Bruce Penhall: The Greatest Speedway Racer to Have Ever Lived

British Customs tells the story of America's great speedway racer

Bruce Penhall Speedway
Getting slideways in a speedway raceBritish Customs

Bruce Penhall was regarded as the greatest American speedway racer to have ever thrown a leg over a brakeless bike. Penhall won the World Speedway Championship in 1981 and 1982, being the first American to ever win back-to-back titles. Penhall was also a two-time American Speedway champion, a member of the World Pairs team and World Team Speedway Championship team, and held numerous other titles.

Penhall was born in California in 1960. As a kid, he was known to terrorize pedestrians by broadsiding his bicycle on the boardwalks of the local beach cities. Penhall discovered speedway racing as a teenager and started learning how to race on the local bullring circuits in Southern California. By the time he was 16, though, he was already one of the leading speedway racers in the country.

But in 1975, tragedy struck. Both of Penhall’s parents were killed in a plane crash, sending Penhall into the depths of depression. While he continued to tour and compete internationally, he seemed to plateau, and considered leaving the sport. In 1978, Penhall received an invitation to join the British Speedway Circuit, a popular and competitive racing circuit of the day. He left for England and began competing in more of Europe’s races.

In 1979, he won the Europe Master of Speedway competition and was the first American to win the Golden Helmet match race championship. In 1980, he became the SWAPA Overseas Rider of the Year, the American National Champion, and finished fifth in the World Finals.

Bruce Penhall Speedway
Bruce Penhall being interviewed at the trackBritish Customs

During this time, Penhall became the most recognized and liked speedway racer in America, and was the most recognizable motorcyclist in the world.

In 1981, Penhall won the World Speedway International Championship at London’s Wembley Stadium before 90,000 bewildered fans. In the same year, he won the World Pairs Championship with teammate Bobby Schwartz and was co-winner of the AMA’s Pro Athlete of the Year. He also received special recognition from President Ronald Reagan and the city of Costa Mesa in California, where his home speedway track was and where he started racing.

The following year, in 1982, Penhall won his second Individual World Speedway Champion title at the first-ever World Speedway Championship held in America. Later that year, he led the US World Speedway team to its first-ever victory in the World Team Cup Championship.

At the end of 1982, Penhall retired from racing at age 22. He then focused on his acting career, and played a regular character on the popular TV show CHiPs. However, he couldn’t stop racing entirely, and became an accomplished powerboat racer, off-road desert car racer, and drag racer.

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