LAGUNA HILLS — Bruce Penhall's career has been something like the race track at the Orange County Fairgrounds, where, as a 16-year-old from Balboa, he launched a speedway motorcycle career that led to two world championships.
From start to finish, the four corners of the 190-yard oval mirror the four phases of his life, from childhood to international fame, to show business to family man.
Turn 1 would be Penhall's days as a 13-year-old junior speedway rider who raced for trophies. As a sophomore, he quit the Newport Harbor High School baseball team to become a professional racer.
The intimate setting at Costa Mesa became Penhall's home track, but it wasn't long before he set his sights on competing against the best riders in the world in the British Speedway League as he rounded into Turn 2.
Penhall spent five years and aged 10 more as a stranger in a strange land. He complained about the food, the weather, the girls, the economy. You would have thought he had been sentenced.
But he always went back. The racing was the best in the world, and Penhall was quickly becoming the best of the best. He became world champion in 1981 at London's Wembley Stadium and then repeated in 1982 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
But Penhall's career took another twist at Turn 3 when he announced to the Coliseum crowd on a hot August night that he was retiring from racing to portray police cadet Bruce Nelson on the popular TV series, "CHiPs."
Penhall portrayed a highway patrolman and Erik Estrada's sidekick for 20 episodes before NBC canceled the series. He has continued to work as a sports commentator for ESPN, Prime Ticket and the Nashville Network and has appeared in seven motion pictures.
Turn 4 has been the most rewarding. Today, Penhall, 33, is a family man, living on Nellie Gail Ranch with his wife, Laurie, sons Ryan, 4, and Connor, 11 months, and daughter, McKenzie, 2.
Penhall's accomplishments in racing and Hollywood have been well documented, but he proudly points to his family as his greatest achievement.
"Winning the world championship was a life-long dream, but helping to deliver my three children was the ultimate," he said.
The quote is true to form. Penhall was never really a motorcycle racer. Oh sure, a motorcycle was his vehicle to stardom. But he always had visions beyond the race track. The checkered flag was nice, but he was destined for bigger and better things.
Penhall learned to ride a bike on a vacant lot on the corner of La Palma and Crescent streets in Anaheim, where a YMCA now stands. He was 7 and seemingly rode for hours, jumping off a small mound on his self-made motocross track.
"It was a huge vacant lot, and you could drive by there any afternoon and Bruce would be riding his mini-bike," said neighbor Jon Looney, football coach at Brea-Olinda High School.
"In those days, if a kid had a mini-bike in the neighborhood, it was a major league deal. Bruce rode for hours and was the envy of every kid in the neighborhood."
He also terrorized the neighborhood by making illegal hot laps through the quiet streets. If Penhall's father, LeRoy, wanted to keep peace with his neighbors, he would have to find a new vehicle for his son.
At 13, Penhall turned to speedway with longtime friend Dennis Sigalos. Their fathers built a practice track behind Sigalos' Orange County Food Service in Fullerton, and the boys rode mini-speedway bikes powered by chain saw engines.
Still, Penhall had problems confining his riding to a track. The Penhall family owned a beach house on Balboa near the Wedge, and Bruce enjoyed riding his 125cc motorcycle on the beach, usually one step ahead of the Newport Beach police.
One day, the cops caught up.
"They put me in the back of the squad car, and I'll never forget when my father arrived home," Penhall said. "He jumped out of his car and asked the cops what I did. They told him I was riding illegally on the beach, and my dad said, 'Is that all?' and went in the house.
"I sat there in that cop car while he was reading the newspaper. I thought I was going downtown. Finally, the cops went in our home and told my dad that they weren't going to arrest me and that they were leaving me with him. Later, I figured out that my dad just wanted me to sweat it out to teach me a lesson."
Penhall won his first professional race at old Irwindale Raceway on his 16th birthday. He moved from third- to second-division racing in two weeks and spent half the season competing against many who couldn't match his skills.
"It was the best training in my life going against some of those crazy guys," he said.
The next season, Penhall, with his good looks and long blond hair, became a crowd favorite at Costa Mesa. Announcer Larry Huffman nicknamed him Bruce (The Fox) Penhall and "Juicy Brucey."
Costa Mesa promoter Harry Oxley said there was a something about Penhall that separated him from other riders, even in the early stages of his career.