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No Time to Lose : Greg Hancock Will Need Fast Starts in U.S. Speedway Nationals at Costa Mesa


Speedway motorcycle racing on the big tracks of the British League and the tiny oval at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, where the 26th U.S. Nationals will be held tonight, can be as different as the NFL is from Arena football.

"In Europe, where the tracks are about a quarter-mile around, riders say the race is usually won or lost in the first 30 meters--a drag race to the first turn," Greg Hancock said after arriving from England to ride tonight. "At Costa Mesa, the smallest track in the world (180 yards), it's maybe the first five meters that count most. You've got to explode off the line to get to the turn first."

Hancock learned the knack of speedway racing--pitching a 500cc bike completely sideways at around 50 m.p.h. in a more or less continuous power slide without brakes--at Costa Mesa. He started riding there when he was 11, tagging after his racing idols, two-time world champion Bruce Penhall and two-time national champion Bobby Schwartz, and riding in junior speedway races.

When he turned 18, just out of Edison High, he followed the advice of Penhall and went to England for a postgraduate course.

After six years with Cradley Heath, Penhall's old team, Hancock, 24, has developed into one of the world's best riders. He has three world championship trophies, the 1992 World Pairs and the 1992 and 1993 World Team Cup, and he narrowly missed winning the individual championship last month in Denmark.

Tonight, against 15 riders, including defending U.S. and world champion Sam Ermolenko of Cypress, Hancock will make his first attempt at winning his country's championship.

"I've never won a big major meet at Costa Mesa, but I was only 18 when I left so I didn't have many opportunities," he said. "It was my training ground, where I became an established rider, so I think I can get back in the groove for the nationals."

The last time Hancock rode in the United States, he won all five heats to score a perfect 15 points and win the American Final last May at Ventura Raceway, a qualifying round for the world championship.

The format tonight will be the same. Sixteen riders will compete in 20 four-lap races, four riders to a race, in which every rider races every other rider once. Points are scored 3-2-1-0 and the one with the most at the end of the night is the champion.

"My focus will be to get five good starts," Hancock said. "I have confidence in my starts, that's my strong point. Starting is probably 80% of my race. I'm not the best of riders at passing, but there is very little passing at Costa Mesa.

"It really will be no different than riding in Europe, because it all comes down to how well you can control yourself over two hours. You have to reach a fine line. You need to be pumped up to win, to rocket off the starting line, but you also must control yourself and not overdo it.

"Keeping your mind focused for the two hours is very important. The actual night's racing will be only about five minutes of work, about one minute a race, but it's two hours of concentration."

Travel is Hancock's biggest problem in Europe. He rides five to seven nights a week and is captain and No. 1 rider of three teams: Cradley Heath in England, Getingarna in Sweden and Leszno in Poland. In a typical week, he races two or three nights in England, Tuesdays in Sweden and Sundays in Poland.

Although he still considers Huntington Beach home, Hancock lives eight months a year in Tamworth, a suburb of Birmingham in central England.

"My goal is still the same as it was when I first went to England in 1989, to follow in Bruce (Penhall's) footsteps and win a world championship," he said. "I came so close this year that I know I can do it."

In the finals at Vojens, Denmark, Hancock won three of his first four races and when the favorite, Hans Nielsen of Denmark, fell and failed to score in one heat, Hancock found himself tied for first place with Australia's Craig Boyce. The next-to-last race would decide their fate. If either Hancock or Boyce won, he would be the champion.

Hancock finished third behind Sweden's Tony Rickardsson and Boyce, falling one point shy of a podium finish when Rickardsson, Boyce and Nielsen ended up with 12 points each to Hancock's 11. Rickardsson won the run-off for his first championship.

"All three of us got great starts," Hancock said. "We were dead level in the first corner, but when we came off the turn, Rickardsson was ahead and Boyce was right on his handlebar. I felt like I was in a good position, just to the right of them, but I could never get by. It was one of the closest heats of the meet."

Speedway racing, once one of Britain's most popular sports, has declined in interest since Penhall retired in 1982 after winning consecutive world championships.

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