Eddie Lawson is the best in the world at what he does for a living--riding a high-spirited 500cc motorcycle at speeds up to 195 m.p.h. on a twisting highway.
In Europe, where he is as easily recognized as Pete Rose or Larry Bird are in this country, he performs before crowds ranging between 100,000 and the 250,000 who watched in Holland.
In Upland, where he lives in an old stone house that he had refurbished, Lawson is as anonymous as any other graduate of Chaffey High School, class of 1976. No one but a few buddies know he won the world 500cc Formula One championship in 1984 and is leading after seven of the 11 races this year.
When European riders win a world motorcycle championship, they are greeted when they return to their hometown with a parade, the keys to the city and a civic banquet. Or more. They are idolized.
When Lawson returned to Upland two years ago as the world champion, his family and a few friends took him to dinner in a local restaurant. While inside, his car was ticketed for parking in a fire lane.
"One of my buddies told the policeman who I was, that I'd just come home after winning the world championship, and that we were celebrating," Lawson recounted with a smile. "He couldn't have been more disinterested. He just kept on writing.
"If that had happened in Europe, he'd have torn up the ticket, asked me for my autograph and had his picture taken alongside me. That's the difference in how motorcycle racing is accepted over there, and the way it's accepted here. Here it's either ignored or people have a negative image.
"I'm introduced to people around here and they say, 'Why, you don't look like a motorcycle rider,' " continued Lawson, a well-groomed 5-9, 135-pound 28-year-old. "I don't know what they expect. That old Hell's Angels image just won't let go, I guess."
Curiously, despite the lack of attention to the sport in this country, Americans have dominated top-of-the-line motorcycle racing since Kenny Roberts went to Europe from Modesto for the first time in 1978 and blew the forks off world champion Barry Sheene of England with his daring knee-to-the-pavement style of riding. Americans have won six of the last eight world titles--Roberts in 1978-79-80, Freddie Spencer of Shreveport, La., in 1983 and '85, and Lawson in 1984.
This year, Lawson won four races in a row in Italy, West Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia, but after crashing on the first lap in Holland, he leads Randy Mamola, of Santa Clara, Calif., by only 10 points. Following close behind are Wayne Gardner of Australia and Mike Baldwin of Darien, Conn., a five-time national champion, in his rookie year on the world circuit. Spencer, last year's champion, is out with tendinitis of the wrist.
Lawson also won the Daytona 200, the most prestigious race in the United States but not part of the world circuit.
Lawson, Mamola and Baldwin will all be at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey this weekend for the Camel Pro Nissan 200 for 500cc bikes. Mamola, who has been runner-up for the world championship three times, is defending champion.
"I'm really looking forward to racing in front of my friends Sunday," Lawson said. "I don't want to do anything stupid and get hurt while I'm right in the thick of the world championship, but I love the Laguna Seca track and I expect to do well."
Riding a motorcycle like Lawson's exotic $1-million bike, a Yamaha YZR-500, is like riding an untamed bucking bronco. The power-to-weight ratio is frightening: 150 horsepower for a two-wheeler that weighs a little over 200 pounds.
"The throttle is so sensitive that only a handful of riders can ride one fast," Lawson says. "If you make the slightest little error with the throttle, the bike has so much power that it can throw you off."
Lawson knows. He was rolling out of a corner at about 100 m.p.h. during the Italian Grand Prix at Imola when he tweaked the throttle a hair too much as he flattened out for the straightaway.
"All of a sudden, the back end slid around, and before I could do anything, the tires caught ahold and (the bike) stopped. It spit me off the seat. I managed to hold on to the handlebars, but I looked like I was doing a handstand, my head pointed down and my feet up in the air. When I came down, my head went right through the plastic bubble and broke it.
"Luckily, I don't know how, I landed back on the seat, but the bike was out in the grass, completely out of control. Somehow the tires found some traction, the bike flexed and straightened itself out and I managed to get back on the track. It was a hairy ride for a second or so."
Lawson lost most of his 10- second lead during the episode, but he recovered in time to win.