Eddie Lawson will go down in history as one the greatest motorcycle road racers of all time. Lawson won the 500cc World Championship four times during the 1980s. When he retired from GP racing in the early 1990s, he ranked third on the all-time 500cc Grand Prix wins list with 31 victories.
In addition to his international accomplishments, Lawson was equally successful on the domestic front. The Californian won the AMA Superbike Series twice (1981 and 1982) and the AMA 250 Grand Prix Series in 1980 and 1981. When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, Lawson was the only rider to ever win the AMA Superbike and 250GP titles during his career. Lawson also won the Daytona 200, the first time during the prime of his racing career in 1986, then again in 1993 when he returned to the event after retiring from full-time motorcycle racing.
Lawson was born in Upland, California, on March 11, 1958. He grew up around motorcycles. Both his father and grandfather raced. Some of Lawson’s earliest memories are of going out to the desert races with his father. Lawson started riding an 80cc Yamaha when was 7 years old, having to hold the nearly full-sized bike up on his tiptoes when he came to a stop. By the time he was 12, Lawson was racing the local Southern California dirt track circuit.
"We rode mainly at tracks like Corona and Ascot. I didn’t do very well for the first couple of years," admitted Lawson. "I just sort of rode around cautiously trying to not fall off my little 90cc Kawasaki Green Streak."
It didn’t take Lawson long to get over his timidity. He quickly became one of the fastest young amateurs in Southern California during the early 1970s heyday of dirt track competition.
Besides dirt track racing, Lawson also began to hit the local road races after his grandfather bought him a 50cc Italjet. He later graduated to a Yamaha RD350. This road racing experience would later prove to be very valuable for Lawson.
By 1978, Lawson obtained his AMA expert license. He was riding Shell Thuett Yamahas, which were very fast for Yamaha dirt trackers, but were no match for the Harley-Davidsons that dominated dirt track racing. Lawson did manage to do decently on TT tracks. His best finish of his rookie expert season was fifth in the TT national at Santa Fe Speedway near Chicago.
By 1979, it was becoming clear that Lawson was fighting an uphill battle on the dirt tracks, while just the opposite was happening at the road races. At 20, Lawson was already considered one of the top road racers in West Coast club racing. In 1979, he proved that he was a force to be reckoned with when he finished second to a young Freddie Spencer in the AMA 250 Grand Prix national at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California. Lawson finished the season as the second-ranked rider behind Spencer in the AMA 250 GP series.
While doing a made-for-television Superbikes event late in 1979, Lawson was invited to a Superbike tryout at Willow Springs Raceway by Kawasaki. Lawson set fast time in the tryout and was offered the ride.
"It was really pretty fun to ride those old 1000cc Superbikes," Lawson recalls. "They were pretty heavy and had a lot of power and with the wide handlebars you could actually ride them a lot like a flat tracker, power-sliding out of the corners and everything."
It did not take long for Lawson to get used to racing Superbikes. Lawson won his first Superbike national at Talladega, Alabama, in April of 1980. That season saw some epic battles between Lawson, Freddie Spencer and Wes Cooley. The season ended with Cooley winning the title in a controversial manner, with protests and counter-protests being filed between the Kawasaki and Suzuki Superbike teams. Cooley had to wait two months after the season to finally be awarded the championship. The same season, Lawson dominated the AMA 250 Grand Prix Series.
The Superbike controversy at the end of 1980 just made Lawson more determined. He came back in 1981 and won the title after another great year of battling Honda and its top rider, Freddie Spencer. The Lawson/Spencer rivalry would go down as one of the best in the history of Superbike racing. During this period, AMA Superbike racing really came into prominence and started to replace the Formula One class in importance. Lawson again won the 250GP title in ’81. Lawson’s ’80 and ’81 championships marked the only times that Kawasaki would win the AMA 250 Grand Prix titles.
Lawson's last full season of racing in the U.S. was 1982. Again, Lawson and Kawasaki held off a serious challenge from Honda, that year with Mike Baldwin, who finished second in the series.
Lawson accepted an offer from Yamaha to contest the 500cc World Championship for the 1983 season. Before he left for world championship battles, Lawson donned his steel shoe one last time and competed in the Houston Astrodome TT AMA Grand National, where he finished sixth.
Lawson spent his first GP season learning the tracks and how to live outside of the U.S. for the first time in his life. Lawson looks back on the ’83 season as the most trying of his career.
"I was away from home for the first time, I wasn’t having that much success and at times I wondered what I had gotten myself into," Lawson recalls.
The 1984 season changed all that. Lawson began winning and getting used to his surroundings. He won the 1984 world championship. It would mark the first of four world titles Lawson would go on to win (1984, ’86, ’88 and ’89). By the time Lawson retired from GP racing after the 1992 season, he had won a total of 31 world championship races, which placed him third all-time in the 500cc class.
Lawson won the prestigious Suzuka Eight Hour race in Japan in 1990 with teammate Tadahiko Taira.
After retiring from full-time motorcycle racing, Lawson came back to race in the Daytona 200 in 1993. He won in a spectacular last-lap duel with Scott Russell, marking a triumphant return and his second Daytona 200 victory. He raced at Daytona one more time in 1994 and finished third.
Lawson continued racing in Indy Cars in the mid-1990s after his motorcycle-racing career. His progress through the Indy Car ranks was such that several auto racing publications cited Lawson as the top up-and-coming driver of the circuit. Unfortunately, the team that Lawson drove for was under-funded and was forced to field uncompetitive machinery and Lawson eventually left the sport.
When inducted in 1999, Lawson was enjoying retirement living in Lake Havasu, Arizona, spending a lot of time on the lake and racing shifter go-karts with friend and fellow Hall of Fame member Wayne Rainey for fun.