Before he was a 500GP champ, the quiet American was a big noise in superbikes
Eddie Lawson’s racing career with Kawasaki was brief, but he made a massive impression – and rode a whole lot of different Kwackers
No other Kawasaki star raced such a range of Green Meanies as Eddie Lawson. Hired by Kawasaki Motors Corp USA in 1980, the dry-as-dust Californian stayed with them for just three seasons, during which he raced KX250 short-track bikes, KX500 supermotards, Z1000 superbikes and KR250 and KR500 Grand Prix bikes. Lawson’s back-to-back AMA Superbike titles in 1981/82 were the making of him, though he would also have won the 1980 crown but for a dubious protest from Suzuki. In 1981 Honda America outspent Kawasaki by twelve to one, but
‘HE WAS LUCKY NOT TO BE PARALYSED, BUT RETURNED FOUR WEEKS LATER TO WIN HIS FIFTH RACE OF THE YEAR’
the combination of Lawson and drag-bike-tuner Rob Muzzy was unbeatable. Muzzy transformed factory endurance-spec Z1000 motors into 150 horsepower missiles that outclassed Wes Cooley’s Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000 and Freddie Spencer’s Honda CB900. “Rob Muzzy won the championship, I just rode the bike,” said Lawson at the end of 1981. “I think he’s a genius. I don’t know how he does it and I don’t ask. I just know that the thing comes in with a kick in the ass from 7000 to 10,000rpm and that it finishes races.” The 1982 season was different. Honda were back up to speed with a much-improved bike and Mike Baldwin. Then Lawson crashed mid-season and snapped his seventh vertebra in half. He was lucky not to be paralysed, but returned four weeks later to win his fifth race of the year. He won the title ahead of Baldwin, who crashed too often.
In retrospect, after spending a decade racing 500cc GP bikes, Lawson has less fondness for those early Superbikes. “They were just huge and they didn’t do anything good,” he says. “They wouldn’t stop, they wouldn’t turn, they wouldn’t do anything. And the tyres, they were hardly tyres, they were just garbage.” Lawson had raced two-stroke GP bikes before he
‘THE SUPERBIKES WERE JUST HUGE. THEY WOULDN’T STOP, THEY WOULDN’T TURN, THEY WOULDN’T DO ANYTHING’
joined Kawasaki. In 1979 he finished second in the US 250 championship behind Freddie Spencer, both riding Yamaha TZ250S. A condition of his first Kawasaki contract was a season aboard a KR250, albeit an old model, which was then dominating the GP scene. Lawson duly won the US 250 title in 1980 and ’81 when he also took his KR to Europe for three GPS, entirely at his own expense, because he saw his future in racing proper GP bikes, not converted street bikes. Lawson qualified 11th at Hockenheim but DNF’D with a broken crank. At Monza he qualified third behind Toni Mang and Jean-francois Balde, only to crash out on the first lap. At Circuit Paul Ricard he qualified eighth and fell again, his ageing KR no match for the latest 250s. So he wasn’t always Steady Eddie. In 1982 Kawasaki gave Lawson a square-four KR500 to contest the US Formula One series, in which 500cc and 750cc two-strokes grappled with 1000cc four-strokes. Lawson led the Daytona 200 when the Honda FWS1000S of Spencer and Baldwin pitted for new tyres. He had a 40sec lead when the KR’S gearbox went AWOL. A few races later Kawasaki withdrew from the F1 series, so Lawson could concentrate on the Superbike championship, which was grabbing all the headlines. At the end of 1982 he signed for Giacomo Agostini’s Marlboro Yamaha 500 GP team.
IGHT: In 1980, the year he was signed by Kawasaki
LEFT: At Daytona in 1982 on a KR500-4
ABOVE: On a KZ1000 in 1980
RIGHT: chased by Harry Klinzmann at Daytona, 1980