Archives: Eddie Lawson’s First National Win
Eddie Lawson was on a path to become an AMA Grand National Flat Track racer. During the 1970s, at the height of dirt track participation, Lawson emerged as one of the leading amateur flat trackers on the West Coast.
The trouble for Lawson was when he broke through to become an expert in 1978, he was riding Shell Thuett Yamahas. No doubt Thuett was one of the most talented tuners in motorcycle racing at the time, but racing Yamaha dirt trackers in the late-1970s was a major uphill battle against the dominant Harley-Davidson XR750s that ruled dirt track racing. Lawson’s talent was obvious, even in that rookie expert campaign. He managed to qualify Thuett’s Yamaha’s in the main a handful of times, in spite of being seriously outgunned. He faired better on the smaller bikes of TT and Short Track racing. Lawson’s best finish of his rookie season was fifth in the TT national at Santa Fe Speedway near Chicago.
Archives: Eddie Lawson’s First National Win
Fortunately, Lawson had a fallback plan. Earlier in life his grandfather bought him a 50cc Italjet to learn to road race on. He later graduated to a Yamaha RD350. This road racing experience would later prove to be a very valuable asset.
In 1979 Lawson finished runner up to road racing wonderkid Freddie Spencer in the AMA 250cc Grand Prix Championship. That led to him being hired as a factory Superbike rider for Kawasaki starting in 1980. It was perfect timing. With Honda coming in with a factory effort that year, the focus on AMA Superbike racing was about to intensify. Lawson’s time with Kawasaki would see the Superbike class grow to the point that it rivaled the premier Formula One class and within a few more years would supplant it altogether.
But while being a factory Superbike rider was a pretty big deal in 1980, it wasn’t anything like it would become. In fact, even though Lawson was racing for Kawasaki, he signed up for the 1980 Daytona International Lightweight class riding a privately entered Hunt Racing Yamaha TZ250. It wasn’t that unusual for the time. Lawson’s rival Freddie Spencer had just signed with Honda’s new Superbike squad for 1980, but at Daytona he too would be racing a private Yamaha in the Lightweight class. Spencer would even race in the Daytona 200 on a Yamaha that year. Factory riders racing other brands of motorcycles in prestigious races would soon become a thing of the past.
Even though Lawson’s focus was on Superbike racing and perhaps even on racing the Moriwaki Kawasaki KZ1000-powered machine in the 200, his Lightweight race effort was no afterthought. The bike Lawson raced was a standard Yamaha TZ250G, but the bike had ample titanium bolts bringing down the weight. It also featured oversized plasma-sprayed aluminum brake discs, the calipers, aluminum units from a TZ750. The barrel of the TZ motor was ported by Harry Hunt and the engine meticulously assembled by Gennady Luibimsky (who was racing a similarly prepped bike).
While Lawson was ready, the competition was stiff. Defending series champ Freddie Spencer would race his ’79 title-winning bike, deciding to do so at the last minute. Even though he was a late entry, Spencer, with the tuning skills of Erv Kanemoto, would be a formidable foe, if not outright favorite.
If Spencer wasn’t the favorite, then certainly it would be Anton Mang, the GP winner from Germany, who was racing a Krauser Kawasaki KR250 with factory help. How good was Mang and his Kawasaki? He would go on to win the FIM 250cc Grand Prix World Championship later that year, winning four GPs along the way.
Also, in the field was talented Australian champ Gregg Hansford, who was coming off a season as runner up in World Championship 250GP. There was a large contingent of foreign riders in the race, especially from the U.K., including Joey Dunlop, not to mention a solid field of domestic 250GP riders like Dan Chivington, Doug Brauneck, Craig Morris and others.
Spencer won the first heat race in a runaway over Hansford and Brauneck. Mang took a come-from-behind victory in heat two over Lawson and Luibimsky. Mang’s heat was the faster of the two and the German sat on the pole for the final.
At the drop of the green Luibimsky led at the start with Derek Huxley running second on one of the British-made Cottons, powered by an inline, twin-cylinder, rotary-valve Rotax engine. By the start of the second lap though, it was Lawson leading Spencer. Mang got another rough start on his Kawasaki, but he was making up ground fast. Once up to speed, Mang set a blazing pace. He moved up and passed Spencer and Lawson and immediately began gapping them.
But then Lawson and Spencer caught a break. Mang raced on Michelin tires for years and was used to the characteristics of those tires. At Daytona Mang decided to run Dunlop. Halfway through the tires began to heat up. Longtime Dunlop riders would have recognized they could continue to push the tires into predictable slides even when hot, but the sliding caught Mang off guard and he slowed his pace.
Lawson and Spencer (both on Goodyears) got by Mang in the closing laps. It appeared certain it would be a battle between the two Americans to the flag, but on the last lap they were playing the “who’s going to lead coming out of the chicane” Daytona slipstream game. Both slowed, trying to goad the other into the lead. That allowed Mang to quickly close in and shock Lawson and Spencer by blasting past. Now all bets were off.
Spencer was third coming out of the chicane, eager to get to the front. Lawson didn’t panic.
“I rolled out of it a little because I wanted Freddie to pass me,” Lawson later explained. “I figured I could get an extra strong draft with both of them in front.”
Lawson was right. Coming out of NASCAR turn four Lawson had a massive slipstream and was able to perfectly slingshot past both Spencer and Mang at the Tri-oval. He came across the finish line about two-bike lengths ahead of Mang and Spencer who were basically side by side, with Mang taking second by mere inches.
The Daytona Lightweight win was Lawson’s first national victory. Kawasaki must have not enjoyed seeing their rising star racing a Yamaha and they soon got him a KR250 and he went on to win three more rounds that year to win the 1980 AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship, setting Lawson off on a road racing career that would eventually see him become a four-time Motorcycle Grand Prix World Champion.