With four World Cup titles, Greg Hancock became one of the great personalities of speedway sports. But his career stoppage also marks the end of a long American era, which began in the late 1970s with John Cook, the Moran brothers and Bruce Penhall's entry into the European scene.
By Ib Søby
Greg Hancock rarely became angry as an active speedway driver, but on Saturday, October 18, 2008, the sympathetic American nevertheless vented his trapped frustrations in front of a whirling TV camera from Denmark's Radio.
– Sometimes we are treated as artists in a traveling circus. I'm not sure I bother to join in anymore, said Greg Hancock. He had just finished fourth in the World Cup - off the podium - and had also missed out on a $ 200,000 superheat.
All because the original season finale, at short notice, had been relocated from a scandal-ridden course in the German Gelsenkirchen to Tomasz Gollob's "backyard" in Polish Bydgoszcz. That chance didn't allow Gollob to pass, and he won both the Grand Prix and the Super Final, so Hancock dumped down the standings.
Fortunately, Greg Hancock cooled down again after the bath at Polonia Stadium. Had he really stopped there, he would have missed the three World Cup titles that awaited him in the coming seasons. That night, no one knew that Greg Hancock was going to set incredible records in the grandprix context, and then go down in history as one of the sport's greatest profiles of all time.
He joined when the grandprix series saw the light of day in 1995 and until September 2014, he appeared in all 177 races. In total, Greg Hancock participated in 218 grand prixes and scored a total of 2655 points in 1248 heats, which is a record.
The soon-to-be 50-year-old American holds two additional World Cup records as he has won the most heats and has run the most finals. In total, he won 455 times in a heat, and he participated in 92 grand prix finals and is listed for 21 grand prix victories.
Three of the World Cup titles were secured after Greg Hancock turned 40, and he is thus also the oldest world champion ever.
In addition, three Team World Cup titles with the United States in 1992, 1993, 1998, and a pair of World Cup titles with Sam Ermolenko in 1992, plus eight US championships and a series of league titles in Sweden and Poland.
Gregory Allan Hancock was born on June 1, 1970, in the Whittier district, east of central Los Angeles. However, he spent much of his childhood on Onyx Avenue in the fashionable area of Newport Beach and Balboa Island, wandering the sidewalks and streets of skateboarding and BMX bikes.
When Greg was five years old, his father took him to speedway races on the nearby Costa Mesa course, which is still considered the cradle of American speedways. Here the young Greg saw close profiles such as Scott Autry, Mike and Steve Bast, Dennis Sigalos and also the young star seed, who later became his mentor and paved the way for many American drivers in Europe, namely Bruce Penhall.
As a 9-year-old, Greg Hancock debuted on Costa Mesa himself, quickly achieving good results in the junior ranks. When Bruce Penhall wins the World Cup at Wembley in London in 1981, the result sends delightful shock waves through the small American speedway environment, while Penhall subsequently becomes one of the world's most veteran motorcyclists.
Therefore, the 1982 FIM World Cup final moves to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where Penhall repeats the triumph, even with friend Dennis Sigalos at the bronze court. Among the 40,000 audiences that night was the now 12-year-old Greg Hancock along with the peer Billy Hamill. From that moment on, they had no doubt about their own future.
They would follow in the footsteps of Bruce Penhall, who, however, stopped his active career in favor of a major role in the television series CHIPS.
But Bruce Penhall did not forget his roots despite the new star status of Hollywood's glitter and glamor. He kept an eye on the boys on Costa Mesa, and in 1987-88 established an agreement with British Cradley Heath, where Greg Hancock and Billy Hamill could come to trial.
With their flamboyant style, American riders were in high course in cold and rainy England, and riders like Sam Ermolenko, Lance King, Shawn and Kelly Moran and Bobby Schwartz were already established in the British league.
In previous interviews, Greg Hancock has described his first time in England:
– We had a bit of a shock, Billy and I, well we had been on a 14 day stay in the middle of England the year before, but now we were thrown into a new life where will have to cope. If we did not score points, we could not afford food or, for example, just getting the clothes washed.
The classic hard way for today's speedway stars.
The young Greg Hancock, however, quickly gained success in Cradley Heath, where he was also supported by Danish world star Erik Gundersen and his wife Helle. After a few years Greg Hancock was established on the US national team and already won - as mentioned - both the Par World Cup and the Team World Cup in 1992.
Sam Ermolenko became individual world champion in 1993, and Billy Hamill took the title in 1996, before Greg was crowned United States fifth world champion in 1997, including Jack Milne in 1937.
Since then, the many years in the Grandprix series came with a win every now and then without any indication that there was more gold in Greg Hancock. The World Cup stage had been taken over by Tony Rickardsson, Jason Crump and Danish Nicki Pedersen.
But Greg Hancock was there always, with his winning smile and fair attitude, and slowly built up the legend around himself with record after record. The meeting with Swedish Jennie formed the basis for a life in Stockholm as the European season raged and winter stays at home in California. With the three boys Wilbur, Bill and Karl, Greg also shows off his abilities as a loving and inspiring family dad.
He was weaver and smart on the lanes. He was good at releasing the clutch in the right split second and never let out a bad first heat. Time and time again, Greg Hancock has been seen to rise in a grand prix after, for example, 1 point in the first two heats, out and adjust and come back and make the last three heats victories and just exactly drag along in the semifinals and finals.
But 14 years would pass from the first World Cup title in 1997 to the second in 2011.
– Greg Hancock could have won several World Cup titles, but he is Mr. Nice Guy. He is simply a humble and empathic human being, and thus somewhat atypical in comparison to the hard and steel-minded drivers one would normally find at the top of a motorsport hierarchy, considers it tdl. driver, coach and current boss for Vojens Speedway Center Jacob Olsen.
Jacob Olsen has followed Greg Hancock's career closely, and also traveled as an activist with Hancock in the Australian Series 500 years ago.
- Greg and Erik Gundersen have many parallels in their personality, which is why they have gained a reputation that goes far beyond the speedway itself., says Jacob Olsen.
Greg Hancock's career stoppage does not lag behind quite a few in the international speedway environment. In 2019, he gave himself a time out from all the speedway to support his wife Jennie's course of treatment for breast cancer. Hancock himself recently stated that precisely that year's break from the sport had given him time to reflect on his life and career.
– It's just so typical Greg Hancock to put himself and his career aside to support his wife. I don't think there are many world class athletes who would do the same thing Greg has done, says Jacob Olsen.
In connection with the announcement of his career break, Greg Hancock announced that he will be in the sport in the future and will make an announcement within the next few weeks.
– It will be exciting to hear what he intends in the future. He has been carrying American speedway on the shoulders for over 20 years and despite drivers like Ricky Wells, Broc Nicolls and Gino Manzares, I think it will be a long time before we see a new American at the world top. Greg's resignation is a huge loss, not only for American speedway, but for the sport in general, and I would like to send him a warm thank you, both personally and on behalf of Vojens Speedway Center, concludes Jacob Olsen.
For the past few years, Greg Hancock has also been involved in the production of the podcast series reel45. One of the episodes is with Jacob Olsen and can be heard here: