"Factory” Phil Lawrence grew up in Cherry Valley, California, deep in the heart of the Southern California’s Inland Empire. It's the epicenter of American motocross. His height and smooth style made him a standout on the track. He became one of the top racers of the 1990s, which may have been the most fun time to be a motocross star. Fittingly, Phil’s career spans the entire period of the 1990s—his first pro race was in 1989 and his last race was in 2000.
Lawrence was a contender. He secured a win and plenty of podium finishes in the 125cc supercross class, and narrowly missed the 1993 West Region 125 SX title. After moving up to the big bikes, he scored a career best second place finish at the 1996 Orlando Supercross while riding for the legendary Great Western Bank team (as a privateer). He finished fourth in 250SX points that season. Lawrence was also fast outdoors and grabbed several national podiums.
We caught up with Phil on a Thursday afternoon while he was looking after his young sons. Also, you can check out this podcast interview our Steve Matthes did with Phil a few months ago.
Racer X: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Phil. What are you doing with yourself now?
Phil Lawrence: I have a family and we’re living in Temecula. My wife April and I have been married for nine years, and we have two sons—one is four and one is two, Grayson and Grant. We’re really busy and doing our best to raise our boys properly. Raising kids is a lot of work and discipline, and we try to always be consistent with them. It’s more than a full-time job; it’s just non-stop with two boys. But we would like nothing more than to raise two Godly boys and get them on the right path in life.
For us, we are really close with the boys. We don’t set them in front of the TV; we instead choose to invest time with them. You know, I’ve seen so much in my life, it’s sad to me to see what our society values today, with this culture telling us what success is, and what the right thing is. I’m not buying it anymore; we’re going back to a more traditional system of values for our boys.
I understand both you and your wife are super hard workers as well. What do you guys do for a living now?
Well, my wife is going back to get her graduate degree for nursing, so she’s in school. She’s also working as a teacher. As for myself, I have my own business. I do commercial property work, mainly lot sweeping and some maintenance work.
Tell me a little more about your business?
We focus on the Temecula Valley. A friend helped me get started 12 years ago, and I did all the work myself. It was really tough, especially because it was all night work. So I was a night owl for a long time. I’ve grown to have a few employees, so it’s a bit easier for me now. But I still do a few nights and have my hands in it. I’m so thankful to have a business where I can be home during the day; it’s really a blessing. We could not stand having a nanny and day care for our boys, and this allows me to be around. We’re not the biggest guy out there, but it does me well with a few trucks and several employees.
The era you raced was very different from today—riders were more social, and sometimes the parties were more important than training! What are some of your thoughts on that period?
I really believe that everything is in God’s timing. For me to have gone through my career, I never have to wonder what its like to be rockstar. We were all rockstars back then! We signed autographs, we were getting paid big bucks, and we would all go and party. It was cool at the time. I know what it’s like. I have made a lot of money, and bought whatever I wanted to buy. It was good. But now, I don’t believe that is success. Back then, you always wanted more, but it will never be enough. Even when you have so much, you want more. Look at Jeremy, he still wants that win from St. Louis in 1996, even though he won every other race that season!
Looking back at your results, and with some hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
Well, I can say I wish I approached it differently. I could have won more, but I had a lot of fun and learned a lot. I’m very content with what I achieved, though. It would have been the same if I won more, so I’m okay with what I have. I was able to beat the best in the world several times, and there were times where I was the fastest guy out there. What more can you ask for? Not a lot folks can say that. I have also traveled ten lives worth of memories, and I appreciate the experiences I had, which also makes me appreciate what I have now with my family.
Hey, don’t get too deep on me here! I want to know about the chicks and the crazy parties!
[Laughs] When you’re a racer, the nature of things is that you’re chasing stuff for yourself, and that’s all you’re focused on. You have all these people around you telling you what you want to hear, paying you all this money, trying to pump you up and whatever. That’s the nature of it, and you just continue that rat race until it [the career] is over. Today, the family has made me give up many things, and make sacrifices, but as backwards as it seems, it’s really more fulfilling to me.
What about your specific results? What were some of the highlights for you personally?
My 1996 supercross season in the premier 250cc class, that was a really good time. I was close to winning some races, but Jeremy was really on his game that season. You know what’s funny? Some of my fondest memories are from local races. One time Donny Schmidt showed up at Perris just after he won the world championship. He was an idol of mine, and I beat him that day. That was a big deal for me.
What can you tell me about the various teams your rode for?
Well, I rode for Suzuki support as an amateur, and back then they groomed you for the 125 class. Both Mitch [Payton] and Suzuki offered me a ride, and I was debating which one to take. But Suzuki offered me a two-year contract and I took it. I wish I would have stayed with Mitch but Suzuki offered me more than he did at the time. But then I got hurt. Suzuki was testing ignitions, and I had one cut out on me in the middle of a rhythm section. I blew out both my knees and was out for nearly an entire season. After that, I came back with the Kawasaki of Mexico team in 1995. Then in 1996 I rode for the Great Western Bank team. But in 1995, I was in rough shape mentally, fighting the mental game of confidence, just trying to build my results back. It takes almost a year for that to happen, but it did.
If your boys want to race, how would you feel about it?
Well, first of all, I will do whatever they want to do. I would never push them into this sport, or any sport. Right now, my oldest loves animals, and I want nothing more for them to find whatever works for them. I don’t need them to be in the limelight, and I don’t think it’s always the best choice anyway! But if they want to race, I would back them 100 percent, no question. It’s a great sport, and I still love it. Motocross and surfing, they are the gnarliest sports you can do.
What do you think about how the sport has evolved since you retired?
Well, the biggest thing is that motorcycles are incredible. The guys go so fast now. The miles per hour around the track is way faster than it was for us. Jumps, corner speed, all that stuff is faster. When you watch the GoPro’s of the top guys, it reminds me of MotoGP how they’re staying wide to keep speed up. But I still just love watching it, especially when the racing is good, like it was earlier this year.
How involved are you in the sport today?
Not at all. Once in a while David Pingree will have me test a bike or something, but that’s it. I don’t have a bike in my garage and I might go to one supercross race a year. I’m so busy, and I’ve done it [the sport] so much that it’s just not a priority for me right now. But I do enjoy hanging out and catching up with some friends, and I’m always looking at results. I still follow it, but from a distance.
Any advice for up and comers?
It would have to be to a younger guy, but I would say treat it like it’s your business. A lot of people say they do well when they have fun, but at the top level it’s not always fun. Carmichael worked his ass off, he worked hard during the week, and he trusted his homework. For me, I did the work, but didn’t always trust myself. I would psych myself out once I got to the races. So trust your homework, if you do it properly.
As a racer, how was the money?
Well, I made over a million dollars racing dirt bikes so it was pretty good! But being young and having no guidance, I went through it and today I don’t have a ton to show for it. I was a 16-year-old kid with no guidance, and I bought whatever I wanted. I literally had no money left when I started my company. But it was good. Racing bought and paid for my house, but that’s about all I got out of it. At first, when I quit, I mowed lawns. As hard as it was, that was a good time in my life, that’s when I became a Christian. I learned to do what God wanted me to do and got humbled. Like any kid thrown in the limelight, I was prideful. People telling me what I wanted to hear, paying me money … it went to my head. Mowing lawns and being down like that helped me become the person I am today.
How did you know it was time to quit?
Toward the end, I was partying, I was on mediocre bikes and loose teams. You can’t compete with the best in the world under those circumstances. I just came to a point where I knew I was done. I wasn’t happy doing it and I could barely get top 15. I was miserable going to races. I knew that and decided I would rather mow lawns. Walking away at that point was a huge relief. It’s so mental trying to perform at your peak every weekend, and it takes a toll on you after ten years. I was done with it, and I didn’t need it.
But after you quit, you came back and rode some arenacross, right?
Yes, I did! I got totally away from racing, but then I came back and rode some arenacross events for Billy Whitley, as a fill in guy for one of his riders. I had so much fun; it was whole new perspective! Oddly enough, I was mowing Buddy Antunuz’s lawn one day and he saw me out there and asked if I wanted to ride. I hadn’t ridden in over a year and I had a week to get ready. I did pretty well and it was fun to come back and do that.
Thanks for the time, Phil! Any closing thoughts?
Thank you! Well, first, I want to thank Jesus for calling me out and giving me a brand new life, he made all things new for me. I also need to thank Ross Maeda, I’ve lost touch with him, but he’s always been a good guy. Mitch and Bones, I really owe them, they mean a lot to me, as well as Jim and Dave Castillo. They have never stopped being there for me.