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SPORTS WEEKEND | Motor Racing

Speedway Racing Anniversary Moves From Zero to 30

April 17, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Speedway racing, which showcases alcohol-burning, brakeless motorcycles that accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, will begin its 30th season at Costa Mesa Speedway with a mixed bag of racers Saturday night at the Orange County Fairgrounds, on the smallest speedway oval in the world.

National champion Mike Faria, who stunned speedway society when he defeated world champions Greg Hancock and Billy Hamill at last year's U.S. Nationals and then repeated in last month's Coors Light Spring Classic, has moved to Reno and will ride only occasionally at Costa Mesa.

Faria plans to do most of his racing on Northern California tracks in Auburn and Dixon.

On the other hand, three veteran riders who campaigned last year in the British Speedway League--1992 national champion Chris Manchester of Mammoth Lakes, Josh Larsen of Monrovia and Charles Ermolenko of Cypress--plan to ride the weekly Saturday night programs at Costa Mesa, the only speedway track operating in Southern California this year.

Two-time national champion Bobby Schwartz of Costa Mesa will be a regular at his home track all season, but will miss Saturday night's opener to attend the Greg Hancock Testimonial the same night in Coventry, England. Larsen and Hamill also will be in Coventry, where Hancock will be honored for 10 years of racing in the British League.

Hancock and Hamill are riding for Coventry this year on loan from the Cradley Heath Heathens, whose stadium has been demolished. With young Brian Andersen of Denmark, Coventry is a strong favorite to win British team honors.

Hancock, who came home to Balboa Island to win the U.S. championship in 1995, will open defense of his world title next month in Prague, Czech Republic. Hamill, the 1996 world champion from Monrovia, will be the only other American rider in the world event, although former world and national champion Sam Ermolenko of Cypress and Ronnie Correy of Fullerton are both riding in Europe.

Among the Costa Mesa regulars expected to ride Saturday night are 1987 champion Brad Oxley of San Juan Capistrano, Charlie Venegas of Riverside, Shawn McConnell of Brea and Rob Pfetzing of La Habra.

Also on the weekly program will be two-man Mission Yamaha sidecar team racing.

NHRA

Joe Gibbs, who has always been accustomed to winning, is sitting on top of the drag racing world these days.

For the first time since he became owner of a two-car, two-class National Hot Rod Assn. team in 1995, both of his drivers are in first place at the same time in Winston point standings. Going into this weekend's Fram Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, Cory McClenathan leads in top fuel and Cruz Pedregon in funny car.

"As an owner, this is very gratifying to see both teams enjoying success," said Gibbs, who learned about success while coaching the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl championships. "They have worked hard to get to where they're at."

McClenathan, who has been runner-up three times without winning a Winston championship, vaulted into the lead after five of 23 events when he won at Phoenix and Houston. At Phoenix, he set a top-speed record of 322.92 mph, breaking his own mark set last year.

Asked how it felt to be the "King of Speed," McClenathan said, "I don't even consider that tag for myself; that's something that Kenny Bernstein's going to have forever. He's the King of Speed and that's the way it is. We love holding the record and we love going 320, but it would be funny to hear someone besides Kenny called that. He'll always be the King of Speed."

Bernstein was the first to better 300 mph in a dragster, breaking through the barrier with a 301.70-mph run in 1992 at Gainesville, Fla.

McClenathan did, however, praise Gibbs' part in his team's success.

"Joe's the coach," the Anaheim driver said. "He's a great motivator who has shown me how to win, what a first-rate team is, and how important it is to have everyone on the team at the top of their game and on the same page."

Pedregon, who won a funny car crown in 1992 as a rookie driver for Larry Minor, failed to win an event last year and started 1998 by failing to qualify for the Winternationals at Pomona before coming back to win two of the last three national events at Gainesville and Rockingham, N.C.

"Getting Wes Cerny to tune our Pontiac Firebird was the No. 1 goal of mine and Joe Gibbs," said Pedregon of his new crew chief. Cerny, with Dale Armstrong, was credited with helping Bernstein be first to top 300 mph. "That was absolutely essential if we wanted to compete for the championship and go after John Force [winner of the last five funny car titles]. The guy we had to hire was Wes Cerny. Thanks to Joe Gibbs, he's here."

FORMULA ONE

It's amazing what a win by Ferrari can do to what had been an otherwise boring season. Having two McLarens far out in front, with Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard apparently deciding between them who would win, wasn't very satisfying. It wasn't bad that a McLaren-Mercedes won, but it was how they did it that was unsatisfactory.

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