Consider career longevity among motorcycle racers. Dirt-tracker Scott Parker’s first and last Grand National championships came 11 years apart; Giacomo Agostini’s 500cc roadracing crowns spanned 10 years; Jeremy McGrath’s run of Supercross titles lasted eight. And fans still marvel at the resurgence of crusty ol’ Valentino Rossi, who, at age 35, won a couple of MotoGP races in 2014.
Now ponder the Greg Hancock phenomenon. The 2014 World Speedway Champion is 44 years old and earned his third career crown 17 years after his first one, way back in 1997! The stats border on unbelievable.
“My age is not an issue,” the champ flatly states. “I love what I do so much; I put my heart and soul into it. I come home from every race analyzing what was good and what can still be better.”
Speedway racing, rare in America but a European passion, entails straddling a feather-light, wheelie-prone, alcohol-guzzling 500cc single with a radical power-to-weight ratio, minimal suspension, and no brakes. These hellhounds are ridden completely sideways around tiny dirt tracks in intense four-lap heats by quartets of wild men desperately chasing the points that determine overall winners. It’s not for the faint of heart, but Hancock has thrived in this environment for nearly four decades.
“Speedway racing, rare in America but a European passion, entails straddling a feather-light, wheelie-prone, alcohol-guzzling 500cc single with a radical power-to-weight ratio, minimal suspension, and no brakes.
“My mom and dad split up when we were really young,” he explains, “and I saw my dad every other weekend. Religiously on Friday night he picked us up after school and we went to Costa Mesa Speedway.”
Ah, yes… Costa Mesa. Unique in America, this tiny Southern California bullring became a speedway hotbed, training ground for World Champions Bruce Penhall, Sam Ermolenko, Billy Hamill, and, most successful of all, Hancock, whose course was charted when he discovered junior speedway.
“I remember thinking, ‘Kids can do this too!’ ” he recalls. “I never looked back. Life’s been sideways for 38 years since!”
Encouraged by his mentor Penhall, 18-year-old Hancock moved to England in 1989, entering the world of team motorcycle racing. European fans obsess over hometown speedway squads as rabidly as their US counterparts do football. For years, Hancock raced three nights a week, once each in the British, Swedish, and Polish leagues, while chasing the world championship.
Then life changed. He met his Swedish wife-to-be, Jennie, just as his British League contract went sour. He moved to Sweden, married, and fathered three sons—ages nine, seven, and 19 months—and could not be happier.
“I’m so glad my kids got to experience the world championships with me,” he says of his last two crowns, 2011 and ’14. “My wife, too, of course, but especially the boys, who love this sport so much. I idolize, adore, and love my family. They’re my biggest supporters, and I want to give them the same opportunities I was given and more.”
Hancock got those opportunities, though he was less than a prodigy. “I was a slow progressor,” he admits. “My buddies tell me, ‘You always looked like a champion and rode like a champion, but you just never wanted to turn the throttle!’”
It turns out caution is a character trait. “Probably the key to my whole career is that I don’t put myself in a position I’m not confident I can get out of,” he insists. “I never take unnecessary risks. I’m not afraid of accidents. Accidents happen, but you’ve got to keep it on two wheels if you want to win races.”
This year, one of those inevitable accidents ended an amazing Hancock record run and threatened his title hopes. Since 1995, the speedway crown has been decided in a Grand Prix series comparable to motocross or roadracing. There from the beginning, Hancock had not missed a series race in nearly 19 years, until late August in Poland.
“I went around Niels-Kristian Iversen, and he hit a hole,” Hancock says. “His bike, on the back wheel, shot straight across in front of me. He collected the front wheel of my bike, my left hand went under his rear fender and pulled me into his bike, and we went tumbling down the straightaway.”
The only crash of Hancock’s Grand Prix season badly broke one finger and dislocated another. He missed the next round, ending his consecutive GP start string at an astonishing 177 straight.
“I’ve ridden two weeks after a dislocated shoulder and two weeks after blowing the ACL in my knee,” he says, “so I felt so stupid missing that race. You know, ‘It’s just a finger.’ But it turns out you need your hands!
“Everybody was making a big deal out of the string, wondering why I didn’t go and just start the first heat to keep the record alive. But I wouldn’t take that chance. I didn’t care about the record. I wanted to win the world championship.”
The racing gods work in strange ways. Hancock’s British title rival, reigning world champ Tai Woffinden, missed that Polish round, coincidentally sidelined by broken bones in his left hand. In championship terms, the injuries canceled each other out.
“I came back just a couple of days after they pulled the pins out of my finger,” Hancock recalls. “I hadn’t raced for a month, and I finished last in my first heat. It was the best last-place finish of my life because I realized everything was okay. My hand hurt, but I could ride. All I had to do was grit my teeth and go for it.”
Gutting out the last two championship rounds, Hancock locked up career crown number three. Don’t bet that it will be his last. “In my world,” he reflects, “will to win is the key. I want to win so bad, and I know I’ve been getting better and better over the last few years. I don’t know why I’m learning so much more now. Maybe it’s just taken me this long to understand it all.”
Hancock does acknowledge that it takes a special effort to beat riders half his age. Woffinden, for example, was not yet born when Hancock first arrived on the scene in Europe.
“On pure aggression, the youngsters will beat me all day long,” he admits. “They’re not afraid to do things that I am. So I have to emulate what they’re doing but with my style and technique. If I’m smooth on the bike and can be a bit quicker at thinking ahead, I’m more likely to beat them than if I just try to be rough and tough.
You gotta be smarter.”
In the end, Hancock embodies a rare phenomenon: a will to win that is undiminished by the passage of time.
“Every year, I want to win the world championship,” he insists. “I train much more than I ever did before, I eat way better than I ever did before, and I feel better than I ever did before. I wake up in the morning full of energy and ready to go. Taking care of yourself is one of the main instruments in life. It’s working well for me, and I’ll keep going as long as I can because I want to win.”
Hancock’s thoughts then turn to the future of speedway in America. “You’ve seen Supercross just explode and the potential for speedway to do that is so high,” Hancock says. “It’s a stadium sport; you really can’t get a bad seat. It’s a family sport, and it’s perfect for television. But it just feels like it’s a forgotten sport.
“Monster Energy got involved three years ago, and that is the biggest door-opener ever,” he continues. “The ultimate goal is a world championship event in the US. With Monster’s help, I think there’s a good chance.”
Might that happen in time for Hancock to race a speedway Grand Prix on his home turf? He responds with a smile and the ageless enthusiasm, which is his defining characteristic.
“I’m only 44, so there’s still time!”