Rac­ing leg­end Mert Lawwill’s end­lessly in­no­va­tive re­tire­ment

Motorcyclist - - Garage - BY GAZ BOULANGER

mert walks us through the house he built on a $15,000 plot of Tiburon, Cal­i­for­nia, land in 1968. The man Steve Mc­queen once told that he wished he could have traded places with points to land­scape paint­ings on the wall and rem­i­nisces. His mother was a teacher and painter. His fa­ther, an en­gi­neer and painter. One sis­ter was a con­cert vi­o­lin­ist, an­other a state beauty-con­test win­ner, an­other a painter. His brother was an air­line pi­lot.

Which made mo­tor­cy­cle-rac­ing Mer­ton Ran­dolph Lawwill the black sheep of the Boise, Idaho, fam­ily. Or he was, un­til the house that Mert built be­came for­ever etched in the minds of rac­ing fans fol­low­ing his star­ring role in On Any Sun­day. Lawwill graced the big screen along­side Mc­queen and Mal­colm Smith in 1971. The film was nom­i­nated for an Acad­emy Award, and it ce­mented mo­tor­cy­cling along­side surf­ing as the new, cool thing for gen­er­a­tions.

Out­side, ma­ture red­woods pierce the sky, planted as saplings by Lawwill half a cen­tury ago. Cus­tom bird­baths and hand­made doll­houses are wife June’s cre­ative con­tri­bu­tions. A wa­ter­fall and brook split the nar­row walk­way to a hid­den gazebo. Lawwill laid the rocks when he was re­cov­er­ing from back surgery.

The iconic garage where Lawwill tuned his Har­ley-david­son is now a fam­ily room. A framed photo of Lawwill and Mc­queen, circa 1973, is some­what ob­scured. Lawwill is seen wear­ing a cast on his left hand— ev­i­dence of a crash in Wash­ing­ton State that nearly crip­pled him. He would con­tinue rac­ing for four more years thanks to the gen­eros­ity of Mc­queen, who flew Lawwill to Los An­ge­les for re­con­struc­tive surgery, then picked up the tab.

Lawwill’s work­shop, like the man who built it, is com­pact, or­ga­nized, and pro­duc­tive. He apologizes for the clut­ter, but the self-taught en­gi­neer knows what he needs. There’s an old Sears Crafts­man band saw, a sand­blaster, count­less metal shelves, and a his­tory les­son on the moun­tain bike hang­ing in the rafters—lawwill was a pioneer of the sport, cre­at­ing the Lawwill/knight Pro Cruiser in the mid-’70s and ad­vanc­ing full sus­pen­sion for Gary Fisher, Sch­winn, and Yeti in the 1990s.

Yel­low plas­tic bins are home to the mag­ne­sium, ti­ta­nium, and stain­less-steel com­po­nents Lawwill as­sem­bles into pros­thet­ics used by am­putees for mo­tor­cy­cling and bi­cy­cling. Built by Lawwill and Dave Garoutte—his for­mer crew chief and a Moun­tain Bike Hall of Famer who has a ma­chine shop in nearby San Rafael—mert’s Hands have been in pro­duc­tion for nearly a quar­ter cen­tury.

Lawwill was the 1969 AMA Grand Na­tional Cham­pion; two years prior, Har­ley-david­son fac­tory rider Chris Draayer lost his arm in a crash. Know­ing Lawwill’s en­gi­neer­ing ap­ti­tude, Draayer be­gan to badger him for a pros­thetic hand so he could get back to rac­ing.

“I didn’t know any­thing about pros­thet­ics,” Mert says, “so I called a pros­thetic com­pany in Utah and told them my plan to make pros­thetic hands for bi­cy­cle and mo­tor­cy­cle use. They said, ‘Don’t bother; for 90 per­cent of am­putees, their life is over, es­pe­cially rid­ing a bi­cy­cle or mo­tor­cy­cle.’ I said to my­self, ‘Baloney! They just don’t know they can do it.’”

Lawwill and Garoutte made the first pro­to­type on the work­shop mill and sent it to Draayer. “He told me it was hor­ri­ble!” Lawwill says. “I learned that our knuck­les, wrist, and fin­gers are where they are for a rea­son, and if I don’t mimic all those en­ergy points pre­cisely, the am­putee will tell you in­stantly if it’s right or not.”

It took Lawwill and Garoutte a year to sell their first 20 func­tional hands. To­day, the two have more than 300 pros­thet­ics in the field.

“It’s very re­ward­ing work,” adds Lawwill. “You see how peo­ple’s lives are changed once they get their hands back on. One boy, from the Chicago area, wasn’t very com­pet­i­tive when he rode mo­tocross one-handed, and be­came with­drawn. He read some­thing that Draayer said in an in­ter­view about my hand, and his fa­ther called me for one. Eight months later he was on the podium with a new

lease on life. Now he’s a mo­ti­va­tional speaker for the Shriners and has been pro­mot­ing the hand for years.”

Mert’s Hand re­tails for $2,000, a pit­tance for the en­gi­neer­ing and ma­chine work that goes into the de­vice, to say noth­ing of the abil­ity to ride. Now he and Garoutte are work­ing on a more com­pli­cated chal­lenge.

“My new prod­uct is a com­plete arm, elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled, with lock­out sus­pen­sion,” Lawwill says. “What hap­pens when an am­putee is try­ing to go down­hill or ride trails? A me­chan­i­cal arm will fold up and end the ride. I put a shock ab­sorber in the lower part, which they con­trol with their good arm. I de­vel­oped three po­si­tions: full-float­ing, slightly re­stricted, or com­pletely locked up, just by us­ing a thumb lever near the bar grips. Click, click, click! I haven’t even named it yet; guess I’m calling it the Mert Arm. We just fin­ished test­ing a few months ago, and now we’re get­ting ready to start pro­duc­tion. My tester in Las Ve­gas is very pleased with the progress so far.”

It’s as­ton­ish­ing that, con­sid­er­ing ev­ery­thing Lawwill has ac­com­plished in the mo­tor­cy­cle and moun­tain-bike worlds, and all he’s given to both, he can’t seem to keep from giv­ing more.

“It gives me sat­is­fac­tion to open up a new world for these peo­ple. I’m so de­lighted to see them live life to the fullest again.”

right Raised on a farm, Lawwill has al­ways used tools to fix, re­pair, and fab­ri­cate. His hands-on odyssey be­gan dur­ing his rac­ing ca­reer, stretched through bi­cy­cle sus­pen­sion, and con­tin­ues with his pros­thet­ics.

BELOW Lawwill spent a year de­vel­op­ing this pros­thetic arm. The Fox Rac­ing shock can­be­elec­tron­i­cally ad­justed bya re­mote switch on the han­dle­bar. Pro­duc­tion is slated for late 2018.

ABOVE Lawwill’s arm be­gan with a sim­ple, ar­tic­u­lated alu­minum hinge to de­ter­mine length and sus­pen­sion place­ment. RIGHT Lawwill’s last rac­ing hel­met from 1977. LEFT Lawwill Street Tracker No. 7 be­longs to step­son Tim, who rides it reg­u­larly. Num­ber 20 has yet to be built; son Joe is the lucky re­cip­i­ent.

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