Thursday, 22 April 2010

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AMERICAN SPEEDWAY?

Much has been written about the state of British speedway and the lack of new talent and/or training facilities, but even though we haven't seen a British World Champion since the days of Mark Loram and Gary Havelock, Britain still has a few world class riders on the scene. We also have some emeging talent in the likes of Tai Woffinden and Joe Haines but whatever happened to American speedway?

Back in the 1930s America had some of the World's best riders... Sprouts Elder, Jack and Cordy Milne, Wilbur Lamoreaux, Miny Waln and Bo Lisman to name a few. Some of my best memories from the 70s and 80s are of Scott Autrey and Steve Gresham, followed by the razzamataz of Bruce Penhall and Bobby Schwartz, the acrobatic riding of John Cook, Kelly Moran and his brother Shawn, the finesse of Sam Ermolenko and Rick Miller, Denny Pyeatt (sadly killed while racing in the UK), Lance King, Dennis Sigalos and Ron Preston... all World Class riders, two World Champions and all of them real entertainers! The late 80s and early 90s brought even more exciting racers across the pond... Bobby Ott, Ronnie Correy, Billy Hammill and Greg Hancock (two more World Champions too).
USA World Cup team 1983
l-r: Bobby Schwartz, Dennis Sigalos, Shawn Moran, John Scott (manager) Kelly Moran, Lance King.

Since those heady days though, the pool of talent seems to have dried up. At the turn of the century it seemed like a new breed of American racer had emerged with the arrival of Josh Larsen, Brent Werner, Chris Manchester, Ryan Fisher, Billy Janiro and Eric Carillo. More recently we have seen Chris Kerr and Ricky Wells arrive too, but with all due respect, as entertaining as these guys are, they're never going to attain the heights of their illustrious predecessors. There was also the issue of the American riders being assessed with an 8-point average in the UK. Promoters were obviously not going to gamble that many points on an untried rider, and those that did come to the UK found themselves squeezed out again if they didn't attain their average by the end of the season.
Chris Kerr in action for Redcar.

It's been four years since the USA graced the speedway World Cup and veteran campaigner Greg Hancock is their sole representative in the Grand Prix, so what happened? Tracks and training facilities closed due to environmental and legislative issues, others were lost to development and even now, the famous Costa Mesa track is under threat. Without tracks, there's no riders, but that isn't the whole story.

In a recent article in Speedway Star, author Brian Burford caught up with exiled Brit and Wolves supporter Steve Evans who along with Gary Gomez is trying to revive speedway in the USA. Steve says that "Despite the fact that the USA has produced some brilliant motorcycle racers like Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey Nicky Hayden and recently Ben Spies, bike racing in general doesn't have a high profile in the USA". The only exception seems to be Moto-X and Supercross where glamour, sponsorship and big money is available to those who make it to the top.

Speedway suffers in that it is really only centered around Southern California with a few pockets of activity elsewhere, it's not a nationwide sport and is possibly seen as a bit of a "country cousin" to other motorcycle sports, but hopefully Steve and Gary are trying to raise the profile and ultimately get American speedway back on the World stage. They even have their own track now, Victorville Speedway, which is on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert.

This year marks the fifith anniversary of the American Dream Team tour to the UK and so far around 23 riders have got their first taste of speedway in the UK. This year the team raced at Plymouth, Rye House, Isle of Wight, Birmingham (against Dudley), Kings Lynn and Newcastle (where they raced against Team Viking, a similar Scandanavian project). The level is only equivalent to our third tier National League, which shows how far down the ladder American speedway has fallen, but the riders have all gained valuable experience and hopefully seen for themselves that speedway does exist outside of Southern California and a good living can be made for those with the determination and skill to succeed.
At 15 years old, Austin Novratil is the youngest rider in the squad and possibly their best prospect. He has already finished third in the Victorville Track Championships, beating experienced riders like Tommy Heddon and Shaun Harmatiuk.

Gino Manzares is hoping to stay in the UK after the tour and race in some second-halves hoping to gain a team place in the UK for next year.

Tim Gomez is returning to the UK after a spell on the sidelines through injury.

Evergreen Eddie Castro is the "old hand" in the team and is always entertaining to watch. At the match against "Team Viking" at Newcastle 51 year old Eddie teamed up for a 5-1 with 15 year old Austin.... 31 years between the two of them, must be some kinda record there.

Good luck to Steve, Gary and the new breed of American racer. Here's to many more visits from the American Dream Team. Only time will tell whether their "dream" will be fulfilled

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Whitehaven, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Disenchanted City Boy who rode out of the fast lane and into the back lanes! Life on Two Wheels is so much fun.