The first motorcycle race Eddie Lawson rode at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, he won. It was in the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s Superbike series in 1980. The next two years he won the Superbike championship and in 1983 he took on the world's finest road racers in the Federation Internationale Motorcyliste's 500cc circuit.
Sunday, for the first time since 1965, a world Grand Prix road race will be held in the United States--at Laguna Seca.
"I'd like nothing more than winning a Grand Prix in front of my home crowd," Lawson said. "This will be my first opportunity and I hope to make the most of it."
Lawson, a graduate of Ontario's Chaffey High School, class of 1976, has won two world championships and 19 individual GPs since leaving Upland six years ago to spend six months a year traveling around the world in quest of motorcycling glory--and money. Actually, Lawson hasn't left the Inland Empire. He lives in Upland, in an old stone house that he refurbished, but he doesn't get home very often.
"I'd like to see the Grand Prix at Laguna Seca become a happening, like Daytona or Indianapolis," Lawson said. "Having a race in California is really great. It'll be the first time all of my buddies will get a chance to see me in a world championship race. I think all of Upland will be at Monterey on Sunday."
Race officials are predicting a crowd of more than 75,000 for the race, No. 2 on the world circuit this year. The opening race, two weeks ago in Japan, was won by Kevin Schwantz of Houston, riding a Suzuki. It was his first GP win. World champion Wayne Gardner of Australia was second on a Honda and Lawson third on a Yamaha.
"One of the same three will win Sunday," Lawson said. "Another five will be right there because Laguna Seca will probably be the shortest and slowest course of the 16 that we will ride this year. For the riders, it will be tough physically because of all the traffic, but for the spectators it should be the best racing anywhere in the world."
Even though Lawson has won three races at Laguna Seca, he knows it won't help him Sunday. For one thing, a Superbike is not the same as a Grand Prix bike.
"The best way I can compare them is a Superbike is like NASCAR Chevy and a GP bike is like a Formula One Ferrari," he said.
For another, the course has been changed from its former 9-turn, 1.9-mile distance to 11 turns in 2.196 miles to conform with international rules.
"I rode around it on a street bike and the new section is real smooth and flat, but it's not designed for horsepower. It's more a rider's course."
Lawson is also excited about the race being in California because it may generate more interest in his sport, which attracts crowds between 100,000 and 250,000 in Europe. Few people outside Upland would recognize the 5-foot 10-inch, 135-pound rider in the United States, but elsewhere in the world his face is as recognizable as A.J. Foyt's or John McEnroe's.
Gardner, the 1987 world champion, was named Australia's sportsman of the year, beating out Wimbledon tennis champion and Davis Cup hero Pat Cash for the honor. No American rider has ever been as much as mentioned in similar balloting, not even the legendary three-time world champion Kenny Roberts.
Now 30, Lawson has been riding a motorcycle since he was 7 when his father took him to Phelan, in the high desert near Victorville, where he thrashed through the sagebrush and gullies on his dad's Yamaha 80. By the time he was 12, little Eddie had become a racer, going handlebar to handlebar on a Kawasaki 90 at dirt tracks in Elsinore, Perris, Corona and Riverside.
"I've been racing ever since," he said. "I think I have a few more years left, although I really don't know what 'a few' means. As long as I'm capable of riding up front I'll probably keep going."
Last season was a disappointing one for Lawson, who finished 21 points behind Gardner and one behind Randy Mamola of Santa Clara, Calif., to finish third.
"Three races we didn't finish--once when I spilled in the rain and twice for mechanical reasons--cost us the championship," he said. "In the other 12 races, I won 5, finished second 6 times and third once. Gardner and Mamola finished every race in the points, which is what you have to do." Lawson's wins came in Germany, Holland, Great Britain, Portugal and Argentina.
"When I won (the world championship) in 1984 and 1986 I finished every race both years. That also says a lot for the machinery. The bikes we ride are so bulletproof that we usually have more than 30 finishers (out of 36 starters) in every race."
The bikes should be bulletproof. It costs $250,000 for Lawson's Marlboro team, managed by Italy's 15-time world champion Giacomo Agostini, to \o7 lease\f7 one for six months from the Yamaha factory in Japan. And the team has four of them, two for Lawson and two for new teammate Didier de Radigues of Belgium.