Speedway racing is one of the oldest forms of motorcycle racing and it's an absolute blast to watch. 500cc motorcycles with no brakes screaming around sharp corners as the racers are wide open dicing for the lead in short five lap sprint races. What a thrill! Last night marked the opening round of the 2015 Speedway Motorcycle Racing Season, but most importantly the inaugural Connor Penhall Memorial Cup. The motocross and off-road racing community lost Connor to a tragic drunk driving accident, as Connor was struck down while working construction on a freeway late at night. This special event in memory of Connor aims to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving and the increasingly compromised safety of road construction workers.
Connor and his older brother Ryan were well known amateur motocross racers as they both climbed through the ranks. Once they grew a little older, though, they made the transition into off-road racing where they began their newest and most exciting endeavor. The Penhall brothers quickly adapted to the new form of racing, and it wasn't long before they both shared some incredible races and finishes, as they found plenty of success down in Baja.
Current and three-time Speedway World Champion Greg Hancock served as Grand Marshal to the event with Bruce Penhall, two-time Speedway World Champion and Pairs Racing Champion leading the great cause. Tons of great racing action was had at the opening round of the 2015 Speedway Racing Season with Billy Janniro going home with the prize money, a set of Hilti power tools, a gold-leaf, number one helmet hand painted by none other than Troy Lee himself, but most importantly the Connor Penhall Memorial Cup.
Check out page two for an interview with Ryan Penhall.
A few short years ago, the motocross and off-road community lost Connor Penhall. A young, 21 year old dirt bike racer who climbed the amateur ranks as a motocross racer. Connor was working construction on a freeway at night when a drunk driver struck down the young racer who also participated in Baja off-road racing. We caught up with older brother, Ryan to see what kind of racing he’s been into lately and to get the scoop on what the Connor Penhall Memorial Cup is all about.
You and your brother, Connor were extremely well known as amateur motocross racers. Do you continue to race anymore?
Yeah, I do. I still race around the Grand Prix circuit. I typically do the AMA District 37 Grand Prix races, but I actually just got on a Baja 500 team and I leave this Sunday to begin prerunning. I'm going to be riding with a few guys that began in motocross like Ryan Dudek who was a professional moto guy for a while and Shane Esposito, who is a desert guy. I've been getting more and more involved in racing this year. It's been almost therapeutic for myself. Overtime I get to ride my bike, it just helps take my mind off reality.
You made the transition from motocross racing to off-road racing. What spurred that decision?
That decision really came about once I graduated high-school and got a job working in construction. I couldn't ride motocross every day or every other day like most amateur kids. They get to ride multiple times a week and race every single weekend, and that's something that I couldn't do because I had to hold a full-time job. A good friend of ours, Joe Black asked me one day if I would be interested in doing a Baja race with him and his son, Chad Black, who is also my best friend and roommate, now. So we all went down there to race the Baja 250 and we won our class! We did the Baja 500 on the same bike and we won that race, as well and after that we headed back down to do the Baja 1000 and, again, we won! So my first year of racing off-road just had me hooked from the start because I was winning; something that I wasn't able to do a whole lot of in motocross. It just felt more like a job.
Since you came from motocross in the first place, do you still prefer moto over off-road?
I'd rather ride on a motocross track any day. I've never been one to go out to the desert to ride. I try to ride motocross tracks for cross-training so that when I go down to Baja I'm really prepared since motocross is a little more technical and precise. Growing up doing the amateur motocross thing, those races are pretty short and I used get the worst arm-pump ever and I never had enough time on the track to loosen up. The AMA District races are roughly an hour and a half, so that allows for me to loosen up a little better. I guess that's just how my body works. Apparently I'm built for longevity (laughs).
Everything in motocross and Supercross is really jumpy with tight corners and it's almost a sprint compared to off-road racing. Was that a hard transition to make?
It really wasn't a super hard thing to get used to. We're hitting speeds well over 100 mph on dry lake beds, which can melt the tires off in 30 minutes, so obviously that's a little different than motocross (laughs). It's a huge thrill! I've never really been scared and we just try to hang it out. It's been a few years since I've been down there for a race, but to answer your question, no. The transition wasn't hard, as we grew up riding in the desert, but most people who ride motocross can ride anything. They have the balls and they have the talent.
You and your brother grew up around motorcycles, as your dad is a multi-time champion in numerous disciplines. Talk about how that influenced you and your brother to get into racing.
Yeah, definitely. He's an impressive guy. He's a two-time speedway champion, two-time pairs champion and he also raced off-shore speed boats and I believe he's a six-time champion in that. My brother and I began our journey in racing after my dad just brought us out to a local motocross track. He told us that if we liked it he'd get us a couple bikes and the rest is history. He never once pushed us; all he asked from us was that have fun. We played baseball, soccer and hockey, so we did as many sports as possible but once motocross came into my life I quit all of those other sports. Soccer, baseball and hockey couldn't even come close to the thrill and adrenaline rush from motocross. Yeah, he was a huge influence on us.
Being that your dad is such an established racer in multiple categories, was he ever a coach or trainer to you and your brother when you were coming up in the amateur ranks of motocross?
He was never really a coach because he never pushed us. He just let us ride and the more we rode the faster we got. Obviously he would give us pointers here and there, but he never wanted to see us get hurt doing something that we weren't comfortable doing. He always told us that if we weren't having fun anymore, then we'd look for something else to do.
Have you ever raced speedway?
No, I've never even started one. The older I get, though, the more bikes I want to ride, so it's definitely something I'd like to try. I'd love to ride a 500cc motorcycle without brakes (laughs).
The real reason why we're all out here tonight is to honor the memory of your brother, Connor who was tragically taken from us a few short years ago in a traffic accident. Can you tell us what message you're trying to get out there to people?
Yeah, this is a memorial cup in honor of my brother and it's also opening night for Industry Racing. We're all out here to support the racers of speedway because this sport doesn't receive a whole lot of support. We want this sport to grow and we also want to raise awareness for drinking and driving. If we could save one life with this cause, then that's a huge accomplishment. What happened to Connor was a tragedy and a nightmare that was easily avoidable, but whenever something terrible happens in life, somehow a change for the good follows soon after.
There are a lot of people that showed up to support this cause and to support you and your family. Talk about what's like to see all of these people out here for you guys.
We have incredible support, a huge family and a ton of friends who have helped us through this difficult time. When the accident happened, friends and family were showing up at our house every single day to see how we were doing and if there was anything they could do. It's really hard to explain what it's like to lose my brother to a horrible accident that shouldn't have happened, but we have a huge family and we all love each other so much and the support we've had is just unreal. It's an awesome feeling to see all of these people out here to support speedway racing and to support my family, as well.