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By Land or Water, Penhall Still King of the Raceways

August 09, 1995|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA HILLS — He still has the blond hair and the good looks that helped create his image. And he still has the instincts, the reflexes and the fearlessness that made him a legend.

At 38, Bruce Penhall has come full circle, from speedway king to powerboat champion--a 22-year ride that included a decade-long break to concentrate on an acting career.

If his business were rock 'n' roll, Penhall might be Elvis, and these would be the Vegas years.

All the old feelings returned in the comeback. Speed thrills.

"Mom, even though she had her doubts about racing--she would lock herself in the bathroom--knew it was in our veins," Penhall said. "She let us do it. I can remember her watching my father race planes and she was in tears in the bathroom."

Penhall's older brother, Jerry, races off-road cars. Their older sister, Connie, cheers them on.

Penhall's father, LeRoy, raced power boats and then fighter jets at the Reno Air Show, and his mother, Bonnie, shed the family's tears until Jan. 1, 1975.

That was the day LeRoy, Bonnie and three others were killed in a plane crash on the way home from Mammoth. LeRoy was the pilot.

Bruce's best friend, Dennis Sigalos, lost his mother, Joyce, in the crash.

Bruce was home. His brother, Jerry, could have been on the plane but stayed an extra day in Mammoth because the skiing was so good.

Until then, Penhall had always raced for himself on the small tracks of Southern California, from Riverside to Ventura.

After the tragedy, he raced for his fallen friends and family. He was determined to become one of the greatest speedway racers of all time.

He was 18.

"I wanted to do this for myself," Penhall said. "After the tragic accident, I wanted to do this for them as well--I wanted to do something in this world."

Armed with a desire to succeed, Penhall went to Europe in 1978 and became a legendary racing figure in Britain. He won U.S. national speedway championships in Costa Mesa.

In 1981 he became the first American in 44 years to win the world championship, and in 1982 he became the first to win it back-to-back. On the victory stand that night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, he announced his retirement.

He was only 26.

"I fulfilled my ambition," Penhall said. "I did what no other American had ever done."

Motorcycle racing ended at Ventura in 1987, but when Penhall was in town from Europe he raced there according to track owner Jim Naylor.

"A massive amount of people would come out to watch Bruce," Naylor said. "Eighty million girls showed because he was that popular.

"Even after he became world champion, he'd come back and race. A lot of guys don't bother to do that once they're big and successful. But Bruce was the same old guy he was before he became a champion."

Then came the acting classes. He was a regular on the TV series "CHiPs," and had guest starring roles on "Gimme a Break," "Facts of Life" and "Love Boat." He did "Circus of the Stars" and some commentary on "ABC's Wide World of Sports." And he did a string of movies with forgettable names.

He is still acting, but Penhall's back in the business of racing--this time on the water.

"I always have to go back to the same thing--it runs though the veins," Penhall said. "I took 10 years off from racing, had a pretty decent TV acting career, a business. People ask, 'Why do you want to risk your life in a race boat?' I love competition. It's been a dream of mine to race big off-shore power boats for a long time."

Penhall took his new career by storm. Instead of slipping into riding leathers, he slips into a life vest. And instead of angling a brakeless motorcycle into turns at speeds up to 130 m.p.h., he's flying across the water in a 37-foot Wellcraft Scarab with two 960 horsepower Mercury marine engines pushing it across six-foot swells at 115 m.p.h.

Penhall's partner in the Ocean Spray Offshore Racing Team is Sigalos, 35, another former speedway rider and two-time speedway World Team Cup champion from Newport Beach. Tony Sigalos, Dennis' dad, is the boat owner and has been a father figure to Penhall for 20 years; they speak four or five times a day, about business, racing, whatever.

If they can successfully defend their APBA World Championship, Penhall and Dennis Sigalos will cement their place in motor sports racing history--the first drivers to win back-to-back world championships in two racing disciplines.

They won the Dana Point Challenge Offshore D class June 18, but that was small potatoes compared to their feat last Sunday, when they won the Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix Festival in Sarasota, Fla., by a three-minute margin. Penhall steers and Sigalos handles the throttle in the 100-mile races.

One mile into Sunday's race, the boat lost its hydraulic steering fluid--requiring Penhall to really work on the nine-turn, four-lap course.

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