One man, one motorcycle -
Over twenty years ago Eddie Lawson raced a bright green bike very,
very well generating a cult following for the big Z.
By Mark Graham,
We are in a field near Utrecht in The Netherlands, talking to a man with a kingsize mullet and a black-belt in being uncomprehendingly pissed at an early stage of the day. "Can you tell us who owns this bike?"
"Dershctikkendieshclussmotorradensheisser. Dieschtickfuckenderhaus." At which he dissolves into peals of dribbling laughter and points his finger at a small tree near a busy main road. We follow the arc of his filthy digit and see a man in hideous shorts and authentic wooden clogs pulling passable wheelies on a very secondhand ZXR750.
It transpires (and comes as no surprise) that he has nothing whatsoever to do with the immaculate and hugely mutated Lawson-replica in front of us. Prepare to enter a twisted world of Kerker, Kal-Gard and deep Kawasaki. A world where an obsession with one particular colour has turned grown men green with Eddie. A world forever locked in 1981.
The year when brusque Californian Eddie Lawson snatched Kawasaki's first AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) Superbike title on what was then a ball-achingly brutish motorcycle. A good Lawson-rep still cuts it today, which is why van-loads of rancid Germans, after what must have been a series of long nights on uncommonly strong lager, have arrived to pore over a field of faithful facsimiles of the Eddie bike.
Death-metal from the over-worked speakers in the German bier-wagen crackles across the lush grass and we engage genial Dutchman Wilco, organiser of this commendably low-key, but well attended gathering, in conversation. "The whole Eddie Lawson thing stems from videos of those AMA races from '81 and '82. Those were the best riders of that generation, they went on to become Grand Prix stars and nobody beat them for about fifteen years.
"We only ever saw tapes of those races, but 150bhp in old, steel frames, primitive suspension and overworked brakes made incredible racing. The slides, the elbows everywhere, you won't see anything better, even now." And just as Foggy's exploits and the raft of race replicas, built to varying degrees of expense and accuracy, became part of the second coming of Superbike racing, Lawson and his mean, green Zeds underpinned the original wave of Superbike mania.
There are two strains of followers here in this sea of green: builders of original Eddie Zeds and a new wave of ZRX11 and 12 fans who've taken to creating latter-day tributes to the man who started it all. And there's a bit of needle between the two tribes.
"The stripes on the tank must be blue and white - not purple," says Wilco. "The serious builders exchange new ZRX bodywork for Japanese-spec which is the original lime green and not the darker, semi-metallic colour. The original Superbike thing is still biggest in Japan."
The stickers adorning the hopped-up machinery in the field tell that story: Moriyama, Yellow Corn, Nojima, Tsukigi, all rare groove, high-spec Jap parts, requiring deep pockets and long waits for big parcels.
"But it's not just about building these bikes," continues the almost messianic Wilco. "These bikes are still great to ride, the riding position is still comfortable for the speeds you can get away with these days and you don't need to change gear all the time either. I like speed, I love performance, but with all the speed traps around these days, you can't afford to ride at 200kph all the time. It's also a very pure form of motorcycle." With that, he grabs his Kerker-replica loudhailer and announces a run will take place shortly.
This is the first Eddie Lawson event Wilco has organized, there are nearly 100 bikes here, and he plans another bash in Germany next year. And we instantly wonder at how monumentally smashed the German contingent will be if it doesn't even have to travel. "All you have to do is make sure it's in a field - because the grass is already the correct colour," he says, only half-joking.
Wilco is 39, a security consultant for a large European bank, he owns three Z1300s, a Z1000R and a 610 Husqvarna. Kawasaki's have got to him like they have the rest of this unselfconsciously obsessed contingent. There are Kawasaki tattoos and jewellery etched-in and hanging-off nearly every square inch of parched flesh on this burning-hot day.
"It's because Kawasaki is a small factory," says Horst from Cologne. "It's always a strong identity and always how do you say, zee oonderdog. Honda is the easy way, with the big money and the big teams and Kawasaki is the outsider."
The Kawasaki reputation for big horsepower doesn't hurt either, and some of these babies here have been properly breathed-on. Flat slides with bell-mouths abound, silicon leads from trick ignitions snake under the tanks. The really hot ones wear shaved cranks and piggyback alternators, braced and gusseted frames and the traditional, trademark-Eddie Kerker four-into-ones. The easily inter-changeable Big-K parts list is a huge help here.
"You can put just about any of the big fours in the Z-frame," says Harry. "And with a bit of work most of the later cycle parts can be made to fit too. Some people start with a Z1000R and throw most of it away, others just build from scratch. The best thing is the design for the bike is already done by Muzzy and Lawson, so you know what you have to do."
Ian Penman is a Scot working in Holland. He's ridden up from the south on his frighteningly-seventies Z900, all naked sea-monster murals and glitter-flake. "It's a bit of a dinosaur, but at least it doesn't get lost in a sea of R1s. And I've only ever seen three Z1s in Holland until now.
"My twin brother's got an Eddie Lawson, he's pissed off he's not here, he's got to buy a set of carbs instead of being here on holiday, but that's his problem. It's not much of a holiday anyway," he says by way of compensation. "Everyone thinks Holland's all whacked-out like Amsterdam, but mostly it's just dead-straight farmers."
He's one of a select few here who aren't wearing Eddie Lawson underpants. His interest in big Kawasaki's was spawned from Aussie biker-movies like Stone and then Mad Max. "Some people get off on Batman, with this lot it's Eddie Lawson - well why not?" Why not indeed.
Whether this is all about actually being someone else or simply riding someone else's bike from another era, is frankly beyond the scope of this modest story and some way towards the realms of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Some of the hardcore devotees, while perhaps not entirely out to lunch, are at least enjoying an aperitif and looking at the menu with a view to an extended meal. But there's no escaping one massive truth - the lime green hardware still cuts it.
JAN LAWSON - THE PARTS BIN EDDIE,
Jan waited 15 years to get his Lawson replica, and only now after another five spent building it and getting it right is he beginning to feel it's almost how he wants it.
"I started with a frame and bought everything I needed along the way. I don't want to think how much I've spent," says the 40-year-old. The '83 frame wears a ZRX11 swing arm, ZXR wheels and brakes, an '85 GPz1100 engine and Aprilia rear sets.
"I still can't believe it's mine, when I was about 21 I was so into US Superbike, but a Z1000R was 12,000 guilder and I could only afford a GS550 Suzuki which was only 6000 guilder. Then I go and spend 1100 guilder on a saddle for this. But you get a bit of discount on parts for older bikes - people do you deals.
"It never ends, the improvements and changes, but when you've waited this long for something you don't really care how much time it takes and how much it's going to take"
TED LAWSON - THE ULTRA EDDIE REPLICA,
But this bike is not a replica - it is a dead-ringer. Look at the brake discs, one area where no other existing mechanical monument to our Eddie is ever entirely right. No bloody wonder, the originals were one-offs commissioned by team boss Rob Muzzy at a rumored thousand dollars apiece. The discs on Ted's bike (real name, incidentally - Ted - not Lawson) are one-offs too.
"I have some contacts at the Fokker factory and they made them up to the original drawings. The first bike I built was a Z1000R with a Honda VFR single-sided swing arm, then I decided I wanted to build a proper replica and this is it," says the 50-year-old sign writer and graphic artist.
And yes, he did all the paintwork and cut the stickers too. "I began this two years ago and finished it a week before this rally. It's not even run-in yet but it seems to go pretty good on 33mm smooth bores with an 1170cc Wiseco kit in a GPz1100 block.
"The styling of these early Super bikes is magic. They were real bikes, fighting machines on small tires, the real thing," says Teddie, as he rearranges his Kawasaki green toolbox and Kawasaki chairs under his Kawasaki awning.
AMA SUPERBIKE CHAMPION - 1981/82 Forget any modern notions of Superbikes. Things were very different twenty years ago. A Superbike was anything but - bendy frame, rubbish brakes, skinny tyres, skinny forks and shonky old twin-shock back ends, but right up to par in one crucial department - plenty of power. Old stagers like the Honda CB900F, Suzuki GS1000 and much more importantly, the Kawasaki Z1000 were the main contenders in races across the USA, from Daytona in the east to Seattle in the west. Small wonder then, that these behemoths of the banking and back chutes entered the consciousness of impressionable youth. Especially when they were piloted by riders who made up for the machines' shortcomings with a level of commitment, skill and outright aggression that many race pundits and lucky spectators believe has yet to be repeated - anywhere.
Wes Cooley won the AMA Superbike crown for Suzuki in 1980 on a GS1000, Lawson took it for Kawasaki in '81 when Mike Baldwin and none other than Freddie Spencer on Honda were fully expected to lift the title. Then in 1982 a certain Wayne Rainey teamed up with Lawson and ace-tuner Rob Muzzy in the Kawasaki squad to counter the expected onslaught from Honda.
Imagine this lot, hardly the shrinking violets on any list of all-time greats, racing to establish reputations in their early years, under massive manufacturer pressure, in the glare of a national series that was rapidly gaining a worldwide audience.
Lawson won again in '82, despite breaking his neck in a mid-season crash at Laguna Seca, and became forever associated with anything loud, green and fast. He also cemented for himself a permanent place in the hearts and minds of anyone remotely interested in ultra-competitive racing and beating the corporate muscle and billion buck race budget of Honda.
HARRY LAWSON - THE STEADY EDDIE,
Harry (41) has owned his '83 Z1000R for three years. The maintenance fitter from Hoogland owns a Z1 too, but it's clear this is where his efforts have gone and where his affections lie.
"It was completely crap when I bought it, knackered suspension, tired engine, all that. So I had to rebuild it and just built it into what you see here. It's now got RX1000 forks, a ZZ-R swing arm and front wheel and I had to turn the 19-inch front mudguard into a 17-inch - that was hard.
"These Kawasaki's are ideal to work with, a bit heavy maybe, but strong and simple. Where Honda always change things for the sake of it and make life difficult, Kawasaki only change things when they have to, which is ideal for builders who want to make updates."
RALF LAWSON - THE OVERBOARD EDDIE,
Ralf from Hamburg is keen for people to know he is a self-made man. When asked what he does for a job, he replies "Self-made man!" rather too briskly for comfort. When pressed on the exact nature of the activities that have made him, he gets rapidly bored, frustrated and very nearly very angry. Eventually we try to communicate again in the shade of a very professional makeshift bier-tent and he seems more accomodating, "I like the style, you can keep your yogurt-pot bikes, anyone can have them, these are special."
But when we coax him outside to wheel his 1980 Z1R-turbo about for a few pictures, he comes over all stroppy again. Back in the bier-tent, he grudgingly trots out the details: Rayjay F-80 turbine, S&S; carb, Spondon frame, 1327cc block, 8:1 compression, 250bhp, GSX-R wheels and forks.
KARL LAWSON - THE MUTANT EDDIE,
Karl-Heinz from Duisberg can't leave things alone.
Through a stumbling, but determined and patient translator, we establish that the 38-year-old German man has squeezed a Suzuki GSX-R1100 plant into this heavily-modded Z1100R frame. He's also slotted in a German-made Fischer single-sided swingarm and Fischer wheels.
We ask him if Fischer make bikes and wouldn't it have been easier to have just bought one, but the three-way conversation via a clearly tired and emotional translator begins breaking up.
This feature was first published in the February 2002.