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America has had a strong history in Speedway. In the US, Speedway is individual based, but in Europe, the riders represent teams and they take it in turns to ride against other riders in other teams.
The charge was led in the early 1980s by Bruce Penhall. He came over from California in 1977, to represent the Cradley Heath Heathens in Britain's Speedway League, at the time the leading domestic competition in the world. Penhall was an instant success, and was hugely popular with the Black Country fans. In those days, the World Championship was a series of rounds where you entered your national championship, and then built you way through elimination rounds to get to the World Championship. In 1977, Penhall showed promise, reaching the Intercontinental Final, the round before the World Final, before being eliminated. He improved however, and he got to the 1981 World Final, at Wembley Stadium, as hot favourite to win the title for the first time. He was the darling of the English crowd, and 101,000 people gathered to cheer not only the Brits, but predominently Penhall on.
The meeting is considered one of the best ever, and Penhall didn't disappoint.
By then, the Americans were becoming a dominant nation. Penhall was followed to Europe by Bobby Schwartz, and the Moran brothers, Shawn and Kelly. In 1982, they were in the Final of the World Team Cup. Penhall however discusses his changing career, as a result of his sucesses
So, by now, Penhall's reputation was being slightly diminished. In the 1982 Overseas Final, the American legion were slightly struggling. America was hosting that Final for the first time in history.
Penhall advanced to that World Final at the LA Coliseum, and his main rival, Kenny Carter of England was winning, with 9 out of 9. Penhall was on 8 points. In Heat 14, Penhall and Carter were going head to head. It would be one of the most contoversial events in Speedway history.
After all of that, Penhall retired to take part in Chips. That left the torch in the hands of the Moran brothers, Bobby Schwartz, and others like Dennis Sigalos, plus new riders coming through like Lance King and Sam Ermolenko. Speedway for the rest of the 1980s would be dominated by Denmark, at both World Championship and World Cup level. They were by no means outclassed however, as the Americans were regularly second and third in the World Cup, and Sam Ermolenko came close to winning the World Championship in 1985, losing a three-man runoff for the title. 1990 saw the US win the World Team Cup again, and it would be the last time that Shawn and Kelly Moran would ride for the United States.
Cradley Heath had signed two new promising youngsters from California, Greg Hancock and Billy Hamill. Over the next few years, they became World Class riders, leading the averages in the early 1990s until the Heathens closed in 1996. With Hancock, Ermolenko and Hamill leading the way, the Americans won the World Team Cup in 1992 and 1993. Sam Ermolenko finally won the World Championship in 1993, but the following year struggled in the World Final. That final featured four Americans, albeit one as reserve, as Josh Larsen joined the trio of Ermolenko, Hancock and Hamill.
In 1995, the World Championship changed to a Grand Prix format, where riders that had either qualified from the previous year or came through a qualifying series made the tournament. In my opinion, it was a poor change. Nonetheless, the three Americans were placed third, fourth and fifth, with Hamill and Hancock each winning one of the six Grands Prix. The following year saw Billy Hamill and Hans Nielsen in a battle to the last, with Hamill needing to win the last race to take the title. He won the race and became Americas fourth World Champion. Hancock was third, Ermolenko ninth. Hancock was victorious the following season, beating Hamill into second place. Ermolenko had then retired from the Grands Prix series. Suddenly Hamill and Hancock were on their own, but they still won the World Team Cup in 1998, as a new formula meant that only two riders were needed to comprise a team. In 1999, Hamill had slumped to 18th, and Hancock to 9th. Despite that, they came back in 2000, and Hamill was second winning two races, Hancock also won one of them.
In 2001, the World Cup was relaunched, and teams of 5 were now required. With Hamill injured, it was left to five veteran Americans to take to the track, with Ermolenko and Hamill playing bit parts. They finished fifth. The Americans failed to make the Final the following season, and the younger Americans were not up to the standard of Hancock and Hamill. They were still going strong in the Grand Prix series, but Hamill retired from it in 2003. Hancock remained and finished fifth in 2003, and third the following year. But the US team were not even entering the World Cup anymore, such was the trouble of fielding a team. When they returned in 2005, they had to go through qualifying, and they finished behind Russia in the Qualifying Round, which meant they didn't even qualify for the main event. The following year saw Hamill return to the team, and the three stalwarts of Hamill, Ermolenko and Hancock were joined by another rider that rode for them in the early 1990s, Ronnie Correy, and another rider riding in Britain, Billy Janniro. They won their qualifying heat against minnows like Slovenia, Hungary and Italy, and then moved on to the Semi Finals. They put in a good performance, but Hamill was not as good as he used to be. Despite Hancock performing miracles, the US finished sixth. Hancock finished second in the World Championship.
Last season, Hancock remained the only Grand Prix rider. He was a respectable sixth, only just off Tomasz Gollob in fourth place. The US team hit a new low, as they failed to get to the Race Off, as Russia beat them in the Semi Finals. Hancock was joined by Chris Kerr, Tommy Hedden, Billy Janniro and Charlie Venegas. Venegas is an ice speedway rider, admittedly a multiple champion at it, but even he is ageing.
In GPs, Hancock, who turns 38 this week, is the only US presence. Other nations have more representatives, Sweden has two, Poland has three, Denmark has four, Australia has two, Great Britain has two, and even the Czech Republic has one. Internationally, the US have slipped. There are very few US riders in the leagues anymore. Hancock rides only in Eastern Europe now. Hamill has retired to Los Angeles, and Ermolenko has retired to the British TV commentary booth.
In September 2007, the US National Championship took place. In one of Hamill's last rides before retirement, he raced against Hancock for the title. Sadly, there are two US Championships, but the AMA one is the official version. The report is here. Hamill won the title with a perfect 15 score. Venegas, the 40 year old, was second. Hancock had engine troubles in his opening ride, and so scored only 10 out of 15. The championship was a three race series however, and Hancock hence finished second to Hamill. Bart Bast was third. The mean age of the riders (that were researchable) in the US Final was 36! That included two over 50s. Great names of US Speedway history still ride in the US, namely Bobby Schwartz and Josh Larsen. Schwartz, at 51, is still the ninth best rider in the States. Only three of the top 14 finishers were under 30. Admittedly the final was devoid of Billy Janniro and Chris Kerr, two riders riding in Britain. The only other rider currently in Britain is Brent Werner, and he is on the brink of retiring back to the US.
So, who is there to carry the flag for the States in future? Who are the youngsters that Hamill said he's returning to America to help coach?
Ricky Wells is undoubtedly in the best position. He is twice US Youth Champion, and the current US Under 21 Champion. Not bad for a 21 year old, but consider there isn't a great deal of talent relative to other nations. However, the US was represented at the World Under 21 Championship by Kenny Ingalls and Dale Facchini. In the World Quarter Finals, they were tenth and twelfth, and failed to advance to the World Semi Finals. On a World scale, there are riders ahead of the young Americans in terms of development.
In 2008, Hancock will be trying to retain his place in the top 8 to remain in the Grand Prix series, and the US team will be riding in the World Cup. They are now clearly behind the Polish, Danes, Swedish, Brits and Aussies. They will face Italy, Slovenia and Czech Republic in what could be a close World Cup Qualifier in June. It will be interesting to see who they pick. Should they win that, they would be thrown into a meeting with Great Britain, Denmark and Sweden. They would be almost certain of elimination.
The future of American Speedway is not as glittering as its past, and Russia are overtaking them as #6 in the world pecking order. Hopefully Billy Hamill will help to coach the youngsters in the States and help spur interest in the sport over coming years.