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He's No. 1 With a Bullet on World Speedway Chart

May 16, 1997|SHAV GLICK

Speedway, which may be the purest form of motorcycle racing, showcases 500cc fuel-burning bikes that accelerate from zero to 60 in three seconds--with no clutch and no brakes. The races are short, usually no more than four laps on a tiny oval, which makes for nonstop handlebar-to-handlebar action.

The pulse of speedway beats strongest in Britain and the Northern European countries of Denmark, Poland and Sweden. The best riders in the world congregate there for eight months a year, racing two to five times a week in league competition, plus national and world championship events.

The champion is 26-year-old Billy Hamill, a baby-faced young man from Monrovia they call "Billy the Bullet" in Europe.

Hamill won the world championship in a dramatic final Grand Prix last September in Vogens, Denmark, home of four-time champion Hans Nielsen, a heavy favorite to win his fifth before Hamill upset the works.

Nielsen had a nine-point advantage going into the final round and all he needed was to qualify for the A final, even if Hamill won, to force a runoff. But Nielsen failed to qualify and had to settle for the B final, for fifth to eighth places.

"Hans thought he had it in the bag, and I think I was the only one there who didn't think the same thing," Hamill said recently before leaving for his second home in England.

When Nielsen won the B final, it meant that Hamill had to win the A final to become the fourth American to win speedway's No. 1 prize--joining the late Jack Milne of Pasadena, who won in 1938 before 85,000 fans at London's Wembley Stadium; Bruce Penhall, a Balboa beach boy who won in 1981 and repeated in 1982 before a home crowd in the Coliseum, and Sam Ermolenko of Cypress, the 1993 champion.

Before 1995, the world championship was decided on a single day, each rider racing each other rider once in a series of heats. Two years ago, the Federation de Motorcycliste created a Grand Prix series of six races in different countries, with the champion determined by points earned in all of the races.

"This way is much fairer," Hamill said. "Before, one bad ride in one heat could cost you the title. This way, on different courses at different times, it is more likely to produce a true champion."

The world championship series will open Saturday at Prague, in the Czech Republic, and will include races in Sweden, Germany, England, Poland and Denmark.

"Nielsen will be back, that's for sure," Hamill said with anticipation. "And Greg Hancock, my Team Exide teammate from Southern California, will be a strong contender."

Hancock, who lives in Costa Mesa, finished third last year, giving the Americans their strongest showing since Milne's championship season, when his brother, Cordy, finished third and Wilbur Lamoreaux of Glendale was second.

During the off-season, while Hamill was resting in Monrovia, Hancock was riding in Australia.


Hamill laments the deteriorating condition of speedway racing in the U.S., specifically Southern California.

"In my opinion, speedway is one of the greatest spectator sports in the world," he said. "It's all right there in front of you, in a small arena with lots of action, and lots of events. It's ideal for TV and that's made for a resurgence in England.

"In Southern California, the promoters don't do it justice. Since Harry Oxley just about retired, no one has come forward to really promote the sport. What it needs is a young promoter who can instill some new ideas. When I started out, there were three or four different tracks to ride on and Costa Mesa was the center of it all."

This year, the Costa Mesa track, at the Orange County Fairgrounds, will have the only regularly scheduled weekly program on Saturday nights, a switch from 29 years of Friday night racing. It is the first year since 1972 that only one speedway track is operating.

The climax of the U.S. season is the national championship races at Costa Mesa, a single-night event Oct. 4 patterned after the old-style world championships. The first of four qualifying races for the nationals will be held Saturday night on the Orange County track. Three American riders from the British League will be seeded into the finals.

Hamill did not ride in last year's nationals because of a rule banning his style of motorcycle.

"I would think it would be good promotion to have the world champion riding where he grew up," he said, "but I think there is an attitude locally that they don't want to see an American take the No. 1 plates and head for England. I can understand that, but I would love to ride in the nationals this year. If I'm invited, I'll be back."

The rule against Hamill's cycle has been rescinded.


Hamill and Hancock, who formed Team Exide last year to capitalize on individual sponsorship, are with different teams in Britain this year. Cradley Heath, which was also Penhall's team when he was world champion, has suspended operations because its stadium has been earmarked for a housing project.

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