Eddie Lawson: 20 Years Later

Catching up with America’s four-time 500cc world champion.

Photography by Gold & Goose

Eddie Lawson: 20 Years Later

Valentino Rossi shocked Grand Prix racing when he left Honda for Yamaha in 2002. Thirteen years earlier, in 1989, Eddie Lawson did just the opposite, shunning Yamaha, with whom he'd won three 500cc world titles, for Honda. As with Rossi, the move worked: Lawson, working with tireless engineer Erv Kanemoto, put together an amazing season and captured his fourth premier-class title.

Cycle World: What prompted you to leave Yamaha?

Eddie Lawson: Giacomo Agostini, the Marlboro Yamaha team manager, started playing games, saying stuff like, "I don't know if we can pay you the same as we did in 1988." I'd just won my third title, so that was tough to hear. Also, I found out Ago was talking to Kevin Schwantz. I met with Erv and told him that I needed a change. When Marlboro discovered I was talking with Honda, they doubled their offer, but it was too late. I actually took a pay cut to ride the Honda.

CW: Up to that point in your professional career, you had raced either Kawasakis or Yamahas. Was it strange to ride a Honda?

EL: It was really weird. Honda was the arch-enemy. I knew what they were capable of because I'd raced them in Superbike and GP. But I was worried because the 1988 NSR500 wasn't very good. My first ride on the bike was at Suzuka in Japan. I remember it was raining. Erv put me on the '88 bike first. After a few laps, I was like, "Uh-oh, I might have screwed up." But then I got on the '89 model and within a few laps I was thinking, "Man, this thing's pretty good." At the Suzuka test, I began to understand how badly Erv wanted to win. Kel Carruthers and I sometimes argued about making changes to the Yamaha. With Erv, I learned to be careful about what I said or the wrenches would be flying. That was a big change for me. I got going pretty good in the wet. We made some changes, and I went faster. Then I highsided and whacked my wrist. Next time I got on the bike was at the first round in Australia. In practice, I slammed into the back of Kevin McGee; his engine had seized. I crashed hard—really hard. I'd already crashed twice, but Erv wasn't fazed. He never lost faith in me.

CW: Were you able to develop the NSR during the season?

EL: Erv and I wanted to make the chassis stiffer, which was opposite from what Honda wanted. One of the engineers told us that the chassis needed to "bend like a tree." I wanted to make big steps—to weld more aluminum to the top frame rail and fit a 50mm fork—but Honda wanted to make baby steps. In Yugoslavia, I lost the front end so badly that the tire left a huge black mark on the pavement. I was running a 17-inch Michelin, and Erv suggested that I try a 16-incher. It didn't work on the Yamaha, so I didn't want to hear about it. Well, we tried it, and the bike was transformed. That was all Erv. Honda's R&D budget was better than Yamaha's, but it was aimed mostly at the factory bikes of Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan. Erv always had our motors apart. He was always drilling and epoxying things.

CW: You won four of 15 races, finished second six times, had three thirds and one fifth. The only DNF was at Misano, Italy, when all the top riders boycotted the restart because of weather. Those are impressive stats.

EL: Erv and I worked flat-out to beat Schwantz and Wayne Rainey. That was our mission. I remember racing Kevin in Spain. He had a big lead, but I kept pushing. He fell and I won, but if I hadn't kept pushing, he may not have felt any pressure.

Winning a Grand Prix race takes a combination of so many things. I had to learn to allow a certain amount of pressure, but I had to have a bleed-off valve. Lots of guys get caught up in the pressure, but I always figured whatever happens, happens. I just did my thing.

Eddie Lawson

Eddie Lawson

Eddie Lawson

Eddie Lawson

Eddie Lawson

Eddie Lawson

Eddie Lawson

Eddie Lawson