Friday, February 4, 2011
MERT LAWWILL INTERVIEW by Bench Racer
The best thing about talking with Mert is listening to him laugh when you ask him a question that brings up a good memory for him. He has a lot of good memories, memories you now get to read.
Bench Racer: What got you started in motorcycles in the first place?
Mert Lawwill: I’ve been asked that question many times over the years. As a youngster my brother Lee Roy had a motorcycle that he just rode on the street. When I was eight years old, and just riding bicycles, my brother took me to a motorcycle race. There was just something about riding motorcycles, and riding them fast – something that just seemed natural to me.
When I discovered I could go a little faster than my friends I really started focusing in on it. Even as a kid with a bicycle I would take a shovel and make a oval track with banked corners so I could race around on it. I was 15 when I first started racing scrambles on a 250 Greeves two-stroke with a blewy pipe (straight pipe). I raced at the local club grounds of the Owyhee Motorcycle Club, in Boise. Then I was sponsored by the local BSA dealer, Harlan Wood, who gave me bikes to race and supported me as best he could, but in those days you couldn’t do very much.
BR: What was it like growing up in Idaho in the late ’40s and early ’50s?
ML: I haven’t been back for about 10 years. I have always been very partial to that area, and I always said that one day I would go back because that was home for me. It’s a great place in that anything you wanted to do you could, by going in four different directions. If you wanted the mountains you went one way, if you wanted lakes you went another, and if you wanted the desert or the farms you went another. My dad moved out of Boise in 1965 because he thought there were too many people.
BR: What role did your family have in supporting your early riding?
ML: My parents were against my brother and I riding in the beginning, because only bad people rode motorcycles back in those days. It was only after I moved to Los Angeles in 1962 and was racing at the Ascot TT every week that they became my biggest fans, but not in the beginning.
BR: Why the change from racing in Boise to LA?
ML: I am a northwest rider, and they are known as TT specialists, but I was more a dirt track rider because I moved down to LA in the early ’60s. I got my first pro license in 1958. For two years I rode every track in a three state area, which was four races. My friends and I would put the bikes on a trailer and travel to the different northwest tracks. I thought, if I’m going to be a racer I’m going to have to move down to where the racing is. That’s the reason why – in the Fall of 1961 – I moved down to LA. It was because of the frustration of not having enough racing events to go to up here.
BR: When and how did you become a factory H-D racer?
ML: Dud Perkins was the liaison who made that happen. I was riding my BSA Goldstar at Ascott as a Junior and a first year expert. There was no help from BSA, and I was still working at the print shop. In 1963 Dud offered me the Harley ride. I hated Harleys, and there was no way I was going to ride the Harley. I was a BSA guy, after all.
BSA wasn’t doing anything for anybody, and Dud talked me into it and hired a mechanic up in San Francisco, at his shop. So I worked at the print shop in LA, and they would truck down the Harley overnight every week so I could race at Ascott. I would take it out of the crate and get it ready for the race. After the race I would crate it all back together and bring it to the airport before midnight that same night. That went on for almost a year, and I realized that I’m a pretty good mechanic myself. So Dud says, "Why don’t you think about taking over the mechanic’s job, working on the bike?" My quick response was, "Wow. I’ll do that." So I moved up to San Francisco and was a paid employee of Dud Perkins Harley shop, working on my bike. That was a lot better than working at the print shop as far as I was concerned.
By 1964 I had caught the attention of Harley Race Team Crew Chief Dick O’Brien. He started subsidizing me and parts became instantly free, plus there was a small time salary that didn’t amount to anything. I discovered a letter I wrote to Dick O’Brien when I was making $8,000 in the late ’60s, and was asking for a raise. The deal back then was to wear your local sponsor’s leathers, because even though you were a factory racer the factory didn’t want you to be known as factory racer. It thought it was in the business of promoting the dealers, so it would promote the dealers by having the riders wear their colors.
In 1968 Harley finally went with factory-colored leathers. So all those years I was wearing the Dud Perkins leathers I was getting a salary and free parts from Harley.
BR: How come you were one of the faster Harley racers at Ascott TT?
ML: I was the first guy to make a Harley handle on a TT course because I did a lot of innovative work on the frame, with its geometry, and I was a complete weight freak. The bike weighed 314lb and had an 883 Sportster engine. I did a tremendous amount of building and experimenting on that bike. I handcrafted the frame and reworked the head and cylinders.
The main thing I did to make it successful was reduce the power the motor put out. In its stock form it made too much power and spun the rear wheel, and it just wouldn’t go anywhere. I ran mild cams and really low compression, and the more power I took out of it the faster it went around the race track.
BR: How did the guys in the Harley team feel about you changing their design work on their racers?
ML: Dick O’Brien was running the racing team, and he was good at letting people experiment because he knew that winning was the most valuable thing – because time moves on, and whatever you have today will be obsolete tomorrow. One of the reasons I was able to stay with Harley-Davidson for so many years was that I was able to do a lot of my own innovative design and development work.
BR: Tell me the story about how you broke your wrist between the frame and triple clamps, and how you got it fixed?
ML: It was at the Castle Rock TT in Washington. It was in the first turn of the main event, and Jim Rice (#24 BSA) fell down in front of me and I hit him. My hand slipped off the handlebar and got caught between the frame and the fork tube. My hand was stuck, and the rest of my body was rotating through the air. It completely mangled my wrist, breaking over 40 bones.
They took me to the small local hospital in Kelso, Washington, and the Doctor took an X-ray and told me, "There’s no way you can fix something like this. I’ll just fuse it together in the morning, and from your elbow on up it will just be a club and it will never move again. It will just be rigid. So think about what position you want your hand molded in, because that’s the way we’re going to have to fix it."
My wife June and I were traveling with my close friend and fellow factory Harley racer, Cal Rayborn, in his motor home and they loaded me up on a bunch of pain pills because I was really hurting BAD. Your hand has the most amount of nerves in your body, and when you smash it you know what pain feels like. So they checked me out of the hospital that night and drove me down to San Francisco before that Doctor could get to me.
By the time I got home Steve McQueen had heard about it, and gave me a call. Steve said, "You know my doctor, doctor Kerlin, is the LA Rams doc and he is up in San Francisco right now at a medical seminar. I want you to go and see him and see what he says about it."
So I went downtown to see him and he put the X-rays up against the light and told me, "You know Mert, we have some problems here, but I have a guy who’s better at this than me." So he wanted me to go down to LA and see this hand specialist, but I was having a bad year racing and I didn’t have any money.
I called Steve and told him, "Well, he wants me to go to LA and see a specialist to fix my hand, but I’ve had a bad year and I’m going to have to pass on it. I’ll just have my local doctor fix it up for me." Steve wouldn’t hear of it. He made sure I got down there to see Dr. Herbert Stark, the hand specialist. They took the X-rays one afternoon and said they hoped I’d brought my toothbrush with me.
They ended up operating on it five times, and put seven pins in it. They completely reshaped the bones – they even did an article about it for a medical journal on experimental hand surgery. I went from having a club as a hand to having an almost normal hand that works in every way possible that you can imagine. It’s a little bit weaker, but not much.
Since that operation I have never received a bill of any sort. Steve paid for anything the insurance didn’t cover. I expected a bill, but I never got one.
When I went to LA for the operations I stayed with Steve at his home in Brentwood. One morning when I was there Steve’s wife Neile – Steve called her Neal – and Natalie Wood showed up, and they prepared breakfast for me and then the three of us sat down and ate.
BR: On race day you were noted for having a professional attitude and demeanor in the pits and on the track. In the pits you were always working on the bike, and out on the track you were smooth and consistent. Sort of the antithesis of Dave Aldana’s crash or win philosophy?
ML: That’s a very accurate analogy. When I first started riding, back in Boise on the BSA, we had a little oval track we used to practice on that belonged to the motorcycle club. I remember going around as fast as I could go, and crashing on one end of the track. I would pick it up and go another lap, and crash it at the other end. I figured if you could get any throttle on, you could get it all on. I just crashed, crashed, crashed. That’s when I figured out that the throttle doesn’t have to be all on all the time. That’s when I started concentrating on being smooth, and getting the throttle on properly. The best single help for me was a club event they called the Australian Pursuit. Everybody lined up in a circle and started the race. Once you passed someone, they were out of the competition. The last man running was the winner. That taught me how to broad slide the bike, because you were in a 360-degree broad slide the entire race.
BR: Hard tail vs suspension. Which was better?
ML: There were two factors, the first being weight. The suspensioned bike was heavier than a hard tail. The other fact was that we didn’t have any proper suspension components to work with.
When I made my first suspension bike all we had were very low grade shocks. I just put the shocks at the rear axle to make them work harder, thinking that would smooth things out. I didn’t like the rough ride you got from hard tails. I thought there had to be a better way.
Once you got the suspension set up correctly, it suddenly made all those rough race tracks smooth again.
Bart Markel, who rode hard tails probably longer than anyone, was an old school guy who was used to what he was doing, and didn’t want to change over to a suspended bike. He did finally change, though. Bart was never very scientific in that way. If Bart had success doing it a certain way he would continue doing it that way. I used Bart as my gauge, in that if we were with him, or could beat him, then we were on the bubble.
BR: Tell me more about your Harley team-mate, ‘Black’ Bart Markel of the Michigan Mafia?
ML: Cal Rayborn and I would stay at his house during the midwest summer swing through the US. On the race track it was like Bart had blinders on. If you weren’t 100 per cent in front of him it was as if you didn’t exist. He was brutal and tough to race against. He had a lot of desire, and was like Dick Mann in that the rougher the race track the better they were. It just seemed as if they never shut off on those rough tracks. They went wide open, and just hit the high spots on the track. If Bart had a half a wheel on you it was as if you no longer existed. So he ended up running into a lot of guys over the years, which is how he ended up with that nickname.
BR: You were spaced between Dick Mann and the Kenny Roberts eras. Can you tell us about their riding styles?
ML: They were two different types of racers. Dick is more like me, in that we were schooled – we were self taught and dedicated to the sport rather than having all that much natural ability. That made us smoother and a bit more calculating. Kenny, on the other hand, had so much natural ability that he would charge much harder than we would charge. He was a really good fighter, and wouldn’t give up. He had a flamboyant riding style and was fun to watch.
BR: What was your biggest disappointment?
ML: I would have liked to have won a road race. I don’t have any second thoughts about having done anything different in my career.
BR: Cal Rayborn?
ML: Cal was my best friend. We traveled together, and I knew his family really well – Jackie, his two sons Jack and Cal III, and his mom and dad. Strangely, for the first six months to a year that I knew him I didn’t really care for him that much. Then we became partners in a 1968 Camaro race car. We were going to become car racers, because we thought car racing would pay us the money we thought we were owed. Cal had the car with him when he was killed at the Pukekohe race track in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1973. When I found out he’d died it was the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me. I still think of him every day, to this day. That has been my heaviest emotional loss. What more can I say? He was just a really, really great guy.
BR: Who was the best racer you saw or raced against?
ML: I would have to pick out Kenny Roberts. We are still very tight friends. I go to his birthday party on New Year’s Day. People have said that you either like Kenny or you don’t, but I have always liked Kenny. In fact in 1980 we had a race team together called Roberts/Lawwill Racing, which was supported by Yamaha. The riders were Skip Aksland, Mike Kidd and Jimmy Filice. Kenny was a wide open throttle type of racer who was really, really aggressive. He made that Yamaha dirt tracker look a lot better than it really was. Kenny actually rode for me twice, the first time being at the Houston AstrodomeTT with my other rider, Eddie Lawson. They got first and third places. Then later, in 1981, he rode my Harley at Springfield.
BR: Worst crash that you saw and you were not involved in?
ML: The race in Sedalia in which my friend Chris Draayer crashed. They had Armco steel barriers – the type you see on the roads – on the outside of the track, because they raced cars on the same track. They had these 12-inch by 12-inch posts to hold up the barriers, with nothing underneath it. As Chris was sliding his left arm struck that 12 by 12 post, and it took all but four inches of his arm off. He broke just about everything in his body.
I went to the hospital that night, and the doctor told me to call his parents; that they were welcome to come, but there was very little chance of survival. I called his dad, but stubborn Chris made it through – defying the doctor’s prognosis.
Chris was a friend of mine, and that’s what got me started on the prosthetic hand. Years later Chris still wanted to ride the trails, and eventually the street. Chris was working with a Utah prosthetic company, and each unit they built him just didn’t fit the bill. There were always adjustments. If you adjusted it too tight and you fell it wouldn’t break loose, and the prosthetic would drag you down the roadway. If it wasn’t tight enough then it would pop out when you didn’t want it to, and you would be back to being one-handed and would crash again.
I set about designing a prosthetic that would think on its own. I built a ball and socket unit with detent springs that would keep the ball in place. If you went beyond an adjustable set threshold it would mechanically eject itself. If you fell and went beyond the threshold it ejected, and you’d be free from the motorcycle.
BR: What was or is your favorite track?
ML: Probably Ascott. Because of the great traction there, and that you could be aggressive.
BR: Most racers have great stories and friends from when they go to the Peoria TT. What did you think of Peoria?
ML: I liked it. I even won there in 1973. It was probably one of the most demanding race tracks, because in those days they controlled the dust by spraying recycled oil on the track. With that oil and sand mix you would be cleaning it off your bike for months afterwards. It was a fast surface that consumed energy from the bikes. When you walked across the track it was soft and spongy.
The temperature and humidity were both about 100, with the smallest amount of air blowing through, and when you combined that with the hot oil it was very demanding.
The year I won it they had changed the length from 20 laps to 25 laps. I miscalculated and was counting off the laps, and when it came close to the 20th lap I was looking for a flag, because I was just about dead. The white flag didn’t come out. The next lap the flag didn’t come out. I’m thinking, what is going on around here? I was so tired that on the last two laps I could only get one handful of throttle instead of two. Right after the checkered flag I just rolled the bike to a stop, and fell off the bike.
BR: Dick Mann?
ML: Another good friend. For years we would go trail riding together as well as race together. Our relationship goes back years and years, to when I first came to California with my BSA. He was a man I really admired. I had seen him in the magazines before I left Idaho, and to actually meet him, let alone become friends with him was something I could never have imagined. I held him in awe. He was just one of those heroes.
BR: You and Dick share many of the same personality characteristics, except you would be the wild man compared to him.
ML: True, true enough. As long as you don’t put Skip Van Leeuwen in there.
BR: The Palmgren brothers?
ML: They were fun to travel with. I remember one time we were back at the motel, at a party after the race, and one of the Palmgrens hypnotized Cal Rayborn. They told him he was a dog, and that he had to go around barking. It was so funny seeing Cal walk around on his hands and knees going "Woof. Woof. Woof. Bark. Bark."
BR: Gene Romero?
ML: Gene was only a couple of years behind me. When I first started racing up here in northern California in 1964, he was a novice racer. Gene was quite the upcoming rising star that was going to be a big name. You could see that quite early.
Another one who surprised me was Jimmy Odom. He was so flashy and fast as a junior that he was going faster than the expert riders. I expected him to continue on as an expert, but he didn’t go as far as I thought he would.
BR: Gary Nixon?
ML: He and I were on a different page for years. He was in a different group than I was. He was the east coast Triumph rider who had a cocky attitude, where I was the easygoing western Harley rider. Gary’s changed a lot from what he was in those days. We’ve actually got to be better friends over the last 10 years, to the point where we communicate all the time with each other now.
BR: Dave Aldana?
BR: He’s a wild kid! I always liked him and got a kick out of him. One thing I didn’t like was to race right beside him. I never really had the confidence that he was actually going to go where he thought he was going. One National race in which he was leading for the majority of the race I could have passed him a couple of laps earlier, but I didn’t because I knew somehow or another he would get me. I waited for the very last corner of the very last lap to pass him and beat him to the flag. That upset him.
BR: Jim Rice?
ML: Very quiet guy who was pretty much a loner. He was the first one who had real success with using the rear brake when they changed the rule allowing rear brakes. He was another smooth, thoughtful rider rather than just a wide open guy.
BR: Tell me a little bit about the summer months of racing?
ML: I would spend up to three months racing three to four times a week in the midwest and east coast in the late ’60s. You raced enough in the small towns to keep you going. We were like the traveling circus coming to town. I was luckier than some, because I had a small monthly check coming in from Harley when other riders would go to tracks with their last quarter, and would have to win to leave town.
BR: Dick Hammer?
ML: Another guy I really looked up to, mainly because he was a BSA racer. So when I was still racing in Idaho on my BSA he was one of my heroes. All his race equipment always looked like showroom special. We always got along well. I had many dinners at his house in those early days. It was sad to see him go, recently.
BR: Were you buddies with your fellow competitors?
ML: Very much so. Every prominent professional racer had a distinct personality. Everybody was serious on the race track, but off it there was a real comradeship amongst the racers. When I started sponsoring racers I noticed that after the races everybody disappeared back to their hotel rooms. Between 1964 and 1970 they had to turn off the lights after the race to get everybody to load up and go home, because everybody was socializing and having a good time. I found it disheartening that today's racers don’t have that sense of community anymore.
BR: You still live in the same house that we all saw in the movie On Any Sunday?
ML: Yes I still live in Tiburon, although you wouldn’t recognize the house now. It was 1875 square feet in the movie, and it’s now 3100. There is preserved open space, with only two new houses built since that movie shot was taken, so it looks very similar to the movie. I live only about 30 minutes away from Sears Point Raceway (Infenion Raceway). Art Baumann won the first National in 1969 there on a Suzuki, and I beat out a sixth place. Today it’s by far the most fun race track I’ve ever been to. The attitude of the employees there is fantastic, they treat you like a real customer and you can see almost the entire track now to watch some fast racing.
BR: Favorite racing motorcycle?
ML: I would have to say my BSA Goldstar, followed by the Harley KR. The Goldstar has a soft spot in my heart. I grew up working at a BSA shop in Boise, and the Goldstar is what started my racing career. I liked it because you could make it into three bikes. By changing the carburetor, the cam and the exhaust pipe you had a cow trailer, a dirt tracker or a scrambles bike. It was a combination bike.
BR: Mike Sullivan wants to know how you survived those barbeque sandwiches you were seen eating in the movie On Any Sunday?
ML: I’m a farm kid, soI can just eat about anything.
BR: Any dine and dash or gas and dash stories?
ML: I never ran out without paying the bill. Every time we would get a motel we would only get it for one person. Then everybody would bunk up. When Bruce Brown was traveling with me in the filming of On Any Sunday he would just laugh about the fact I would rent just one room. Bruce would be with me, and a couple of other guys, and there’d be to at least four people in the room, if not more. We didn’t have any money, so that was the way we had to do it.
That was another reason I learned to be the mechanic I became, because to make a living at racing I couldn’t afford to share the purse with anyone; there wasn’t enough money to spread around. In 1969 I had a helper, Jack Dunn, with me, but I was the mechanic.
BR: Short track, TT, 1/2 mile, mile or road racing. What did you like the best?
ML: 1/2 mile and mile races. I like TTs too. I don’t know if I was good at road racing, although I got five second places, including Daytona in 1965 behind my Harley team-mate, Roger Reiman. Roger was another really good guy. I would stay with him when we were in Illinois, and he would stay with us when he came out west.
BR: Which racers did you hang with during your career?
ML: Predominantly it was with Cal Rayborn and Dick Mann. We hung out a lot together. Skip and some of the west coast racers didn’t travel the full circuit very much. The Harley guys stayed together pretty good. Kenny Roberts once said that, "The reason I used to hang around Dick Mann and Mert Lawwill was that you were the only guys who didn’t do dope." Kenny would hang out with us as well.
BR: How good are you at racing rental cars?
ML: We did some pretty crazy things that you can’t do any more. After the National Road Race in Kent, Washington, in 1970 Ron Grant and I took the rental cars and went down the front straight at full speed, and then shifted it into reverse at full throttle and the rear would start spinning backwards. Then we would turn the steering wheel and we would do 360-degree loops at 50 to 60mph. With all that smoke billowing from the rear end it was really, really fun. We did limit our off road excursions to two wheels, though. I remember one time at the Portland Mile race in 1968, with Bobby Straylman who was the Champion spark plug rep at the time. The transmission on the rental car didn’t work any more for some unknown reason. So Cal Rayborn and I got a running start, with Bobby pushing us from behind and we coasted up to the check in area at the rental store and told them "There must be something wrong with this car because it won’t go in drive? So you’d better check it out." We handed them the keys, and away we went. We got away with that one.
BR: How did you get contacted to be in On Any Sunday?
ML: I was just part of the group. Bruce Brown came up to me and told me he was doing this film, and he would like to do some stuff and he told me he wasn’t paying any money or anything, and would I like to be a part of it. I didn’t know Bruce from shineola at the time. My wife is more knowledgeable than me, and told me that Bruce was the guy who made the surfing movie Endless Summer. It wasn’t till half way through the film that he decided to focus on me. Early on Bruce had been going to focus on Mark Brelsford, because he was flashy and fun to watch, with a big grin. Then it got to be a pretty good story about what I was going through with the breakdowns, and defending my championship.
BR: My friends and I will put in the DVD of the movie and crank up the surround sound to the maximum and watch the beginning of the movie, where you are opening the back of your van and the next shot is of the front of you going sideways on the mile, with the throbbing blasts of the Harley engine. Then we will watch it again. Then again. Then again. That just captured the entirety of racing in a few seconds.
ML: I love that scene also.
BR: What reaction did you get after On Any Sunday was released?
ML: It was all positive, of course. The biggest thing that happened was the longevity. People think I was a lot faster as a racer than I actually was back then. It gave me a lot of press I would have not got when I started my many and varied projects over the years since then. I can’t believe that after all these years people who see it for the very first time are completely blown away. It could have been made yesterday instead of 34 years ago. I’ve met a lot of good people I would not have met because of the film. It was one of the two highlights of my whole career, the other being winning the National Championship.
BR: Were the sand dune rides scripted, in other words did you have to jump here and slide there for the cameras?
ML: No. That was just totally FUN! For three days we would ride those motorcycles until they were so tired that when we were done with the filming they were pure junk. Every track you see is one that we just made up when we got there. At the end of the day we went back to Bruce’s house, because he lived in the San Diego area, and had dinner and stayed overnight. Then we’d get up in the morning and go riding again. We had so much fun.
BR: What is the truth behind the river crossing shot with McQueen and Malcolm?
ML: Bruce told us to bring three riding outfits that were identical, because every time you did it you got soaked. We did that water crossing at least six times, and changed clothing three times. Poor old Steve did get trounced. Steve was a good sport and knew it was for the good of the film, but we did have a good laugh about it. After we got done filming we were all driving home in a truck with the bikes in the back, and there was a guy hitchhiking and we decided to pick him up. The guy got in the truck and started looking and looking at Steve. Steve answered by saying, "Yup. That’s who I am." And the guy just liked freaked out.
BR: One question that has been bugging me ever since I first saw the movie was what the hell was the bike you were riding on the sand dunes? It looked like a Greeves, but it had a Harley tank on it.
ML: It was a Greeves. The small tank would run out of gas on a trail ride, so what I did was cut it in half and stretch it to make a bigger tank. Then I stuck a Harley sticker on the tank as a joke. My nephew still has that bike in his garage.
BR: What would you say about your racing career?
ML: I feel that I was born to do it. I don’t know if I could have done anything else. My wife tried to get me away from it for years, telling me, "You’ve got to go and get a job and make some money." But I’m a racer, and that’s who I am."
BR: How did you get involved in Mountain bike development?
ML: All through the ’70s I was manufacturing racing frames with Terry Knight, of Knight Frames. We made two frames for Harley dirt trackers. The first was the standard Harley frame, done to its stock specifications, and then I had a special frame with different geometry that I still see being raced today.
For a number of years the Harley team switched over to my frames for racing. One day Terry said, "Hey, this bicycle thing is going good. Why don’t we make some bicycle frames?" I went into my local bicycle shop and said, "I’m thinking of making some bicycle frames. What do you think I should make?" They told me I should make a mountain bike. "What's a Mountain bike?" was my intelligent reply. At that time it was just a lightweight bike with an upright riding position.
I went back to Terry and we built some frames. I then went to dealers and I couldn’t get any to buy, because they told me, "People don’t ride bicycles in the mountains, so we’re not really interested." So we changed the name of it and called it a Pro-Cruiser, because cruisers were big at the time. Now I could get dealers to buy in on the idea.
In the Mountain bike Hall of Fame it says I’m the first known assembly line maker of Mountain bikes, starting in 1977.
During the first few years I was still racing motorcycles, so in the winter I would get the dealers lined up and get the production line going. During the summer I would go racing, and the bicycle company would suffer because I wasn’t there to make bikes.
In 1981 Specialized Bicycles came out with a bike it called the Stump Jumper that was as good, or better, a bike as mine and which cost less money. I told myself that I'd got to really get serious and be in the bicycle business, or forget it. So I got out of it.
It wasn’t until 10 years later that I got involved again. I went riding one day and was going downhill at about 20mph, with a full grip on the handlebars and thinking I was going to die, and I thought if I was on my motocross bike I would be doing this at 40mph.
I came home and started to think about how I could build a suspension for a mountain bike. There had been suspension on bicycles since the 1800s, but they had been failures because they were too heavy, and they consumed pedal energy. So that was my task – to think of something light weight that didn’t take away the energy of the rider pushing the pedals. I thought of race cars going flat out around corners without leaning, using the 'A' arm suspension. I instantly thought of a concept I use to this day, which is an upper and lower arm.
If you think about it, the chain that delivers the power to the rear wheel is above the arm of the bicycle or motorbike, and when you pull forward on the chain to go, it pulls the swingarm up. Which in turn compresses the shock absorber. So it takes energy to compress the shock, and I want all that energy to go into forward motion.
So I put in an upper arm, like the race car, and now the opposite is happening. The chain is trying to pull the upper swing up, and since they are hooked together it can't move either one so all the energy goes into forward motion.
Over the years I developed five patents for different versions of that design.
In 1991 Fisher bikes produced the first production version of a bike with that suspension design, but it went bankrupt that year. Nobody did anything with the design until 1995, when Schwinn and Yeti bicycles licensed my design until 2000. I worked with them; I was the International Team Manager for Yeti and Schwinn, and traveled around the world for the downhill races.
The first bike I designed was a downhill bike and not a standard mountain bike, so I became the downhill guy for Schwinn. In 2000 Schwinn sold the company to some investors who quickly went bankrupt, and there went my bicycle job. Yeti bicycles and Rotec are the only companies still using my design.
My son Joe is still involved with the mountain bike world. He was the 2002 30+ World Downhill Mountain Bike Champion, and he now rides for Santa Cruz bikes. Joe also does a great job on building web sites, like mine (mertlawwill.com).
BR: How did you meet your wife, June?
ML: I first met my wife through an engineer friend of mine at a race at Champion Speedway. Nothing really happened at the beginning. Later on the engineer was racing his Ducati at a road race, and I went up to watch. She was there, and gave me her phone number and said to give her a call some time. She was the aggressive one. I was just a timid little kid then.
That Memorial weekend the race at Ascott was rained out, so I gave her a call. If it wasn't for that rain canceling the race, I might never have given her a call.
As for the proposal, I took her back East with me on a race trip in 1968. Things weren’t going too well on the racing side, and we stopped off at my sister’s house in Phoenix on the way back. We were swimming in the pool, and I said, "Let’s go up to Vegas and get married. It’s just a good time." So we drove up to Las Vegas, and got there just before the Court House closed, and made it to the Justice of the Peace and got married on August 30. The next week I won my third national after over a year and a half of not winning, and that got me rolling again.
BR: June is five-foot nine; you are five-foot six inches tall, and your son Joe is six-two. June says Joe’s height comes from her side of the family.
ML: Actually, my daughter Marcy is also taller than I at five-eight, and my dad was over six foot so I’m not sure.
BR: When did you first meet Kenny Roberts Sr?
ML: The first time I met Kenny was when he was a Junior-rated rider at Ascot, when I was carrying the number one plate. Someone took a picture of him sitting on my number one bike. The following year he was an Expert rider, and we raced against each other many times for the next seven years. June changed diapers on Kenny Jr. and Kurtis, but I never did. I’m not a good father in that way. I’m not a good diaper changer.
We were a tight family that spent a lot of time together at the races, and had a lot of fun. Then of course we would go over to the world-famous Kenny Roberts birthdays on New Year’s Eve, and see the family.
Kurtis still stays with us often when he is in town. Kenny Jr. is married, and is in a different group now.
BR: There are lots of stories about the Kenny birthday parties. Have one you would like to share?
ML: We always had a lot of fun. One of his birthdays on New Year’s Day he had a car race out in his field. There were a bunch of racers who prepared junked cars that they used to go motocrossing. I didn’t get a car prepared so I didn’t race, but it was a whole lot of fun to watch. There were about 20 cars competing, with Randy Mamola, Eddie Lawson and more having the time of their lives. Wayne Rainey and his dad rolled their car during the race. Kenny decided that it was a little too hazardous to take that sort of liability risk, so it only happened once. The party has gone up and down over the years, but last year I was invited with Bruce Brown and others, to get together while we still could.
BR: A rather personal question. How much is your house in Tiburon, California, worth now?
ML: We have lived in the same home for 34 years. It originally cost around $70,000 when we built it in the early ’70s, and last year it was valued at two and half million dollars. It was the best investment I ever made. The problem is that I really enjoy being here, and I don’t want to sell the house and leave. I have a wonderful view of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay. It’s great to sit up on the deck and see all of that as if you’ve just seen it for the first time. The garage I had in the movie is now my office and den. When I remodeled the house I moved the garage, and made it a little bit bigger.
BR: You have one brother and five sisters. Tell me a little about them?
ML: One of my sisters retired as a Colonel in the Army. All of my siblings have Bachelor degrees or higher. Higher than me. My brother was an airline pilot.
BR: You were elected to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame before you were elected to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. How come?
ML: The real reason was because the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame was already in existence, and I was inducted because of my innovative designs; I was the first production manufacturer of mountain bikes; my bikes won World Cups; and one was the number one downhill bike in the world in 1998. The Motorcycle Hall of Fame had not been formed yet. That’s why I got into the Mountain Bike Hall before the Motorcycle Hall. I think motorcycles were around longer than Mountain bikes. Strange.
BR: Tell us about you latest adventure with the Street Tracker?
ML: People have been after me for quite a few years to build a Street Tracker. For it really to be a Street Tracker it has to have had some life on a dirt track. Mike Cowan of MC Products financed a year of testing. I built a concept bike and raced it around the country in 2002 with the help of Gary Stolzenberg, of F&S Harley Davidson out of Dayton, Ohio. It provided me with an engine and some test riders.
We learned a lot. The engine had a lot more power. That was because the motor energy was going to work on forward motion, and not the suspension. The Dyno picked that up: we had a stock XR 750 motor at 96hp, and with the Street Tracker frame it bumped up to 101hp.
We raced it, and I made some geometry changes to the quadrilateral system. I had some of the pickup points too far off because I was designing the bike on paper at that point, and not on computer. The bike had better traction coming into and out of the corners, but in the apex it wasn't as good. I knew I had to go back and redesign it, but I had no sponsor money to build another race bike.
Now I knew how the system worked, I went and made the necessary geometry changes to make a Street Tracker motorcycle. So what I have is a bike that looks like a dirt tracker, and could actually be used to race on a dirt track, which is street legal and has the benefits of improved rear suspension, better traction in the corners and more forward power.
Al Russell from Boise, Idaho, has actually financed the operation for me. Al was a friend of mine when I was still in High School in Boise. Al and I were talking, and he said, "I would like to get involved in that." Al still races cars at age 69.
The bike starts off with a 1200 Sportster engine. The first thing I did was take off the heads. I had some special heads cast that moved the exhaust ports to the left side, so I could mimic the XR 750 with the carbs on the right side and the exhaust pipes on the left. The ports are also raised and shaped for a much better air flow.
Andrews Products made some very special cams for it. The motor should be over 100hp. Jim Belland and I worked on my frames together in my early racing career, and he is now building the Street Tracker frames. Strangely enough Jim has an awesome little shop in Cool, California, a place with a population of 55. I guess there aren't that many Cool people in California. Race Tech is doing the gas tank just like the XR 750 dirt tracker, except it has larger capacity for the street.
Omar’s Dirt Track racing is providing the seat assembly. The wheels and brakes are from Kosman. The brakes are the top line Italian Brembo stoppers. The front forks are from the Harley Davidson motorcycle.
What I also tried to do was to use as many parts from the Buell motorcycle as possible, so a buyer could go to a local Harley shop and get it repaired.
The total Street Tracker bike should weigh 130lb less than the stock Sportster bike.
BR: Let's say you are an 18-year-old in today’s world. What type of racing would you be doing?
ML: There are a lot of different forms of racing today to when I started out. Back in Idaho there were only scrambles or dirt track. I started off racing scrambles, which was the motocross of its time.
Motocross racing looks to be the most rewarding financially. It would be a toss-up between motocross or dirt tracking. After all, Ricky Carmichael is three inches shorter than I am.
Road racing is interesting today. When I was road racing you didn’t stick out your knee, and if you slid your tires you were about to crash. Today you’re required to slide your tires to win. It changed because the tires got so much better.
I think I would be a good road racer today because of my ability to slide. I got five second places in road races, including one at Daytona.
BR: What do you miss about racing?
ML: Sliding. It's really fun to turn it sideways and get around the track. I also miss jumping.
BR: Which racers did you look up to when growing up?
ML: Dick Mann of course and Al Gunter, along with Gene Theisen, Carroll Resweber, Dick Hammer and Dick Dorrestetn, Bart Markel and Skip Van Leeuwen. It was a particular thrill to finally beat Skip at a TT race, because I was riding Harleys and they were not supposed to win TT races in those days.
BR: What do you think made you different from all the other racers, and made you a champion?
ML: Perseverance, and dedicated to a cause. I thought I was born to be a racer, and that was what I was going to be and that was it. End of subject.
BR: Did Skip Van Leeuwen run over your foot at the Castle Rock TT in 1968, as a result of which you wouldn’t talk to him for a long time? The way Skip tells it he was initially leading the race and then he got tired, and you and Bart Markel passed him. According to him he was going underneath you in a corner to pass you for the lead when you put out your foot to block him; he ran over your foot, tearing off your steel shoe, and so you retired to the pits. After the race the words you used were not the kindest.
ML: I don’t remember much about the specifics. I know it was a big deal at the time, to be taken out from the lead or a possible win. I guess I’m getting old and senile. I’ve forgotten what I said to him. Skip probably told the story better than I could.
BR: Tell me about your ’55 Chevy and speed?
ML: That’s a funny story. I had this ’55 Chevy pickup truck and we were going up to Bakersfield for a TT race. I was coming down the back side of the Grapevine (Hwy 99), and I was going as fast as I could go by going downhill with a good tailwind and saying, "Looky, looky at the speedometer – it’s at 90." Skip turns around and sees a cop chasing me and says, "Looky, looky right behind you – here comes a cop!" We laughed about that for years.
BR: Skip had another question for you – about racing in Selma and a payback for two riders? Apparently the previous week you had both arrived late to the race, and these two riders were the only ones who voted against you racing that night.
ML: Oh yeah, you bet. Skip actually did a better job than me, but we both knuckled them. Skip pretty much nailed the guy, and knocked him off the course early in the race. I was really proud of Skip. He did a really good payback job. I don’t remember how I did it, but as Skip recalls it I waited to almost the end of the race before my payback, and it was fairly obvious what I was doing.
BR: Was there ever any racer that you just didn’t like?
ML: The only problem I had was in the later years, and that was with Gary Scott. Scott came across my front wheel at the San Jose Mile race. That resulted in a spectacular crash – I high-sided into the hay bales and tore apart my bike. We came pretty close to blows over that one. I was really upset with him over that crash for a long time. Scott finally came up to me one day and said, "Hey, we have to work this thing out. You being mad at me is eating me up." We agreed to not hold a grudge against each other. Other than that we were a big family. A good group of people.
BR: You and Dick Mann were at the forefront when it came to designing and building your own frames for racing, and then carried that expertise with you into other business.
ML: What got me started was when I was in Boise and the BSA dealer, Harlan Woods, sponsored me on a BSA Goldstar dirt tracker. I took that down to the Ascott race track in southern California in 1962. I had heard a lot of horror stories about Ascott over the years. I remember that in my first race I got the hole shot, and I was leading down the back straight. I was going into turn three way over my head, thinking that this wasn’t too bad a track after all, just as they passed me on both sides. I couldn’t believe it. I was devastated. For the next couple of weeks they were spanking me pretty good.
I saw that Al Gunter and the other fast guys at Ascott were making changes to their frames. So I became friends with Al and he helped me out for a little while. Dick Mann and I were friends with Al, but he didn’t have a lot of friends.
He told me that I had to shorten the forks; change the head angle; and to move the engine in the frame. Every time I made those frame changes I went a quarter of a second a lap faster, and I hadn’t even touched the engine.
Midway through the first season as a Junior I was in the Expert Trophy Dash, which was unheard of in those days. That was when the help stopped from Al.
CR Axtell was my total mentor for many years; he passed on a lot of engineering knowledge. I learned 100 times more from CR Axtell than I have from any other person. Most people associate him with his engine building, but he was very involved in the science of frames. It was his way of thinking that caused me to learn to be more and more mechanical about what I was doing.
I got a book on frame design from an English engineer, EP Irving. I’m pretty much a self-taught engineer. I did go to El Camino Junior College for a year, and then I went to LA Trade Tech for a year to study about printing presses and making printing plates. My mom was always big on telling me you have to have a profession and have a backup job, because motorcycles just aren’t going to do it. After a couple of years in California I was making more money racing than I was in the print shops, so that’s when I quit the print shops. Champion Frames was just starting to make after market frames for dirt trackers, but the big difference was that Dick Mann and myself would actually build and ride the frames we built. We were more than the fabricators.
BR: What was the scariest moment of your life?
ML: I instantly think back to my road race crash at Daytona in 1971. I had just gone through the traps at 155mph. You entered the back straight, where now there’s a chicane, and entering the high banking the front tire went flat and when I went to turn it, it wouldn’t. It just wanted to go straight. I hit the ground and tumbled for the longest time. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re skipping rocks across the water. I hit the ground and I tumbled all around and then it would all be silent for a long time. Then I came down and hit again and then it would be silent again. It was silent three times until I slowed down enough to stop bouncing. Then I could feel my leathers burning through in hot spots on the pavement so I started rotating my body to prevent a very nasty road rash. Every time I fell down I was pretty surprised.
BR: Some questions on the Harley wrecking crew, starting off with Mark Brelsford.
ML: The first time I met Mark was through Jim Odom, up at the Portland Mile. Mark was there with a Gold Star that had either blown up or wasn’t running at all. Odom came over and said, "Hey, I’ve got this Junior rider, Mark Brelsford, who needs a ride. Put him on your Harley." I said, "Who is he?" Odom talked me into putting him on my hard-tail Harley and I told Mark that this bike operated differently to suspensioned bikes. Its weight is biased to the rear, so you have to be very aggressive with it. I told him in great detail how to ride that specific bike, and he was the only racer to this day who has ridden for me who followed my explanation exactly.
The good ending to the story was that he won the Junior race at the Portland Mile on that bike. I didn’t win that day, but I did finish on the podium. I guess I should have done what I said.
Mark stayed with me for the rest of the year. As a first year expert he rode for me, and I was carrying the number one plate and the engines were blowing up all the time. That was the year we changed engines from the KR to the Sportster, and that engine wasn’t designed for racing. The engine developed too much heat because it was an iron engine instead of aluminum. It developed so much heat it would just explode. You could get a lot of power out of it. That Sportster engine blew up in a major way so often that you had to work on the big problems, and didn’t have time for the details any more. That’s why we had problems with the throttle cable breaking, because you were recovering from these major engine disasters week after week after week.
BR: What was the reason for you retiring?
ML: You never know how your life can change in a single day: 1977 was the last year I raced, because a year earlier I had an inner ear labyrinth infection which put too much liquid in the inner ear, which causes your balance to go all wooky. I was working over at Terry Knight’s one morning, building frames for myself, and I felt this sharp grinding in my ear and all of a sudden I got all woozy. By lunch time I was a complete basket case, and told myself, "Boy. Something is really wrong and I better get out of here." It was a 45-minute drive back home and it took me over two hours, because I would drive a little way and then stop, drive a little farther and stop again. When I got home I was just done in.
I went to the doctor, who told me the only way to get the liquid out was to dehydrate myself. I went on a low sodium diet, but I could never get it down to the point where I was strong enough and clear-headed enough to ride.
After all those years of racing I knew exactly where to shut it off, and exactly where to turn it on. All alone on the track in the last year I was fine. As a matter of fact I set a track record at San Jose that stood for three to four years.
But with this ear problem, when I was in traffic it was like riding through the trees and I would get so disorientated that I would miss the trail. I just knew that it wasn’t worth the energy to try and fight it any more, so I retired at age 37 because of the inner ear labyrinth thing. I wouldn’t have retired then if it hadn’t been for the ear problem.
BR: Tell me a Steve McQueen story that’s printable?
ML: I was staying at Steve’s house one time and we were just talking, and he says, "I really envy you. You got number one. You know how you got it? You earned it. I’m an actor. I’m not anybody but the character that I’m playing. I would trade places with you in a minute." That always shocked me. He was the big movie star. He should be the hero. His words were, "No. I’m just acting the part of somebody else. You’re the one who did it." I always remembered that.