Bryan Harley, Cruiser Editor

We sit down with the two-time world champion for his thoughts on the sport

Their eyes focus on the first corner like a horse with blinders, twisting throttles to keep the 500cc engines primed and ready to launch, bodies hunched over the light front wheel to keep the bike from looping when they drop the hammer. As the gate drops they fight for lines, powering hard off the smooth high line or bucking around on the tight inside. No sooner are they upright before they’re sideways again, bars cranked in as tight as possible as the back wheel spins in a carefully orchestrated dance on the dirt. There’s a skill to tossing around a 170-pound motorcycle whose chassis flexes like it’s going to snap at the seams as a rip-snortin’ 500cc engine tries to lift the front wheel skyward while simultaneously spinning the rear wheel out from underneath you as riders approach dirt corners at speeds up to 90 mph. With no brakes. Yes, watching a speedway racer snatch a smooth line and rocket sideways around the oval track is poetry in motion. It takes a certain breed to ride these bikes. Being a bit crazy helps.

You might say it’s in their blood. Just ask reigning Speedway World Champion Greg Hancock. Introduced to the sport at a young age, Hancock has been one of its most passionate ambassadors since. Inspired by his father, mentored by former World Champion Bruce Penhall, a young Hancock set out for the UK at 18 with fellow speedway rider Billy Hamill to make his mark on the sport. After more than 20 years racing on Speedway tracks around the world, he has indelibly left his mark. Hancock has established himself as an ironman in the sport after being the only rider to appear in every Grand Prix round since its creation in 1995. He claimed his first World Speedway Championship in 1997 when he and Hamill finished one-two. Hancock has also been the U.S. National Champion eight times – 1995, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009.

Most impressive of all though is his 2011 World Speedway Championship title run. Fourteen years after winning his first championship, Hancock was able to do it again last year at the age of 41. He earned that title by finishing first in the 2011 Czech, British and Nordic Grand Prixes. With the first round of the 2012 FIM Speedway Grand Prix Season getting ready to kick off at the end of the month in New Zealand, we were able to spend some time with Hancock talking about his career, asking why so many years between titles and how an American ends up competing abroad in Speedway instead of racing flat track.

Motorcycle USA: Let’s roll back the clocks a little. How’d you get turned on to Speedway?

Hancock: Well, if you go back that far, it was my dad who was the first one to take me out and get me going on a Speedway bike. He bought the bike for me and built it up and I can remember bugging the crud out of him to get the thing finished. It only took him probably a few months but back then it felt like it took a few years. But he built it from scratch and it was really cool. It had such good tuning. He took me out in the beginning and showed me the basics and stuff. Because he’d been around the sport, we kind of grew up around it. Later we had the benefit of being friends with Bobby Schwartz and John Cook and Keith Chrisco and a lot of local guys like Randy Blevins. There were a whole bunch of them that were local for us who really took over and gave us the low-down.

At what point did you realize, hey, I’m pretty good at slingin’ it sideways?

As a kid, you always think you’re good. But it was one of those things, I think I was probably considered one of the more slow progressors, I wouldn’t say slow learner, I’d say progressor because I wanted to know what I was doing. It’s how I am in life, too. I want to be more than 100% sure, if that’s possible, that it’s there and it was going to be OK before I went too fast. That’s pretty much how it went my whole career. I took my time trying to learn, I didn’t want to get hurt, but I realized too if you want to win races, you’ve got to go fast so I had to get my groove on sooner than later!

You’re American. How’d you end up choosing Speedway over flat track?

Pretty much as I said, we grew up around the Speedway. In my world, there was nothing else. There was Speedway, and then there was Speedway. I didn’t have any desire really to do anything else. I mean, we went and watched flat track, and I always liked to watch it but it didn’t grab me the way Speedway did. I love this sport. Probably a lot of that was the people we were hanging around at the time, too, which made it that much more enjoyable and interesting. Yeh, more adventurous!

Let’s talk about the history of the sport. In what countries is it really big?

The sport basically originated, it’s claimed, in Australia. Racers there are household names. It’s a great thing that we’re going down there for a Grand Prix this year because it’s coming back closer to its birthplace.

The sport hit a stumbling block after the war (WWII), then grew huge in England after that, where it dominated until about the last 15 years. The rise and growth of the league in Poland really took off and started to change that whole thing around. Then you saw the same thing in Sweden, and those have become the two most popular and professional leagues in the world. England is still very well established, though.

What are the crowds and scene like overseas?

In England, you’re probably talking of crowds that average around 2,000-3,000 people per match. When you step into Sweden you’re talking between 3,000-4,000 per match on average and then you get to Poland and it’s an average of 10,000. So it’s huge. The track I won on in Poland last year had over 12,000 people, so it’s pretty cool because in a place like that they’re right in front of us and with big fan bases, like anything, it’s awesome.

Why do you think Speedway hasn’t taken off here in America?

Well, it’s the current question, you know? The U.S. is a big country with a lot of things going on and it’s really hard to say. I think that perhaps the promoters, maybe they didn’t quite have the same ambitions in the past after it got taken over until years after when the Gibbs took over. It’s hard to say for sure but it seems like it just lost the spark. All of a sudden people weren’t paying attention to it any more for one reason or another and it just dropped off. So maybe it was just too many people trying to get as much as they could and the times were changing. It’s hard to say but it really feels that it’s come back around now. It’s on the way back, it’s going strong.

Maybe you read, they just put up an announcement that Monster Energy is becoming a major sponsor. It’s gonna increase the exposure, the image, and that’s a good thing. I’m in touch with those guys so I kinda got an idea of what’s going to happen and what they’re going to do. They’re really going to pump some prime promotional effort and money into this thing to try to get this sport off the ground here in the U.S., too. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but with what their plans are, I’m so stoked to be a part of it now because we figure we might have just been able to turn the corner for the sport for the U.S. as well as Europe.

(It was announced last week Monster Energy will be a presenting sponsor of the SGP series. The series will now be called the FIM Monster Energy Speedway World Cup. Monster Energy has already made a huge impact on the sport after supporting Hancock last year during his second world title run. Monster also sponsors 2010 gold medalist Tomasz Gollob, Australian speedway champion Chris Holder and Swedish star Antonio Lindback.)

Why so many years between championships?

That’s the big question. I would most rather have done it at least one other time somewhere in between there, but it is what it is. It’s a tough field, every year it gets harder and harder like anything else. The youngsters are still there and they’re doing good so it’s tough to compete. I’ve always been right there, I’ve always been in the running and had the ability to do it. It’s probably just how bad you want it and what are you going to do to stay on top of it, to having the right equipment and setup.

It took me a few years to figure that out but I found it all again and a lot of it has to do with love for the sport, loving what you do. That really is a huge part of it, you know? For me, Speedway’s everything so I found it, the real buzz about it again, the adrenalin rush and now it’s just awesome. I look forward to getting on the bike and it’s just enhanced my whole racing program. I’ve got a great team of riders and mechanics behind me and sponsors who have been helping me for so long who really want to see me excel too, so when we go to every race, everyone’s trying to achieve the same thing. It took 14 years, but that’s all right. It took me 14 years to win the first one, too!

What type of training regimen do you have?

For me, now, it’s back to riding as much as I can. I’ve been training at home here riding my bicycle. I have more or less everything I need here at the house so I do all my training in-house now. It’s much more cardiovascular than heavy weight training. You need to have the right muscle tone, not too much and be flexible and limber on the bike, so that’s what I try to do. I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I think that helps.

Tell me about the bike you ride.

In Speedway, as many people know, you don’t have your Big Four for any regular mass produced motorcycles. So the only one making suitable Speedway bikes today is Jawa out of the Czech Republic. But for me I use the engine from Italy, the GM. And then we built the chassis. I used some chassis parts from the Czech Republic from a company called Stewa and we also do a lot of our own fabrication. A company called Pro Drive out of England is building a couple of subframes for us. They’re the ones who build rally cars. They did all the Subara rally cars for years and now they’re doing Minis. It’s pretty cool because they’re all motorcycle fans, so I’ve got that going for me.

When asked about restrictions, he said the bikes have to weigh a minimum of 77 kilos, it must be a naturally aspirated engine and no fuel injection is allowed, no titanium products, no electronics like traction control, and no suspension on the rear. Engines have to be 500cc. The bike weighs about 170 pounds and makes about 60 hp.

What’s the key to riding a Speedway bike?

The faster you go the easier it is. (laughs) Just like every motorsport, you just have to develop the confidence to do that. It’s not momentum; the back wheel needs to be spinning all the time for the bike to work properly. You have to have the back wheel spinning to develop the drift into the corners and keep the thing sliding. You have to control the slide and the steering of the bike with the throttle pretty much. So the more throttle you give it, the more wheel spin you get, and the bike wants to come around a little bit more in the corners and you have to sort of use throttle control to minimize or maximize the amount of wheel spin you want to make the thing go fast.

Of course you have your gearing and your ignition system that play a big part of that, but it’s all about spinning the wheel and spinning it just the right amount so you’re not overspinning and not underspinning where you can’t turn the bike. It takes a little time to get used to it but it’s no different than anything else. We’ve got such a big turning radius and that’s what makes it a little more attractive or more easy in a sense than flat track because you can turn the bike in a full 90 degrees, turn the handlebars I should say. So you get a pretty good feel for it. And then it’s also that these things are very flimsy compared to a motocross bike and everything else. You ride it down the straightaway and it feels like it’s going to just fall apart. They’re so loose. These frames are built very basic because they need to flex. That’s what it’s all about.

Seeing as how you compete on a bike with no electronics, what do you think of the amount of sophisticated electronics that have crept into MotoGP?

In a way it would be nice to have something like that because it would help us to eliminate some of the crazy wheel spin that we have now. But I can also understand a lot of the GP guys, too, because if you put too much traction control into the thing, it doesn’t become as much of an aspect of riding it. I mean, you’ve got to keep it on the track, too, and you need the wheel to spin just so much.

Most of the tracks they make for us these days are so slick and smooth it makes it difficult because it is the guy who has the best engine set up who wins a lot of the time. It’s not about riding the bike and then having to feel the dirt and the ruts or things like that, it’s just about giving it full throttle and steering the thing around.

What’s it going to take to defend the title?

Hard work, determination, and don’t fall complacent. I want to do it again, so I can’t sit pat. I know what it takes now, and I know that it’s not going to be easy. Last year things went well and you have some good luck and you have some bad luck but you make your own luck sometimes, too. People put in a lot of hard work, and I’m ready for it.

Who do you think will be the biggest threats this year?

Every year you probably have five or six guys who are always in the top who are your biggest threats. But these days there are so many youngsters coming up and so many are determined to make a name for themselves, too, that I don’t really pinpoint one rider. Because whoever you put your main focus on, you can be disappointed at the best of times, and at the worst of times, you think you’ve got an easy heat and all of a sudden two guys jump out in front of you who you never really thought would. That can happen quite frequently. For me, I’m confident that I can beat them all, so I pretty much go out in every heat knowing there’s not one easy rider out there, I have to be at my best, so that’s how I attack it.

How do your two championships compare?

One is, the first one was always, there’s always something special about it because it is that first one. When you get there it’s like “Whoa! Damn, that was impressive.” The second one was another story. It’s so many years in between, I’m a different person completely in the sense of maturity level and things like that. And of course, I had a whole new group of mechanics and people around me and my family. My wife and kids, for me, they know how hard I work and how much they help me in the process. For me, it’s a full team effort, it’s not just a one-man band here. So I can’t compare them like that because they’ve both got their special place in my life.

You’ve been able to enjoy a long and illustrious career. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in the sport during the time you’ve been racing?

A lot has changed. As far as the racing itself, it hasn’t changed drastically, but it’s more the rules and regulations. I wish that they would allow us to do more, to use better materials and things like that so we could get more longevity out of the bikes. Then we have these sound issues where they’ve just created a monster for us financially with new mufflers that we have to run that are much more quiet and destroy the engines completely. We have to remodel and service the engine after every two nights of racing where we used to be able to do six nights of racing. MotoGP and those kind of guys, they do it regular, but look at their budgets. My pricing more than doubled last year as far as my running costs just because of the silencers, so I’m pretty frustrated about it, too, and they don’t seem to care, but it is what it is.

There’s lots of things. Rules and regulations change yearly within the sport. That’s disappointing because everybody wants to build a team that’s going to win league championships year in and year out and maybe make small changes but they tend to take the team that does the best and use that one as an example and tear it down so the next year they can’t have the same team. It becomes the guy who’s got the most money who can kind of finagle everything sometime. It’s also a shame because the saying goes, well, we have a team for the future here and then all of a sudden you have to rip it apart because it’s kind of the way they structure it, riders' averages and things like that.

What’s more impressive for me is the Grand Prix and the way they’ve built such an impressive program and promoted and marketed it. Now it’s really becoming more of a household name again. It’s big anyways over there and it’s on TV everywhere. It’s great like that. I really want to see some of those things fall over this way so we can try to get this sport to be recognized throughout the continental U.S. again.