A super fan: Dave Lawson’s story
Motocross Grand Prix racing. Ahh the mere mention elicits far-off looks in the eyes of riders, team managers, industry professionals and fans alike as the brain conjures up images of intense on-track action, the excitement of the chase, the glory of victory, the despair of loss. Life, therefore. But life on another plane. For motocross is like a deeply-held faith. For motocrossisti, if we may be pardoned for coining a phrase, it’s most everything. We are, to borrow a phrase from some Dutch friends of ours, living for the weekend.
The focus is, of course, on the modern-day gladiators, the brightly-clad heroes who ply their trade on the roughest surfaces imaginable, dancing over the obstacles, making it all look so very, very easy. And they deserve the adulation. For there is a lot of work, dedication, much slog and heartbreak that goes into just making it onto the starting line. They are the elite, the world’s finest, and to see them in action perhaps comes closer than anything to the proverbial poetry in motion.
That is not the whole story, however. Without the riders at lower tiers of racing, those still making their way, the amateur racers, the hobby riders, team members, support staff and, most importantly, the fans, there would be none of the glitter and glory at the top. The financial underpinning that carries the sport on its shoulders would be gone, and all victories would be hollow without throngs of elated fans to share it with. In motocross there are, indeed, heroes on both sides of the fence.
We see them at all the races, hoisting their national standards or banners of their on-track heroes. The Estonians attending Motocross of Nations events in such numbers that one would swear the country is running on skeleton staff only. The Slovenians, Tim Gajser fans all, turning entire swathes of landscape yellow, much like Rossi supporters do at MotoGP events. The Herlings fans, the Cairoli ones, the countless others.
Then there are fans, individuals, not so much part of a huge national group who, by their sheer presence, have the impact of a crowd on their own. Enter Dave Lawson. The 56 year old Englishman, not huge in stature, has been a giant presence at motocross GP races for a period stretching over decades, and this, we felt, is a story that needed to be told. It took a bit of goading, with Dave himself seeing no there there, but finally the information started flowing, and over the course of a goodly number of sessions, we reminisced, laughed, pressed back a virtual tear and jointly revelled in the magic of this sport that we all love so.
Let us strap ourselves to the wing of a time machine then (the significance of this will become clear later) and spool the clock back a decade or five. The motocross microbe was planted in Dave’s bloodstream at an early age through the machinations of a friend Andy West, whose brother had an interest in motorcycles. When Dave’s brother, Steve, arrived home with a non-running NSU moped, the die was cast. As boys are wont to do, they fiddled the thing into operation again and took to the field. They woods was now their home, and in what clearly were more trusting times, they would often build a camp-fire and sleep right there, so that the next days riding could commence all the earlier. Dave’s long-suffering mum, Jeanne Barron, who will make her own stage entrance later on, was aware of it all, and nodded her silent consent. Bear in mind that Dave had by then not yet quite struck double digits on the age clock. Jeanne’s brother-in-law Ken James had been a factory BSA racer with a goodly number of Isle of Man TT’s under his belt, and in comparison to challenging the Manx countryside on a bike sporting wobbly suspension and Marie Biscuit tyres, junior’s runs through the woods must have seemed like jumping around on a feather mattress by comparison.
Dave’s first experience of motorcycle ownership came when he was 11 when a procured a Puch Maxi. He also started attending motocross races, with Matchams being his first memory. The motorcycling mates would often traverse public roads in search of “race” locations, sometimes in closed-down areas. This would attract the attention of law enforcement now and then, but the police, clearly not as adept on their BSA’s as Dave’s uncle had been, were no match for the nippy little bikes, and a number of cheeky escapes were notched up.
No longer content with make-believe racing, Dave joined the Portsmouth Schoolboys Scrambler club. The club had a special racing class called D Group, which was for racers who could not quite reach to the purchase of a dedicated racing bike. D Group made provision for riders to pitch up on converted road bikes, line up, and race. Dave’s weapon of choice was a 1968 Suzuki A100, and his race prep consisted of taking the mudguards off and fitting different wheels with trails tyres. The group was wildly popular, with full gates being the norm. Dave’s one friend, Alan Doherty, even made the local press when he won his first ever race in D Group. Perhaps it is testament to the fond memories engendered by those carefree days that the PSSC D Facebook group, which Dave had started up only a few weeks ago, is already very popular and active, with many reminiscences being shared.
When you approach your 16th birthday, a number of urges strike, chief of which is possibly the urge of being able to go where you want (or perhaps that’s just a vector in pursuit of other urges). Dave and his friend counted down the calendars for a full three years until the day they would turn 16 and they could get onto the road legally. Dave is three days older than his friend Alan Doherty, and when his big day arrived, Alan secreted himself in his house for the full three day intervening period, not wishing to witness the galling sight of Dave swooping around on public roads until he, too, could join in the revelry. In the meantime, Dave’s first day on his FS1E was not entirely uneventful. He first swung his leg over the bike at half past six in the morning, and less than an hour later, he was pulled over and collected his first £10 speeding fine, a king’s ransom at the time.
Dave’s racing exploits continued, and a succession of bikes cropped up. A Suzuki TS125 was followed up by a 1977 RM125B, it all culminating in 1989 with a CR125 replete with Pro Circuit pipe, which Dave recalls as a “phenomenal bike.” This computes well, since his dream bike of all time is Dave Thorpe’s 1989 Honda CR500. He harboured no illusions of greatness in his racing career, and his own words, the focus was on “enjoyment, not setting the world alight.” Not coming last was already a significant result, he recalled with a chuckle, and that’s the spirit of a salt-of-the earth motocrosser right there. Mum Jeanne sometimes tried to incentivize him by leaning over the fence at races, waving a £5 note, to be handed over in the event of a win. We can deduct from Dave’s telling that she pretty much used the same £5 note throughout his career.
With the big 30 approaching on the age clock,Dave hung up his helmet , but by no means was the passion for motocross abating. He attended his first big race at Matchams, and some heavyweights like Roger Decoster and Gerrit Wolsink had their skills on full display. His first GP attendance was in 1976 at Farleigh Castle, accompanied by his three-days-younger, stay-locked-in-until-he-too-could get-a-bike friend, Alan Doherty. As true-blue Englishmen, they supported Graham Noyce, and a passion for GP racing took root.
Dave and his friends attended numerous GP’s on home soil, all of them 500CC events. Dave Thorpe became a firm favourite, and indeed, it was when Thorpey looked set for his first world title that the intrepid bunch of merry men first ventured overseas to attend a GP race. Four of them packed into a Mini, them brimming with excitement, and the car brimming with everything else, and set off on the long journey. As if that were not a challenge enough for the unlarge vehicle, they picked up two more friends at the airport along the way. And just to prove that there is always more space in the jar, they stopped at a pub to collect some liquid encouragement before hitting the track.
A number of memorable things happened that weekend. Thorpey got the title all sewn up, it bucketed down in biblical proportions all weekend long, necessitating external help to get out of the paddock, and Dave collected his first bit of GP memorabilia directly from a rider. Obviously buzzing from what had just transpired, they asked Thorpe to come over to the paddock to meet his fans. The newly-crowned world champion obviously had his hands full right then, but he did come along and handed over a pair of his riding pants to Dave.
This generous gesture planted a seed, and Dave found a calling of sorts in collecting riding memorabilia. Thorpe gave him a pair of riding pants each subsequent year. In 1988 he got his first riding shirt, again from Thorpe, and to date he has collected 145 shirts, the most recent being from South African Camden McLellan. He loaned about 125 of his collection to Belgian Stefan Geukens, who produces the visually stunning “The Art Of MotoCross” photobook series, for display at his motocross museum.
Dave still regards Namur as the best motocross track ever. A brute of a track, not for the uninitiated, it is only in Belgium that you could even consider it feasible that a motocross race could be held at what is essentially a national monument. Dave has an intimate knowledge of the track, too, because in a particularly bold act of derring-do, he circulated the track twice in 1991 on a Suzuki 50cc (which, to be fair, had been bored out to 65cc). When asked how the bike made it up Namur’s notorious triple uphill, he laughs. As it happened, the Suzuki’s motor cried fin right near the top on his second circulation, and a friendly local on an XR500 gave him a tow the rest of the way.
It was a move to Holland in 2000 that probably served as catalyst for the intensification of Dave’s GP-watching exploits. He was now near the very heart of world motocross. A hook-up with some Belgian friends proved fortuitous, for they were huge fans of the New Zealand contingent, consisting then of Josh Coppins and an emerging Ben Townley. Dave was sat up with his friends Robbie, Jochen and Heikki at Teutschenthal in 2002, shooting the breeze, when Ben Townley ambled on by. They started chatting to the amiable New Zealander, and then and there, a symbiotic relationship between Ben and Dave took root. Forever after one would associate mention of Dave with the ebullient man in Townley get-up, toting a New Zealand flag.
Probably to their eternal despair, a few of Ben’s Belgian fans could not go to the Swedish GP that year, a cruel twist of fate for them that had spotted his potential early and supported him for so long. For it was there, in the wonderfully scenic arena of Uddevalla, that the bountiful Townley talents finally pulled the planets into alignment and he scored his first GP victory. It remains one of the enduring and endearing visuals of the entire season when a slight figure approaches Townley as he crosses the line, hands him a huge New Zealand flag, and then bounds up and down like a toddler who’d just been gifted a bucket of candies. It was a sublime moment for Dave, and the emotion lies shallow in his voice as he recalls the day. He bought the New Zealand flag at the track on a whim that weekend, almost as if challenging the gods of motocross to deliver the win.
After such heady moments, there was no chance that Dave would be seen in anything but Townley get-up for a long, long time to follow. Townley acknowledged the unwavering support in a very special way, as well. At the beginning of the 2004 season, paddock manager Greg Atkins called him to the Youthstream offices, and there they were, four GP passes for the entire season, donated to him by Townley. Dave was there every step of the way, through the rises and dips, through the tension as the world title drew near, and definitely, most definitely at the championship parties.
Dave reels off details of the post-season parties as if his brain were equipped with an HD recorder. The Stefan Everts party of 2002 turned into more of a Ben Townley party, as Dave recalls, and there is footage of Dave and Stefan executing some slick dance moves before the state of play made further filming inadvisable. Stefan is a partier of some intensity, we gather.
It was not always just up and up, though. Although he was happy for the opportunities that Townley could pursue in the States, Dave was naturally sad that his friend had taken off for far shores. He was elated about every success, and gutted by every setback, of which there were many. Townley’s constant flirtation with injury prematurely cut short a stellar career, and Dave cannot but wonder what Ben’s GP record might have looked like had he elected to stay. Another thudding disappointment for him was then Josh Coppins agonizingly missed out on the 2007 world title,
Dave had by now attained prominence in the paddock, and for instance in 2003 became an honorary member of the Stefan Everts fan club. There is nary a rider that would deny him the opportunity of a quick chat, and some do more. Tommy Searle invited Dave into his camper straight after winning the GP at Matterley Basin in 2012 and handed him a shirt. Shaun Simpson commandeered Dave’s beer when coming off the podium at the 2019 Motocross of Nations, but compensated with – you guessed it – a shirt. Memorable moments that keep racking up.
Dave is modest about the credence he’s built up over the years, and is quick to add that it was a group thing. his anecdotes are liberally spiked with mention of his mate Rob West, who’d been a valued sidekick since the Dave Thorpe days, as well as Robbie Froyen and others that have crossed his path. Dave and his mates were a regular and popular feature at our pit during the Vangani Racing days, and although Ben Townley was clearly was his top man, teammates Tyla Rattray and Tanel Leok also enjoyed voiciferous support.
It is clear, then, that Dave has a straight shot of adrenaline blended with pre-mix coursing through his very veins. It is nothing if not hereditary, though. Mum Jeanne, who earlier on in the story was goading him on with a waved £5 note, is quite the remarkable lady. For her 70th birthday, other than the normal fudge cake and soggy cucumber sandwich celebration one might imagine, she opted to go for a tandem skydive, and schlepped Dave along. Dave jumped first, wearing his Townley shirt. For her 80th, in 2014, she expressed the sincere desire to tone things down a bit by going for a wing walk on a Boeing Stearman biplane. You know, the kind of stunts they do in movies. Dave followed her in the daring exploit, this time giving Tony Cairoli a vicarious thrill by wearing his shirt. Remember our time-travel wing we alluded to at the beginning of the piece? This is where that comes full circle.
Jeanne is a delight to talk to. Clear as a bell and with her wits very much about her, the playfulness fair oozes out of her. “I went first on the biplane,”she said. “When I came down, I told him (Dave) that he would not enjoy it, and I’d better take his turn as well!” There is clearly a great mutual admiration society going on between mother and son, and it is charming to witness. And the adventures are not over yet, not by a long stretch. They plan on going up in a Spitfire once the coronavirus has been stiff upper lipped into memory, and by the sounds of Jeanne’s pluck, it is not beyond her to take the stick if the pilot becomes incapacitated.
And so, in the heady afterglow of a number of discussions, the story is told. Like a highlights reel at the end of a movie, we think of all the Dave moments
He is small in stature, and could therefore easily get lost in a crowd around the track. But like a seasoned player of Where’s Wally, you always find him. In the Townley times, it was because he was often hoisting a New Zealand flag, wearing a treasured riding shirt of his racing hero, but, most of all, because his enthusiasm has a beaming quality to it that seems to attract the eye.
The camera slow-motions to that special, special day at Uddevalla in Sweden. Ben Townley crosses the line, GP victor, and hoists his arms aloft. The noise is thunderous, the commentator belting out his patter at a rate of 1 000 words a minute. And rising above all the cacophony, from across the track, I’m sure I could hear Dave.
Words: Tinus Nel