50 Years of On Any Sunday: Dirt Tracker Mert

They’re not on Harleys or Indians, but Steve McQueen (left), Mert Lawwill (middle) and Malcolm Smith (right) have taught us again and again over the years why we became motorcyclists in the first place. Epic stuff…

On Any Sunday perfectly captures Mert Lawwill and his 1970 season

Words by Mitch Boehm     
Photos courtesy of the Bruce Brown and Malcolm Smith archives

Dirt track racing figures prominently into On Any Sunday, with Bruce following 1969 Grand National Champion Mert Lawwill throughout the 1970 season – and throughout the movie – as Lawwill tries to defend his title from fellow competitors David Aldana, Dick Mann, Jim Rice and eventual 1970 champion Gene Romero.

The footage of Mert and his fellow competitors came from Miles, Half-Miles and TT races from all over the U.S., and every inch of film is simply stunning – especially the helmet-cam stuff Bruce worked out. Bruce and Mert traveled to several races in Mert’s van, with the film crew usually flying to meet them. Mert was the favorite to repeat as Grand National Champion, but a bunch of mechanicals took him out of the running late in the season.

mert lawwill, bruce brown
Bruce Brown and crew adjusting the 1970 version of today’s GoPro helmet-cam as it sat on Harley-Davidson racer Scott Brelsford’s head. The thing was cumbersome and heavy, but footage from the setup ended up in the movie, first in the opening dirt track scenes and, later, from road races at Daytona and the Pacific Northwest.

But it’s the movie’s opening scenes that are perhaps most compelling, first with Mert opening the door to his van and exposing his KR dirt tracker and, immediately after, the dramatic footage and sound of Mert tearing around Half-Mile on his bucking, sliding Harley and pitching the thing into a left-hander at 80 mph, all shot from a backwards- and forward-pointing helmet cam setup Bruce pioneered using a quite-heavy film camera. Every time I watch this the goosebumps come in waves; it’s a grand moment in modern filmmaking, and one that is not to be missed.

This is Part 4 of a 10-part series Thunder Press is publishing throughout January to celebrate On Any Sunday.

Read Part 1 HERE

Read Part 2 HERE

Read Part 3 HERE

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