Q + A: Greg Hancock

Greg Hancock, left. Photo / AP
Greg Hancock, left. Photo / AP

Californian Greg Hancock became speedway's oldest world champion last year at the tender age of 41, beating the mark set by Kiwi superstar Ivan Mauger who was 39 when he won his sixth and final crown in 1979.

It had been 14 years since Hancock won his first title, the longest gap for any rider between world speedway triumphs.

Hancock will be among the favourites when the first round of this year's world championship takes place at Western Springs on March 31 on what will be a historic night for New Zealand sport. Hancock takes a few questions from the Herald.

Are you proud of the "oldest champ" tag?

It's a milestone and I'm very impressed by it. I didn't want to be just one of the guys any more - I wanted to be the champ again. I had finished 2010 really well and started 2011 early, testing my bikes and getting acquainted with new regulations about the silencers ...

How did you get into speedway?

I was hooked from the age of five when my dad took me to Costa Mesa which is the most successful speedway track in the USA. He got to know some riders which made it so much more appealing. I never wanted to do anything else. There was no real racing in the family but dad rode motorcycles for fun - he was an automotive custom painter. He got involved in the junior speedway programme with my older brother and eventually took over the whole programme.

Speedway has waned in America just as it has here ...It was still a minority sport in the 1970s and 80s but the LA Times and Orange County Register carried reports a couple of times a week. Now you would be lucky to find the results. There is so much to do in the US and promoters left the sport in the 80s and no one replaced them. It's a shame if New Zealand has gone the same way - your bike riders were household names around the world.

What do you know of Western Springs?

Not much except it's a big track - I've ridden a lot of car tracks like that in Australia and the US. I'll look at video to get ideas before we go there. Big tracks are faster - being a long way from home you don't have a lot of options with new engines if you get stuck.

You rate Poland's Tomasz Gollob - the 2010 world champion - as the most gifted of all speedway riders ...

He is very talented and smooth ... it was his head that let him down in the early days. He does a lot of his own engine work which is a lot to comprehend. To watch him on the motorcycle is amazing ... it's about the lines he makes ... nothing ever looks out of shape or control. He rides with his finger tips.

Who else rates as the toughest opponents?

A number can be tough - guys like myself are known as nice guys who should be harder, but I ride within my ability and do it the way I do. Others like Nicki Pedersen are much more aggressive and extreme. Gollob is a bit of both. Jason Crump is a tough candidate who runs you as hard as you run him but never puts you in a bad position intentionally. He puts you in a spot where he makes the decisions.

Is there anything you would like changed in speedway?

Greater use of different types of products, especially titanium, plus more electronics. They (the speedway authority) complain about the cost of titanium but the lifespan outweighs the cost.

Speaking of which, it sounds as if you have a hectic schedule.I race in the Swedish and Polish leagues, the GP and various races in Denmark and the Czech Republic so I'll do 70 to 75 events a year. When you are young you don't need much sleep but at my age you have family and you welcome more of a rest so I stopped racing in England four years ago - some guys will do the better part of 115 to 125 events over the five-and-half-month season.

Do you make a good living as the world champ?

I wouldn't choose anything else as far as my life has gone but I'd like to see speedway properly recognised as a professional sport in the United States. It is huge in Europe ... we put our lives on the line as much as the motorcycle GP and Formula One guys do. The speedway world title used to be decided on a finals night up until the mid-1990s.

Do you prefer the current points system?

I was fortunate to ride in two world finals (finishing 16th and 4th) before the GP started and it was crunch time - you couldn't afford mistakes or bad luck like engine failure. You still had to be the best but I prefer the GP - it gives a true world champion and all motorsport championships are now usually decided over a series.

A win or the points at Western Springs - what's your aim?

I go for the achievable and the thing you need is points. Winning is always the bonus - I go there to be in the final first of all.

Your most scary moments?

More so in my early career. Whether I saved the situation, pulled it off or ended up on my head, you have to learn the hard way sometimes.

Any message for the Western Springs bosses?

I hope the track stays relatively wide - a big track like that is dangerous if it gets overly narrow. The surface needs to be secure - it can be really dangerous when a surface cuts up.And for New Zealand sports fans? I hope everyone will support what is a big welcome back for a sport that pretty much originated in your part of the world.

- NZ Herald

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