October of 1982, the AMA Superbike Championship was down to the final round. The site for the final race was Moroso Motorsports Park in West Palm Beach, Florida – rescheduled after the original date was rained out by a tropical storm. Kawasaki’s Eddie Lawson came into the race with a safe 19-point lead in the standings over Honda’s Mike Baldwin. Lawson needed only a 14th-place or better finish to clinch the title.
There wasn’t much Honda could do to help Baldwin, but they figured (rightly) that Lawson was going to ride cautiously, so they came up with a plan to at least make the track a little more crowded and give Lawson more riders to deal with. So, in addition to factory riders Baldwin, Steve Wise and Roberto Pietri, Honda recruited veteran road racer and Moroso specialist John Long, to ride one of the factory backup bikes. Newly-minted AMA 250 Grand Prix Champ Sam McDonald was also put on another Honda factory machine. It marked the Oklahoman’s first AMA Superbike race.
So Honda had five factory bikes in the field, probably the highest number of factory entries in any one race in the history of the series up to that point, but that wasn’t all. Honda built Rusty Sharp a factory motor and gave him technical assistance throughout the weekend, so make that six factory, or factory-backed bikes.
Today, Long says he was not given specific instructions to try to hassle Lawson, but he admits, “The thought was there for sure.”
There were only 24 entries total at Moroso that weekend and nearly 30 percent of the field were factory or factory-backed Hondas. When questioned about the high number of factory Hondas for the finale, Honda’s then roadracing manager Udo Gietl shrugged it off, saying that they had the equipment there, why not use it, since the bikes would be obsolete after that race anyway. What Gietl was referring to was the AMA Superbike specs for the upcoming 1983 season would go from 1025cc to 750cc, so none of these bikes would be raced again after that weekend – at least not in AMA Superbike.
Just as Honda suspected, Lawson was playing it very conservatively. He ran 10th on the first lap leaving the Honda gang only each other to run into up front.
Baldwin got past early leader Wes Cooley (on a Yoshimura Suzuki Katana) and Kawasaki’s young ace Wayne Rainey, whose clutch was going out on his bike and eventually sideline him. As the race wore on Lawson gradually made his way to the front pack. Once there he sort of just paced himself trying to keep his distance from any and all traffic.
In the closing laps Baldwin ran off the track and briefly dropped to third behind Cooley and Wise, but he quickly rallied, and a couple of laps later was back in the lead.
On the final lap Lawson was running fourth, not far behind the leading trio. Going into turn one late in the race, McDonald charged up underneath Lawson. It was the perfect opportunity for the young first-time Superbike rider to become a Honda hero if he managed to push Lawson off into the very wet and soggy swamps just off the racing surface. Running off the track that day, having recently been flooded resulting in the need for high capacity pumps to get rid of the water just days before, would have almost certainly resulted in a wet tumble.
McDonald was in position to mess up Lawson’s season big time, but Lawson knew McDonald was there and at the last second as they entered the turn, Lawson quickly pulled wide and lifted on the throttle. It happened so fast that McDonald had no time to react and zipped by him. Even had his intention be to knock off Lawson, Eddie didn’t give him the chance.
“I didn’t want to get near anyone with only a few laps to go,” Lawson said after the race.
In the end Lawson finished fifth and wrapped the title, his second straight, and then headed off to the world championships the next season.
Honda did all they could to help Baldwin that day in West Palm Beach. In the end it didn’t help, but it gave the series a unique race to look back on, packed with factory-backed riders, the likes of which the series hasn’t seen since.