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From Issue #58 December 18, 2014

Born to Slide

A champion with a solid track record wins his third world title.

By Brittany Shoot Twitter icon 

Greg Hancock though he was down for the count. Toward the end of the Polish Gorzow Speedway Grand Prix in August, a rider ahead of him slid out. When Hancock got caught in the crash, his left hand was pulled into the other motorcycle’s back wheel. The accident broke his index finger and badly dislocated the middle.

Every one of the top five title chasers ended up with an injury during this last motorcycle speedway season. Even so, Hancock says that deciding to sit out for the next month after a complicated surgery and twice-daily electrical treatments at a clinic in Täby, Sweden was one of the hardest decisions of his racing career.

He was down, but he wasn’t out. In a sport like speedway, which uses a sliding scale score and adds up scores across a handful of Grand Prix races across Europe and Australia, there’s often a chance for a comeback, something at which Hancock excels. When he returned for a race in Torun, Poland, he was still only two points down in his overall standing. Earning them in his third heat of the night, the 44-year-old American took home an unlikely third world champion title.

Easy rider

At first glance, a motorcycle speedway race looks like a catastrophic collision-in-progress. Four riders atop 170-pound, 500cc, single-gear brakeless bikes careen broadside and counterclockwise at 60 mph around an oval dirt or shale track. A typical four-lap heat lasts 30–60 seconds. If you don’t live in one of the half-dozen countries where it’s a popular national spectacle, speedway might be the most captivating motorsport you’ve never heard of.

That’s going to change, according to Hancock, an elite American rider with a 35-year track record and a valuable sponsorship deal with Monster Energy. Given the energy drink giant’s history of supporting extreme sports like motocross and BMX racing, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is backing the speedway legend. Hancock has occupied a front row seat as the sport has taken off. He’s been racing since childhood, and he won his first Speedway World Championship in 1997. In 2011, the then-42-year-old grabbed the brass ring a second time and kept on riding laps.

Promoting a still relatively obscure spot, it helps that Hancock is exactly the sort of down-to-earth spokesperson fans can relate to. He hopped on his first bike at age 7 after his recently divorced father ended up living in an Orange County apartment above a speedway sponsor. Before long, the Hancocks were regulars at nearby Costa Mesa Speedway, where legends of the sport like Bruce Penhall acted as default mentors to young sliders. In a niche sport or hobby, community is everything. With Penhall’s coaching, Hancock started entering in junior championships with his Triumph Tiger Cub when he was 9. By 16, he was skidding around on 500cc bikes.

At 18, Hancock moved to Europe with friend and fellow American racer Billy Hamill to be at the center of the speedway racing world. Throughout the five-month seasons, he regularly averaged over 100 races. At one point, he rode six nights a week in England before jetting to trials in Poland on his day off. To ease his commute, Hancock would leave chassis in several countries and board the plane cradling an engine in his arms.

“I’ve spent my life trying to be a world champ,” he says humbly when we meet in a Southern California café where no one seems to notice the unassuming titleholder sitting among us. The only giveaway to anyone who might be paying attention is his hat, which sports the word “Grin,” along with a toothy logo. It’s Hancock’s childhood nickname — even as an adult, he’s known for his wide, easy, happy-go-lucky smile — and the name of his branded products ancillary to the sport, like aerosol lubricants and cleaners.

Cruise control

Hancock was placing in world championships by 1993, landing between second and sixth place over the next four years. He’s the only rider to have competed in every Grand Prix round since its inception in 1995. In 1996, his pal Billy Hamill took home the world title, rousing an American fan base that hadn’t celebrated a speedway victory since Bruce Penhall’s 1981 and ’82 wins. Then, finally, in 1997, at age 27, Hancock won his first gold.

The triumph was strangely bittersweet and could have marked the decline of his career: 27 is pretty old for a speedway slider. Like any great athlete at the top of his game, Hancock struggled to make sense of how to move forward once the ultimate goal had been reached. “I lost some steam once I’d won,” he concedes, despite the fact that he never took a break from racing full-time. “It took a while to find the fun in the game again.” Luckily for his fans, he has staying power. Of the 14-year gap between his first two championship wins, he laughs. “It’s never been done before!”

Hancock’s longevity makes him a perfect representative for the reemerging sport. But it helps to have friends who believe in what you’re doing.1 When Bruce Stjernstrom took over as Monster Energy’s Vice President of Sports Marketing five years ago, one of his first orders of business was to begin promoting the 90-year-old motorsport he’s been passionately supporting for four decades. Despite substantial fan bases in Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, and England, speedway has never crossed into the U.S. mainstream — even with its charming card girls and all-American aesthetic: mud-caked riders spraying debris, circling a tiny track at manic speeds, propelled by a deafening rock ’n’ roll soundtrack.

Stjernstrom reckons speedway is poised to break out as a time-tested sport, its frenetic one-minute heats perfectly aligned with the cultural moment of ever-shortening attention spans and heart-in-your-throat competitiveness. “It pushes people’s sensory receptors,” he says.

The campaign gets an even bigger boost when people actually meet Hancock, a baby-faced guy of slight stature you’d pass on the street without noticing. In fact, that’s what everyone does in Orange County, where Hancock lives half the year with his wife and three sons. (The other half, the family is based in a small town in Sweden, the home base for one of Hancock’s racing teams.)

But the world champ next door has his cloak of anonymity ripped away the moment he touches down in Poland. When he disembarks from the plane, cheering crowds treat him like their president. “It’s almost like a religion there,” he says, describing the Sunday afternoon ritual that finds frenetic fans lining the track, still wearing their finest church attire, faces smeared with team color paint.

Race to the finish

Like any good parent, Hancock proselytizes to his sons about their family’s faith. His two youngest ride in the annual Gumball Rally in Costa Mesa, a youth race started by Hancock’s father back in ’83 and revived several years ago to encourage friendly competition between burgeoning sliders. Because the rally — and obligatory gumball machine trophy — symbolizes passing the torch to the next generation, Hancock says, “This is way more important than any national race.”

It’s also an extension of speedway’s family appeal. There are few sports left where you can still regularly get up close and personal to meet the superstars you idolize. After events big and small, Hancock can be found posing for photos, signing autographs, and just hanging around to give a few high-fives. When we met behind the VIP barricade before the Speedway Grand Prix in Copenhagen last summer, we stopped every few feet so that Hancock, ever genial and approachable, could pose for a photo with a fan. Yet at the Gumball Rally, he’s just another proud father coaching his kids from the sideline.

However, he’s not handing over the keys to the bikes just yet. Speedway is physically demanding, but it is first and foremost a sport of concentration. What Hancock lacks in youthfulness is offset by his dogged determination. “The odds against me make it that much more interesting,” he says. Winning again and defying naysayers is what motivates him. “I still feel like I did when I was 18,” he laughs. “It doesn’t get easier, but I keep my full focus on being the best. There’s nothing better than standing on the podium, getting the gold.”

He concedes, “There’s a life after speedway. But I don’t want to think about that yet.”

Photos courtesy of Team Hancock Racing.

  1. Hancock was able to carry bike motors onto airplanes thanks to another quiet booster, a speedway fan in the Scandinavian Airlines PR office. 

San Francisco-based journalist Brittany Shoot, the managing editor of The Magazine, writes about fascinating people and far-flung places. She is a contributing writer to Mental Floss, Spirituality & Health, and Sojourners, and also writes for magazines including Time, San Francisco, and Islands.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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