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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / JERRY CROWE

Hamill Fortunate to Have Avoided Johnsson's Fate

October 02, 1998|JERRY CROWE

Visions of life in a wheelchair flashed through the mind of Billy Hamill two weeks ago as he shed his motorcycle and slid through mud toward a steel-based safety wall during the season- ending World Grand Prix speedway race at Bydgodcz, Poland.

It was on the same track, in the same turn, that Per Johnsson of Sweden was thrown into the wall four years ago, resulting in injuries that left the 1990 world champion a quadriplegic.

"I think to end up like Per Johnsson is every speedway rider's nightmare," said Hamill, a former world champion from Monrovia who said this week from his home in Tamworth, England, that he was lucky to avoid the same fate, though he did suffer the worst injury of his career.

Hamill, 28, slammed into the wall tailbone first, suffering a fractured vertebra that left him in a torso cast and will force him off his bike for at least three months.

Nobody had to tell him it could have been a lot worse.

"If I'd gone in headfirst," said Hamill, who won the world title two years ago and was runner-up last year to Greg Hancock of Costa Mesa, "I could have ended up just like [Johnsson]."

Instead, the Monrovia High graduate is fully ambulatory and might even be dancing at his 10-year class reunion in November. He was hoping to get out of his cast and into a more comfortable removable brace this week and expects to be back on his bike around the first of the year in preparation for the European racing season, which starts in March.

"I was very lucky," said Hamill, whose wife, Christina, is expecting the couple's second child any day now. "Any time you sustain a spinal injury and you walk away from it, more or less, I think you've got to be pretty happy."

Only a week after he and Hancock won the world Team Cup championship in Vojens, Denmark, Hamill and Jason Crump of Australia collided in the first turn of the first race of the night on a rainy Sept. 18 in Bydgodcz.

"The guy just came over into me out of Gate 1 and his foot peg got caught in my front wheel," Hamill said. "I was getting dragged into the corner--I was hooked onto him--and as I started turning left, I had to put my bike down because I didn't have control, and he was taking me wider and wider into the fence. I bailed off the back and went in sort of butt first."

Crump went on to win the event, but Hamill spent the night in a hospital before being flown home to England the next day.

The American, one of only five U.S. riders to win the world championship, vows to return.

"I'm planning on racing again," he said. "I don't want to retire this way. Racing has been a large part of my life for a long time now, and I still feel that I have something to give to the sport. I still have ambitions to win the world championship again."

HEY, AREN'T YOU . . . ?

You won't ever see Brett Favre chalking the field before the Super Bowl, Tiger Woods raking a bunker before the Masters or Wayne Gretzky climbing aboard a Zamboni before the Stanley Cup finals.

But if you show up early for the U.S. National speedway motorcycle racing championships Saturday at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, you might see former U.S. champion and still-active competitor Brad Oxley picking up garbage in the grandstand or hosing down the track.

Or, if you happened to stop by earlier this week, you might have seen Oxley grating the dirt racing surface or even scrubbing the restrooms in preparation for a competition that this week marks its 30th anniversary in Costa Mesa.

The event's 1987 winner is also its promoter and caretaker, so he spent a lot less time tinkering with his bike this week than he did haggling with insurance agents, schmoozing with sponsors, publishing the programs, grooming the facility and generally overseeing an operation that swells to about 100 employees on race night.

"If any of my competitors were to come out here and do what I do during the week, they would find it very difficult to get up for the event on Saturday night," said Oxley, adding that last-minute details will keep him busy right up until a few minutes before the event's 7:30 p.m. start. "It's a lot of physical labor, a lot of long hours."

On the other hand, Oxley said, he doesn't sit around worrying about the competition--unlike many of his competitors.

"I don't have time to get psyched out about little things about the bike, or whether my wife or girlfriend has good seats--and that's good for me," said Oxley, 39.

"I'm the kind of guy who can put down the shovel and hose at 7 o'clock and at 7:30 be out there ready to race."

Oxley, who presents the weekly series at Costa Mesa with his younger sisters Robin and Laurie, will be joined in the 20-rider field Saturday by three other former champions--Mike Faria of Reno, Chris Manchester of Mammoth Lakes and Bobby Schwartz of Costa Mesa. Faria, a three-time champion, won last year against a field that included world champions Hamill and Hancock.

Hancock, fourth at Costa Mesa last year, is not riding this year because of commitments in Europe.

SMOKE ON THE WATER

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