Backmarker: Mert Lawwill

August 4, 2011
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Mert Lawwill is seen here in the pits at Terre Haute in August of 1975.
After winning the Grand National Championship in 1969 Mert Lawwill participated in the film On Any Sunday.

July 28th marked the 40th anniversary of the film On Any Sunday, which sort of put me in a “where-are-they-now” frame of mind. So, I looked up Mert Lawwill. These days, Mert’s a spry 71-year-old who lives in Tiburon, which is just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.

Mert was born in Idaho, and raced scrambles and TTs up there. In the fall of ’61, he moved to Los Angeles so that he could race every week at Ascot.

“That place had an aura about it,” he told me. “If you wanted to be a professional racer, Ascot was where you went. It was a good place for me to learn my trade, because those guys were already modifying frames. I studied frame building very diligently because I didn’t care if I won the race or the motorcycle won the race as long as we got across the line first.”

That apprenticeship served him well. He won the Grand National Championship in 1969 and thus carried the number-1 plate in 1970 – the year that Bruce Brown shot his motorcycle epic.

“Bruce came to me and said, ‘how’d you like to be in my film?’,” Mert told me, adding, “I didn’t know that he was a famous film-maker who’d made Endless Summer. I said sure; I didn’t mind if he tagged along. Of course, I had no idea how good the film would turn out to be.”

Brown was a laid-back surfer, and Mert remembers them mostly hanging out and laughing a lot. He had no idea how big a role he played in the film until he attended the premiere, with Malcolm Smith and Steve McQueen.

Chuck Palmgren  #38  leading Mert Lawwill  #7  and Hank Scott  #14  at the Syracuse Mile in September of 1975.
In 1971 Lawwill (#7) had a race accident in Washington and faced the possibility of having his arm fused at the wrist.
1970 AMA Grand National Champion Gene Romero  #3  and Mert Lawwill  #7  at Terre Haute.

Mert, Malcolm, and Bruce Brown are still friends to this day; McQueen would be a pal if he was alive. The actor was a minor presence in the film but had a hand in its financing and production. He also had a hand, literally, in the rest of Mert’s career.

In 1971, at a race in Washington state, Mert had a bad crash that completely mangled his hand. He was delirious with pain when a doctor told him he’d have to fuse everything from his wrist to his elbow. Mert’s wife insisted on a second opinion, and they loaded him into Cal Rayborn’s motor home and drove to San Francisco.

By the time they got to San Francisco, McQueen had heard about it; his personal doctor happened to be giving a seminar in San Francisco. Lawwill took his X-rays to that guy, who realized the damage was more than he could repair, and recommended another surgeon in Los Angeles. By that point, Lawwill called McQueen and told him that he didn’t think he could afford such pricey medical attention, and that he was going to have his hand and wrist fused.

“Steve wouldn’t hear of it,” Mert told me. “He flew me to L.A. His driver picked me up at the airport and took me straight to the hospital.”

It took five operations, and after each one, Mert stayed at McQueen’s house for a week or two recuperating. They went out to Indian Dunes, where Mert watched Steve practice on his motocross bike, and gave him tips. About halfway through the series of operations, the money from the AMA’s medical insurance plan ran out. Mert never even heard about that until long afterward; McQueen paid for everything, without ever mentioning it. Gruesome photos of the surgeries ended up in medical textbooks.

Mert raced until 1977. He stayed in flat track as a team owner until 1990, although by the late ’70s he was also in the bicycle business. His frame builder, Terry Knight, had asked him if he wanted to design a BMX bicycle; when Mert did some market research at Bay Area bicycle shops, he learned about the just-invented “mountain bike” phenomenon. He became the first serial producer of mountain bikes, and later invented an ingenious parallelogram swingarm for mountain bikes that provides suspension without absorbing pedal energy. He’s in both the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame, and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. After he got frustrated with the way the AMA ran flat track, he spent five years running the Yeti factory bicycle team, racing in World Cup downhill events.

Rick Hockings  #13   Paul Bostrom  #46  and Mert Lawwill  #7  during the start of a heat race in Terre Haute in 1975.
Lawwill continues to honor McQueen’s kindness by helping others through supplying prosthetic equipment to war veterans.

Now, he’s got two main business interests. He’s built and sold about twenty $40,000 Harley-Davidson street trackers, equipped with a beefed-up version of that bicycle swingarm. He also designed a prosthetic “hand” – actually a quick-release ball-and-socket joint – so that amputees can ride bicycles or motorcycles. He runs a non-profit company supplying those. Lately, about a third of all the “Mert Arms” he ships out go to the Walter Reed military hospital, for use by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Although he pointedly told me, “I don’t like the reason they’ve been hurt,” meaning, he doesn’t support those wars, I think it’s his way of paying back the kindness of Steve McQueen, who allowed him to keep his own hand (which works perfectly to this day).

The last thing I asked him was whether the film had garnered him a lot of fans. “I had a good fan base back in those days,” he said. “It didn’t change it much on the surface, but it changed it in depth. It made fans of the people that I didn’t see. Since then, if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 5000 times, ‘That film changed my life’ because it got someone into motorcycle or it kept their kids out of trouble because they were out trail riding. What Bruce did for the sport was immeasurable.”