Yeti Lawwill DH 6 - 1996
Midway through the 1990s, sponsorship dollars were pouring into mountain bike racing. Downhill had finally shirked off the stigma of cross-country and was exploding in popularity. Large automakers were underwriting teams. Network television was covering key races, and Yeti Cycles was in the center of the action. John Parker, Yeti's owner, founder and self-proclaimed bad boy, had committed to downhill early on. Almost every top racer at the time was wearing his colors or had recently been drafted from the powerhouse team by his competitors. Team Yeti was poised to cash in.
Few anticipated what came next. Yeti was abruptly sold to a conglomerate in 1995 that owned Schwinn and Scott USA. Parker was retained to steer the business and, energized by the new source of corporate cash, he doubled-down on Team Yeti, hiring motorcycle racing legend Mert Lawwill to bring his suspension and tuning expertise into the fold. The collaboration produced the Yeti Lawwill DH, one of the most beautiful downhill bikes in the history of the sport. The welded aluminum chassis used Easton's breakthrough butted and shaped tubes, and it showcased Lawwill's "Quadrilateral" rear suspension - a four-bar, parallel-link configuration that he had developed and patented a few years earlier.
Lawwill's suspension debuted as a cross-country trail bike with much fanfare and limited success as Gary Fisher's RS1. Lawwill, who had spent a significant measure of his adult life at over 100 miles an hour, jumped at the chance to return to the fast lane. With Lawwill on board, Team Yeti became a true racing development program that created the bikes, and also many of their key components. Team Yeti became a showcase for innovation.
Initial prototypes suffered teething problems. The rear brake was mounted to the short, vertical link at the end of the seat and chainstays. Braking torque didn't have a negative effect upon the short-travel Fisher RS1, but when applied to the four-inch-travel Yeti prototype, it caused wild brake jacking. Lawwill worked out a floating brake mount which solved the issue and the Lawwill DH4 became Team Yeti's new weapon.
Mountain bikes had rim brakes in 1995. Up front, the Lawwill DH used dual-crown RockShox BoXXer forks with either Shimano XTR or Magura hydraulic rim brakes. Lawwill's suspension design, however, required a disc brake, so Yeti had to make do with what was available. Yeti experimented with a few types that they modified to function on the DH4. Team racer Kirt Voreis said that the bikes were one-offs that were constantly being updated, so when something broke, or Lawwill thought up an improvement, the mechanics often had to fabricate the parts in the team truck. Serial production began in 1997.
The learning curve could be harsh. Voreis tells the story about testing the first iterations of the longer-travel Lawwill DH6 that we feature here:
Some "learning opportunities" were unanticipated. The DH6's suspension and geometry were more capable than its predecessor. Voreis said that the speeds they were attaining created some new surprises. The suspension required a pull-shock. For the uninitiated, the shock shaft extended through the bottom of the shock body, where it was pulled by the upper suspension arm. The coil spring sat on the
other side of the shock, retained by the opposite end of the shock shaft. Voreis said that the spring retainer would occasionally fail at full shock compression, firing the spring and top cap parts like a cannon. More than once, the DH6's frame tubes were torn open by the impacts.
It didn't take long for Yeti to work the bugs out, but the reign of the powerful Yeti Race Team and its Lawwill DH6 would be short-lived. As the '90s came to a close, Schwinn grew tired of playing second fiddle to Yeti at the races and withdrew support. Mert Lawwill and his quadrilateral race bikes showed up in Schwinn colors in the pits and Yeti, along with its massive presence at the World Cups, simply evaporated. Reportedly, Schwinn's corporate leadership were losing money on Yeti hand over fist, and Yeti's story probably would have ended there. Fortunately, a couple of Schwinn employees put together some investors and rescued the brand. One of those men is Yeti's current president, Chris Conroy, but that, as they say, is another story.