Rivalries in racing are to be expected; yet some are more enduring and heartfelt than others. Rollie Free, the famed rider who did a Bonneville top speed run in his underwear and with legs straight off the back of his Vincent in 1948, hated Harley-Davidson and their riders with passion. He was famous for riding his Vincent on the street, looking for Harley riders and daring them to race. Not just Harley racers, but no-name street riders. King Kenny Roberts, still to this day is mad at Freddie Spencer about events of 1983, and you can almost feel the room cool when Roberts and Spencer make attempts at communication. Mat Mladin and Ben Spies? The other barely exists in their respective worlds.
There are also rivalries between manufacturers. Harley vs. Indian. Triumph vs. Harley. Harley vs. Yamaha. Honda vs. Yamaha. You’re never going to see any kind of major joint venture between Yamaha and Honda, although there have been moments of decreased hostilities when the two companies agreed that it was for the greater good that they cooperate.
To illustrate this spirit of cooperation both Honda and Yamaha worked to bring Grand Prix racing to the United States in 1988, after a twenty-year absence. The most natural place to hold a GP in America was Laguna Seca, home to the then Nissan 200 Laguna classic each summer, an AMA race that saw GP riders like Roberts, Mamola, Spencer and Lawson compete while they were also competing for the world championship.
The problem with a GP at Laguna Seca was that the track was not long enough for an FIM race. Negotiations took place so that Yamaha and Honda split the cost of lengthening the track, so that the USGP could become reality for 1988.
As part of the cooperation, or lessening of hostilities, between Honda and Yamaha, they agreed, after much negotiation between their American executives, that an advertising safety campaign featuring their two biggest riders would make sense. The message of the campaign would be that although Honda’s Wayne Gardner and Yamaha’s Eddie Lawson were fierce rivals on the track, one thing that they agreed upon was that one should ride responsibly on the street and always wear a helmet and protective equipment.
Gardner, then the reigning world champion, was stateside for the Honda dealer convention in 1987, and once they had agreed and signed off on the ad campaign, Honda asked Yamaha to fly Lawson to Las Vegas, the site of the convention, so they could shoot the magazine ad portion of the campaign.
Early assumptions at the time were that Yamaha would do their own PSA campaign with Lawson. And that Honda would do their own with Gardner. Some in the early loop speculated that they would run together in magazines to show some unity. What was never imagined, because it was almost beyond belief, was that from the beginning, Honda and Yamaha planned for the two riders to appear in the same ad.
There was only one issue: Lawson and Gardner hated each other.
The pair had been grappling for the 500cc world championship for years, with Lawson winning it in 1986, and Gardner besting him to take Honda’s first post-Freddie Spencer title in 1987. Gardner was a typically brash Australian who saw things very clearly and was not afraid to point fingers or make comments. He had good looks, charm and, some felt, the favor of the British press. It would not be accurate to suggest that Eddie Lawson, at the time, was charming. He was a So-Cal horsepower junkie of the first degree. Outside of his friends, he sort of saw the racing world on a sliding scale of idiocy. Lawson would probably really have to mull it over if he had to get up from a lounge chair and open a patio door in order to save a rival rider were he drowning in Lawson’s pool.
Ex-racer Dennis Kanegae was working for Honda’s ad agency at the time and was assigned to the shoot.
“Honda took it upon themselves to spearhead this campaign and asked their ad agency, Dailey, to come up with a concept for this campaign. When I saw the concept, I flipped out. Lawson and Garner together? Are you kidding me?” Kanegae remembers.
Told to move forward, he secured space for a photo shoot, and took care of all of the logistics. Then, walking through the Honda dealer convention hall one day, American Honda Senior VP Ray Blank waved him over. After handshakes, Blank asked Kanegae if he knew Eddie Lawson at all.
“I told him that, yeah, I’d known him since he was a little kid. I knew him from racing dirt track at Corona, and saw him race against Wayne Rainey at Ascot when they were teens. I think I was at his first race, ever. So, yeah, I know him.”
According to Kanegae, Blank instructed him to rent a limo and go pick up Lawson at the Las Vegas airport and bring him to the photo shoot.
“I said, ‘Uh, Ray, listen, I think with Eddie he’d be fine if I just went and got him in my rental car.’ He’s really not much for flash. I knew from talking to him during the season that Eddie was flying into Europe and finding his own way to the track anyway, so just a ride from the airport would be fine. No limo.’
Kanegae continues, “I remember distinctly that Ray Blank looked at me and said, ‘Dennis, let’s show Eddie what it’s like to ride for Honda. Let’s take care of him. Because, you never know, he might not ride for Yamaha forever.”
Okay, Ray, I’ll get a limo and go pick up Eddie.
Kanegae rented a limo and picked Lawson up at the airport. “Eddie was somewhat impressed; I acted as if this business as usual working for Honda. I then brought him to the scene of the photo shoot.” The two had known one another for twenty years and Lawson was in a decent enough mood so they talked of old days of racing Superbikers at Carlsbad, traded Aldana stories and reminisced about nights spent racing under the lights at Ascot.
Wearing a simple t-shirt, Lawson had brought his leathers and helmet in a unpretentious, glorified gym bag. He, Kanegae and the photographer sat and chatted while they waited for Honda’s Wayne Gardner to arrive. Lawson pulled his helmet out of the bag and cleaned the shield idly, laughing about Kanegae’s recollection of his days racing an ex-Shell Thuet Yamaha.
Then Gardner arrived, carrying his leathers and helmet in a nice bag, but dressed casually in a polo shirt and jeans.
Immediately the mood in the room changed dramatically.
“I don’t know that they ever even said hello to one another,” Kanegae remembers. “It was more of a general acknowledgment that the other guy was there. No shaking hands, nothing.”
Even the photographer noticed that the room temp in the room had dropped significantly when Gardner arrived. Lawson wasn’t chatting, smiling or saying much of anything any more. Both riders donned their leathers, gloves and boots silently.
“What the hell just happened?,” Kanegae remembers the photographer asking him.
“I tried to quietly explain that these two were rivals for the world championship and were longtime racers, that as racers they really could not be buddies. I suggested that we should try to be as professional as possible and to work quickly to get what we needed.”
“Wayne was kind of thrown into the deep end. I’m not sure he knew what the photo shoot was going to entail until he got there. He was absolutely cool with us, but I don’t think he ever said a word to Eddie,” Kanegae remembers.
The graphic element of the ad was that Gardner and Lawson would face one another, chest to chest, with their faces maybe two inches apart for the photographs.
“Eddie had gotten into his leathers quicker than Wayne,” Kanegue remembers. “And he stepped into the photo shoot area, stood on his marks and waited for Gardner.
“Gardner was slow to get dressed and I thought initially that he wanted to let Eddie just wait under the hot lights as long as possible. But after he stepped into the shoot area I sensed that Wayne Gardner just did not want to be anywhere near Eddie Lawson that day,” remembers Kanegae. “We had discussed that for one part of the shoot the pair would stare into each others faces. I really don’t think Wayne wanted to do that. I don’t think he wanted to look Lawson in the eyes, and I didn’t blame him.”
Lawson was infamous for his race face, a face-melting glare, which one writer summed up saying “It goes right through you.”
“I don’t think Eddie ever blinked throughout the shoot. He was thousands of miles from his next GP race, but had his total race face on for this shoot,” Kanegae says.
“Wayne, to his credit, gathered it all up and stepped right up to Lawson’s chest and the two just glared at each other in silence,” Kanegae recalls. What followed was a small version of the first atomic bomb tests, where participants were reasonably sure it would be controlled, but could not completely rule out the possibility that splitting the atom might set fire to all of the oxygen in the atmosphere and destroy the earth.
“The second they locked glares, the mood and the general feeling was beyond intense,” Kanegae says. “They never took their eyes off each other. Never said a word. I started to have just crazy thoughts in my head. What if they started throwing punches, how would I react? Who would I try to defend, my friend Eddie Lawson or the client’s star rider Wayne Gardner? Would I dare call the police? I started to get sick to my stomach and the photographer kept looking at me for direction. My mouth was so dry I could barely talk.”
“Was the hair on my neck standing up? Every hair on my head was standing up,” Kanegae remembers, laughing.
Gardner and Lawson worked in silence, with Kanegae giving them direction, ‘Eddie can you turn a little to your right? Wayne, can you lower your helmet a little?’. They rarely took their eyes off one another and never said a word between themselves.
“We did the same shot with their helmets on next, and that was slightly less intense as they had backed away from one another and had their helmet shields down. I only remember triple thinking before every time I opened my mouth with them, not wanting to cause any combustion,” Kanegae says.
The shoot ended. Gardner put his leathers in a nice bag and was taken back to his hotel. Lawson got dressed, and the limo took him back to the airport and he flew home.
“My shirt was soaked with sweat afterward,” Kanegae remembers. “I don’t think they said goodbye, or shook hands. They were inches away from one another for a couple of hours and barely spoke.” The pair would recreate the ad in April of 1988 when the video portion of the ad was shot at Laguna Seca.
Kanegae says that while the shoot was unusually intense, what he remembers most today wasn’t the lack of communication between Lawson and Gardner, but the way that Honda VP Blank looked at him when he instructed him to get a limo and show Lawson how Honda treats VIPs.
Eddie Lawson would leave Yamaha for Honda after the 1988 season. Some feel the first step in that process happened at an intense photo shoot at the Honda dealer convention in 1987.
After leaving Yamaha after seven years, Lawson would become the first rider to win consecutive Grand Prix titles on two different make of motorcycles in the modern era.