Laying Down the Lawwill

Oct 04, 2021 View Comments by

Mert Lawwill–A Motorcycling Treasure

By: Jeff Buchanan.

RoadRUNNER - Mert Lawwill

Full disclosure: Mert Lawwill is my hero.

For thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts of a certain age, Mert Lawwill will be forever etched in our collective consciousness. This unique status unfolded in the summer of 1971, when a small, independent documentary about motorcycles quietly slipped into theaters across the U.S. Word of mouth had spread through the motorcycle community, so we turned out in droves. As the lights went out, we had no idea what to expect.

Following the opening credit sequence, Bruce Brown’s distinctive voice-over introduced us to Mert Lawwill, casually walking down a San Francisco street. This was followed by the famously jarring straight-cut to Mert pitching his Harley-Davidson XR-750 sideways at speed, the sound of the tapped-out V-twin slamming us back in our seats. The close proximity of racing caught by a helmet camera, projected on the 40-foot-wide screen, effectively put the hook into audiences. It was almost a religious experience, with Lawwill instantly elevated to a two-wheel god in the church of motorcycling.

I know. I was there on opening night—a towheaded 13-year-old, part of the motorcycle craze courtesy of a Honda Trail 70. For many, Mert Lawwill became the role model of what we now wanted to be: professional motorcycle racers.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since On Any Sunday opened. Filmmaker Bruce Brown (as he had done with surfing in The Endless Summer) anticipated the boom that was brewing in motorcycling and created its cinematic rallying cry. To this day, it remains the most popular and successful motorcycle film of all time. And yet, to hear it from Mert Lawwill, the simple, somewhat casual invitation to be in the film didn’t prepare him for what was to come. RoadRUNNER sat down (in pandemic Zoom mode) with Mr. Lawwill on the 50th anniversary of On Any Sunday.

RoadRUNNER - Mert Lawwill
The Broadslide

Mert got into motorcycles the same way many of us did: with parents doing all they could to keep their son away from them.

“But my brother came home one day with one and that was it,” Lawwill says with a smile. “I was addicted to wheels.”

The bike was a Corgi Scooter (the Indian Papoose in America) and was built to be dropped with British paratroopers. “It was the first motorized vehicle I ever rode. I’m still looking for one,” Mert adds with nostalgia.

Becoming a member of the Owyhee Motorcycle Club in his hometown of Boise, ID, Mert discovered he had a natural ability to slide a motorcycle.

“We would have field meets there and one of the events was called the Australian Pursuit. Everybody would line up in a big circle. They’d drop the flag and everyone would take off. As soon as you passed a guy, he was out, and the last guy going was the winner. What that did, it taught you to get into a broadslide and go sideways all the way around this 360-degree circle. That’s where I learned the art of going sideways.”

Mert started racing, eventually moving to California. “We would race Ascot on Friday nights. Some 40% of the spectator money went to the purse. Midway through the season, when the crowds would drop off, we’d load up and travel east, because you could race every Wednesday night in Chicago, every Thursday night at some local fairground, and again Friday night at another fairground. So, we’d race four, five times a week. You didn’t make any money, $20 here, $20 there, but it added up.”

The Pitch

After years of racing, in 1969, Mert won the Grand National Championship. For the 1970 season, he would wear the number one plate, which ultimately is what brought him to the attention of Bruce Brown.

“We were at the Sacramento Mile,” Lawwill recalls, “and he comes through the infield and said: ‘I’m going to make a motorcycle movie, do you want to be in it?’ I thought it was just another guy who wants to make a home movie. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know anything about The Endless Summer—tells you how much tunnel vision I had. So I said, ‘no problem, sure.’ And look what it turned into.”

Brown was intent on creating a legitimate film that portrayed bikers in a different light, showcasing the professionalism in various disciplines of racing. “He was paranoid that someone might accuse him of having a Hollywood movie, so he jumped in the van with me and we traveled together cross country,” Mert recalls.

Unfortunately, the 1970 season was a heartbreaker. The Harley-Davidsons were unreliable. Lawwill either won or broke down—great for the film in terms of drama—painful for Mert. If there was a silver lining, it was that Lawwill’s struggles, the stuff of human perseverance, were caught on film, cementing him as a true hero and making him famous.

After the season ended, Mert traveled to southern California to shoot the film’s famous ending. “When Steve McQueen and I met, we were doing the filming of the beach scene. We stayed at Bruce’s house in Dana Point. The two kids (Brown’s sons) had bunk beds. Steve took one and I took the other. Steve looked around and said: ‘Don’t your kids go to the movies?’ That was because all there was on the walls were posters of myself and Dick Mann and all the motorcycle racers. And he said: ‘Something’s wrong here, you guys got to go to movies.’”

RoadRUNNER - Mert Lawwill

Steve McQueen to the Rescue

After wrapping the film, Brown disappeared into the editing room to wade through 200 hours of raw footage. Mert returned to racing. Malcolm Smith (the other star of the movie) went back to his shop, and McQueen went back to making movies. A year later, On Any Sunday opened to phenomenal success. The film was nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category, ushering motorcycles into rarefied air. Everyone involved enjoyed unexpected fame and notoriety.

Several years later, at a race in Castle Rock, WA, Mert had a potentially career-ending crash. “Jim Rice fell and I had nowhere to go, so I hit him. My hand slipped off the handlebar and got caught between the front forks and the frame. Well, that smashed it.”

At the hospital, the diagnosis was not good. “The doctor said when a hand’s smashed that badly, there’s no way to fix it. He said, I’ll give you some painkillers for tonight and in the morning I’ll come in and I’ll fuse you, from your knuckles to your elbow. So think about how you want your arm to shape.

“Luckily my wife, June, was with me. She said, we think we’ll go for another opinion. The doctor said, well, you can, but you’re wasting your time. So I get in Cal Rayburn’s motorhome and drive down to San Francisco. By the time we got here, Steve McQueen had heard about it and wanted me to see his doctor. He sent me a ticket to Los Angeles, had his driver pick me up at the airport, took me right to the hospital, and within hours they were working on it.”
What followed was a complex puzzle of bone reconstruction that ended up in medical journals as a guide to performing such operations.

“I had five pins put in my arm and my hand,” Lawwill recounts, “so I’d have to go down every few weeks and have one of them removed. Not only did McQueen put me up at his house, I never saw a single bill. He took care of the whole thing.”

And today? Mert proudly opens and closes his fist, demonstrating the results. “Works perfectly,” he exclaims.

Lawwill relates another story during this period. On one of the trips to LA, McQueen told Mert he was the luckiest guy he knew. Mert said: “What do you mean? You’re the movie star.” McQueen responded: “You got number one. They can never take that away from you. I’m just an actor, I’m just whoever it is I’m trying to portray.” A telling statement from the King of Cool.

RoadRUNNER - Mert Lawwill

[Jeff Buchanan with Mert Lawwill.]

A New Endeavor

After 15 years of racing, Mert retired in 1977, having amassed 161 professional career finishes. Between his championship and the recognition he achieved in On Any Sunday, the parents that didn’t want their son riding motorcycles had come around.

“In the end,” Mert says, “they turned out to be my biggest fans.”

After retiring from racing, Lawwill became a top frame designer and builder. This led to building the first prototype mountain bike. “I was a little ahead of my time,” Mert says. “When Terry Knight and I built these first mountain bikes, I tried to sell them to dealers as the Lawwill Mountain Bike. Dealers said: ‘Ah, no one rides on the mountains here.’ I couldn’t get any dealers at all. So I changed the name to Pro Cruiser, because cruisers were big. I instantly had dealers everywhere.”

When mountain bikes became popular, Lawwill pioneered their development, inventing an innovative four-bar linkage suspension system. He ran the Yeti Cycles racing team, his custom bicycles winning national and world titles. In 1997, Mert was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport. The following year, he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

When Lawwill’s friend, who had lost his arm in a racing accident, asked Mert to build him an artificial arm so he could go trail riding, it marked the beginning of an entirely new endeavor. Using his design and manufacturing skills, combined with his immense curiosity about how things work, Mert invented a prosthetic arm with a unique ball and socket setup with a patented safety release, should the rider fall.
“To date,” Lawwill proudly declares, “I’ve got over 350 of those hands in circulation. It’s not a big number for manufacturing, but it’s a big number if you’re one of those 350.”

It’s important to note that a third of the hands Mert has created have gone to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, for military veterans. Currently, the Lawwill Arm is under review in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for approval.

Lawwill has helped a number of amputees get back on motorcycles and bicycles, with several individuals racing and earning podium finishes. In a heartwarming reveal, Mert confides that he receives more gratification from helping amputees regain the ability to ride than he garnered from winning his championship. It says a great deal about the man.

To learn more about Mert Lawwill, his racing career, designs and engineering, and prosthetic hands, visit www.mertlawwill.com.

Tags: Categories: Lifestyle