Racing legend Mert Lawwill’s endlessly innovative retirement
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.