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Racers Race
by Dean Adams (1997)

1983 and 1987 Superbike Champion Wayne Rainey raced with 1980 (kinda) and 1982 Superbike Champion Eddie Lawson as amateur dirt trackers and did the ‘Van Without a Gas Gauge’ tour of the West Coast dirt track races when they were in their late teens. Of course Lawson and Rainey would later go on to team together on puke green Kawasaki Superbikes in 1982 and again for Kenny Roberts and Yamaha during the 1990 Grand Prix season. Throughout that period their friendship could be described as a sportingly abrasive one at times, especially after Lawson, on Erv’s Honda, beat Rainey and the Lucky Strike Yamaha for his fourth World Championship in 1989. 

Rainey and Lawson threw barbs in each other’s court from time to time, and to some extent continue to do so. I understand Rainey said some things about Eddie in Kevin Schwantz’s book and continued that thread in his own soon to be published (in the UK) autobiography. Wayne chastised Lawson for not showing him more of the ropes when they rode Superbikes and for turning his back on him when they rode 500s. In turn, Eddie at different times in his career criticized Rainey, some would say unfairly. 

Most of this petty squabbling is an outgrowth of the competitiveness that has existed between the two since they were teens. Eddie, being slightly older, rode for Shell Thuett first and then went on to Superbikes and 500s and learned many of the lessons the hard way. Wayne followed that same path and maybe had a slightly easier experience, at times. That seemed to rub Lawson the wrong way. Today, I think Rainey’s team ownership mystifies Lawson. Why someone would go to the racetrack and not race confounds him. He was offered his own GP team by Yamaha once he’d retired and he said, according to guy who was in the room with him when the offer was made, thanks but no thanks. To Lawson, being at the racetrack and not racing is one of the most unbearable contradictions in life.    

I don’t know that Eddie and Wayne hang out together or see each other socially that much these days, so I’m not sure how the chapter I am about to relate began, exactly. What I do know is this: for perhaps the last year, whispered words have revealed that some Yamaha TZ250 parts were being UPS delivered to Fast Eddie’s home in Upland, California. As to what was happening with these parts, Lawson was swearing everybody to secrecy. Parts were going from Yamaha US to Bud Aksland’s shop and on to Upland. 

Several thoughts sprang to mind when I originally heard about this clandestine project:  perhaps Lawson was forming the occasionally mentioned 250 team to go US 250 racing. There was a time when this was almost at a serious stage, but that nearly a decade ago. I would be surprised if Lawson’s dislike for the AMA didn’t still burn like a blowtorch—after all, he wore a piece of duct tape over the AMA patch on his leathers at Daytona ‘93 so he could abide the rule requiring him to wear one and still make his opinion of the sanctioning body clear. And one could only imagine what he’d say to the AMA after seeing some of the more pristine “racetracks” on the current schedule (Pomona for instance) and the pathetic purse structure for the 250 class. No, a 250 team was not in the works. And probably not the world’s most powerful chainsaw or a seventy-five mile per hour Waverunner either. No, Eddie was having “his people” assemble something much more impressive. 

What Fast Eddie had constructed was a shifter kart with a pair of motocross-style handlebars in place of the standard steering wheel. Instead of foot operated clutch, brakes and accelerator, he converted them to the handlebars, just like a motorcycle. Karts have multiple gear transmissions and Lawson moved the shifter to the bars as well by adding a drag race style air-shifter to the package, solenoid operated it will bang up-shifts and downshifts with the punch of a small button. The standard kart seat was modified with a very tight multi-point harness to give maximum support to the driver’s torso. He had it painted Marlboro orange and white and adorned with the ‘Wayne’ on the cowl.

If the multi-part harness wasn’t enough of a tip-off, the name gave it away.  Eddie Lawson built this project, a 1994 V-twin TZ250 powered shifter cart with the controls on a pair of handlebars, for Wayne Rainey. Lawson tested it a few times this past spring, seized it a few times, fixed it and made sure it was completely operational. Then he drove down to Wayne’s house and gave it to him. Here, here’s a hundred and sixty mile per hour kart I made for you, the only one like it in the world. Rainey was impressed.

“Yeah it was quite a gesture, I’m sure that it was quite a lot of time, money and effort that Eddie put into it.” said Rainey from his California home last week. “Eddie told me very early in my rehabilitation, I was still in the hospital, that I needed to get back in racing, physically racing something. He wanted it to be something that I would enjoy. He enjoys kart racing a great deal and thinks that I would too.” 

Rainey has not yet driven the kart, but is very enthusiastic about the prospect of doing so. He gushes, “It’s awesome. It looks like a spacecraft. The controls are better engineered and made than anything you could buy. Eddie either made or had hand-made everything on the kart. We need to get a better seat for it and some Velcro on the seat so my legs don’t flop around and figure out why it runs out of gas at 160 mph, then it’s ready. Maybe this winter.” 

Are you going to actually race the kart? I asked Rainey. 

“Well,” he said, “what I think Eddie had in mind was that we would go out and rent Willow with a bunch of guys and drive around. But … you never know …”

A viable question might be why would Lawson do this for someone who so antagonizes him at times?   A quick theory would be that the Rainey/Lawson friendship is still intact, despite the mutual abuse,  and Lawson just wanted to do something for his friend. 

But, going deeper,  I’d like to think that in his very core Eddie Lawson is a racer. It defines him as a being on this planet.  Just as other highly driven and focused individuals, say, for example, a writer, astrophysicist, or rooftop sniper live only for the next blank page, new solar system, or clear headshot, so too Lawson lives for the next race. There is little else in their world but their chosen field.
And from that perspective, Lawson realized that for all their differences, he and Rainey are still of the same species.  They are racers.  He instinctively felt that even though Wayne Rainey wears many different hats at present—that of  team owner, manager and riding coach, the fact that his legs no longer work never extinguished his will, no, need, to race--not vicariously through a rider on his team,  but in one-on- one competition, in a machine where guts, horsepower and traction are the only rules. 

Perhaps Lawson thought that his own life without actual racing of some vein would be unbearable, and it might be much the same for Rainey. So he fixed it. 

Racers race. 


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