyone would go, ‘Steady Eddie’. I was like ‘Okay, yeah, whatever’. They’d say ‘Boy, you look slow out there’ and I took that as a compliment.”
Lawson came out on top of his long-running rivalry with Spencer, with one more US Superbike crown and one more 500 title. He won his first three 500 championships with Giacomo Agostini’s Marlboro Yamaha team, then fell out with Ago and signed with Rothmans Honda for the 1989 season, prompting some mildly deranged fans to call him the Anti-Christ.
The Honda NSR500 he rode in ’89 was one of the nastiest race bikes ever built: too much engine, not enough chassis. It even terrified Mick Doohan, riding his rookie GP season. “I recall Mick coming into my motorhome, practically in tears, wondering what to do,” Lawson recalls.
Somehow, Lawson managed to win the championship on the NSR; one of bike racing’s all-time greatest achievements. The success also made him the first rider to win back-to-back titles on different marques. During that summer he tried 13 different chassis on the ill-handling NSR to defeat Yamaha’s latest number one Wayne Rainey, who had been a frequent rival during his dirt-track days back in the US. The pair had been friends for at least a decade but the high tension of that summer got the better of them. “Beating Wayne that year really tweaked him,” Lawson says. “We didn’t talk much after that.”
Lawson later fell out with Schwantz, following a high-speed collision and crash at Assen. When he retired at the end of 1992, Schwantz saw him leaving the paddock after his final race and shouted after him: “Get the f**k out of here and don’t you ever come back!”.
Invariably curmudgeonly in public, Lawson was a different man out of the media glare, with a brilliantly dry, dark sense of humour.
In August 1992 the Grand Prix circus came for the first time to Interlagos, for the penultimate race of the season. Riders were shocked at the complete lack of run-off at the fast final turn and planned to boycott the event. Lawson was among the ringleaders. However, Rainey needed every race he could get to chase down injured championship leader Doohan, so he refused to strike alongside his old friend. Lawson walked out of a meeting, vowing to do the opposite of what everyone else chose to do.
When practice went ahead the next morning on a soaking, slithery track, the pits stood silent. Finally, a single machine started up and trundled down the pit lane. It was Lawson on his Cagiva. As he passed Rainey’s pit he slowed down, peered in, whipped in the clutch, revved the engine and went out to practise. He’d made his point; the race went ahead.
Briton Rob McElnea, a team-mate at Marlboro Yamaha, recalls some great nights out with him. “Eddie was a proper funny guy and a good drunk – he’d just sit in the corner laughing, but if we got out of control and started doing crazy stuff, he’d calm us down.”
Lawson wasn’t keen on being famous and enjoyed a tense relationship with journalists. He once threatened to set his attorney on me and only recently did he reveal the reasons behind his dislike for us ‘gentlemen’ of the press.
“When I went over to Europe to do GPs in ’83 the press were real harsh, just brutal. They’d write things and I’d go, ‘That’s not what happened’. Being smart about it now, I shouldn’t have got in their faces because that pissed them off, then I got pissed off, so it snowballed. Finally I went ‘I’m not talking to the press’, which is the worst thing you can do. They hated me and I didn’t like them and that was the way it was. I just thought, screw you guys, I’m going to concentrate on my bike and I don’t need to talk to you.”
I (and many other journalists) wasted many hours knocking on Lawson’s motorhome door, hoping for a chat and getting no answer, knowing full well he was inside. “I’d laugh because I wouldn’t open the door, but then the press would just make things up.” Not me, honest.
Lawson renewed his friendship with Rainey after the latter’s career-ending accident that put him in a wheelchair. “When Wayne got hurt, I knew I had to help him somehow.” So Lawson built a hand-controlled kart, powered by an 85bhp 250 GP engine.
Steady Eddie was misunderstood by many people because he didn’t care to be understood, but he was a good guy.